Saturday, October 6, 2012

How Sweet It Isn't: "Papa's Delicate Condtion" (1963)

Silent screen star Corinne Griffith's account of growing up with a hopelessly alcoholic father is given its own big screen treatment- and let the hijinks ensue!

Corrie (Linda Bruhl) is a sweet little six year old who worships her father, Jack (Jackie Gleason). Jack is a railroad supervisor in turn-of-the-century Texas, and would do anything for his young daughter (and some old scotch). Jack drinks like a fish, giving him an excuse for flamboyant behavior and compulsive decisions. Jack's wife Ambolyn (Glynis Johns) and older daughter Augusta (Laurel Goodwin) are sticks in the mud by comparison, unable to unclench long enough to enjoy life with Jack.

The first two-thirds of the film shows us that Jack's heart is as big as his liver. He conjures up a fake raffle to get a neighbor to repaint a purple house. He buys a pharmacy so the young clerk there can turn the tables on his old boss, plus Jack and his friends can have a private place to drink. The circus comes to town, and Jack buys the whole thing from two shady owners (Murray Hamilton and Elisha Cook) just so his Corrie could have a cart and pony.

Ambolyn has had enough and goes home to her father Anthony (the always good Charlie Ruggles), the mayor of nearby Texarkana, where his reelection is no longer certain. Jack tries to save the day, but accidentally injures Ambolyn, in the film's goofiest scene, and he decides to leave his family for good...

The film is most famous for its Academy Award winning song "Call Me Irresponsible," but should gain its infamy from the way the song is presented in the film. The viewer is overwhelmed with the song "Won't You Come Home, Bill Bailey?," until a drunken Jack sputters "Call Me Irresponsible" while alone in the dark with his wife's headless dress dummy- and this is not a musical.

Gleason's constant asides are sometimes funny, although his "how sweet it is" line gets old quick. The biggest problem here is the point of view of the story. Corinne is looking at the past through the rose colored glasses of love and youth, so Jack's "delicate condition" does not seem to be a big deal. Gleason's sober Jack and his drunk Jack are identical, except for the singing sequence, so all the "wacky" things Jack does because of his excessive drinking don't seem all that incredible.

The camera is on Gleason almost all the time, and some subplots suffer. Bruhl is a delight, Johns is okay, but Goodwin is given nothing to do. Marshall's direction is especially dry, not able to find laughs in the comedy, or tragedy in the drama. Also of note is Edith Head's costume design, which is pretty good.

From the cutesy title and the cast, you might expect a little more than what you get. Even with the lowered expectations I developed after I started watching "Papa's Delicate Condition," I was left unmoved, even by the cheery ending. We'll call the film disappointing, and leave it at that. (* *) out of five stars.