When Bob Einstein passed away the other day, I had nothin’. Not only had I already written two other obituaries that same day (Gene Okerlund and Daryl Dragon) but I knew far less about Einstein than I did about his father Harry Einstein a.k.a. Parkyakarkus, whom we wrote about here, or his brother Albert Brooks, whom we grew up watching in films and TV. But other than the fact that Einstein was Steve Martin’s first comedy partner and that the pair wrote for the Smothers Brothers, I had little.
Until yesterday, when I stumbled across Einstein’s 1972 film Another Nice Mess, which also ties in with tonight’s Laurel and Hardy fest on TCM, as well as the new film Stan and Ollie. Also the film stars Rich Little, who is is back on everyone’s radar again too thanks to The Other Side of the Wind. And lastly, the film is a comedy about Richard Nixon, and thanks to our current President, there has not been so much chatter about Nixon abroad in the land since 1974. So there are many reasons to watch this film. With the possible exception of the film itself.
The premise is basically that President Nixon and Vice President Agnew are Laurel and Hardy. Rich Little plays Nixon as Oliver Hardy; confusingly he also plays Richard Nixon as Richard Nixon. Herb Voland (General Clayton on M*A*S*H, and a regular on Arnie) plays Spiro Agnew as Stan Laurel. Even more confusingly, these bits are intercut with footage of the real Laurel and Hardy taken from their movies, as well as clips of the real Nixon. There is no narrative to move the film ahead, no story of any kind. Nor is it satirical, properly speaking. It doesn’t lampoon war, the police state, racism or anything, beyond the overarching, obvious implication, tired after about five seconds, that Nixon and Agnew are as inept as Laurel and Hardy’s characters. It’s vaguely hippie. There are peace signs, and people sticking up their middle finger. There’s an original rock score, alternating with periodic bursts of “Dance of the Cuckoos”. There is the obligatory rendition of “American, the Beautiful”, played over documentary shots of hippie protesters. There is the inevitable scene of the two characters inadvertently eating cannabis-laden cookies. There are secret service agents dressed as potted plants. In keeping with the National Lampoon aesthetic of the era, there are a few chicks with big tits and short skirts, which was apparently considered intrinsically hilarious at the time. There are…um…sequences. The sort of comedy sequences kids would put in a home movie with slapstick interplay and the like. Sometimes it is sped up like silent film. Some of the locations are pretty good, although the tiny cast and bad lighting constantly remind us of the low budget, and the palm trees remind us that this is L.A. and not Washington D.C. And some of the locations are just like, the curb.
Others in the cast include Steve Martin (in his first film role — just a few seconds of screen time as a hippie), and familiar character actors Billy Sands, Bruce Kirby (as an elderly Adolph Hitler), Stanley Adams (Cyrano Jones from Star Trek), Hal Smith (Otis from The Andy Griffith Show), Kate Murtagh, Tiger Joe Marsh, Michael Elias (later more successful as a TV writer and producer, notably Head of the Class), Diahn Williams (who’d been a regular on the series Harry’s Girls a decade earlier), and Norm Grabowski (a man who was famous for getting cast in movies and TV shows for which he had built custom hot rods).
Mostly one is just irritated, waiting around for a movie to start. Fortunately, you only have to wait 66 minutes, when this movie is over and you can start another one. Tom Smothers’, Einstein’s old boss, co-produced the movie but reportedly disavowed it and kept it under wraps for decades. But I don’t think he needed to. People would not be lining up to see it. That said, the piece possesses period charm, some historic and even documentary interest, and lots of familiar comic character actors trying very hard to be funny. You should see it, just to say you did, and then you should trick other people into seeing it. This is supposed to be a tribute, after all, and there is no finer tribute to a filmmaker than watching his movie. At present, it’s available at Youtube here: https://youtu.be/0sImm2R6amU
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