A curious aspect of Woody Allen is the fact that he seems to be perpetually middle-aged. The idea of Allen as a fresh-faced young man or a sweet, doting grandpa is difficult to conceive. I think this is partly due to his eerily unchanging appearance, and partly due to his undying devotion to sweaters, high-waisted corduroys and tweed jackets. Primarily, however, it stems from his on-screen persona, which hinges on his being old enough to be grumpy and jaded but still young enough to live an interesting metropolitan existence and reasonably hope for a whole new life with the right woman at some point in the future. Regardless, it’s impressive for anyone to not arrive into mainstream consciousness until their 40s but still manage to spend two decades playing romantic leads. For a long time, I liked to romanticize Allen’s entire career as the most successful mid-life crisis of all time. When Woody Allen’s screen career began with What’s New Pussycat he was only 29, but already balding, dressing like an accountant and seemingly burdened by a lifetime of anxieties.
Prior to this movie, Allen already had a respectable show business career, and likely would have been known to comedy fans (if not the general public). He worked as a writer for The Ed Sullivan Show, Candid Camera, The Colgate Comedy Hour and others. He also had some stand-up success. He only ever released one album (called Standup Comedy), but it was well received, and included the now famous “Moose” story...
The album also got some press when Allen’s ex-wife sued him over a cruel (although admittedly pretty funny) joke about her sexual assault that was also included.
Then, in 1965, What’s New Pussycat gave the world the beautiful gift of Woody Allen as an actor and screenwriter.
Before I mention anything else, let me point out the grammatical ineptitude of this movie’s title. Much like Lionel Hutz’s business cards, it is missing a comma and a question mark (although some versions of the poster do include the question mark). Perhaps to atone for this heinous sin, Allen’s next film (What’s Up, Tiger Lily?) had a similar title, but this time respectably equipped with the proper punctuation.
Most background information on this movie seems to suggest it was strategically assembled by producers and studio executives. It was originally conceived as a starring vehicle for Warren Beatty, and the title of the film is allegedly a reference to the way in which Beatty answers his phone.
In its original state, Pussycat didn’t involve Woody Allen at all. This was not an example of an ambitious new talent exploding onto the scene Citizen Kane- or Jaws-style. Allen was just hired to punch up a script, a job he did so well, he ended up essentially re-writing the entire film (in the end, he was the only credited writer). This new version, despite not being to the fickle liking of Warren Beatty, was deemed superior to the original vision, and Allen even ended up with a small acting role in the film.
The movie is ostensibly about a handsome British playboy (Peter O’Toole) living in France and contemplating romantic commitment to his fiancé, who struggles and fails to prevent him from spending his evenings chasing women. Meanwhile, he sees a deranged psychoanalyst (Peter Sellers) and spends time with his neurotic, unlikely friend (Woody Allen).
I say “ostensibly” because any plot is clearly an afterthought as the movie ambles haphazardly from one set-piece to another — some of which connect to the main arc, some of which are completely stand-alone. The film is intended as a wacky sex comedy, so saying that it feels more like a sketch-comedy than a full-length movie isn’t necessarily a criticism.
The individual scenes vary quite drastically both in terms of tone and how funny they are, suggesting Allen’s was one of many hands in the pot. Some moments are hilarious, and some are not particularly funny at all — such as the part where O’Toole and Sellers get drunk and slur incoherently at each other for seemingly forever, a scene whose purpose remains a mystery to me.
The funniest scene, apart from the finale, which I’ll mention later, takes place on a river-side boardwalk at night. Allen is eating a picnic by himself in a rented tuxedo on his birthday, while Peter Sellers is wrapped in a large Norwegian flag and setting off fireworks with the intention of giving himself a majestic suicide. The two characters (who had not previously met in the film) at first lament the others’ presence, as it interferes with their own activity (which they had each planned to be alone for), but they get to talking and end up developing a strange, symbiotic relationship. Sellers, who is insane but also a psychoanalyst, offers to help Allen with his girl problems (“I have serious emotional issues” Allen proudly declares), and in exchange Allen offers to help him better encase himself in the Norwegian flag he hopes to someday die in. Allen discussing his girl problems on a boat filled with explosives with a psychotic therapist bent on killing himself is incredibly funny, and quite memorable.
As you’re likely aware, Peter Sellers is one of the greatest comedic forces of nature in movie history. He doesn’t just steal scenes, he destroys them with manic, comic energy. Sellers is one of the few actors who can elicit laughter with a single facial expression or angry exclamation. His character in this film, Dr. Fritz Fassbender, is not on par with such glorious creations as Dr. Strangelove, Inspector Clouseau or Chance The Gardener, but Sellers regularly endows his scenes with reminders of his genius. Speaking in the same hilariously terrible accent he used as Dr. Stangelove, Fassbender is the living personification of id (which Allen may have explicitly intended, given both his and this character’s obsession with Freud). He has a bizarre Prince Valiant haircut, dresses exclusively in bright red and favors velour shirts with matching pants. He is insatiably horny and constantly planning elaborate schemes to seduce the film’s many beautiful women (all of whom eventually pick Peter O’Toole over him). He is also prone to elaborate, hilarious temper tantrums whenever he’s thwarted — one of the opening scenes features him flailing around and violently crying in his office after his wife threatens to leave him. Later, he screams “SHUT UP! I HATE YOU ALL!” at his own children when they interrupt a conversation.
The comic energy tends to deflate somewhat when Sellers is off-screen. Woody Allen has a limited role, although he is effective in his appearances. At this point in his career, Allen was firmly in schtick-mode, acting within the confines of his soon-to-be-outrageously-popular comic persona. It would not be until the late ‘70s that Allen would start to play believable film characters. Here, and for the next decade, he’s no more of a real person than Groucho Marx, or Moe.
That’s not meant to be a criticism, or an implication that he isn’t funny. He gets a lot of comedic mileage out of being an unshakeable square in the midst of the libidinous chaos of the rest of the movie. When Sellers and O’Toole go to a strip show, Allen is naturally in the back, fumbling to help with the staging and awkwardly trying to ask the dancers what they think of the latest Toulouse Lautrec exhibit. Also, somewhat inevitably, he ends up in the classic nerd-out-of-water scenario when he’s forced to confront a brutish thug to try to impress a woman. It’s a fairly cliché set-up, but Allen handles it with impressive comic timing.
Peter O’Toole, however, is not very funny, despite his many efforts. Or perhaps because of his efforts. He has a tendency of over-selling every reaction and over-playing every emotion. A movie this slap-dash and frantic is begging for a straight man in the center, a role that the former Lawrence of Arabia and the future Henry II would seem perfect for, but O’Toole keeps trying to compete with Sellers (never a good idea). Although, he is absurdly handsome, lending some believability to the central premise of his irresistibility to women of all kinds.
For all the flack Allen gets for making the same movie over and over again, so many of his films are indisputably products of their era. What’s New Pussycat is very, very ‘60s. Not just in terms of its hairstyles and cast, but its willful, pervasive silliness. The only way it could be more ‘60s is if it had a psychedelic drug freak-out sequence, or perhaps a sassy go-go dance number.
Also in keeping with its ‘60s vein is the film’s giddy but strangely uneasy obsession with sex. Like Blake Edwards’ comedies and Sean Connery’s early Bond movies, Pussycat is mostly content to cheekily reference the existence of sex as a punchline and quickly move onto something else. Like a fourteen year old boy, it has nothing to offer on the subject, and is terrified of an open discussion, yet is completely incapable of thinking of anything else.
For most of the duration, What’s New Pussycat is a hit-or-miss affair, definitely passable as a dumb comedy, but not overly memorable. The conclusion of the film, however, manages to set the film apart, if not in terms of originality, at least in its commitment to full-on slapstick wackiness. In typical screwball comedy tradition, all the film’s characters and their intertwining romances, tensions and animosities end up at the same place at the same time (a country-side hotel, in this case). The stage is set for tantalizing elevation... by this point in the movie, O’Toole has romantically entangled himself with a half-dozen women, each with their own quirks — among them, a hyper-dramatic poet/artist who ends each date with a casual suicide attempt, a nymphomaniac parachutist (Ursula Andress) and a married woman with a murderous husband. They all end up at the hotel, as does O’Toole’s fiancé, Sellers, Sellers’ enraged wife (who is now dressed like a viking) and Allen. Also there, for some reason: orgy-seeking swingers, neo-nazis and a French terrorist intent on blowing up the hotel.
Naturally (perhaps inevitably) they all end up not only in the same hotel, but in the same hotel room (see above). But not before a prolonged streak of mistaken identities, near-misses, fights, misunderstandings, and a multitude of door-slammings. At this point, despite the film seeming to have reached total zaniness saturation, the police show up and the entire cast flees on go-karts across the French country-side, crashing through markets, farms and crowded city streets. Ridiculous, yes, even by slapstick sex comedy standards, but it’s so absurd I couldn’t help but laugh. The presence of such luminaries as Woody Allen, Peter Sellers and Peter O’Toole also gives the insanity a self-awareness that makes it much funnier.
In the interest of thoroughness, I should also mention the movie’s theme song. Written by Burt Bacharach and performed by the incomparable Tom Jones, it was a big hit and has persisted in the public consciousness more than the movie itself. It’s important to note that, contrary to my previous assumptions about the song, it is supposed to be funny, meaning Tom Jones’ performance is brilliant, but not for the reason most people think.
All in all, while it may not be the explosive beginning his career would one day retroactively warrant, this is far from an embarrassing start. He took a modest task — make a broad, profitable sex comedy — and went at least a few scenes, lines and performances beyond the call of duty.
- “Sex in an elevator is a wonderful experience, provided the two partners do not exceed 1,400 pounds.”
- “My wife, the beast that ate Europe, has arrived.”
- “Would you excuse me for a minute? I’m going into the bathroom to take an overdose of sleeping pills.”
“I like you. You’re a nice stable girl.”
- “I got a job at the striptease. I help the girls dress and undress.”
“Twenty francs a week.”
“Not very much.”
“It’s all I can afford.”
- “What exactly is a ‘semi-virgin’?”
“I’m a virgin here, but not in America.”
“Do they stamp it on your passport?”
- “This can’t work, I’m 34 and you’re 12.”
“Don’t be so negative.”
- In PBS’ 2011 documentary on Woody Allen, the film’s producer (Charles K. Feldman) claims that this was “the biggest comedy ever” at the time, although Wikipedia says it only grossed $8 million (~ $65 million in 2012 dollars).
- Warren Beatty’s departure was allegedly the start of the notorious, decades-long animosity between him and Woody Allen.
- Woody Allen’s hero Groucho Marx was also nearly cast in Peter Sellers’ role.
- There was a sequel to this movie four years later called Pussycat, Pussycat, I Love You. It featured none of the original cast, writers, or directors.
- The scene I mentioned above, when Woody Allen is eating dinner on the wharf on his birthday, was actually filmed on his birthday.