Man’s Favorite Sport

MAN’S FAVORITE SPORT, a 1964 farce with Rock Hudson and (gratefully) Paula Prentiss, wasn’t well-received at the time, pilloried in reviews, a disappointment at the box office. The “serious critics” (that snoring sound is me caring) took umbrage that it was weak work from director Howard Hawks, plus they rarely gave Rock credit for breathing, let alone acting (and being enormously popular). The public preferred Hudson’s other ’64 lark, Send Me No Flowers, his third hit with Doris Day, which did twice as much business, ranking 17th for the year while this lagged as #34. Those who need pills, take them, because while it’s overlong, derivative, looks like it was made for TV and is somewhat forced, it’s still pretty amusing, and Paula is a keeper. *

A top salesman at Abercrombie & Fitch, renowned for his best-selling how-to books on fishing, ‘Roger Willoughby” (Rock) gets hooked into entering a fishing tournament taking place on ‘Lake Wakapoogee’. Cornered into this by ‘Abigail Page’ (Paula), the p.r. director of a lodge at the site, it’s not enough that Roger and Abigail clash from the get-go: his damning secret is that he has never fished, or camped, or done anything man-sporty that he advises on. Making his baptism by trout & tent more of a sinker are Abigail’s girlfriend (Maria Perschy), the local Native American guide (Norman Alden), and Roger’s fiancée (Charlene Holt) who, in comedy-convention manner, shows up un-announced just when Rog is caught zipper-handed.

Norman Alden, 1924-2012

Lifted off a story in “Cosmopolitan”, the script by Steve McNeil and John Fenton Murray  (rewritten by Hawks friend Leigh Brackett, sans credit) tries to homage Hawk’s Bringing Up Baby, and even makes an obvious steal or two from that 1938 classic. Hudson’s okay, and gamely endures the assorted manhood-embarrassing and relationship-compromising setups that slapstick and/or rom-com scenarios play with. Since it’s a Hawks picture, nicknames are employed for the women: the girlfriend is ‘Easy’, the fiancée is ‘Tex’. Solid character player  Norman Alden gets some good lines (though since he’s White-playing-non-White, today’s p.c. witchhunters will have one of their endless cows). No doubt The Enlightened will object to the opening credits, not because of the vintage dorky title tune (courtesy Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer), but because it backs a collage of gorgeous women in sexy outfits doing sporty activities: Hawks had photographer Don Ornitz shoot 6,000 Playboy-lite snaps of 32 models in various athletic modes. (Your abashed correspondent can handle it, not because I’m in my 60’s, but because this was the 60s, so do try vainly to get a grip and worry about something more pressing.) Not enough, frothers (p.c. & otherwise) will have something more pressing to mull in the custom-crafted scuba suits Hawks had Edith Head design for Prentiss and Perschy. Costing $10,000 apiece, they’re so form-fitting they belong in a more intellectually poised venue. Like Star Trek.

Beyond Paula’s ability to pour into one of those rubber outfits without help from scientists, is her talent at getting a laugh from her special, peculiar twist on dialogue–that wonderful voice that mixed surprise, bemusement and determination—and the unique way she carried herself—colt frisky movements simultaneously gawky and sexy— are alone more than enough reason to catch this harmless, time-dated silliness. Hawks was so taken by her that he promptly switched studio alliance when Paramount shied, saying they wanting a bigger name star to match Hudson’s: Hawks moved his game over to Universal without a blink. That studio’s patina shows up in the clankingly obvious sets, and the movie carries its monkey biz on too long at 120 minutes, but if you’re in a daffy, old-school mood, this’ll do. Hey, there’s a bear on a motor scooter…

Box office was $7,900,000, maybe just enough to cover the $3,500,000 price tag. With John McGiver, Roscoe Karns, Forrest Lewis, Regis Toomey, James Westerfield.

Better sports than those who would complain

* Hawks wanted Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, but they demurred, Grant, 58, telling him “I’m not going to play against…young girls.” (Prentiss and Perschy were 24, Holt 34). Grant made Charade instead. Hawks told author Joseph McBride that Hudson “tried hard and he worked hard and he did everything he could but Rock is not a comedian. And when you have visualized one person in it and you’re trying to get that, it’s an awful tough job to do it because you just don’t come out right. And even then we ended up with a pretty good picture.” As for Prentiss, who he was quite impressed with, “Paula Prentiss was good, but she couldn’t remember what she was doing from one shot to the next. Her shots never matched… she ought to be a big comedy star. I don’t know what’s the matter.”  He was more upset with Universal, who chopped 25 minutes out of his original cut.

Wiry and wired Prentiss had another good comedy role that year in the delightful Peter Sellers romp The World Of Henry Orient. Hudson, stuck between the chance to work for a legendary director and uncomfortably aware he was 2nd-pick after Grant, at 37 was increasingly tiring of comedy fluff: he didn’t care for Send Me No Flowers, made after the Hawks job. Then both Strange Bedfellows and A Very Special Favor tanked him into a real slump that took several years to emerge from.

* Austrian import Maria Perschy (1938-2004) got a boost with Freud, 633 Squadron and this comedy, then faded into decorating schlocklandia (Five Golden Dragons, The Castle of Fu Manchu). Come-hither bombshell Charlene Holt (1928-1996) became Hawks “companion” and he gave her roles in Red Line 7000 and El Dorado. Veteran, unsung character man Norman Alden, omnipresent in the 60s & 70s, ran up 252 credits in a career that ran from 1953 to 2006.

Comments from Alden on Hawks, from Todd McCarthy’s warts & all bio of the director:  observing Hawks giving constant attention to Hudson and Prentiss, and never saying anything to him, Alden asked him if he (Alden) was doing a good enough job, to which Hawks laconically answered “Well, if they could act, I wouldn’t have to do things like that.”  Alden said, “I adored him. He’d change clothes during the day and he’d come out and be very elegant. If he wanted a chair for me he’d call for ‘Mr.Alden’s chair.’ He had all that old-time stuff that used to go on in pictures.”

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