September 5, 2009
By BRUCE KIRKLAND
There is a bit of cheek, and at least the suggestion of an alcoholic
haze involved, in rounding up old films and calling them Martini
Movies. But Sony persists. The third wave in the labelled series
You do not actually have to mix gin and vermouth and plop in an olive
to enjoy a Martini Movie, although it would help in one case. The
attraction of the series is that each of these Columbia Pictures
titles makes its DVD debut. So it really doesn't matter how they sell
them, if you're buying them anyway for their historical value.
This wave has five obscure titles dating 1969 through 1973, an
interesting period in cinema because of the tumult in society. The
five are: Model Shop (1969), The Buttercup Chain (1970), The Pursuit
of Happiness (1971), Summertree (1971) and Love and Pain and the
Whole Damn Thing (1973). Stars range from a youthful Michael Douglas
to French star Anouk Aimee and British institution Maggie Smith.
The pedigrees of the movies differ. Buttercup, the embarrassing dud
in the bunch, is British. Model Shop is a co-production of France and
the U.S., with French New Wave director Jacques Demy slumming the
strip of Los Angeles. The rest are Hollywood movies. All five are in
English, in colour and presented on DVD in their original widescreen.
The late 1960s and early 1970s were rife with conflict and social
change: Woodstock, free love, the Vietnam War, student unrest, the
rise of feminism, the maturing of the Civil Rights Movement, economic
upheavals. Some of that background is reflected in the five movies,
sometimes with purpose, sometimes by happenstance.
An interesting example is Summertree, starring Douglas as a
20-year-old American student who argues with his father (Jack Warden)
over his education while his mother (classy Barbara Bel Geddes) tries
The stakes are high. If Douglas drops out, he is eligible for the
draft. Kids are being sent for mutilation or death in the jungles of
Vietnam for a self-destructive war the Americans will inevitably
lose. Even Warden turns from hawk into dove when faced with the
prospect of losing his own son.
Watching Summertree today is emotional because of obvious parallels
to the twin wars of tragedy and attrition in Afghanistan and Iraq. In
1970, Summertree explored the issue emotionally, not through
geopolitics. At one point, Douglas' character simply admits, with
good reason, "I'm scared!"
Of course, Hollywood was often simplistic then, as now. Summertree
could not just chronicle Douglas' internal conflict and his parents'
emotional roil. A crazy little love story involving Brenda Vaccaro
had to intrude. But the serious stuff from Ron Cowen's Broadway play
is maintained, even if the movie version of the romance is over-emphasized.
The movie came about because -- according to legend -- Kirk Douglas
bought the film rights as a gift after his son was fired from the
play. Kirk Douglas would later pass on the rights to One Flew Over
the Cuckoo's Nest to his son, who then helped created an American
masterwork as a producer. In the case of Summertree, Kirk served as producer.
I do not want to oversell Summertree, or any of the Martini Movies,
but there is merit in it. Likewise with Model Shop, for its trippy
retro look at L.A. Likewise with Love and Pain and the Whole Damn
Thing, a timeless story of mismatched lovers played by Maggie Smith
and Timothy Bottoms. Less so with The Pursuit of Happiness (which is
not to be confused with the Will Smith drama). Forget The Buttercup
And it doesn't matter if any of these Martini Movies is shaken or stirred.