Thursday, January 3, 2013

Another Nice Mess starring Rich Little, Herb Voland, Bruce Kirby, Hal Smith, Bob Einstein and Steve Martin (1972)

Here's a real rarity. It's Steve Martin's very first motion picture. That alone would make it notable. Add to the mix that the CIA tried to entrap its producer, the White House tried to have the film buried, and the fact it hasn't been seen for forty years (til today) - and you've got yourself an interesting view.

Another Nice Mess was written and directed by Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour writer/performer Bob Einstein. When the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was canceled by CBS in April 1969 due to political pressure, Tom Smothers walked off with a great deal of anger - and a fair bit of show business clout. He soon funneled much of the nest egg he'd fostered during Comedy Hour's popularity into a variety of pet projects. He and Ken Kragen formed a management company and while Tommy, understandably, became co-manager with Kragen of people like Mason Williams and Bob Einstein, they also managed singer Kenny Rogers and the hammond-organ playing pitcher of the Detroit Tigers, Denny McLain. 

Tommy's next plan was to bank-roll some politically significant cinema. Another Nice Mess was Bob Einstein's germination. He knew Tommy would likely finance something that took on the Nixon administration. It was a real opportunity for Einstein to enter the production side of show business and jockey himself a spot within the New Hollywood. Smothers signed on to produce Einstein's screenplay along with Jonathan Haze.

Haze was a member of Roger Corman's company of regular players. The Corman company nurtured squares turned counterculture luminaries like Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson. As with those frequent reefer smokers, Jonathan Haze was politicized by the cultural shift in the late nineteen sixties. No longer content to simply ham it up in innocuous films like Teenage Caveman and Little Shop of Horrors, Haze invested a good chunk of his savings in the production of Another Nice Mess. The small budget of two-hundred and fifty grand allowed them to exploit an IATSE loophole that allowed low-budget filmmakers to use non-union laborers. The film was shot in four weeks, but took nine months to edit.

During post-production, word of the film reached the paranoid Nixon White House, perhaps from Nixon's Hollywood mole Paul W. Keyes. John Dean wrote a memo to President Nixon and his two familiar Watergate henchmen - Chuck Colson and HR Haldeman. Dean warned of "a derogatory film about the president being produced by the Smothers Brothers." In his correspondence, John Dean explained that he sent a pair of undercover men to the Smothers Brothers headquarters to suss out information. He suggested that Nixon's plumbers meet and "assess [the film's] potential impact."

While the Nixon White House sent spies to determine what the film was all about, Tom Smothers had been befriended by an ex-Marine with insider ties. Sympathetic to the anti-war movement, but still involved with the war monger side, he let Tommy know that "a drug bust was being set up" in an attempt to sabotage Another Nice Mess

Tommy was advised to keep his car "clean inside" and "never travel alone." According to one account, "Tom mailed a registered letter to the attorney general of California, and another to himself, saying he was afraid he was about to be set up. He cleaned all evidence of drugs out of his workplace and home, and stayed clean, just in case the warning was true." While Tom was sitting in an editing session of Another Nice Mess in Los Angeles, his Bay area home was raided. A house guest of Smothers phoned in a panic. "Tom, there's a bunch of cops here tearing up your house!" They found nothing. Had Tommy not been tipped off in advance, they most certainly would have.

Bob Emenegger wrote the film score for Another Nice Mess. He has stated the film "reflects Einstein's politics and slap stick sense of humor. It was also used as a fundraiser at the Canon Theater in Beverly Hills for the Democratic Party." The film had been secured for the fundraiser by casual friend of the Smothers Brothers, actor Peter Lawford. "The songs were much more controversial than Einstein wanted," says Emenegger. "But he was away [in Hawaii]." The LA Times assessed his score as "equally smug and insipid."

The film debuted in Chicago at the start of August 1972, playing at both the Uptown and Varsity theaters. It was buried by its Blaxploitation competition. Superfly and Shaft's Big Score notwithstanding, films like The Godfather and Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy were still doing tremendous business. Even the x-rated Fritz the Cat had Another Nice Mess beat among the grindhouse and low-rent circuit. Bob Einstein's little Nixon spoof was doomed.

The Hollywood Egyptian Theater and the UA Cinema Center in Westwood hosted simultaneous California debuts. The LA Times praised Rich Little and Herb Voland for "having their Laurel and Hardy business down cold," although the reviewer complained Voland looked less like Spiro Agnew and more like Merv Griffin sidekick Arthur Treacher. "The slapstick is erratic and labored," wrote film columnist Gregg Kilday. "The film is so harshly lit that the action looks, not entirely inappropriately, as if it takes place in a wax museum." But the largest complaint lodged by film critics - and this is telling of the times - was that the film just wasn't political enough

The film entered general release in September reaching a mere seven theaters. The Brookside in Kansas City blamed its empty theater on the rain, but ticket sales remained non-existent when the weather cleared. Its screening at the Metro II in San Francisco was dismissed as "a bomb." The film did best at the Broadway Theater in Portland where it played for nine weeks to "warm" business. The total gross was around thirty-thousand dollars.

Bob Einstein appeared on The Dick Cavett Show to promote the film and Rich Little did likewise with Johnny Carson, but it didn't seem to help. The film had a short-life, playing between August and October 1972. It was never screened again. For years there have been rumors it was buried by the Nixon administration, but Tom Smothers admits he buried it himself because, he says, "It was a terrible film." Co-producer Jonathan Haze concluded,"Another Nice Mess was a mess."

Decide for yourself:


Booksteve said...

This was my Holy Grail of lost movies for ages. Finally got a copy 3 or 4 years back. I had clipped the ad out from when it played for (I think) 1 week in Cincinnati. No one but me remembered it it seemed.

Low budget but with some clever scenes.

Randy Farb said...

I find it interesting that Little and Voland, who worked together in "Love On A Rooftop" have such great chemistry.

tomwasn said...

I never was a big laurel and hardy fan but the Richie/Spiro angle made it very interesting. Why didn't Tommy Smothers wait until August 1974 to release it at the time of Nixon's resignation? it might have attracted more of an audience.

MontyAlban said...

Thanks, Kilph. I have a vague memory of this but never had a chance to see it. Unfortunately, it lacks any real political satire, merely mocking and ridiculing Nixon and Agnew in an extended joke without much substance. The Smothers Brothers tv show had much more incisive political bits, which makes this movie something of a disappointment. The background essay was quite interesting, as are all of your interviews and essays on this priceless blog and the WFMU site. Hope to see them collected one day in a book.

Spanky Domingo said...

I have been fascinated and trying to see this since 1972 when I read a blurb about it in NEWSWEEK. Voland and Little do a dead-on Laurel and Hardy (Little more vocally than physically), but Einstein seems to consistently miss the point. In fact, once it cracks its initial joke, there doesn`t seem to be any particular point. It doesn`t satirize or even really address the Nixon administration and, isn`t especially funny, though there are a couple of good gags here and there. Bad idea for the filmmakers to use actual Laurel and Hardy clips. Using clips that are funnier than anything in your own movie makes your movie suffer by comparison. That doesn`t mean I didn`t watch it twice, though. Great blog and thanks for posting this film!

Anonymous said...

Saw it in L.A. when it came out and thought it was hilarious.Tried to book it at my college a few years later and found that no one had a print to rent. Holy grail, indeed! Now that I've seen it again it's still got some great moments. Very enjoyable.