Hello Down There hit theaters in the pivotal year of 1969, when Hollywood was scrambling to co-opt the counterculture and keep studio product “hip” while not alienating older viewers. The result was Bob Hope hanging out with hippies in How to Commit Marriage and other traumatic moments that today are considered high camp. All Hope had to do was wear a fringe jacket or a Beatle’s wig, and anyone who took peace or folk music seriously was suddenly, and officially, ridiculous.
In Hello Down There, Tony Randall plays Fred Miller, an inventor for a firm run by loudmouthed T.R. Hollister (Jim Backus). Fred’s latest big project is a prototype underwater home, round and circled with windows through which to marvel at rear-projected fish. To prove that undersea tract homes are the wave of the future (and to avoid getting fired), Fred makes a bet with Hollister that his own family can live in this new pad for 30 days. There are complications of course, the first being that his writer wife Vivian (Janet Leigh) is terrified of water. The second is that his two kids are in a pop rock band that’s about to make it really big under the guidance of record mogul Nate Ashberry (Roddy McDowell, all silken self-confidence) and his sexy computer-wiz assistant, Dr. Welles (Lee Meredith).
Depending on one’s inner cringe gauge, the teens’ music is anywhere from horrifically wholesome to tolerably groovy, but it would take a real sourpuss not to dig a 22-year-old Richard Dreyfuss as the band’s lead singer/bassist. Burning with inner method-actorly fire, he shows why he will go on to become an Oscar-winning star. He fakes playing his instrument beautifully, and conveys tangible depths unasked for in the script.
Dreyfuss’ character and his little brother get permission from their parents to come along and once down in the deeps, they start banging out songs inspired by their oceanic living, “Hey Little Goldfish” is the first, and when they play it via short wave radio to Dr. Welles’ computer, it predicts a big, big hit (this despite the fact that they plainly lip-sync and, except for Dreyfuss, they do it badly). The only problem is, Nate signs them up to launch it on the Merv Griffin Show, and if they sneak to the surface before the 30 days are up, the underwater pad gets torn down.
That would be a shame, because it’s pretty nifty. It’s got great ocean views on all sides, and a pool in the middle, which is where you park your mini-sub. This pool also allows for sharks to jump right up in the middle of the living room, which eliminates the need for a TV. At night, a crazy seal sneaks up through the pool to take a shower, adding to the hilarity.
Ah, but what does one do with one’s days while deprived of TV and radio? The band practices and composes, which gives us numerous chances to hear “Hey Little Goldfish” and their other new offering, “Glub Glub.” While they practice, Vivian does the dishes, snapping her fingers and smiling as she views the sea life drifting past. During one scene, a shark creeps up right behind her as she does the dishes. The image of this shark menacing Janet Leigh both looks forward to the biggest cinema scare of the 1970s, Jaws (1974) and back to Psycho (1960). Each film frightened viewers into avoiding water (showers or the ocean), effects that follow from Vivian’s very own phobia. In pop culture, ladies and gentlemen, there are no coincidences.
Fred, meanwhile, must combat repeated disasters, including sabotage, sharks, hurricanes, and disabled mini-subs full of wailing teenagers. (In these scenes, a stunt double is used, and the audience, if it cares to, can marvel at the hairy, muscular legs of supposed mild-mannered Fred.) Directed by Ricou Browning (who also helped director Jack Arnold on the underwater scenes in The Creature from the Black Lagoon ), these images provide the film with a semi-educational nature channel vibe. You might say that Hello Down There mixes Jacques Cousteau’s tv documentaries (family favorites in the late ’60s and early ’70s) with the AIP beach films and Tony Randall-Rock Hudson sex comedies, to appeal across generations: fish for the kids, rock and swim suits for the teens, and Randall’s madcap antics and Leigh’s smoldering for the parents.
Harvey Lembeck (the annoying Eric Von Zipper in the Beach Blanket films) plays a sonar specialist on a Navy destroyer, who picks up the band’s rehearsals and deems them a new Soviet menace. By the time Merv Griffin arrives at the sea pad to hail the youngsters as “hits-ters” in the making, all the disparate branches of U.S. pop culture seem to collide. Hollister jumps up and down, hoping to get the undersea homes plugged on tv (he mistakes Griffin for Johnny Carson), while Nate dubs the house and the band “the next big thing.” Griffin, for his part, describes the band as “‘out of sight,’ and not only that, but I hear they’re pretty good,” thus indicating his befuddlement at the lexicon of these trailblazing troubadours.
Having failed to hold onto small-town American values during the late ’60s mod explosion (if there were any values to begin with), the nuclear family man here flees to the bottom of the sea. But even under glass, he’s unable to make his unit cohere. On the plus side, this is the only film where you’ll see a teenager attacked by a shark in his own living room, then bash it on the snout with his guitar. If that’s not worth having on DVD, I don’t know what is.