In the late ‘60s, a famous comedy-pair turned a comedy variety show into a counter-culture juggernaut, attacking the “establishment” and the unpopular Vietnam War. This show was ultimately defeated by the very network that sought to put the duo on the air in the first place. I speak, of course, of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. But this review has nothing to do with that show. I just thought you’d find it interesting.
I’m stealing wholesale from the opening of (which opens with a title card telling us about “Ivan the Horrible”, a scourge from Mongolia), a reasonably harmless comedy staring Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, famous for their more mainstream-friendly rapid-fire comedy Laugh-In. From 1968 to 1972, the nightclub comedians invited “hip” Middle America into their swinging bachelor pad to dance and joke the night away with scantily-clad cuties like Goldie Hawn and Judie Carne. They coined nonsense words and phrases like “Look that up in your Funk & Wagnals” and “Sock it to me”, meant to sound vaguely enough like innuendo to make the squares feel hip and the hip feel in on it all, no matter how stoned they were. These guys were so cool, they put John Wayne in a bunny suit—on the air. Man, it was like, out there, you know?
I kid, I kid. In all honesty, counter-culture-clash aside, Laugh-In was frequently very funny if your taste in jokes runs towards the Catskill double-entendre variety smattered with intensely silly. Fortunately, my sense of humor does (that and my undying love for Artie Johnson), so I remember Laugh-In reruns quite fondly.
If your memories of Laugh-In are equally fond, try to channel them should you choose to watch The Maltese Bippy. Trust me: it helps. Otherwise, what you’re left with is a slapdash, overlong mess of goofiness that never quite gets where it’s going but seems to be having a good time not getting there. Reminiscent of the Hope and Crosby “Road” movies—in fact, director Norman Panama was responsible for guiding Bob and Bing along the Road to Utopia—later Abbott and Costello flicks (after they couldn’t stand each other) and, especially, haunted house comedies like the William Castle-helmed and equally-flat The Spirit is Willing or Don Knotts’ interminable The Ghost and Mrs. Chicken, The Maltese Bippy takes the classic “old dark house” chestnut and stuffs in our hapless duo.
Rowan and Martin riff on their stage personas as “lounge lizard straight man” and “dumb playboy”, respectively, and play Smith and Gray, a pair of nudie movie masters on the cusp of finding new employment. Dick Martin’s Ernest Gray finds himself with the uncontrollable urge to howl and is convinced by his psychiatrist that he is becoming a werewolf. This suspicion is supported by the Romanian family next door (Fritz Weaver and Julie Newmar) who all claim to be similarly afflicted and hundreds of years old. These facts come to the attention of Detective (played by the future Mike Brady, Robert Reed), who is investigating the murder of a man found mutilated in the nearby cemetery. None of this bothers Rowan’s Smith, however; he just wants to take the family and Ernest to a booking agent and promote them as a dog act.
Aaaannnd… that’s about it. Lots of running around. Lots of leering at Newmar and Carol Lynley as a comely co-ed, a zany nightmare about a be-werewolfed Martin running around town, chased by a frenzied mob, something about jewels hidden somewhere in the house while bodies literally pile up by the end during what could either be an inspired, hilarious climax or the corniest thing you’ve ever seen, depending on your blood-alcohol level and/or tolerance for resurrected Vaudeville slapstick. In fact, any fun to be had relies on this latter tolerance. The jokes come flying at you, each one with the freshness of something stored in MSG. Either the best or worst thing I can say about Dick Martin’s delivery is that he reminds me of a top-of-his-game Jerry Van Dyke. Take that for what it’s worth.
All in all, if you enjoyed the Nick-At-Nite reruns of Laugh In, you’ll be moderately amused enough by The Maltese Bippy to keep it on until the end. There are no gut-busting moments, but there are a few chuckles to be had here and there. But if you go into it arms-crossed, defying it to make you laugh, you and the movie will be at odds. While researching the movie’s thin history, I stumbled across reviews that ranged from irritated and befuddled (courtesy of Vincent Canby at the New York Times) to outraged and offended. One female reviewer talked about the film’s rampant hatred towards women and the homophobic ending. I’m not sure what movie she was watching but if comical leering at women in short skirts constitutes misogyny in her world, I would recommend she avoid the entire oeuvre of horror author Jack Ketchum, the satire of Chuck Palahniuk and the poetry of Dorothy Parker—not to mention any fluffy comedy made in the ‘60s—lest her poor offended sensibilities lead her head to an open gas oven. The Maltese Bippy never reaches offensive due to its being mired in dumb. And it’s so racy that during the sole kiss between Martin and Lynley each one has one foot on the floor. (If you don’t get that reference, most of The Maltese Bippy is going to fall flat for you.)
If none of the above sounds appealing to you, there’s good news: it’s unavailable on DVD (as is the duo’s first silver screen outing, the equally dumb western Once Upon a Horse), so you won’t accidentally trip over it in your Netflix queue. If you’re intrigued by any of the above, then not only are you in for a long haul, but you’re obviously very easily intrigued. Click here to learn how door knobs work.