Saturday, August 10, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #48: "When the Girls Take Over" (1962)

When the Girls Take Over knows how to quell the revolution: with dames aplenty!

The flick: When the Girls Take Over (Parade Releasing Organization/Trans-Oceanic Productions, 1962) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 3.6  (a new low for this series!)

Director: Russell Hayden (this was his only feature film as a director; he acted in a whole lot of film and TV westerns from the 1930s to the 1950s, usually as characters named "Lucky")

Ingeborg Kjeldsen on Green Acres
Actors of note: Robert Lowery (played Batman and Bruce Wayne in the 1949 serial, Batman and Robin; appeared  in McClintock!, Mark of Zorro, much more), Marvin Miller (best known as Michael Anthony from TV's The Millionaire; voice of Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet; narrator of TV's Police Squad!); Jackie "Uncle Fester" Coogan (Chaplin's The Kid, TV's The Addams Family), James Ellison (I Walked With a Zombie, lots of "B" westerns from the 1930s and '40s), Ingeborg Kjeldsen (uncredited in Viva Las Vegas and Smokey and the Bandit; did episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, etc.), Jeffrey Stone (did some voices in Disney's Cinderella and appeared in The Thing That Couldn't Die; his connection to gangster Mickey Cohen brought an abrupt end to his film career; died a year ago this month at the age of 87), Tommy Cook (at age 10, appeared in The Adventures of Red Ryder; as an adult did a lot of TV westerns), Yanka Mann (appeared in Sometimes Aunt Martha Does Dreadful Things and Flesh Feast; had hilarious name), True Ellison (Snow White in The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm), Donald Durrell (an uncredited bit part in the Mickey Rooney movie Platinum High School; literally nothing else), Gabriel Dell (one of the original Dead End Kids; appeared in Dead End, Angels with Dirty Faces, etc.)

Mob-connected Jeffrey Stone
The gist of it: In the fictional Caribbean island of Hondo-Rica, whose population is half-French and half-Spanish, a Castro-type revolutionary named Maximo Toro (Lowery) is staging a coup which will bring the nation under his control. Meanwhile, in the United States, Hondo-Rica's ambassador Henri Degiere (Miller) and his assistant, Captain Toussaint (Coogan), are trying to get Americans to invest in their nation's sugar industry. Wealthy Texan Axel "Longhorn" Gates (James Ellison) is willing to pony up the dough, but he doesn't like all this "revolution" talk. Degiere assures him everything is fine but then gets a telegram informing him that Maximo Toro has kidnapped Degiere's daughter, Francois (Kjeldsen), and is demanding rifles as ransom.

In truth, Francois is Maximo's girlfriend (though their relationship is turbulent), and the kidnapping is a sham. Degiere and Toussaint formulate a scheme in which they will only pretend to bring Toro the rifles, then take Francois and escape. But a skirmish erupts during the botched ransom dropoff, and Degiere has to dump the rifles -- which he has secretly stolen from the government's armory -- in the ocean. In a last ditch effort to save himself and Toussaint from being hanged for treason, Degiere hires two American pilots (Stone and Durrell) to use their diving equipment to retrieve the guns (which are sealed in crates) from the sea and rescue his daughter at the same time.

Amid all these goings on, Longhorn shows up in Hondo-Rica to look in on his investment and decides to employ the ultimate weapon against Maximo Toro: an army of beautiful women who will use their feminine wiles to distract the revolutionary's lovelorn men from their duties.
Sidekick Tommy Cook
DISCLAIMER: This summary covers only a fraction of what allegedly happens in When the Girls Take Over. There were many subplots I skipped, like the fact that Stone and Durrell's characters, Steve and Stoney, run a shipping business called Caribbean Land and Sea Service (C.L.A.S.S.) but have to jettison some of the cargo from their overloaded plane, including specially-made items fashioned from sugar byproducts which Degiere needs for his investment presentations. And why was the plane too heavy? Well, you see, Steve and Stoney's wacky assistant, Razmo (Cook), had been using the plane's cargo hold to house a stowaway, Melesa (True Ellison, James' daughter), who is looking for her boyfriend, Henderson (Dell), Maximo Toro's speechwriter and right-hand man. Got all that? 

Fidel and Nikita: One of the great comedy teams of the '60s
My take: The early 1960s were a time of great political tension. Fidel Castro's Communist takeover of Cuba in 1959 brought the Cold War much closer to our shore than it had ever been in the past, and America's rocky relationship with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev seemed destined to bring about World War III and, quite possibly, the end of Western Civilization.

When the Girls Take Over is a woefully misbegotten attempt to wring laughs from this situation by basically treating all this "people's revolution" nonsense as just another silly misunderstanding in a romantic comedy. Try to imagine a crossbreed of Red Zone Cuba and The Wild World of Batwoman, and you have some idea of what When the Girls Take Over is like. Although filmed in 1960, this movie was not released until 1962, the year of the so-called Cuban Missile Crisis, when Khrushchev and Castro plotted to have Soviet missile sites located in the newly-communist island nation in order to keep America from trying any further invasion attempts like the Bay of Pigs. This is the stuff of American history lessons now, but it was headline news back then. Some of the film's topical jokes, like a parody of Khrushchev's infamous (and perhaps apocryphal) shoe-banging incident at the United Nations, will likely be lost on modern audiences.

But that's the least of the film's worries. Much more problematic are the film's incomprehensible plot, unengaging characters, and wooden acting. The fact that the fictional country of Hondo-Rica is half-French and half-Spanish means that we in the audience have to endure two different but equally annoying types of phony baloney "foreign" accents. (True Ellison and Ingeborg Kjeldsen are in a heated competition for "worst in show" here. Ingeborg may have the edge because hers keeps coming and going.)

Worse yet, it apparently wasn't enough to have Robert Lowery wear an unconvincing glued-on Castro beard, so the filmmakers have all of Maximo Toro's men wear terrible fake beards, too. One character moans that he wants to look at someone without whiskers for a change, and I could sympathize. And, trust me, eighty minutes is a long damned time to hear people talking in broken pidgin English to one another.

The running time is mercilessly padded with extraneous shots of boats and planes being loaded and unloaded, severely testing the patience of any viewer. The flying and harbor sequences are credited to Skymasters International and the Bull Line respectively, but they add little value to the film. When the Girls Take Over -- a very misleading title, by the way, since the girls barely appear in the film at all -- was filmed in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Isles in Technicolor, but the surviving print is in grainy black-and-white. The film's one bit of local culture is a catchy little calypso song about Hondo-Rica ("Land of beauty, land of love..."), but it's only ever heard in the background while the characters in the foreground keep yammering on about the "plot." What a shame.

Inspiration for George Lucas?
Is it funny: Oh, dear lord, no. I'll admit, the movie got my hopes up with a rather clever opening in which a breathless narrator tells us that the story we're about to see is so urgent that there isn't time for opening credits. Instead, he simply reads the names of the cast and crew over footage of an exciting-looking car chase. Then, the movie suddenly cuts to the UN building, which the narrator compares to the Tower of Babel. This leads to the aforementioned shoe-banging sequence. None of this is exactly funny, but it's at least interesting. But then Marvin Miller and Jackie Coogan enter the picture, and When the Girls Take Over takes a permanent nosedive into humorlessness and tedium and stays there for a small eternity.

An example of the movie's wit: Maximo Toro proudly proclaims that his name means "maximum bull." Get it? Even if you're laughing hysterically at that joke, you still won't like When the Girls Take Over because most of the movie's "humor" consists of people running around frantically and talking in silly faux-foreign voices. In that respect, I guess it's a little like Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace, only with jeeps instead of pods.

My grade: D

P.S. - It would take another whole article to break down all the racism in When the Girls Take Over. The movie's ethnic hierarchy goes like this: gringos first, Frenchmen second, and Latinos third. The only characters in this movie who are even remotely positive are white Americans like Steve, Stoney and Longhorn. They're the ones getting things done in this film. The Frenchmen, like Degiere and Toussaint, are incompetent schemers. The Latinos, typified by Maximo Toro, are bumbling morons who talk like they're in a Speedy Gonzales cartoon. The characters in this movie will have you praying for mutually-assured destruction.

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