A contagious virus arrives in New York from abroad and soon the mayor is giving press conferences advising everybody to wear masks. That’s one way to describe a long-lost comedy from 1968, George Seaton’s What’s So Bad About Feeling Good? That’s merely one reason why finally seeing this thing in 2021 is mind-boggling.
Like so many mainstream studio comedies of its decade, it begins with a lilting, loungy title song over big fat credits–almost. The uncredited singer has barely finished the first stanza when the song is cut off by sounds of New York over images of skyscrapers. Those sounds are loud, rude, snarling people insulting each other to the counterpoint of construction noises and honking traffic.
We see trash all over the streets, we see cabbies getting into fights, we see matrons knocked to the ground and springing up with umbrellas swinging. This is among the many “New York is hell” comedies proliferating at the time. Soon we’d get more extreme examples like Arthur Hiller and Neil Simon’s The Out-of-Towners (1970), Carl Reiner and Robert Klane’s Where’s Poppa (1970), and Alan Arkin and Jules Feiffer’s Little Murders (1971), so Seaton’s film is slightly ahead of the curve.
As the city is introduced in rapid montage over the narration of Pete (George Peppard), soon to be handed off to the narration of his live-in girlfriend Liz (Mary Tyler Moore), we get sour comic images of children in schools (being frisked for weapons), college students exhorting each other in street rallies, frumpy housewives jostling at clothes sales, breadwinners knocking back “lunch” in bars, and then shots of the nightlife, for example, a group called Scurvy Maggot and The Four Worms in a nightspot called The Cesspool, complete with LSD-strobe effects.
Finally, Pete and Liz show their weary faces, where they squat in a rundown hovel with other beatniks and pretentious intellectuals expressing themselves in gloomy art and droning about the meaningless of life, where solitude and ennui are the only aspirations. If this sounds dreary, What’s So Bad About Feeling Good? handles it playfully, with the camera swinging around while Pete and Liz occasionally move their mouths to their own voiceovers. Pete tells us he was a highly paid ad executive who quit the phony rat race, and Liz did the same from show biz, so they’re really refugees from middle-class respectability.
Enter Amigo the Cuban toucan. The colorful bird carries a highly contagious airborne virus that makes people deliriously happy. Pete and the racially mixed beatniks, who were already living in a harmony of agreement about how terrible life is, suddenly get haircuts, clean the place up, and turn those frowns upside down. Soon waves of people are getting married and literally dancing in the streets. Pete decides to go back to his advertising career, and that’s where the satire begins to show its claws.
It would be one thing if the film were merely trashing the counter-culture or any critics of middle-class America, telling them to get a shave and a job and pull their socks up and everything will be fine. Then this would be a conservative film appealing to squares by making fun of malcontents. Actually, these cultural drop-outs are hardly in What’s So Bad About Feeling Good?, and the main difference between their pre- and post-viral communal lives is fun and positive action, not respectability.
What’s diabolical is that Pete and Liz re-adopt their natural middle-class aspiration in order to infect and subvert the system from inside, like benign versions of body-snatching pod people. While looking like a million bucks in costumes by Edith Head, they deliberately spread the virus by invading people’s space, touching them, kissing them–you know, forms of assault that get you arrested today. A particularly heady scene shows Liz and one of her comely friends volunteering to distribute masks–which they breathe upon first. They’ve soon brought the city to its knees, or rather its toes.
Pete smiles as he’s fired from the ad agency for advocating commercials that tell the truth (also a theme in Robert Downey Sr.’s Putney Swope the following year!), because he knows his colleagues are already infected and don’t realize it.
The mayor (John McMartin) is told by advisers that sales on cigarettes and liquor are dropping so precipitously that the city stands to lose $180 million in tax revenue. Then an advisor rushes in aglow with excitement over his great idea: it would only cost the city $6 million to tear down the Stock Exchange and install a massive kindergarten park. Fearfully, the bigwigs don their masks and back away.
Pompous blowhard J. Gardner Monroe (Dom DeLuise), making Nixonian “V” gestures in a kind of space helmet, flies in from Washington to contain the city before the virus spreads to D.C. He declares that if Republicans and Democrats start agreeing, it’ll spell the end of the two-party system upon which democracy rests, which is one reason he’s certain the toucan is a commie plot. He explains that the country was created by mean-spirited competition–look at the Gold Rush that founded the great state of California by encouraging people to brain each other with pick-axes.
And there you have it: the government and modern life are invested in people being angry, fearful, and miserable. The plague of happiness and positivity must stop!
There’s so much richness in this idea that this project deserves a modern remake, preferably as a mini-series, that really takes things as far as they can go. Unfortunately, the script by Seaton and Robert Pirosh somewhat drops its focus in the last act from the merry passive-aggressive or aggressive-passive pranks of Pete and Liz and seals itself into a shelter with the official fuddy-duddies, where we’d rather not be because they’re not enjoying themselves.
Still, even their antics are funny. There’s a self-conscious sequence in which the bigwigs, having planted a camera in the honeymoon suite of Liz and Pete to find out if they’re “cured” (Big Brother watching you), gather to critique the bedroom scene on the monitor like any TV show. Monroe is especially incensed by the “saccharine”. That’s when he goes off about the Gold Rush. You can have happy people making love, or you can have vicious competitive greed, and civilization is built on one more than the other.
All the farcical material about the attempt to catch the toucan with tranquilizer guns is funny, as is the mid-point when Liz pretends to be pregnant in order to smuggle the toucan from the cops. Moore’s comic timing, as ever, is excellent. If the action and plot development feel ultimately confined in comparison with the colorful flights they might have achieved, the results are still memorable and eye-opening.
Let’s talk about drugs, for example. We’ve noted how the drop in alcohol and tobacco creates an economic crisis. Liz and Pete are first introduced sharing a funny cigarette, and that’s unusual in a mainstream comedy surrounded by hysterical anti-drug melodramas. The film neither confirms nor denies that it’s wacky tobacky. When the infected Village beatniks later sweep out their building, we see a poster that says in Peter Max-style: “Turn On, Tune In, Take Over”.
It’s simply there at center-right, where the eye is drawn, a bracing variant and critique of the era’s catch-phrase where the last phrase was “Drop Out”. The implication is that now drop-outs are indeed equipped to take over. Ain’t nothing to it but to do it, and this introduces their coordinated campaign to spread the “disease”, which feels so much more practical and engaged than their previous philosophy of disdain and insularity.
In the next scene, the cleaned-up Pete grins at his return to Madison Avenue meetings, where he’s about to get fired for dismissing the company’s attempts to sell an all-purpose pill called Ultra. The implication is that the Establishment depends on selling people useless drugs we don’t need. (Where would they get such a cynical idea? Hint: Watch TV commercials during the news.) What will the official solution to the crisis be but forced drugging of the populace on a larger scale than the beatniks could spread virus germs?
Even though I wished for more happy action and less time in the bunker, I can hardly complain about a movie so, ahem, infectious. There’s no denying the visceral pleasure of the New York street scenes, the art direction by Alexander Golitzen and Henry Bumstead, the brief musical bits (like Moore blowing infected bubbles in a nightclub show), and the gallery of familiar players like Charles Lane, Susan Saint James, Don Stroud, George Furth, Cleavon Little, Franklin Cover, Ned Wertimer, Moses Gunn, George Petrie, Lincoln Kilpatrick, Titos Vandis and, in her last role, Thelma Ritter.
Here’s a shout-out to Emily Yancy’s film debut as Sybil, the “groovy Black chick” who lives in the Village pad with the other arty drop-outs, as does Cleavon Little’s Phil. She was about to move on to Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (Otto Preminger, 1970), Cotton Comes to Harlem (Ossie Davis, 1970), and Blacula (William Crain, 1972). So many people in the cast are just a pleasure to notice.
What’s So Bad About Feeling Good?‘s inspiration is a 1943 novel of wartime escapism by Vincent McHugh, I Am Thinking of My Darling. I own two editions and haven’t read it. I glean from one paperback that it’s a saucy dish, as it mentions the semi-naughty farces of Thorne Smith for comparison. In the blurbs, Clifton Fadiman calls it “a lark of a novel” and Thomas Sugrue says “a racy, romantic adventure story.” The publishers chose not to blurb reviewer Diana Trilling’s remark (reprinted in Reviewing the Forties, 1978 Harcourt Brace) that it seemed to her like the fantasy of a 15-year-old.
More detailed reviews clarify that the book is narrated by a public servant who becomes acting mayor during the crisis, during which his wife has disappeared to pursue other impulses, and that the narrator also succumbs to the tropical virus that dissolves inhibitions. Therefore, the book adopts an insider’s view of city government as part of its strategy. A toucan doesn’t seem to be a major character.
The film looks backward and forwards. Backward to H.G. Wells’ brilliant 1906 novel, In the Days of the Comet, in which a gas from space leaves everyone level-headed and rational, which results in the collapse of competitive capitalism and the dissolution of all governments and institutions except as necessary to provide food and shelter to all, and incidentally relaxes sexual taboos. The result: overnight utopia free from overly unruly emotions. The film’s “happiness” idea, which in McHugh was the removal of inhibitions, is inherently more emotional and anarchic, and therefore seems more Sixties, although theories of anarchy go way back.
The film looks forward to Michael Moore’s conclusion in Bowling for Columbine (2002), in which he investigated differences between the US and Canada and found that Canada has a social support network while US government and media is invested in selling bad news, paranoia, and unease, the better to grease the wheels of capitalism and democracy. If I understood his point, that is, and it feels like many people didn’t.
Director Seaton, whose previous excursion into fantasy was Miracle on 34th Street (1947), had a long line in optimistic Americana–which this film, surprisingly, isn’t quite. The ending’s optimism is presented as rueful compromise in an ugly world. That, too, is intriguing.
Seaton’s next film was a major hit produced by Ross Hunter: the trend-setting disaster movie Airport (1970), a microcosm of jet age society’s anxieties, which include suicide bombers and our helpless dependence on technology that’s taking us all in the same direction. It’s the more serious, melodramatic version of professionals dealing with large-scale crisis.
The Blu-ray of What’s So Bad About Feeling Good? offers a commentary track in which Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson express their giddy delirium that this film is finally available in widescreen from a colorful 2K master. They discuss its social background, as well as common themes and styles in Seaton’s career, in a free-associative manner.
Moore’s other two Universal films were the Elvis Presley vehicle Change of Habit (William A. Graham, 1969), where she plays a nun, and one more comedy, this time exclamatory rather than interrogative: Don’t Just Stand There! (Ron Winston, 1968), another picture vanished without a trace. Scripted by crime writer Charles Williams from one of his novels, this stars Moore as a famous writer of trashy sex stories. She co-stars with Robert Wagner, Harvey Korman and Glynis Johns.
This obscurity needs unearthing too, if anyone’s listening in the Universal vaults. In the words of Tony Randall: Hello down there!