It's not generally good business to antagonize your audience, but the marketing for Lord Love a Duck, George Axelrod's directorial debut, tried its best. "This Motion Picture Is an Act of Pure Aggression," the posters read. The trailer's voiceover said, "Lord Love a Duck is against teenagers, their parents, movies, cars, school, and several hundred other things." In a five-minute TV spot meant ostensibly to promote the film, Axelrod said, "How un-American can you get? Pretty, I guess, if you set your mind to it, if you really try. I did in this picture."
Axelrod wrote for TV and radio for years before his breakout play, The Seven Year Itch (turned into the Marilyn Monroe movie by Billy Wilder). He also wrote Bus Stop, and the adaptation of The Manchurian Candidate, and was nominated for an Academy Award for adapting Breakfast at Tiffany's. But Lord Love a Duck was entirely his -- he co-wrote, directed, and produced. And like he said, "It may look like a beach picture, but it's a booby trap."
Roddy McDowall plays Alan Musgrave, a high school senior who meets Barbara Ann Greene (Tuesday Weld) the day before their two schools are combined into one, a parody of "progressive" education where Botany class becomes Plant Skills for Life.
Alan is a fixer and a hustler with an alter-ego he calls Mollymauk, "a bird thought to be extinct, but isn't." Barbara Ann is a vulnerable beauty from a broken home, with a divorced cocktail waitress mother who's terrified of aging, and who likes to pretend they're sisters. Alan promises to help Barbara Ann (named for her mother's favorite movie stars, Stanwyck and Sheridan) get whatever she wants.
First up is entry into a clique of schoolgirls, price of admission: twelve cashmere sweaters. Mollymauk's solution? (F+D) G2= S, or father + daughter times guilty squared = sweaters. Barbara Ann gets her absent father to take her shopping, which becomes bizarrely sexualized as she purrs and squeals, rolling around in a pile of cashmere while her increasingly agitated father giggles compulsively and she names the colors, like "periwinkle pussycat" and "turquoise trouble." It's not guilt that gets her what she wants, it's lust.
Next on her list is a trip to Balboa, where Alan happens to have access to a house. Against a backdrop of bodies frugging on the sand in a send-up of beach picture hedonism, she meets Mr. Belmont, producer of movies like I Was a Teenage Bikini Vampire, who says he's going to make her a star. She also sets her sights on Bob, a college senior, and Alan resignedly promises to help.
Bob turns out to be a terrible mama's boy, and Alan's main work is getting the meddling mother (the great Ruth Gordon, of Harold and Maude) out of the way, primarily by keeping her completely trashed. But when she finds out that Barbara Ann's mother waits tables dressed like a cat, she calls off the wedding. Then Barbara Ann's distraught mother, terrified of turning forty-one, kills herself with pills and booze (and maybe a little help from Mollymauk). With the embarrassing in-law out of the way, the marriage is back on.
On the wedding night Bob's mother "falls ill," so they have to call off the honeymoon to take care of her. Barbara Ann finally sours on her (still-unconsummated) marriage to Bob, especially when he puts his foot down about her screen test for Mr. Belmont. So Mollymauk sets about trying to kill poor Bob, in increasingly obvious but never detected ways. Poison, a clipped seat belt, everything's attributed to Bob's "psycho-suicidal mental problem." Finally, at the high school graduation Mollymauk loses it and goes after the indestructible Bob's wheelchair with a bulldozer, mowing him down and plowing into the grandstand, taking out the principal and the preacher, too.
The film closes with Alan in prison, where he's been narrating his confession into a tape recorder. Why, in the end, did he commit murder to help Barbara Ann Greene, who he says embodies "the total vulgarity of our time"? He gives an answer of a sort: "Because you all must go on living day after painful day it would be kinder if I would invent an answer that would not entirely unsettle your tiny minds." The fake answer? Love. The real one, he never says. We see Barbara Ann wrapped in white sable, posing for a crowd of photographers, while the movie producer introduces her: "T. Harrison Belmont presents Barbara Ann Greene as ... Bikini Widow!" But Alan gets the last line, from his cell: "You poor bunny."
Lord Love A Duck's aim is wide, mocking everything from youth obsession to religion and psychobabble, still pretty ripe pickings. But while the scattershot approach can make the plot a bit bewildering and the farce can be uneven, the acting saves the whole.
Ruth Gordon is spectacularly weird as Bob's mother, smacking her lips and pawing at him, and McDowall is compelling and funny as the asexual fixer aged beyond his years (although not really -- McDowall was thirty-seven). But it's the underrated Tuesday Weld who steals the show, at first as a breathy, petulant ingénue, laughing inappropriately and almost taking down scenes with her, like it's all a put-on, ditzy like a fox. And when she transforms into the disillusioned, increasingly fed up wife, it's a real performance.
Lord Love a Duck was too weird for audiences, then or now. It was far from a box office hit and failed on Axelrod's terms, too. In that television promo, he said, "If it comes off well, I could get an Academy Award. If it comes off really well, I could get deported." The Oscar went to A Man for All Seasons, and Axelrod stayed writing and directing in Los Angeles. But Lord Love a Duck lives on, a black antidote to Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon's version of the sixties.