Writer-Director George Axelrod’s 1966 satire Lord Love a Duck, adapted from a novel by Al Hine, is an odd duck, indeed, and not easily categorized. It’s a black comedy of the zany, madcap variety, but it also has dramatic elements that are even darker than the satire. It failed to connect with audiences upon its initial release, but gained a cult following when it was screened regularly on TV in the years that followed.
The kooky, frenetic credits sequence promises a beach party movie, with an impossibly catchy theme song performed by the Wild Ones (whom you may recall from the 1965 Jayne Mansfield comedy The Fat Spy), written by Neil Hefti, composer of the “Batman” theme, and lyricist Ernie Sheldon:
Hey, hey, Lord love a duck
Don’t nobody care?
So tired of swimming and getting nowhere
Down on my luck-o, stuck in the muck-o
Oh Oh Lord…Love a Duck!
What follows is a far cry from Frankie and Annette. As the trailer for the film says,”Lord Love a Duck looks like a beach party picture, but it’s really a booby trap…This motion picture is against teenagers…Their parents…Cars…Schools, and several hundred other things.”
The film also encapsulates Axelrod’s pet philosophy: “The planet Earth is the lunatic asylum of the galaxy.”
Roddy McDowall plays manic high school super-genius Alan Musgrave, or as he calls himself, “Mollymawk” (which is a type of albatross). Despite being 37 years old when he made the movie, McDowell is somehow believable in the role, and gives a totally committed performance. As to why Axelrod chose to cast a guy who was pushing 40 as the teenage protagonist, I am hard-pressed to think of an age-appropriate actor working at the time who could have pulled it off. Paul Peterson? Burt Ward? Jay North? Forget about it.
As our story begins, Alan is running for his life, chased by half the graduating class of Consolidated High and several members of the local police force as well.
SPOLIER ALERT: It’s because he just committed a mass murder. With a bulldozer.
Flashback to the night before the beginning of his senior year, and his meeting with Barbara Ann Greene, played the lovely and talented Tuesday Weld. Barbara Ann becomes Alan’s personal obsession, as he sets out to give her everything that she ever wanted, catering to her every whim in his own demented way. He is totally captivated by this pure product of American consumerism. Or as he describes her, “Barbara Ann, whose deepest and most heartfelt yearnings express, with a kind of touching lyricism, the total vulgarity of our time.”
Barbara Ann is a sort of a mid-’60s version of Thalia Menninger, the character she played on TV’s “The Loves of Dobie Gillis,” except that she’s from a lower socioecomonic strata. Alan can be seen as a smarter, if psychotic, variation on Dobie. He, too, has to watch the object of his obsession in the company of another boy (more on that later).
The criminally underrated Weld has called this her best performance, and she may well be right. It certainly ranks right up there with her stellar work in Pretty Poison, Play It As It Lays, and Who’ll Stop the Rain. Her Barbara Ann is the All-American Girl, shallow, materialistic, too beautiful. “Everybody has got to love me. Everybody. This is my year. My horoscope says I’m going to be famous. I am a Capricorn and I can’t miss. I deserve it, too,” she says. “I’ve been good. I haven’t done bad things with boys. Well, a little. But not really bad. And only if I liked a boy.”
The sequence where she makes her father (Max Showalter) buy her a dozen angora sweaters has got to be seen to be believed. On one hand, it’s in questionable taste, on the other, it’s so over-the-top, it’s hilarious.
Barbara Anne’s cocktail-waitress mother Marie is played by Lola Albright, best known for her roles in the TV private series “Peter Gunn” and in the film A Cold Wind in August. Marie is a bit of a lush, and what they used to call a “pushover,” but she and Barbara Ann share an almost sisterly relationship. That is until she becomes an embarrassment to her daughter, which is when the film veers uncomfortably into dramedy.
The last time I saw Lord Love a Duck, I was thinking that a remake with Lindsay and Dina Lohan as Barbara Ann and Marie would be genius, and just the thing to jump start Lindsay’s stalled movie career. But in a post-Columbine world, a teen comedy about mass murder would be a tough sell, to say the least.
The fine supporting cast includes Ruth Gordon (Harold and Maude, Rosemary’s Baby) as Barbara’s mother-in-law, Harvey Korman as Weldon Emmett, principal of Consolidated High, and the gorgeous Jo Collins, Playboy’s 1965 Playmate of the Year, and former wife of baseball bad boy Bo Belinsky, as “Kitten.”
George Axelrod made his name as a playwright with the Broadway hits The Seven-Year Itch, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, and Goodbye, Charlie. He moved west to write the film adadptaions of Bus Stop, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and The Manchurian Candidate. He used his cachet as a screenwriter to get the chance to direct Lord Love a Duck.
It was the first of only two films he would direct, the other being 1968’s The Secret Life of an American Wife. Maybe he couldn’t get work as a director because the suits at the studio didn’t realize that the visible boom mics in many of the interior scenes were in the shot by design, as a sly, self-referential “it’s only a movie” in-joke.
The video technician responsible for mastering the 2003 DVD edition obviously didn’t get the joke, choosing to use a cropped version of the film that eliminates the boom mics and the shadows of the crew on the walls. To paraphrase Ian Fleming, “Once is happenstance, twice coincidence, more than three times obviously a sly, self-referential in-joke on the part of the filmmaker.”
While the second half of the movie, involving Alan’s multiple attempts to do away with Barbara Ann’s new husband (Martin West), loses a bit of steam, Lord Love a Duck is still one of my favorite ’60s movies. Axelrod takes the “something to offend everyone” sensibility of The Loved One and applies it to American youth culture, as well as various aspects of our sick, sick society, which has only gone downhill in the four decades since the film was made.
The Alamo Drafthouse Ritz, 320 East Sixth Street in Austin, presents a rare screening of Lord Love a Duck as part of its “Weird Wednesday” series on January 20th at midnight (technically Thursday the 21st).
Subscribe to the Austin Classic Movies Examiner HERE.
Your comments, suggestions, and requests are welcome.
Recent articles by JM Dobies:
Clint Eastwood’s Greatest Westerns
Doom Noir: Blast of Silence (1961)
‘Terror Tuesdays’ at the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz
Turner Classic Movies’ ’31 Days of Oscar’ for February 8-15
Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1966) and Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979)
Decadenza Italiano: Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960)
Ann-Margret’s Greatest Hits
To Put Out or Not to Put Out: The Young Lovers (1964)
Magnum Fascist: Dirty Harry
Angry Young Bastard: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning
Tuesday Weld’s Greatest Hits
The Action Pack presents the Pulp Fiction Quote-Along at Alamo Drafthouse
Racing for Nowhere: Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop
Alamo Iron Chef VI: A Streetcar Named Desire