“She’s primitive, she has no spirit, no wit, no conversation, and she has to be vacuumed every time she eats.” – Henry Graham
One of my favorite comedy surprises of recent years. A New Leaf (1971) has become an obscure, hard-to-find title. But since I found it, I can say it is my favorite Walter Matthau movie. Matthau is Henry Graham, a middle-aged ne’er do well who has never worked a day in his life. Henry is informed by his accountant that he is broke. His mean-spirited uncle gives him a loan with the provision that he forfeits all property if he can’t repay it in six weeks. With no work skills to speak of, his butler Harold (George Rose) advises him he can marry a rich girl to pay his debt before time runs out. Henry’s choices are rich hags and klutzes. Henry finds a gullible klutz with Henrietta (Elaine May, who also wrote and directed), who is so homely and helpless he could kill her.
The genius is in the scenario of fooling the rich woman and in the devious dialogue in which Matthau flatters this woman he despises. There are a number of howlingly funny scenes. One has Henrietta has dropped her tea cup twice at an upper class party and is admonished by the hostess, so Henry deliberately pours his own drink onto it. “Take your damn carpet to the cleaners, and send the bill to me!” he wails, and walks away a hero in Henrietta’s eyes. There is another priceless scene, after Henry has fast-tracked a wedding proposal, where his uncle spills the beans to Henrietta about his bankruptcy which has Henry quickly improvising to sway his future bride back onto his side.
They marry quickly, Henrietta pays Henry’s debt, and they go on a honeymoon where the first night isn’t romantic in the bedroom, but inept – Henrietta can’t get out of her Roman toga. Henry is committed to this graceless, guileless and total pushover of a woman who happens to have a lot of money. Henrietta’s saving grace is her work as a botanist, which propels a lot of trips into the woods. Henry first fires all of Henrietta’s domestic servants who have swindled her (talk about taking command of the castle!), then plots to kill her to reap inheritance and bring himself back to his bachelor way of life.
It’s a great comedy with a number of priceless scenes, and of course, Matthau is rakish in all intentions and May is just as terrific as a clueless wallflower whose eyes beam nothing but love for him. Now is the time, however, to tell you that May had a well-publicized bout with Paramount Pictures in post-production. May’s version was a cumbersome 180 minutes, featured two murders spurred by a blackmail plot, one death was acted out vengeance against an unscrupulous lawyer. Paramount executive Robert Evans took the print away from May and chiseled it down to 102 minutes. May tried to take her name off the film and unsuccessfully sued to keep the studio from releasing the film. Matthau has said he liked the studio cut better.
Yes, the studio cut – without ever having seen the May footage which she has never found a way to release – feels like the cut it should be. It leads to a fine resolution the way it is. Henry and Henrietta turn a new leaf when she convinces him that an unexpected union is nothing to sneer at.
After wading through a bunch of Matthau titles the last couple years, I’ve chosen “A New Leaf,” “Cactus Flower,” and “The Fortune Cookie” as my favorites of his. I’ve seen “A New Leaf” twice this year, though, and I can’t get enough of Matthau in it.
May went on to write and direct another cult classic “The Heartbreak Kid” (1972), but later on, was chastised for the embarrassing folly “Ishtar” (1987). May wrote some Mike Nichols films such as “The Birdcage” (1996) and “Primary Colors” (1998).
102 Minutes. Rated G.
COMEDY / MILD & CHARMING / WEEKEND AFTERNOON MOVIE
Film Cousins: “Arthur” (1981); “Tommy Boy” (1995); “Rushmore” (1998); “Born Rich” (2003).