The Boatniks (1970): A Balboa Island Sit-Com

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I won’t make any pretense that The Boatniks is a great movie by any means but surely it speaks to some favorable quality when you enjoy something for its sheer goofiness, a certain sense of nostalgia, and the overall familiarity that pervades the material.

Yes, it’s a long sitcom episode but in this case, I have no qualms with such light and fluffy fare because so many good friends from my childhood came aboard for the ride. Norman Tokar, a prolific figure behind Leave it to Beaver directs with a script worked on by among other people Arthur Julian of Hogan’s Heroes, one of my dearest childhood favorites.

The cast has all sorts of sitcom mainstays of the 60s including Phil Silvers (Sgt. Bilko), Bob Hastings (McHale’s Navy), Joey Foreman (Get Smart guest star), Al Lewis (Car 54 Where Are You?, The Munster), Joe E. Ross (Car 54 Where are You?), Shaaron Claridge (Adam-12), and last but certainly not least Vitto Scotti, arguably the most prolific sitcom actor of all time. If you don’t know who he is, it’s all too obvious you haven’t seen enough of the classics.

The Boatniks (a not so clever play on Beatniks) wears its goofball wonkiness on its sleeve. We have a hapless hero who must come out from under the shadow of his prestigious father to take over command of the local Coast Guard in Balboa Bay.

Ensign Garland (Robert Morse) doesn’t start off too successfully as he lands a plethora of citations and winds up instigating a traffic accident all on his way to the docks. Then, at the docks, he clumsily splatters a sun-soaked Boat Rental and Sailing Instructor (Stefanie Powers) with yellow paint much to her chagrin. Everything is going just dandy only to get better.

He subsequently bumbles his way through his duty, first getting beached on a rock and having to be towed by the smug instructor, followed by any number of issues from a husband locked in a cabin to a pretty girl whose skirt got caught in her boat’s controls. A Mayday goes out on both accounts. Despite handling some of these problems about as successfully as possible given the circumstances, Garland’s commanding officer (Don Ameche) is far from impressed by the compromising situations he always seems to be in but at least the girl starts to like him.

Simultaneously, three thieves led by, of all people, Phil Silvers, have absconded with a payload of priceless jewels. Their car is the one that gets rear-ended by the same awkward Ensign and with roadblocks dotting the coast, all the way from Orange County to San Diego, their only chance is to head for the sea which they do despite having no nautical knowledge whatsoever. For those who didn’t gather already, it does not bode well.

They lose their priceless picnic basket into the great wild blue yonder and in an attempt to recover their spoils the trio trawls for everything in the bay except what they’re looking for. First, they snag a gigantic sea bass that sends their boat reeling. Then, they go deep-sea diving. It’s all to no avail and flustered by a shark attack, the commodore picks up the phone and makes a long-distance call to his buddy in Tokyo for leads on pearl divers. A young Japanese woman arrives and the failure to communicate is used to great and awkward comic effect even as Phil Silvers tries to use Spanish to speak with a pretty diver (Midori). Of course, when it counts she knows how to speak the language.

The Bay is also inhabited by an assortment of other weirdos including Wally Cox and his floating harem La Dolce Vita; it’s a constant party at his place that never leaves the docks. One oddball sailor does his best to practice lashing himself to the mast in preparation for his trip around the world, conveniently leaving his wife and children behind. Another bungling seaman nervously huffs before he performs his daily ritual of bouncing his boat off the dock. It has no bearing on the plot but each is good for a few stray laughs of sheer corniness.

The scenery remains another point of interest for me because the fact is the film was all but shot in my backyard or at least quite close to where I grew up (albeit a few years before I lived there). We grew up hearing stories of John Wayne, Shirley Temple, Buddy Ebsen, and Joey Bishop only a few of the prominent figures who resided in the area at one time or another.

We have brief views of Balboa Island and seafront homes visible in the background as the buffoonery takes center stage. Boatniks would precede the Columbo episode “Dead Weight” starring Eddie Albert and Suzanne Pleshette with Peter Falk’s title character, making use of the same scenery. Except Boatniks is a great deal lighter.

In the modern age of Disney as a mega-conglomerate, these are the kind of family-friendly movies that I dearly miss. It feels like part It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) and some of McHale’s Navy sprinkled in with dashes of so many other things. I enjoyed it far more than I probably had any right to but why shouldn’t I? It’s unabashed, quality fun for the whole family.

3/5 Stars

Midnight (1939)

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“You’re in a fine mess! You got to get a divorce from a man you’re not even married to!”

It was only a recent revelation that Claudette Colbert at times feels far too sophisticated to be playing beautiful hitchhikers or penniless taxi passengers as she does in It Happened One Night (1934) and this film, Midnight. Though it’s easy enough to explain away.

The screwball comedy has always thrived on incongruities as much as it did on the class divides between the rich and the poor. Where the extravagance is almost laughable in its boorish decadence and the little men still have lives seemingly worth living because they are free from societal pressures. After all, making just enough money to scrape by is nothing short of paradise.

In this way, Claudette Colbert was the perfect person to tiptoe this line because she could be cosmopolitan and was glamorous with all those other snooty folks. But she’s also a comedienne like the normal folks, seeing the humor and working it for the laughs just as much as she’s willing to do things that seem normal. A walking enigma she might be but she also makes Midnight a sublime comic fairy tale as our uproarious modern-day Cinderella.

One of her cohorts and romantic partners is Don Ameche, the Parisian cab driver Tibor Czerny who begrudgingly opens up his livelihood on wheels for her as a random act of kindness. As we mentioned before the smartly dressed Eve Peabody has no penny to her name or a franc for that matter.

But what she does have is audacity and it buys her a ticket into a lavish gathering as one Madame Czerny put on by some rich somebody or other. It doesn’t much matter since it’s all only a pretense anyway. Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett’s script unwittingly created the original party crasher plot.

Eve finds herself at a snobby patronage of the arts where the impassioned man at the piano plays either Chopin’s 12th Prelude or his 11th Etude. Again, it doesn’t much matter but it’s hilarious all the same.

What happens subsequently subverts expectations nicely. Instead of getting tossed out of the proceedings she winds up the fourth in a bridge game of rebels warring against tepid entertainment.

There’s the debonair Jacques Picot (Francis Lederer), Marcel (Rex O’Malley) the man who nearly gave Eve a fright by fetching her, and Helene Flammarion (Marry Astor) a married socialite who is more than a little buddy-buddy with the dashing Monsieur Picot.

The charade becomes increasingly awkward the longer it keeps going and going and going. Every Cinderella has her midnight. The real joke comes when the fanciful game finally ends only to be replaced with a new reality as a true to life Baroness. She has no idea how it happened and that’s where our last important party comes in — her fairy godmother so to speak.

Mr. Georges Flammard (John Barrymore) witnessed Eve putting on a nervous floorshow and was intrigued. Now he watches her masquerade continue and he sees how they can help each other out. It has nothing to do with a desire to fool around. On the contrary, in an attempt to undermine his wife’s philandering he wants to bankroll Eve’s little white lie a while longer until she can win Jacques over and pull him away from Mrs. Flammard. It works quite well too.

Meanwhile, the entire cabbie population of France looks for the mysterious girl at Tibor’s behest. It proves to be equivalent to any missing persons agency in town and it comes with made to order traffic jams to boot.

Midnight turns into a magnificent floorshow as all parties collide in an immaculate perfectly timed collision. Eve and Mr. Flammard’s joint ruse looks like it might soon be ousted by Marcel and Mrs. Flammard who are intent on finding the truth about this curious baroness. But the whole fantasy is saved by a dazzling entrance by one well-tailored gentleman, Baron Czerny.

Now a new round of sparring back and forth begins. It’s full of glorious escapades, riotous telephone conversations with fictitious daughters, and Eve and Tibor trying to one-up each other with tall tale after tall tale. One thing Eve has going for her is Mr. Flammard still in her corner working his magic and John Barrymore puts on a fine showing in the film’s latter moments — his devilish eyes still gleaming as bright as ever.

Monty Wooley is introduced into the plotline in the ultimate piece of pitch-perfect casting as an opinionated but easily swayed judge. Thanks be to Classic Hollywood where pompous Americans can preside over a Parisian divorce court. But what matters is the right people get together. So screwball and fairy tales can still coexist. Wilder would prove it once more with Balls of Fire.

John Barrymore has always struck me as the tortured talent of the silver screen. One could contend that he was the most prominent member of the Barrymore dynasty except whereas his siblings Lionel and Ethel aged gracefully he burned out. Midnight came a little too soon for him.

It’s been a longheld fact that Billy Wilder and his writing partner Charles Bracket gifted two quality scripts that were ultimately directed by Mitchell Leisen. The integrity of the work was compromised to the point that Billy Wilder vowed to become a director himself so no one could mess with his material and when the material being messed with was Midnight and Hold Back the Dawn (1941) it begs the question how would the same magnificent films have ended up in Wilder’s hands?

Nevertheless, the actors are a fine gathering of talent while the script does wonders with the typical Wilder-Brackett combination that squeezes innumerable wit out of its wonky plotline. Billy Wilder must always get the last word in and his scripts always do. This one is no exception.

4/5 Stars