Where’s Poppa?: George Segal, Ruth Gordon, and Ron Liebman in Carl Reiner’s caustic comedy.
Every now and then, a critic has occasion to treat a film that demands special treatment. The recent passing of Carl Reiner has provided just such an occasion.
Where’s Poppa? (1970) trailer
Where’s Poppa? (1970)
When Robert Klane set out to write the novel (and subsequent screenplay for) Where’s Poppa?, he did so with the express intention of playing for laughs plot threads so tasteless and off-putting, they would cause anyone in possession of even a modest sense of propriety to recoil in disgust. Surely that can’t be Carl Reiner at the helm? The man who put the Petries of New Rochelle on the map, suddenly trading in themes of incest, elder abuse, nursing home neglect, matricide, racial stereotyping, rape, and post-coital defecation? The result is a pitch black comedy — one of the darkest ever released by a Hollywood studio — and a film that defined political incorrectness long before the term was coined. It could never be made today.
The Hocheiser apartment hadn’t changed much since Gordon’s (George Segal) parents moved in after the war. Older brother Sidney (Ron Leibman) managed to get out from under their smothering mother (Ruth Gordon) by trading her in for an apartment across Central Park and an equally suffocating mother-substitute of a wife (a snakeskin-clad Rae Allen). As for Gordon, one gets the feeling that he grew up in that flat and, other than time spent at law school, seldom spent a night outside of its walls. Whenever Gordon calls, threatening to hurl Momma out the bedroom window, it’s up to Sidney to jog through the Park and hit Gordon with a guilt-laden, dead-on impersonation of Poppa.
Reiner methodically takes us through Gordon’s morning ablutions, a routine which culminates with our thirty-something counselor donning a gorilla suit in an effort to scare Momma to death. You see, Gordon would love nothing more than for his mother to die, so that he might get on with his life. Fantasies like this, along with a dream of a big dog having Mrs. Hocheiser for dinner, are his way of passing time while waiting for her to check out. In-home health care is out of the question: a revolving door greets potential caretakers, whose short-term memories are quickly jogged the moment they connect Gordon’s face with that of his vigorously senile mother’s. And alas for Gordon, the only thing more outlandish than the thought of suffocating Mrs. Hocheiser with a pillow is the notion of putting her in a home. The last applicant of the day, a young wisp of a Florence Nightingale named Louise (Trish Van Devere) aces her interview by telling Gordon that most of her patients have died. Oddly enough, the two “shock” scenes used to promote the picture — the gorilla suit scare (the film was later reissued under the title Going Ape) and Mrs. Hocheiser taking a bite out of her son’s tuchas as Louise looks on — are tame compared to the savage mother-and-son dynamic or Sidney’s passive/aggressive relationship with five steadfast African-American assailants.
Produced a scant two years after the enactment of the MPAA rating system, Where’s Poppa? is a good example of Hollywood’s new permissiveness making its way into the work of the old guard. Four years prior to the release of Blazing Saddles found Reiner beating his dear friend Mel Brooks to the bad taste punch, particularly in terms of satirizing racial stereotypes. For Sidney, there’s a willingness, even sense of excitement to participate in his mugger’s nightly routine. He gets off on the rough trade; even when his wife supplies him with cab fare, Sidney insists on shortcutting it though the Park. (This came out at a time when jokes about the perils of Central Park, particularly after dark, were as prevalent in talk show monologues as jokes about Trump’s hair are today.) Everyone in the film, with the possible exception of Mrs. Hocheiser (and only then because she’s not in her right mind), is living out a stereotype. Reiner relies on costumes to give the film an added dimension of comic book artificiality. No matter the scene, Louise is never without her nurse’s cap or periwinkle blue cape coat. The brothers end up sharing one ape costume — that is, when Sidney isn’t running naked to his Momma and Poppa’s apartment.
In its day, a sight-gag that found a white cabbie driving past an elderly black woman to pick up a gorilla-suited Sidney (minus the mask) was as pointed a jab at race-relations as any so-called “serious” bit of social commentary found in a film that year. And it wasn’t just racial injustice that the film chose as a target for laughter. With the help of two veteran New York character actors, Klane and Reiner took on the military and professional sports as well. Barnard Hughes stars as a career military officer, on trial for mixing it up with a Vietnam war protester played by the director’s youthful son, Rob Reiner. (Scan the courtroom spectators to find Rob’s future ex-wife, Penny Marshall.) Later on, Vincent Gardenia pops up as a junior high football coach who scouts kids at the mall and kidnaps them to play on his team.
Before playing cult favorite Maude and her co-starring role in Clint’s Clyde combo, this was the role that paved a path to the eccentricity that determined the post-Rosemary’s Baby period of Ruth Gordon’s career. Mrs. Hocheiser is a woman under the influence of dementia — played by an actress with a complete abandon of self-awareness — a form of selective-thinking that allows a lucid Momma to emerge from within every now and then, just long enough to consciously engage and/or humiliate her son. Has she played the part for laughs — along the lines of Throw Momma From the Train and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot — the comedy no doubt would have taken on a shade of sentimentality and lost its edge.
Caretaker Louise has had but one sexual experience in her life, and it was on her honeymoon. After a ravishing round of lovemaking with an equally virginal groom, Louise turned over to find that the man of her dreams had “made a caca on the bed.” When pressed about the episode, all he could muster was, “Doesn’t everybody?” Let’s pause for a moment to contemplate life imitating Art. Art Troutman, to be exact. My first job while in high school was working the mail room for a company that manufactured electronic phototypesetting machines. Art was my boss, a wiry Irish redhead who spent the majority of his workday sucking on a Winston and hiking up his one-size -too-small pair of dungarees. One look at him, and all I could think was Arthur Godfrey fucked Howdy Doody. Age 16 and already trying to mold public taste, I did such a swell job of selling the picture that Mr. and Mrs. Troutman made a dinner-and-a-movie night out of it. Monday morning comes, and an excitable Art stands waiting to greet me on the shipping dock, rubbing his palms together with such high octane force that his hands threatened to spontaneously combust. He gives it a rave, can’t stop gushing over how much he and the little woman loved it. One scene in particular stood out: the one where his girlfriend talked about her first husband “making a b.m.” (Art’s term, not mine) after sex. An air of nonchalance took hold of his voice as he said, “That’s happened to me a few times.” Years later, and the inside of my lower lip still hurts from where I bit it to keep from laughing. But I digress.
Where’s Poppa? played everywhere and with everything. (A local theatre once doubled it with Marcel Ophuls’ four-hour Holocaust documentary, The Sorrow and the Pity.) Before videocassettes kept me at home and off the streets, I saw the film at least 60 times in a theatre, and it wasn’t until the DVD release that I experienced the film’s original ending. The theatrical version ends with Gordon and Louise depositing Mrs. Hocheiser at a nursing home. When Momma poses the titular question one last time, Gordon scoops the nearest elderly gent off his feet and carts him over to meet his mother. No sooner does he answer “Momma?” to her “Poppa?” than the lovebirds are on the road to happy-ever-after land. Roll credits with upbeat song.
The alternate ending picks up with Gordon and Louise arriving home just in time for Momma to call, voicing her discontent. In spite of all the heinous behavior that brought us to this ending, Reiner always displayed a light satirical touch. When Gordon answers the phone, he’s angry. The filmmakers borrow a page of suspense from The Searchers: when Gordon arrives at the nursing home, is he there to kill his mother or take her home? The answer is neither; he crawls into bed with her and proceeds to do his husbandly duties. As much as I admire Klane’s outrageousness, Gordon’s shift from fantasizing momma’s boy to full-fledged psychopath isn’t supported. For once, the studio chose wisely and released the more suitable of the two cuts.