A Christmas Wish (AKA The Great Rupert)
Jimmy Durante was one of those people I'd see on TV as a kid, in one form or another, but never thought of as "real." It was as if he was a cartoon character: that nose, that voice, that routine. Even today, I find it somewhat hard to believe he was the kind of comedian to whom people turned for entertainment.
And yet, in my life I have been entertained by him. I saw him in The Man Who Came to Dinner and It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. He was the narrator of Frosty the Snowman. His voice and mannerisms have been parodied in cartoons I watched as a kid. Perhaps that's why he never seemed like a real person! Regardless, I think he's best appreciated in small doses.
Earlier this week, my friend Melissa alerted me on Facebook to a Durante movie she had re-discovered called A Christmas Wish, originally known as The Great Rupert. To call it a Christmas movie is a slight stretch: Act One takes place during the Yuletide season, but the story moves forward in time from there - though this is hardly the first Christmas movie with a slender connection to the holiday. I was one of several friends Melissa thought might find this interesting, so I decided to look at it for the heck of it.
Durante is the patriarch of a family of - what else? - vaudevillians. They've fallen on hard times, renting a run-down apartment secretly inhabited by a dancing squirrel. Yes, a dancing squirrel. He makes his unseen presence felt in the apartment in a way Durante and family mistake for divine intervention. The squirrel is responsible for a change in their fortunes, but of course, this leads to bigger problems.
Rupert, the squirrel in question, is a combination of live action and stop-motion animation that is somewhat less than Harryhausenesque in execution. Like the gopher in Caddyshack, he clearly has a personality of his own, though he's not as mischievous. His human owner features him in a stage act, but somehow this is not as big of a deal as perhaps it should be. Naturally, I'm reminded of that great Looney Tunes cartoon about the singing and dancing frog who only performs for one guy and no one else, no matter how badly the guy tries to cash in on him. Rupert and his master aren't like that, though.
Melissa was the one who first told me about The Room, so I had expected Wish to be, y'know, a total camp fest. Indeed, she said she had bought it on DVD years ago because it looked like crap ("It had a squirrel in a kilt on the cover!... How could I resist?"). Well, it's not great, that's for sure, but I didn't quite find it MST3K-level mock-worthy, either.
Is the acting bad? Yeah, especially the male romantic lead, but it's tolerable. Nothing about it made me want to yank my ears off or gouge my eyes out. Poor writing? Durante cracks plenty of bad jokes. The screenplay calls for some Character Induced Stupidity, with a rushed ending. It never quite sinks to Ed Wood levels of Bad, though, or So Bad It's Good. The cinematography is mostly stagey and pedestrian, but it's not like I expected Kubrickian levels of composition. And as for Durante's God-forbid-I-should-call-it-singing, I just fast-forwarded that.
Wish is milquetoast. It's harmless and inoffensive and not really worth making fun of in the end. Somehow, I find myself strangely disappointed by that, yet I can't call it a good movie either. I don't think I've ever reacted to a movie like this before. Odd.