Movie review: ‘Father Goose’

fgIn his classic war comedy “Operation Petticoat,” Cary Grant plays the longsuffering professional skipper of a World War II submarine and guides it through his crew’s hijinks, fate and some plain bad luck. In the next to last film in Grant’s legendary career, “Father Goose,” he again plays a WWII character but with a personality opposite of the sub skipper … with the exception of professionalism (although it was well-concealed until necessary in “Father Goose”).

‘Father Goose’ (1964; 118 minutes; rated “Approved” under rating system at that time; directed by Ralph Nelson and starring Cary Grant, Leslie Caron and Trevor Howard)

HE GOT MOTHER GOOSED!

(NOTE: This review was updated with some new links on July 19, 2015)

I always enjoy a film that spends time on all facets of a story and doesn’t try to rush things too much. “Father Goose” was the legendary Cary Grant’s next-to-last film and at nearly two hours has the time to spin through a series of subplots in a World War II era comedy-drama. In this 50th anniversary year of “Father Goose” you’ll find it stands up better than many.

Of course the spotlight is on Grant, but his two co-stars (the beautiful Leslie Caron as “Catherine Freneau” and Trevor Howard as “Cmdr. Frank Houghton”) do a wonderful job and through their effort “Father Goose” rises above a mediocre level that would have been an all too easy result for this film. After all, it has a one-screen list of credits for the 11 members of the principal cast there are just seven more bit parts of uncredited roles. It would have been too easy to rely solely on Grant.

The plot is simple: an ex-pat American is caught up the Pacific conflict and is blackmailed into become a “coastwatcher” (a lone person on an island who monitored Japanese aircraft and shipping movements … click on the link to see a complete history). He pretty much has to be blackmailed into everything and ultimately winds up taking care of a French diplomat and the children in her charge on his island. The two are polar opposites (he calls her “Miss Goody Two Shoes” for her spinsterish, priggish ways and she calls him the “Filthy Beast” for his uncouth manners) but, of course, they find love in the war-torn Pacific.

Grant pinballs around as the odd, hard-drinking “Walter Eckland,” the man who is oblivious to a world war and is only concerned with himself. One moment he’s carefree, the next maneuvering to steal supplies and finally he’s coerced into helping the war effort (mainly through threat of confiscation of his boat and then the inducement of a lot of Black & White whiskey). Actually, whiskey and blackmail are big in Grant’s life here.

It’s only when the chips are down or there’s an emergency (such as when he travels to another island in an attempt to rescue another coastwatcher or when the Japanese visit his island) that his cool under fire comes through.

Grant is smooth and solid his role, every much the equal of his “Operation Petticoat” effort (click here for my review). With seeming effortlessness he slides from one emotion to the next and one scene to the next with relative ease. His most famous films include “North by Northwest,” “Charade,” “An Affair to Remember” and “That Touch of Mink.” He was nominated for two Oscars for lead roles in a pair of films in the 1940s.

In “Father Goose,” I especially enjoy the work by Howard, whose career includes the classic war film “Von Ryan’s Express” with Frank Sinatra and varied roles from films such as “Gandhi” and “Superman” to a string of TV credits. Howard has the perfect blend of competence, assurance and just the right touch of perfidy to juggle the loose personalities he is responsible for commanding. Howard plays it to perfection here and every second of his time on screen is well spent.

The third co-star (and second listed) is Caron, who was a ballet dancer discovered by Gene Kelly for “An American in Paris” and was in “Lili” and “Gigi” before “Father Goose.” Caron’s “Catherine” is so absorbed in keeping her charges safe that she takes over everything from the moment she arrives anywhere. Caron overwhelms Grant and makes him an afterthought, even taking over the coast watching duties. However, even she ultimately has to acknowledge that he does have some usefulness. It’s a pleasure watching her work as she delivers with heart and delicious timing.

The best scene between the two is when Grant tries to teach Caron how to fish with her bare hands (watch the movie to find out the context). The not-so-subtle hint at sexuality is a nice change from the crass blandishments of entertainment today.

Finally we have Jack Good as “Lt. Stebbings,” the sidekick to Howard and an energetic and snobbish young officer. “Father Goose” was Good’s first acting role and he had a total of eight, including episodes on TV’s “The Monkees” and “Hogan’s Heroes.” Good conveys his vain character well and luckily the producers didn’t get enraptured with the potential of “Stebbings” (which I might have done given the quality of his work here) and kept his role limited.

The rest of the cast are the seven girls in Caron’s charge. When Grant is sent to another island to rescue a coast watcher, he finds the man is dead and comes home with Caron and the girls. From there it’s life on the island from conflict to respect to romance to ultimate rescue with a twist and a (naturally) happy ending.

The best interaction between Grant and the girls is when he manages to coax one of them to begin speaking again (she stopped at the start of the war). The scene is marvelous and proof of how a great actor can convey so many character levels in a single role. In another interaction, a second girl (the oldest) falls for him and he has to make a flamboyant gesture to keep her away, but this one is not as effective as the first.

Father Goose” made $12.5 million in 1964, according to Wiki, and was the seventh ranked film at the box office. It was tough competition that year, what with 007’s “Goldfinger” No. 1 with $124.9 million (click here for my review) and “Mary Poppins” second at $102.2 million.

Other cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):

  • Grant’s real name was Archibald Alexander Leach and his last film, “Walk Don’t Run,” was in 1966 and he died in 1986 at the age of 82.
  • John Cleese’s character in “A Fish Called Wanda” was “Archie Leach” (“Monty Python” veteran Cleese was the co-star and co-writer of the film). It was a not-so-subtle tribute to Grant, since Cleese said he was born near Grant’s birthplace and the character would be closest he’d get to be Grant.
  • Father Goose” won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (also nominated for sound and film editing).
  • Four of the seven girls (Pip Starke as “Anne;” Stephanie Berrington as “Elizabeth;” Laurelle Felsette as “Angelique;” and Nicole Felsette as “Dominique”) had only one acting credit in their “careers” and it was “Father Goose.” None had more than nine and Stephanie’s sister Jennifer Berrington had two.

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2014-2015.
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