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.

Still from Get to Know Your Rabbit (1972)

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 nothing to patch up their wounded relationship.)

That’s a lot of background for a film so slight. However much the movie may have been damaged by studio interference and a fractious set, the truth is that Get To Know Your Rabbit never quite reaches the satirical heights to which it aspires. The depiction of the business world is amusingly chaotic (sex is a negotiating tool, a bomb threat gets placed on hold), but the film’s aim at corporate dehumanization loses some of its punch once we see that it degrades the human experience at every level. An airline pilot having a nervous breakdown is chided for endangering the schedule, a sleazy bra salesman is unable to enjoy a week-long party binge due to his devotion to his product line, and even Ross (dehumanized by the film itself through the character name “A Terrific-Looking Girl”) tells a tale of her crush on the paperboy that turns out to be transactional. The movie’s biggest success in this vein comes in the form of John Astin, Smothers’ boss, who is categorically unable to think in any terms other than being an executive. He’s great, but his single-mindedness takes some of the surprise out of his salvation, turning the magician business into a conglomerate on the scale of IBM.

Studio interference aside, it’s easy to find De Palma’s fingerprints on the film. The opening stealth split-screen segues into a trademark one-shot following Smothers out of the office, capturing his misery and claustrophobia in the corporate world. Another shot is carefully staged to look down on Smothers’ apartment, identifying the harried exec as a rat in a maze. And some of the scenes must have seemed perfectly in keeping with De Palma’s previous work, such as a visit from a piano tuner who sticks around to make breakfast, or the lovely moment when Smothers asks a half-naked floozy, “How long have you been a cheap broad?” (“It’s an off-and-on thing,” she replies.) But the film is filled up with far too many montages of Smothers criss-crossing the country to perform his willfully mediocre act, and frequently stops just short of the kind of bleak strain of comedy that feels more in De Palma’s wheelhouse.

Sadly, Smothers is an equally weak link. He comes across as a decent fellow, but missing all the edge of his stage personality. The Tommy Smothers who bickered with his brother evokes a terrified child nonetheless determined to make his point regardless of how many polite conventions he violated. The one in Get To Know Your Rabbit is sanded down to just the vaguest sense of rebellion. This can be funny: he adroitly rebuffs Welles’ offer to consider him the son he never had with an affable “no,” and he proffers an amusingly blunt introduction of a stripper. But most of the time, he’s quite bland. In the face of accumulating absurdities, though the increasing pressures of modern life, and in spite of being repeatedly emasculated in both his romantic life and his new-found career in tap-dancing magic, Smothers is never anything less than perfectly equanimous. It puts a big empty hole in the center of the movie, right where we need to find the only sane man left in the world.

Get To Know Your Rabbit is a real curiosity, a strange amalgam of diverse talents that shouldn’t intersect and a mindset that says the only suitable response to a world gone mad is to go slightly silly. It’s a toothless but pleasant diversion, and primarily sparks the urge to see all the participants do better things. Especially Tom Smothers; onstage with his brother where we always liked him best


Get to Know Your Rabbit falls in a long diachronic line of Hollywood filmmaking—slightly surrealistic, often very ‘plastic’ and ‘fake,’ not exactly dissonant with a Marxist critique of white collar corporatism… It was made in the early 1970s, the period when many film buffs—not without some justification—say that Hollywood still took chances on risky projects, weird things, high concept films, or perhaps just simply ‘concept’ films…  What’s necessary and revitalizing in watching this film is not to harp on its creaks and strains, its ill-fitting imperfections, but to realize that these things’ very existence pointed to the conditions of freedom and happy experimentation in which it was produced.” – Zach Campbell, Slant Magazine

Where to watch Get to Know Your Rabbit

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