DIRECTED BY: Brian De Palma
FEATURING: Tom Smothers, John Astin, Katharine Ross, Orson Welles
PLOT: At his wit’s end in the fast-paced business world, a dissatisfied middle manager chucks his job to become a traveling tap-dancing magician.
COMMENTS: The passing of Tom Smothers brought many recollections of the genuinely transgressive variety show he and his brother Dick assembled to ride the waves of the counterculture and tweak the humorless establishment. It’s part of the legend that the stuffed shirts at CBS seized upon the first opportunity to cancel the show and presumably serve the whim of newly inaugurated paranoiac president Richard Nixon. Smothers would go down in history as a First Amendment martyr, and although the brothers would eventually resume their successful career as comedians and folk-performance parodists (your reviewer still cherishes catching their act as an adolescent and meeting Tom after the show), they never again saw the lofty heights they reached when they were tweaking censors and highlighting America’s distaste for the Vietnam War.
That fall from fame was not for lack of trying. About a year after “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” got yanked off the schedule, Tom decided to take a stab at movie stardom. Get To Know Your Rabbit looks like an ideal vehicle: a satire on the numbing effect of American corporate culture. The leading role seems tailor-made to take advantage of Smothers’ carefully developed stage persona as overwhelmed and bewildered by the world, as well as his offstage passion for justice. The producers also saw an opportunity to provide a Hollywood debut for Brian De Palma, who had made a name for himself with a pair of subversive comedies, Greetings and Hi, Mom! (Our Alfred Eaker would describe De Palma’s work here as “blatantly avant-garde”.) Add in a small part for Katharine Ross (hot off the success of The Graduate) and a key role for one of De Palma’s heroes, Orson Welles (who, as we’ve already seen, was apparently willing to do any film that would let him perform some magic), and this thing can’t possibly miss.
It missed, and badly. The shoot was evidently a misery; Smothers, a controlling figure on his TV show, disapproved of many of De Palma’s choices and eventually refused to turn up for re-takes. Welles also disappointed the young filmmaker, refusing to learn his lines. Eventually, Warner Bros. fired De Palma and recut the film using discarded footage and new scenes, including a much milder ending than the one the ousted director preferred. Finally, they sat on the film for two years, throwing it into theaters for a quickie release to be rid of the thing. (An alternate strategy for the studio was still decades away at the time.) Smothers would head back to the stage, while De Palma would mostly abandon both comedy and the major studios in favor of ian thrillers and suspenseful horror shows. (De Palma avoided Warner Bros. in particular, returning only after two decades to direct The Bonfire of the Vanities, which did Continue reading CAPSULE: GET TO KNOW YOUR RABBIT (1972)