MWFF: HALF A HOUSE – **

half-a-house-poster-mdHere it is, the film which inspired the whole Most Wanted Films project, as explained below. I figured it would be a long time before I crossed this one off my list, since the only home video releases seemed to be a Greek videotape and a British Betamax, but a stroke of good luck (more or less) allowed me to finally see it – in a copy taken from that very Greek videotape, so that I had Greek subtitles running across the bottom of the screen throughout.

That it lived down to my weak expectations at least means that it can’t be considered a disappointment, but the fact that this trite little film can forever be enshrined as an Oscar nominee, and for a relatively unremarkable song that somehow got to face off against “Evergreen” and “Gotta Fly Now”, is just further evidence that the Academy is only human.

But here I am, watching this film precisely because it was so enshrined, so who am I to talk?

My rationale:

This is the film that inspired this entire project. Not because it’s supposed to be good – in fact, from what very little I’ve heard, it’s not very good at all. But it may well be the most obscure feature film nominated for an Oscar, at least after 1970, which wasn’t nominated for Best Foreign Film or Best Documentary. It was nominated for Best Song, for “A World That Never Was,” and was so little seen in its own time that a special hotline was set up just so the Academy voters could hear the song! (You can hear it here.)

I spent no little time rooting around the internet, trying to find some trace of it, and what was originally meant to be an article primarily about that search became an overview of the films I most wanted to track down precisely because they are so hard to find.

The film itself, a comedy about a divorcing couple who are forced to share their home for a trial period of separation, and the ensuing shenanigans, is not entirely unavailable on home video…but it’s pretty damn elusive, since the only video edition I’ve been able to trace is a Greek videotape (well, I have found some evidence it was made available on BetaMax as well…in the U.K.). Actually seeing the damn thing would therefore take some doing, but in the meantime, the film’s AFI page is surprisingly quite detailed – and notes even the songwriters’ frustration at the film’s obscurity.

My review:

Spoilers to follow.

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Jordan (Anthony Eisley) and Elizabeth Blake (Pat Delany) have been married for almost ten years. Jordan is an architect and Elizabeth (nicknamed “Bitsy”) is an interior decorator, and so their lavish new Beverly Hills home is a reflection of their partnership. But after a housewarming party where we’re conveniently introduced to all the major characters before the credits finish rolling, the Blakes have the latest in a string of arguments, leading them to file for divorce.

But the judge in charge of the divorce is the same judge who married them, and not wanting them to give up so easily on a marriage he performed, the judge sentences them to share the house and to seek marriage counseling. So Jordan and Bitsy divvy up the various parts of the house, with assigned times each may use certain rooms, but almost immediately problems arise. Not only are they constantly stepping on each other’s toes – Jordan tries to consult with a client while Bitsy sunbathes nearby, flirting with the client as she does so, and Jordan turns down the thermostat while Bitsy consults with one of her clients, causing them all to shiver (he puts on a heavy jacket) – but they can’t escape the fact that they still love one another.

After consulting the same marriage counselor separately, Bitsy hiding behind the “I have a friend who…” gambit and Jordan using a fake name, they briefly attempt to make up, but they start arguing again almost immediately. Their friends Artie (Kaz Garas) and Jessica (Francine York) aren’t much help; Artie tries to put the make on Bitsy and Jessica briefly makes a play for Jordan, and later Artie tries to get Jordan together with one Gina (Christiane Schmidtmer) while Bitsy plans to hook up with her lawyer, Craig (Angus Duncan). But is it any surprise that neither manages to betray their wedding vows?

And is it any surprise that, even after Jordan shows up at a surprise anniversary party with a nude model in tow (no, you don’t see anything, and no, it doesn’t really make any sense in context – more on that in a bit), he and Bitsy are clearly meant to be together in the house they built together? And so the film ends with them reconciling and going off to buy a bottle of tequila. (I’m not kidding.) Freeze frame, roll credits, fade out.

I would hazard a guess that Half a House (the full on-screen title is Half a House (is better than none)) was intended as a throwback to the screwball comedies of the 30s and early 40s; the central theme of a couple who try to split but realize they can’t do without each other is strongly reminiscent of films like The Awful Truth, His Girl Friday, and The Philadelphia Story. And it has the bantering dialogue, ritzy settings (as much as the obviously low budget allows), and archetypal characters to match.

What it doesn’t have is any wit or flair. Oh, screenwriter Lois Hire pumps the script full of one-liners, but the vast majority of them aren’t even bad, just drably unamusing. Probably the best line in the film isn’t even all that funny; when Bitsy seems to be contemplating taking Craig up on his advances, Jordan moaningly asks if she can’t wait until after the divorce to “disgrace yourself.”Bitsy replies:

Because, Number One, I have done nothing to disgrace myself. Number Two, I regret that. And Number Three, I intend to correct that – right now.

That’s it. That’s about the best the script has. Oh, the line “If I had a choice between dragons and wives I’d take dragons any day” stood out to me as well, but mostly as a blatant example of late-mid-century misogyny.

Elsewhere it’s all stock characters and stock situations, from the snarky Thelma Ritter-ish maid Thelma (Mary Grace Canfield – oh wait, the name is a total reference, isn’t it?) to the oily ladies’ man Artie to the Eve Arden-ish Jessica to the marriage counselor scene, where the two Blakes just miss running into one another in between lying to the counselor about their reasons for visiting, after which the counselor cheerfully tells his secretary to let his wife know he’ll be working late – with his secretary that is, ho ho.

Indeed, given that it was released in 1975 (late enough that its Oscar nomination was actually for the following year), Half a House feels like a last gasp of the glossy battle-of-the-sexes comedies of the 50s and 60s. Even the supposedly “hip” theme of liberated marriage feels past its sell-by date here. But as noted above, the film feels like it’s trying to echo Golden-Age Hollywood, so it’s not that surprising that its attempts to be up-to-date fall so flat.

And like many bad “high-concept” comedies, it actually does very little with its concept. Aside from some petty bickering over the thermostat and a few snippy “it’s my turn to use the kitchen” exchanges, little is mined from the central premise; we don’t even get to see them hashing out who gets to use what room at what time. The premise is really just an excuse for the (flat) repartee and the expected (and undelivered-upon feeling of bliss when Jordan and Bitsy finally reconcile for good, having hopefully learned a little bit about making their marriage work.

There is, to be 100% fair, some evidence that the film I saw isn’t the film its makers originally intended. According to the AFI, the film originally ran 95 minutes, but was cut to 84 minutes for a reissue (the idea that anyone cared enough to reissue this movie is baffling). The version I watched, again taken from a Greek videotape, runs just 77 minutes, and even allowing for PAL speed-up, that means a decent chunk of the original film is missing – and given its profound obscurity, it might be lost forever. (God only knows who actually owns this film now.)

But the edits might explain some of the lapses in the story, especially the really baffling turn of events near the end, where, as we’re expecting to Blakes to reconcile at their surprise anniversary party, we suddenly see Jordan in his car with a model (Helen Lang), who’s naked underneath the coat she’s wearing, telling the cops that no, they haven’t seen a naked woman running around. Jordan then suggests running by his house so she can put on some of Bitsy’s clothes long enough to go back to her own home (he’d take her there directly but her boyfriend “Crusher” would get mad, you see). So they go to the house, go inside, everyone’s there for the party and surprises them, Artie takes the model’s coat without asking, everybody gasps, and boom, the house is up for sale.

The sheer abruptness of the model showing up in Jordan’s car, and the leap from the revelation of her nudity to the house going on the market (why?), suggest some pretty heavy editing, It’s not the only example of excess trimming on display, simply the most blatant. But it’s not as if an extra few minutes would’ve made the film any better. It’s too thoroughly mediocre (and it might even be worse than that) to be salvaged by a clarified plot point or two.

The brightest spots in Half a House mostly belong to Delany (here credited as Pat Delaney). She doesn’t fully capture the acerbic bubbliness Katherine Hepburn brought to her best comedic roles, but her timing is deft enough and her presence charming enough that she just about salvages the film whenever she’s on screen. Eisley, on the other hand, seems fairly miscast as Jordan; we never really buy why he and Bitsy would be together in the first place, as he just seems like a stolid prig. If he was trying to channel Cary Grant, he failed miserably, but if he was just trying to be a charming romantic-comedy lead, he failed at that as well.

There’s not much to be said for the rest of the cast; they’re mostly TV actors playing out stock roles, and while their work isn’t completely incompetent, it generally feels like it’s about on the level of community theater. Canfield maybe falls a little flatter because she’s so clearly meant to be the scene-stealer, but the material she has to work with is so middling (“Are you alone?” “I’ve been alone since 1957”) that you can’t fault her too much.

If you can fault anyone, it’s director Brice Mack, who brings virtually nothing to the table. A former background artist for Disney, this was Mack’s first live-action feature directing credit; he followed it with the cockfighting drama Rooster: Spurs of Death, the Carrie rip-off Jennifer, and the teen sex comedy Swap Meet, after which he returned to animation and other non-feature work until his retirement. An odd filmography, to be sure.

But if the hope was that Mack would echo Frank Tashlin in bringing some of his, shall we say, animated sensibilities to live-action cinema, it was in vain. It’s visually flat, with very few sight gags and no real style, and the blocking of the actors is, at best, as tidily artificial as a bad play. He gets no help from Alfred Taylor’s TV-level cinematography or Joseph Dervin’s 1-2-3 editing, but the flatness of the performances and the flatness of the film as a whole really comes back to Mack’s direction, which is almost non-existent at times. The tight budget ($500,000, according to the AFI) probably didn’t help, and while the house itself seems nice enough, it’s hard to understand why everyone makes such a fuss over it.

I want to give special notice to Sammy Fain’s bizarre score, which is all over the place; one moment it’ll be pure Muzak, the next synthy and funky, then…sort of electronic, I guess? It’s not all bad (and I must confess to a personal fondness for Muzak), but it’s a distinctly odd score that doesn’t really help the film as a whole.

And that brings us to the reason the film is even the footnote in film history it is: the Oscar-nominated song “A World That Never Was.” It’s not really a bad song, it’s just a bland little ditty, the kind of song you’d expect to hear on the overhead at the supermarket or playing on the phone while you’re being kept on hold. The lyrics are admittedly a little strange:

Sunburned girls in sleeveless jackets
Apples ripe for any beaux 
(?),
Gaily swinging tennis rackets
Down the lanes of long ago…

But what’s most amusing to me is that the song plays over a pair of montages as Bitsy and Jordan respectively come across trinkets that remind them of better times…and those better times are completely mundane. Bitsy remembers wandering around the beach and along the docks, presumably on vacation, while Jordan remembers going to a bar and trying to pay their tab with a series of cards, all of which the waiter rejects, before Bitsy finally hands the waiter a wad of cash. It’s so inane it’s tempting to say that was the joke, but I feel like that’s giving the filmmakers an awful lot of credit.

Oh, and these flashbacks are depicted in heavily vignetted soft-focus, just in case they weren’t corny enough.

I’ve now written far more about Half a House than any sensible person should, but as a complete fool who was actively excited to see the damned thing, it’s only fitting. For most Oscar-watchers, Half a House will remain an odd, annoying footnote; one of those films which keeps them from being able to check every nominee off their lists. But having done so myself, I can’t say they’re missing much.

Score: 43

As a bonus, here’s “A World That Never Was” (it begins around 1:35):

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