Father Goose (1964, Ralph Nelson)

Cary Grant, ladies and gentlemen. The face, the eyes, the sexual intensity (and ambiguity), the comic timing, the expressive darkness — he may have been the best leading man ever to come out of the Hollywood star system. His legend holds that he retired young — at 62, still as seductive and formidable a screen presence as ever — both to permanently preserve his sex-symbol status and to raise his daughter Jennifer. His legend also holds that his full control over his career after he left the studio-contract system resulted in an above average filmography. These are both truths to some extent, but watch Grant’s last few films and what you see is a great star coasting on through the final years of a glorious career. Charade is the fine exception that proves the rule — its frothiness at least has a playful edge. Father Goose is less the fruition of Grant classics like Bringing Up Baby and Arsenic and Old Lace, which had fire and tension in them, than of pleasant trifles like The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer. Maybe it’s a good thing he quit the movies if we were just going to keep getting stuff like this.

Father Goose showed up near the end of 1964, the sole reason it probably remained in the Academy’s consciousness come awards time. It’s aloof silliness set in World War II about a nomadic layabout — that would be Grant, of course — forced against his will (by Trevor Howard, in a pale shadow of his own Third Man persona) to give up his boat and his agenda of nothing much to monitor the coastline for Axis activity alone on a remote island. Hilarity ensues, sort of, when a schoolteacher played by Leslie Caron appears along with a gaggle of annoying kiddies to pester Grant and win the war, or whatever. The movie is too bland to get up in arms about much one way or the other. It’s a passive night out like Dr. No without the thriller elements, just time spent lazing around by the sea with Cary Grant mugging and Leslie Caron being arbitrarily cutesy and exasperated. A kiddie flick, pretty much, without a hint that its screenplay might have once been thought award-worthy.

It’s not that the film’s bad, even — I laughed out loud three or four times, generally (should I be ashamed to admit this?) at Grant being a dick and unfairly insulting Caron — just that it really seems like it took approximately no real skill or stretching on its lead actor’s part, much less on anyone else’s. And it’s strange to see a master like Grant, as much a luminary of American cinema as any director, to play so vastly underneath his own abilities, with sub-AIP material that seems like it’d be more of a Frankie Avalon vehicle. This guy was in His Girl Friday and The Awful Truth; he turned down Torn Curtain because he was through with Hollywood. And yet here he is, munching on coconuts, boozing (or trying to) and hollering farcically over a prop two-way radio. There’s some perverse merit to this, at least conceptually. For its first half hour, it’s really quite a treat — a laid-back comedy with the strangely languid mood of something like Operation Petticoat, which also juxtaposed exotic summer madness with wartime chaos.

But as soon as Leslie Caron shows up, the conventions take over and there’s no amount of charm that can really replace the sense of adventure and fun we thought we were in for. A movie about a leech like Grant’s character reluctantly taking part in acts of small heroism as an island lookout sounds like a solid, light actioner that would be a lot of fun to watch. Sadly, Caron is not Katharine Hepburn and the African Queen shtick does not work here. And good lord, is the last act ever contrived — focusing as it does on the inevitable romantic crescendo and a military chaplain doing the honors. Oh, and a submarine gets sunk, just as unavoidably. Before that, there are at least some entertaining episodes involving a snakebite (?) and a huge amount of alcohol.

With all that said, look behind the actors doing their schmoozy thing and try not to think about all the tired, obvious jokes in the script and take this movie for what it really is: splendid eye candy! Shot unmistakably on location in Jamaica and restored recently for hi-def by Olive Films, Father Goose is worth seeing strictly for its absolutely glorious photography and colors, which pop out and do more than their share to contribute to a too-rare sense of escapism and fun to an unfortunately sentimental, unoriginal picture. It’s been a while since a film made me long so much to spend some time at the beach! Dr. No, Catalina Caper and this one have that in common — they all can claim that, and pretty much nothing else. But on some days, maybe that’s enough? There are things out there in the world besides movies, you know. Just ask Cary Grant.

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