As I Was Saying to Cliff and Sammy and Debbie and Peter…
by DL Minor
As I type this I am settling more or less comfortably into this latest rearrangement—the third in two weeks—of my bedroom furniture, my desk now squarely facing the television instead of the newly treated windows with their sweeping lake views.
I know, but I prefer having the TV on while I write or read or do most anything, really; just now I am half-watching a Flix channel showing of the 1968 movie Salt and Pepper, starring Sammy Davis, Jr. and Peter Lawford as hipster nightclub owner best buddies in Swinging London. Somehow (How do these odd things happen?) the two find themselves mixed up in espionage and murder when all they're trying to do is have a happenin' time at their Studio 54-type club and chase dames, I mean chicks, I mean birds.
Davis plays Charles Salt and Lawford is Christopher Pepper--cute, no? And the pace is zippy enough--almost too zippy, the plot is rather confusing--and Davis sings a couple of fun, forgettable mod-pop songs and is quite funny (did he win the toss to get the best scripted jokes or are these ad-libs?) but something is missing here and it's not just plot coherence.
As I say, Davis is entertaining--Peter Lawford is nearly a wooden plank by comparison--but overall this film seems to me another example of the panicked desperation of Big Hollywood to produce movies that sixties era audiences would want to see. But who precisely were "sixties era audiences" anyway? That must have been the dilemma. There was an older, conservative audience that shouldn't be ignored, but by 1968 the youth movement was in full roar and studio executives, mindful of this, were apparently caught in the middle of trying to appeal to both groups.
The too-frequent result was offerings like 20th Century Fox’s Salt and Pepper, which cast established, veteran stars in roles that should have gone to 25 year-olds. Lawford particularly, with his graying sideburns, triple chins and tired, baggy eyes, looks faintly ridiculous coming on to all the twenty-something beauties around him.
White studio executives trading in their skinny ties and Brooks Brothers blazers for Nehru jackets and peace medallions seemed nevertheless ambivalent, if not threatened outright, by the notion of black males as seriously sexy leading men--even flinty little Nixon-hugging, Rat-Pack mascot black males like Sammy Davis, Jr. Sammy is therefore relegated to the role of mouthy Court Jester, and sweetly dissed throughout the entire movie by every dolly he approaches.
Oh, well. At least we could take comfort, and no small amount of pride, in Sidney Poitier demanding to be addressed as “MR. Tibbs” in United Artists’ tense, exciting In the Heat of the Night. And Jim Brown in 1969’s 100 Rifles and Richard Roundtree in 1971’s Shaft were just around the corner...as were, by the way, super-bad sistahs Pam Grier and Tamara Dobson, stars, respectively, of Coffy and Cleopatra Jones, both released in the summer of ’73…
Earlier, I was flipping back and forth from Salt and Pepper to 1963's My Six Loves starring Debbie Reynolds as a Big Broadway Star who, while recovering from exhaustion at her Connecticut country home, discovers and eventually adopts six sibling urchins who are fleeing the clutches of their sleazy guardians.
I'd noticed this film in the cable programming grid earlier in the week and set the reminder function for it, thinking I would enjoy it as a nice bit of Saturday morning nostalgia. Well…
Maybe the problem is that I'm looking at these films from the jaded perspective of the grumpy, grown-up me, rather than the wistful innocence of the movie-loving adolescent I once was. I've seen My Six Loves, or parts of it, before now I’m sure and…I remember liking it better. I guess back then I just took it all at face value--and of course enjoyed the great Eileen Heckart's hilarious wisecracks and deadpan observations. Probably I got a kick out of the pre-Fugitive David Janssen as Reynolds’s exasperated manager-suitor, as well. Now, however--though I still adore Heckart--I'm too aware of the film's nastily manipulative message to women everywhere to stop! Stop all this independent, self-reliance nonsense! And go get married and have babies like God and them meant you to!
I mean, there's handsome Cliff Robertson as a sympathetic community minister and part-time handyman (what?) who starts off by helping the conflicted Debbie cope with her unexpected instant family, but by the movie’s end is blurting out: "It's about time she stopped being a star and started being a woman!" or words to that effect, clearly expressing the basic viewpoint of the movie's director, producer, writer, production team, every hetero male in the audience, and--I'll bet you any amount of money--Reynolds's real-life hubby of the time, effectively guilt-tripping our heroine into motherhood, marriage and suburban conformity.
Because just to reassure Robertson, Janssen, herself and all the rest of us that she is indeed a "normal" woman with "normal" needs, Debbie actually apologizes to Cliff for having the temerity to assume her life belonged to her. And then she shuts up and does as she's told! And then the hitherto wonderfully cynical Heckart, her plain speaking secretary-best friend, a single career gal herself, replies mistily "it's about time." I’m going to lie down now, or I swear I’ll throw something.
Oh, I don’t know; it's so complicated. I love sixties movies, even bad sixties movies, especially bad sixties movies (and friends, there were a LOT of bad sixties movies) and yet when I try to enjoy them now I keep tripping over the simple-minded sexism, false piety and—usually lurking in the background—racism and homophobia of the times. Consequently I wind up too majorly irritated to stay with a My Six Loves or a Salt and Pepper from start to finish.