« Donovan's Brain | Main | Coffee Break »

March 17, 2016

The War Between Men and Women

war between men and women.jpg

Melville Shavelson - 1972
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Does the name of James Thurber mean anything to contemporary audiences? Certainly Thurber's legacy as a humorist wasn't served by the recent film remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Thurber didn't care for the first film version, from 1947, for that matter. For a younger audience, The War Between Men and Women may seem like a curious period piece, from a time when the literary sources of films weren't comic books or novels aimed for "young adults".

Melville Shavelson seems to have been obsessed with adapting James Thurber, one way or another. Well before the short lived television series, My World and Welcome to It debuted in September 1969, Shavelson had worked on a Thurber inspired pilot in 1958. My World was produced by Danny Arnold, who also wrote several episodes. NBC may have been finished with Shavelson and Arnold's version of James Thurber's stories and cartoons, but Shavelson and Arnold weren't finished with Thurber. Taking Thurber to the big screen, the two were able to make a film more acerbic than their television version of Thurber.

The Thurber proxy here is named Peter Wilson, a bachelor cartoonist with failing eyesight, celebrity in New York City literary circles. Detesting any signs of domesticity, Wilson finds himself in awkward situations due to his near blindness. Literally bumping into Terry Kozlenko at his eye doctor's office, Peter fights his attraction to the divorcee with three children and a dog. An awkward courtship is followed by an awkward marriage, made more so when Terry's former husband, a war photographer, visits the family in their Connecticut home.

Jack Lemmon plays Wilson, but the real star is Barbara Harris. I'm not sure if Hollywood was uncertain about what to do with a talent like Harris, or if she just didn't care about stardom, but even before her well regarded turns for Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Altman, Harris shines here. It really starts with her laugh, heard but not seen, that attracts Peter's attention as well as ours. Sweet and sexy, Barbara Harris in retrospect was a talent under seen and underutilized. Even Vincent Canby, who panned the film in the New York Times, described Harris in her role as, "so lovely and intelligent".

It would probably be of no surprise to those familiar with James Thurber that the best part of the film is the opening credit sequence, Thurber's cartoons of the war between men and women animated. There is also a nice bit with Lemmon and screen daughter Lisa Gerritsen walking through parts of the animated short story, "The Last Flower". At this point, it appears that the best film adaptation of Thurber is of the play, The Male Animal, Elliot Nugent's 1942 film originally written by Nugent and Thurber. Like most of Melville Shavelson's other films, The War Between Men and Women is mildly amusing, although there is one very funny gag involving Lemmon, Harris, and a pregnant dog.

I'm not sure if Shavelson has a unusual sense of character placement, but when we first see Barbara Harris, her head is hidden by one of the lamps in the waiting room when Jack Lemmon bumps into her. What may have been more effective in a theater are the shots from Lemmon's point of view, fractured images of Harris, out of focus mid-town Manhattan, and a couple of moments of total darkness. What might have possibly provoked a chuckle in 1972 is when Harris bellows at Lemmon that he's a "male chauvinist pig". The War Between Men and Women might have been better had Shavelson not tried so hard to keep the film family friendly. For comparison, consider Elaine May's more caustic, and G rated (!) A New Leaf from the previous year. The War Between Men and Women has its moments, but most of those moments were drawn by James Thurber.

war between man and women japanese poster.jpg

Posted by peter at March 17, 2016 02:16 PM