Tuesday, September 06, 2016

The Maltese Bippy (1969)

Clearly intended to cash in on Rowan and Martin's new found fame as hosts of  Laugh In, The Maltese Bippy fails entirely to replicate the success of their TV show.  Indeed, anyone expecting to see the anarchic and zany comedy style of the sketch show in cinematic form is going to be severely disappointed.  The duo's movie vehicle actually has more in common with the Bing Crosby and Bob Hope starring Road movies of the forties and fifties, (albeit updated to reflect the franker sexual attitudes and cynicism of the late sixties), which is hardly surprising as the director was Norman Panama, a veteran (as both writer and director) of many Hope and Crosby vehicles, including a couple of Road movies.  Interestingly though, Hope and Crosby are about the only comedy team the trailer doesn't invoke in comparison to Rowan and Martin.

Usually dismissed, by the few people who have seen it, as as an unfunny disaster, The Maltese Bippy actually isn't that bad.  To be sure, it isn't that good either, but it does produce a few laughs despite being an unholy mess with a confused script and poorly structured plot which offer few opportunities to the cast to display their comedic abilities.  It is, nonetheless, a quite fascinating mess, as it veers all over the place in its attempts to find a formula for showcasing its stars' talents.  Despite kicking off in Laugh In vein, with Rowan and Martin wandering on screen, breaking the fourth wall by addressing the audience directly and engaging in their usual banter as the opening titles roll, the film proper quickly settles into being a spoof 'Old Dark House' type of comedy thriller..  Reminiscent of the sort of Monogram B-movies which teamed the Dead End Kids, East Side Kids, Bowery Boys or whatever they were being called that week, with Bela Lugosi, The Maltese Bippy even features Fritz Weaver doing a Lugosi impression as the mysterious Hungarian neighbour or may, or may not, be a werewolf.  Or vampire.

A curious aspect of the film is that, having appeared in their regular Laugh In personas during the opening titles, in the film itself, Rowan and Martin play somewhat different characters, with Dan Rowan, usually the urbane, classy, half of the act, playing Sam Smith, a sleazy low rent and hard up entertainment impresario, reduced, as the movie opens, to directing low budget porn pictures starring his reluctant partner, Ernest Grey (Dick Martin).  Smith has previously persuaded the hapless Grey to buy a run down house next to a cemetery in Flushing - which Grey can't afford, so has to let out rooms to lodgers to pay the mortgage - to which they retreat after being evicted from their New York office.  They arrive to find the police investigating a murder in the cemetery, in which the victim had apparently been attacked and partially eaten by a wild beast.  Ernest, meanwhile, is experiencing the urge to howl like a dog and his doctor fears that he might be afflicted by lycanthropy.  Stan sees this as an opportunity to hit the showbiz big time, trying to pitch top agent Adolf a new act in which a man transforms into a wolf before the audience's eyes - but only at night and during a full moon.

Strange characters proliferate, Stan mistakes an Afghan hound for Julie Newmar, (playing Fritz Weaver's equally strange sister) and Ernest dreams that he actually has transformed into a werewolf. To no one's surprise, it turns out that everyone is trying to find a cache of diamonds hidden in Ernest's house by the previous owner.  It all culminates in a climax where the various villains end up shooting each other.  Except that neither Rowan or Martin is satisfied with this ending and both provide their own versions, before walking off into the sunset, hand-in-hand.  All of which sounds as if it should be amusing, but somehow virtually every comic set piece succeeds in missing the mark.  It is clear that MGM desperately wanted to transfer Rowan and Martin's popularity to the big screen, but had little idea of why they were popular.  Consequently, they had no idea of how to replicate the success of Laugh In on celluloid.  Missing the point that on the TV show much of the humour came from the fact that they were a relatively conventional comedy act linking together a series of mildly surreal, in the sixties convention, sketches, they instead placed them in a more or less conventional comedy thriller, topped and tailed by 'zany' opening and closing sequences.

The end result is a film which is neither one thing nor the other: it can't decide whether it is a spoof of the movies it resembles a homage to them or just a straight comedy thriller.  The poorly conceived and structured plot not only reduces much of the film to a series of loosely connected episodes, but also prevents any of the suspense required for a successful comedy thriller to build.  At the same time, most of its attempts at 'zaniness' just seem to conventional to work - the ideas just never take flight and the 'zaniness' rarely rises above the level of slapstick as director Panama keeps pushing the movie back to the kind of humour he was clearly more familiar with.  Moreover, its attempts to seem more 'contemporary' than the old kind of Hope and Crosby movies it is modeled on - the porn  movie opening and Stan's constant sleazy hustling - jar badly with the other elements.   Still, The Maltese Bippy remains a fascinating curiosity and well worth ninety minutes of your time if you are at all interested in the state of Hollywood in the late sixties, as the studios desperately tried to harness the popularity of any and every pop culture fad in their attempts to arrest rapidly declining cinema audiences.  Oh, and if you aren't familiar with Laugh In and are wondering about the film's title, it references the Rowan and Martin catchphrase from the show: 'You bet your sweet bippy'.  (This was usually followed by someone asking 'What's a bippy?'  We never found out). 



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