Saturday, October 19, 2019

A Doris Day comedy without Doris Day

Another recent watch off the DVR was the 1960s comedy The Wheeler Dealers.

James Garner plays Henry Tyroon, who in a pre-credits sequence shows up to one of his oil wells in west Texas. They're drilling, and ominous sound effects imply they're just about to hit something. The do indeed hit... dust. It's the latest in a string of dry wells. Henry is short on money and time, so he decides to go to New York to get that money.

In New York, brokerage boss Bullard Bear (Jim Backus) is overseeing a firm that's losing money somehow. One of the big bosses died recently, having personally selected some absolute dogs of stocks. However, there's one company they can't figure out anything about, Universal Widget. Bear has just the right analyst to task with trying to sell off these stocks to unsuspecting people, Molly Thatcher (Lee Remick).

Molly, of course, is a woman, part of a very small breed of stock analysts in the early 1960s. Never mind that the job itself is stressful enough, they also have to face the idea that the proper job for a woman is to get married -- even Molly's roommate Eloise (Patricia Crowley) is only working uptown so she can find a suitable husband -- and all the concomitant prejudice from men who don't think women can handle the pressure. Bullard is setting Molly up to fail, and Molly eventually figures that out.

But enter Henry again. He shows up at Bear's firm, and Bear gets the idea that perhaps Henry is a good person for Molly to foist those Universal Widget shares on. What neither Bear nor Molly expect is that Henry is a "wheeler dealer", who barely keeps on the right side of securities law whan he does his various business deals. Henry falls in love with Molly, and engages in sevral of those schemes to try to win Molly's love. She seems more interested in business, since she's already got a neurotic art critic boyfriend.

But in investigating Universal Widget, she and Henry figure out both the source of its wealth and why it's privately held with the privacy being jealously guarded. Henry realizes they could have a winner on their hands if only they can promote the company "properly". Of course, this really means something much different for Henry than for the head of the company or even for Molly. And this time, the scheme might just fall afoul of those securities laws.

The Wheeler Dealers is a broad comedy that takes aim at a lot of targets. The stereotype of the brash Texas oilman is unsurprisingly one, but I was actually surprised by the very modern handling of attitudes toward women in business. The movie is also skewering big business in general, traditional New England Yankee probity, and modern art. But somewhere along the way, the movie loses its way as the scheme to promote Universal Widget first goes into action and then comes undone, seriously lowering my assessment of the movie.

James Garner made a couple of comedies like this in the 1960s, so he fits the role well. Doris Day would have been an obvious choice for the female lead; indeed she and Garner made two movies together. But this time, it's Lee Remick gettin the female lead, and she does surprisingly well. The supporting cast come across reasonably well, while the production design is generally appealing. I just wish the movie hadn't gone off the rails in the third act.

The Wheeler Dealers is available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive.

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