50 Years Ago Today: Get to Know Your Rabbit

June 7, 1972 was the date of the Los Angeles premiere of the obscure yet notorious and most fascinating comedy Get to Know Your Rabbit.

Get to Know Your Rabbit is an exemplar of a form that might be called psychedelic screwball. It is above all a snapshot of a particular historico-aesthetic moment. Given its combination of elements it might have gone either way: extreme success or extreme failure. It wound up being something closer to the latter. What are the combination of elements? Well, it’s a starring vehicle for ’60s icon Tommy Smothers of the Smothers Brothers, devised as his next move following the controversial cancelling of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Now, Tom Smothers was always the brains of the fraternal act, and no doubt it made a kind of sense to himself and insiders for him to attempt a solo vehicle without his brother Dick. To the public, though, it made no sense at all, and though he is perfectly good, or perfectly adequate, in this movie, it is indeed very much like receiving one shoe for Christmas. It’s quite a nice shoe, but one can’t help wanting the other part of the set. I have a thought about what part Dick could have played in the film, which I’ll return to presently.

The other major element that ought to have been a virtue is that it was directed by none other than Brian De Palma! Prior to becoming better known as a horror auteur, de Palma was best known for his experimental comedies Greetings! (1968), The Wedding Party (1969) and Hi, Mom (1970), and the experimental non-comedies Murder a la Mod (1968) and Dionysus in ’69. De Palma’s films of this period remind me of those of Robert Downey (Sr) and William Klein and many others of the era. There’s a lot of Godard influence. It’s frequently exciting, novel, and even funny, though the formal experimentation often interferes and conflicts with the comic agenda. In other words, a jarring and self-conscious shot or edit or take often steps on what might have been a laugh. It was kind of the chronic cinematic disease of the entire decade. It’s one of the problems in this film. BTW: De Palma discovered Robert De Niro; the latter starred in Greetings!, The Wedding Party, and Hi, Mom. De Niro didn’t start working with Martin Scorsese until Mean Streets in 1973. I only bring this up because, interestingly, the Scorsese-De Niro movie Casino happens to feature Dick Smothers in a decent supporting role without Tommy! The other shoe dropped a quarter century later!

The screenplay, by newbie Jordan Crittenden, reminds me a lot of the off-off Broadway theatre of the time; a satire on America’s corporate culture, not unlike the seminal America Hurrah by Jean-Claude Van Itallie. It has a wonderful absurdist circular structure. Tommy Smothers plays a high-powered businessman who has a sort of nervous breakdown, and leaves his job and his vapid fiance (Susanne Zenor, later of Woody Allen’s Play it Again Sam and things like The Baby and Joan Rivers’ The Girl Most Likely To). To relieve stress he takes classes to be a tap-dancing magician from a master of the form (late career Orson Welles.) Hence the film’s title, which refers to the very thing you learn in tap dancing magician school: “Get to know your rabbit” (i.e., the one you’ll be pulling out of your hat). Smothers then begins touring the country as a professional entertainer. At which point his former boss (a post Addams Family John Astin) shows up, even more down and out than he is. Smothers hires him as an assistant, and he promptly begins packaging tap dancing magic classes as a mail order business, gradually transforming the enterprise into a multi-million dollar business. In the end, everyone is right back where they started. The structure, or the thought process behind it, if you think about it, is not unlike that of The Bacchae, which just so happened to be then basis of Dionysus in ’69.

The film is frequently surprising and hilarious, although I will say I found the opening beats fairly bewildering before De Palma starts to buckle down and deliver the storytelling. I really truly relish non sequitur events in films, but I think it’s better if you can establish the universe clearly first, and then start messing with it. I would not be surprised if there were walk outs during the first 10-15 minutes strictly on a WTF basis. Production problems also caused the film’s release to be delayed by a couple of years. This is a VERY 1968 movie to be coming out in 1972, and I imagine that was also off-putting at the time.

I found many rewards for hanging in there, though. John Astin is terrific of course, he always gives 110%, and was underused by Hollywood — though I will say that his is the role I would give to Dickie Smothers if I could wave a magic wand. I don’t know if that was the original intent, but it would make sense, Dickie always being the “serious” Smothers Brother. I have little doubt the prospect of playing a movie role would have seemed daunting to him at that stage. His only experience consisted of being a musician and a straight man in a two-man comedy act devised by his brother. But I bet the movie would have clicked much better with him in it.

Welles is another of the film’s delights, although I will say it’s difficult to tell to what degree he is ACTUALLY drunk vs. PLAYING drunk. Having seen clips of the actual Welles getting smashed on Paul Masson wine it is difficult to tell the difference. I don’t know if anyone has ever done a “late Welles comedy festival” but you could easily conjure a great program out of films like Casino Royale (1967), I’ll Never Forget Whats’isname (1967), Start the Revolution Without Me (1970), Catch-22 (1970), The Muppet Movie (1979), History of the World Part 1 (1981), Slapstick of Another Kind (1982), and the movie in question. And show biz lovers will relish the magic bits with him, as well as some of the joints Smothers plays on the road.

Another major sixties element is that Katharine Ross (then a huge star from The Graduate and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) plays “Terrific Looking Girl”, Smothers’ inexplicable love interest after he jilts his fiance. Charles Lane and Hope Summers plays his parents, and the remaining cast of familiar character actors includes Allen Garfield, Bob Einstein, King Moody, Timothy Carey, Larry D. Mann, Jack Collins, and M. Emmett Walsh.

Smothers’ film career was not what it should have been. He later appeared in the movies Silver Bears (1978), Serial (1980), There Goes the Bride (1980), and Pandemonium (1982). In contradistinction to Orson Welles, you would probably NOT want to have a Tommy Smothers film festival. TV festival, yes; LP record spinning party, yes; film festival, no.

As for screenwriter Jordan Crittenden, he has only a few additional credits. He wrote a few episodes of Soap, and co-wrote the 1978 tv movie How to Pick Up Girls. with Desi Arnaz Jr, Bess Armstrong, Alan King, Polly Bergen, Richard Dawson, and Abe Vigoda.

For more on show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.