This post not only contains spoilers, but due to the subject matter of the film, may contain items you don’t want to read at work, at school, around kids, or for any reason at all, actually. You have been warned.
“The Maltese Bippy” is a stupid film. It is offensive, vapid, incoherent, and the absolute antithesis of funny. But I get ahead of myself.
“The Maltese Bippy” is a Rowan and Martin vehicle designed to cash in on the intense popularity of their show “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In”. I will confess right now that I don’t get “Laugh-In”. Perhaps it’s my age — “Laugh-In” was long out of production yet still tiredly plugging along in reruns by the time I was old enough to watch television. Most of the performers had gone on to be perpetual game show contestants in the mid and late 1970s, and I much preferred seeing Jo Anne Worley spazz out on “$10,000 Pyramid” than on “Laugh-In”, where the audience howled at her flinging of a boa as though it was comedy gold. I admit to having some political qualms as well. When I was a teen in the 80s, I first saw the clip of Nixon asking the audience to “sock it to me”, and I was appalled. Surely this supposed counterculture comedy knew it was validating Nixon and giving him positive publicity during his re-election campaign by allowing him to participate in the very thing that opposed him? I was somewhat reassured about my opinion when I read Vincent Canby in his 1969 New York Times review make the same comment.
Finally, what I’ve always wondered about “Laugh-In” is how two old squares like Rowan and Martin could have been considered counterculture. The show’s political satire seemed unconvincing when coupled with the hosts’ Vegas lounge lizard style. Rowan and Martin were, indeed, a seasoned whitebread comedy duo that did a popular but unoriginal act in Vegas. They were primarily skeevy woman-chasers in their act, on the show, and they carried this reputation to “The Maltese Bippy”. Rowan’s greasy attempt at suaveness — the übertan, the tuxedo, the glamorous smoking — made him ridiculous. When I see Rowan I always imagine he is actually a character played by Harvey Korman. And then I wish I was watching Harvey Korman do… well, anything.
Dick Martin is no better. My recollection is that he played the dumb guy to Rowan’s straight man, but Martin isn’t particularly dumb in this film. He says stupid things, but stupid in a “that phrase was never, ever, ever hip” sort of way. Just check out the poster; was “well, ring my chimes” ever cool? No. No, it wasn’t. His character is also on the make in this film, marginally less sleazy than Rowan’s character, but still far too old to be saying crude things to a college student; Rowan and Martin were both 47 years old when “The Maltese Bippy” was released.
The film opens as though it were a Cecil B. DeMille epic, with slaves toiling under a cruel master, Irving the Horrible. The screen then informs us that the film has nothing to do with Irving and is actually set in a cemetery in Flushing, New York. A woman screams, and then the INTERMISSION screen appears.
So do Rowan and Martin, who banter about credits and about the film we’re not yet watching. Martin immediately starts in with jokes about the woman heard screaming in the film sounded just like a woman in his bedroom last night. Classy! Also, this monologue ends with Rowan calling Martin a “doo doo”.
You heard me. A “doo doo”.
By the way, the title of the film has absolutely nothing to do with anything. There is no scene in Malta or anything Maltese, and “bippy” is never even said in the film, despite it being a famous catch phrase from “Laugh-In”. The title is simply a blind riff on “The Maltese Falcon”. This isn’t surprising, as a few half-hearted attempts at referencing old murder mysteries is made in the film, but nothing substantial comes of it.
The film finally begins and we’re in a business office — actually, an ersatz movie studio. Rowan is Sam Smith, the director of porno films, and Martin is Ernest Gray, an actor in said films. Pornos and doo doo. Oh yeah, we are off to a thrilling beginning, my friends. One of the few funny bits in the film are the interchangeable backdrops for the pornos. The tiny backdrops which must only measure 5 feet by 5 feet imply absolutely no movement, no set changes, and no props. The pornos all have the titles, “Lunar Lust”, “Jungle Lust”, and “Submarine Lust”. Later, Smith refers to a past film he made titled “Sherlock Lust”.
While filming, Sam suddenly howls like a wolf. Before he can figure out why he did that, the owner of the office evicts the entire cast and crew and we cut to a scene elsewhere.
A murder has taken place in a cemetery, and a woman at a nearby house reports being bothered by a man who howled at her like a wolf. Meanwhile, Sam and Ernest ride in a moving truck filled with their meager film studio possessions. They arrive at Ernest’s house, which is right next to the murder cemetery in question.
We’re only a few minutes into the film and it’s clear that this is going to be quite an uphill trudge. Rowan can’t deliver his lines and Martin’s dialogue must have been cobbled together from old Bazooka gum wrappers. The sets and cinematography are unimaginative and the supporting cast is rarely given anything worthwhile to do.
Ernest arrives at his house, which we learn is a boarding house for a young college student named Robin, a violinist named Axel, and Ernest himself. Sam also freeloads there. The police are asking the cook and housekeeper Molly (Mildred Natwick) about the night of the murder. The police detective is Robert Reed, sadly barely used at all in this film except to walk around in a noir-esque suit and fedora. His assistant is Sgt. Kelvaney, played by Dana Elcar, is also woefully underused; had either been given anything of substance to do, this film might have been watchable.
While questioning Molly, Sgt. Kelvaney keeps getting irritated at her complete answers. Finally he starts asking Ernest the questions which clearly should be answered by Molly, while Ernest makes cracks about how Molly has been his servant for years so he has to put up with her irritating behavior. Since Molly is simply providing much-needed exposition for the audience and isn’t irritating at all, Ernest and Sgt. Kelvaney’s comments seem hostile and unwarranted. The gag here, of course, is that Molly gabs a lot and irritates the men, so that’s what they try to convey, without ever actually conveying it. If the audience has to puzzle out what exactly is going on in a simple little scene like this, that’s a good sign the film isn’t doing it right
They are all interrupted by Helga, a next-door neighbor controlling her big, dangerous German Shepherd. Helga (Eddra Gale) is a stern, large, Eastern European woman. Her only purpose in the film is to accompany the other two who live in the house with her. The actress is given no lines, she is relegated to the background, and is directly mentioned only twice, both times in fat jokes; Ernest says she must have eaten her way through the Iron Curtain.
The college student Robin Sherwood arrives. Where do they get these names? Robin Sherwood? I was surprised she didn’t eventually marry a man with the last name “Forest”. The police question her, too, and ask her why she’s living in a boarding house instead of on campus. Two reasons, the first being her own personal dissenting from all that irritating dissent college students are doing nowadays. She goes on to decry all the “love ins” and the like. Maybe it’s supposed to be a self-referential ironic stab at “Laugh-In”, but it comes across as establishment wish-fulfillment. The second reason she doesn’t live in a dorm is because all the “kooks” on campus want to sleep with her. Right.
Robin goes to her room and uses a telephoto lens out her window to view the German Shepherd’s collar, as one does; the collar has a talisman of a wolf on it. Ernest barges in to ask her on a date. She makes her excuses by claiming she has a lecture on female anatomy that evening, and Ernest can’t pass up the opportunity to leer and make cracks about doing some “field research” on the subject.
Ernest’s psychologist Dr. Charles Strauss (David Hurst) arrives at the house to give Ernest some psychotherapy and a shot in the bum. Hurst is, by far, the best actor in the film. His subtle reaction when Ernest says he’s worried about this compulsion to drop on all fours and lick the doctor’s hand is easily the funniest moment in the whole film.
Meanwhile Robin goes downstairs to snoop around, and runs into Sam, who crudely propositions her by asking her to be in one of his pornos. She says she cannot, as she has no experience, and he offers to teach her. Ew. It’s also the second time that “experience” double entendre has been used thus far. Sam gapes at her hinder as she walks off and stumbles backwards in distraction; he finds a talisman with a wolf on it.
The next door neighbor Ravenswood (Fritz Weaver) arrives to ask if his sister Carlotta is around. He claims Carlotta is unbalanced and believes Ernest is a lost love of hers. The silent Helga is, apparently, Carlotta’s keeper. Ravenswood also has one of the wolf talismans around his neck. Outside, the disturbed Carlotta (Julie Newmar) has found Ernest and is reminiscing about wild nights of sex, but does so in Hungarian so we can only imagine what’s said. Newmar is lovely as always, but seems bored with the role and puts nothing into her performance. Ravenswood finds her and drags her, Helga, and the dog back into the house.
A prospective buyer for the house arrives. Molly desperately wants Ernest to sell the house, as she was happier working for him in his previous city apartment. The real estate agent explains the prospective buyer is a diamond merchant, just like the former owner of the house, and he actually knew the former owner before he left town.
Dr. Strauss has finally decided that Ernest is becoming a werewolf. He lists the characteristics of werewolfiness, focusing especially on Ernest’s itchy, hairy palms. Oh, will the comedy never cease? They decide to trap the werewolf who bit Ernest by attempting a ritual involving horsehair and wolfsbane. Sam arrives and decides this would be a great act for a variety show featuring “chorus broads”. When the ritual begins, Ravenswood, Carlotta and Helga arrive and tell Ernest that he is a werewolf just like they are. Except, well, they’re dressed like vampires and when they knock Sam out, they try to convince Ernest to bite Sam’s neck. I don’t know if the confusion between werewolves and vampires is deliberate or not, I really don’t. Sgt. Kelvaney arrives with the doctor who had been outside, laying in wait for the werewolf. Sam comes to, doesn’t remember what’s happened, and is still excited about the Ravenswood and company act.
That night Ernest has a dream about turning into a werewolf. Robin comes from her room down the hall and wakes him from his nightmare. Just then they hear a crash and a scream and go downstairs to investigate. Eventually they walk to Ravenswood’s, where they see Ravenswood, Carlotta, Helga, and Dr. Strauss chuckling over their fake wolfman act. Ravenswood isn’t a werewolf, Carlotta is dim but not deranged, and the doctor may not even be a doctor. They are pulling this act to scare Ernest out of the home, so they can take the opportunity to search for something called “Excalibur”. They also note that Robin isn’t who she claims to be.
Ernest and Robin return home just as Dr. Strauss calls Ernest. Ernest knows he’s a fake, but the doctor still manages to use some pre-planted hypnotic suggestions to get Ernest to strangle Robin, though when he hits his head as he’s chasing her, he’s knocked to his senses. Robin explains that her father excavated the actual Excalibur, a sword made of gold and encrusted in emeralds, but the guy who bought the house they’re now in stole it from her father. Then that guy disappeared and Ernest bought the house, but the sword is still supposedly hidden in the building. She wants to find it before Ravenswood does.
Suddenly a dead person falls out of the dumbwaiter. They call the police but the body has been yoinked by the time the detective and sergeant arrive. Robin then tells the police that Ernest had tried to strangle her earlier that evening, and Ernest looks betrayed. They both get hauled off to the police station.
Sam arrives the next morning, still thinking that Ravenswood is an act he can parlay into big bucks. Carlotta distracts Sam while Ravenswood and gang search the house for Excalibur. While at lunch, Sam puts the sleaze on Carlotta, asking her if she really can turn into a dog at will. She says she can, and this launches a slew of dog sex jokes that are just beyond revolting. Carlotta walks ahead of Sam while he stares at her bottom, shrugs and says, “What the hell, I can always get a distemper shot.” WOMEN ARE DOGS. HAW HAW.
When Sam takes Carlotta to a motel for a quickie, he leaves for a moment to call an agent about the act. She says, “Ciao” and he says, “That’s up to you.” HAW HAW DOG CHOW. ALSO EATING SOMETHING IF YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN.
This right here is the moment I completely lost my patience with the film.
When Sam comes back to the motel room he finds a dog on the bed. It has come through the porch door while Carlotta went to call her brother Ravenswood for advice. Sam thinks it’s her, and here we go again with the dog sex jokes. When Carlotta returns she’s upset with her brother, so she tells Sam about the real scheme so he’ll help her steal Excalibur from the others, and they will share the wealth.
Back at the house Ernest comes back from a night at the police station. Robin comes back, too, and apologizes for telling the police that Ernest tried to kill her. Except, well, he did try to kill her. This isn’t funny.
The house has been ransacked by Ravenswood and friends, but they didn’t find Excalibur. Robin admits that Excalibur is actually a 191-carat diamond and not the sword at all, although the reason for her initial lie isn’t given. The dead body that disappeared the night before turns out to be the previous owner of the house, the one who stole Excalibur, and he’s got some code written on his chest in blood. They search the house for the body and/or Excalibur but can’t find either. We soon discover Axel the violinist has the body, he helped the previous owner steal Excalibur, and the blood code is a message from the dead guy to Axel, telling him that he swallowed the diamond.
Everyone wants the dead body so they can cut it open and extract the diamond. After some wrangling between Axel and Robin, Sam, and Ernest, Axel is subdued and Sam starts to dig into the corpse.
Today I discovered that corpse mutilation is just as funny as dog sex.
Sam’s cadaver groping is interrupted by Ravenswood. Just as Ravenswood is about to kill them for the body, Carlotta kills Ravenswood. Then the real estate agent kills Carlotta, Helga kills the real estate agent, that diamond merchant who was a potential buyer kills Helga. Molly, the police detective, and Sgt. Kelvaney arrive. The police detective says he is from the motion picture association and he is arresting everyone for “excessive violence in films.” All the dead people stand and start to file out when Dick Martin tells them to stop — he can create a better ending than that.
Martin’s ending is that the moving truck driver from the very beginning of the film is Robin’s father, the owner of Excalibur, who arrives at the last minute. He shoots at Ernest for strangling his daughter but she takes the bullet for him, which is even creepier than apologizing for turning him in earlier in the film.
Rowan stops the film and says he can come up with an even better ending. In his ending, the police detective names the murderer (there’s only one?!) as though this were an old-fashioned murder mystery. Molly is the murderer, and she admits it, while also professing her love to Sam and her jealous hatred of Ernest.
After that Rowan and Martin leave the house, and Martin muses that movies always end with the lovers walking into the sunset together. Rowan says no one is left alive except them, so Martin decides they have to do the walk themselves. They hold hands and walk into the sunset while the U.S. Navy theme “Anchors Aweigh” plays.
Ah. After a film of puerile, adolescent sex talk and full-on woman hatred, it ends with a gay joke. Terrific. I want that 90 minutes of my life back.
I have nothing else to say, except that I promise you the next few entries will be about movies I like. To preserve our sanity, it is the only way.
EDIT: I would like to add that Jack Pendarvis says I was too harsh on Jo Anne Worley, and he makes a compelling argument. I will forgive him for comparing her to Charles Nelson Reilly, who is like unto a god and cannot be compared with any human, but she is awesome and I shouldn’t have brought her into this.
I also wanted to point out the rec.arts.movies.past-films thread on “The Maltese Bippy”, which has been a great source of “what were they thinking” comments. Poster Grant Hurlock reminded me of a rather creepy point in the film: early on when you’re seeing the downtown area of NYC, a marquee scrolls by with the enormous letters “MARTIN LUTHER KING JR SH”. You don’t see all of the last word, but it’s probably “shot”, and it’s chilling.