Before watching the movie:
I never realized how little I’ve seen of Dick Van Dyke’s work, or the fact that most of it is in television. Even more than Peter Sellers, Dick Van Dyke is just kind of an institution. It strikes me that his best work is in his films of the 1960s and 70s, because those show off not only his comic skill but also often the physicality he didn’t have opportunities to express in domestic sitcoms and is probably no longer capable of. I’m not saying I necessarily expect him to dance on rooftops in this film, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some slapstick for him to get into.
What sort of movie is this? Well, once again I’d never heard of it, but I’m expecting a madcap web of lies caper, and possibly some screwball elements.
After watching the movie:
Claude Fitzwilliam works as a butler for an elderly heiress. Or rather, she thinks she’s an heiress, and that all he does is run her household. Actually, she is practically penniless, mostly due to her habit of donating large sums of money to any charity that catches her attention, and Fitzwilly, through theft, disguise, and deception, sees to it that they have enough money to maintain that belief. Every member of the staff is in on the operation, to some extent, and Fitzwilliam keeps everything running like a well-oiled machine. So when Miss Woodhouse hires an outside secretary, the whole game is put into jeopardy, especially a big job to refurnish a house for a contact in Florida.
While there are slapstick moments, none of them come from van Dyke. I’m not terribly disappointed, though, because the criminal operation under Miss Woodhouse’s nose played exactly the way I expected, and I greatly enjoyed it. He does, however, show off many different accents. They all seemed decent to me, but then I never had a problem with his accent in Mary Poppins (though I’ve come to realize that while it was pretty good, it wasn’t much like Cockney).
On the other hand, while I didn’t dislike the obligatory romance between Juliet the secretary and Fitzwilly, I felt it could have been handled better. When I first realized it was going to happen, I was concerned by the age difference, but they played as peers fairly well. It’s no Leslie Nielsen love story. I feel their relationship is underplayed, even in light of the fact that it’s a subplot. It crops up a third of the way before the story, and, as is common with stories of the time, gets neatly tied up before the big finish caper so that their happiness can be at stake. This leaves the overall impression that their story is disconnected from the main plot, which it isn’t, and there is relatively little tenderness.
One thing I came across in preparing for this movie was someone’s comments that they consider it one of their favorite Christmas movies. The finale revolving around inciting a riot at Gimbel’s on Christmas Eve certainly fits the bill, and I’d consider it at least as good an example of a low-key Christmas film as Die Hard, so it’s good any time of year.
Watch this movie: to watch Dick Van Dyke juggle words, names, and accents as a gentleman thief.
Don’t watch this movie: only at the holidays.