George Axelrod’s corrosively satiric Lord Love a Duck is one of the most irreverent and cockeyed films of the 1960s. MGM’s new DVD of the film includes a promotional short in which the writer-director describes his film as a black comedy that crosses Dr. Strangelove (1964) with the uber-conventional family drama starring Mickey Rooney, Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938). This gives some sense of Duck‘s fractured perspective, as do the adjectives “razor-sharp, missile-modern,” but all fail to express the film’s remarkable veering from juvenile sight gags to bleak domestic drama to bitter denunciations of the cult of personality.
The course of Axelrod’s career (1922-2003) traces a similar range. He began as a successful writer of Broadway sex farces, such as The Seven Year Itch, filmed in 1955 by Billy Wilder as a vehicle for Marilyn Monroe. Axelrod’s piece for Jayne Mansfield, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1956), achieved equally memorable cinematic transformation by Frank Tashlin, whose over-the-top style clearly influenced Axelrod’s own work behind the camera. Turning from originals to adaptations, Axelrod wrote Blake Edwards’ Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), drawn from Truman Capote’s novella, and John Frankenheimer’s vitriolic thriller, The Manchurian Candidate (1962).
The opportunity to direct came in 1966. He jokes in the promotional short that Lord Love A Duck “may look like a beach picture, but is actually a booby trap.” The plot opens in media res, as a cap-and-gown-clad, oddly squawking young man (Roddy McDowall) is being chased — first by his peers, and then a group of armed but inept policemen, at last to a rooftop, where he surrenders. The scene cuts to his interview with a weary psychiatrist, with whom he records his “statement,” that is, the extended flashback that comprises the remainder of the film. Identified as Alan Musgrave, a.k.a. Mollymauk, he insists that he only wanted to fulfill the dreams of Barbara Ann Green (Tuesday Weld), “whose deepest and most heartfelt yearnings,” he adds, “express with a kind of touching lyricism the total vulgarity of our time.”
Alan and Barbara Ann meet as he observes her twirling her baton. Sitting in a tree above her, he looks on with heartfelt fascination, catches her baton, then takes her to the high school roof. After Alan induces Barbara Ann to write her name in a section of still-wet cement, he adds the image of a bird, the Mollymauk, which, he says, is thought to be extinct. When he asks what she most wants out of life, Barbara Ann says she wants to be famous: “Everyone has got to love me.” Alan promises he will deliver her desire, sounding like Mephistopheles playing an earnest used car salesman.
The plot takes the first of several left turns when Alan takes Barbara Ann to the local make-out site. An angry young athlete several times Alan’s size picks a fight, yet Alan unexpectedly injures him. Aside from the humorous slapstick, the scene’s ridicule of adolescent mating rituals illustrates Alan’s conviction that sexuality is at least silly and at worst repugnant.
This notion is reinforced when Barbara Ann, on learning she must own an array of cashmere sweaters to gain entrance into the popular girls’ clique, tries to convince her absentee father Howard (whom she says “lives in Oxnard somewhere and sells things”) to pay for them. The scene again combines slapstick with sexual disquiet: Howard (Max Showalter) appears aroused as Barbara Ann models one sweater after another, seductively announcing the ludicrous colors — Grape Yum Yum, Papaya Surprise, Pink Put On. He repeats each name with a kind of ejaculatory squeal. Needless to say, he buys the goods.
Barbara Ann believes that her romance with college senior Bob Barnard (Martin West) is, like the sweaters, necessary for her social progress. This even though Alan calls him a “toy person,” and Bob’s class-conscious mother, Stella (Ruth Gordon), a “total idiot.” When her own mother Marie (Lola Albright) takes a fatal overdose of medication (a somber episode that puts a temporary halt to the film’s levity), Barbara Ann marries Bob. Again, desire proves empty, and, at her behest, Alan makes a series of unsuccessful attempts on the new husband’s life. (The sabotaging of his car provides some splendid visual slapstick as the vehicle falls apart about him.) High school graduation grants him opportunity to complete the job, and so secure Barbara Ann’s ascendance into full-scale celebrity.
Throughout Lord Love A Duck, Axelrod treats one social sacred cow after another with amused disdain, skewering religion, motherhood, education, and matrimony. However, the film’s bleak tone is mitigated by its obvious affection for the central characters. Andrew Sarris has remarked, “Tuesday Weld under Axelrod’s direction captured all the sweetness of Nabokov’s Lolita so lacking in Kubrick’s sour direction of Sue Lyon.” If her actions label her a vixen, she’s also a winsome victim, not simply of her own desires, but also of the ambitions deemed the birthright of one and all: happiness and success, no matter what the costs.
Similarly, Alan is a unique and troubling protagonist, recognizing the vanity of Barbara Ann’s desires, yet fully committed to bringing them into being. It is easy to think of Mollymauk as a directorial surrogate, the engineer of all the film’s twists and turns. But what does this make of Axelrod? Is he satirist or sadist, or both? This collision of sensibilities evidently perplexed the audience in 1966, for the film barely made a dent at the box office.
Watching the film today is no less baffling, but we might also appreciate its challenges to our expectations. As Barbara Ann’s unctuous minister counsels, “Prayers are answered. Because whatever happens, that’s the answer.” Perhaps the lamentable “toy people” in Lord Love a Duck do not deserve the fates that Mollymauk contrives, but the film illustrates, with corrosive wit, how the mindless pursuit of status will be the death of us all.