What’s New Pussycat (1965)

Peter-Woody

It seems strange to kick off a Woody Allen retrospective with the gaudy animation and jaunty bombast of Tom Jones singing in the What’s New Pussycat title sequence. Instead of this:

WNP1

We get this:

WNP2

This was Woody’s first film, not as a director but as a writer and an actor, made when he was 29.

The story is gossamer thin. Peter O’Toole plays Michael, the editor of a Paris fashion magazine and a man about whom it is often said, “When the light hits him in a certain way he’s almost handsome.” Michael wants to be cured of his incessant philandering before marrying Carole (Romy Schneider) who is also the object of Victor’s (Allen) affections. Paula Prentice, Capucine and Ursula Andress are just some of the women throwing themselves at the impossibly blue eyes of O’Toole, and Peter Sellers is the dubious sex therapist Dr Fritz Fassbender who can no more cure Michael than cure his own overpowering proclivities.

Unlike Alfie, a film with a similarly amoral central figure, What’s New Pussycat isn’t about learning any great lesson. Like, say, treating women with respect. Instead, it’s a romp designed to support non-stop gags, a parade of gorgeous actresses and some occasionally inspired set pieces.

Woody is given a handful of small chances to show a knack for comedy in his movie debut. Though somewhat known from nightclubs and variety shows, this was his first film appearance and it is in a similar vein to the nebbish persona of his standup comedy act.

Michael: Did you find a job?
Victor: Yeah, I got something at the striptease. I help the girls dress and undress.
Michael: Nice job.
Victor: Twenty francs a week.
Michael: Not very much.
Victor: It’s all I can afford.

This is O’Toole’s film though, demonstrating a previously unseen gift for physical comedy, while Sellers recycles his Dr Strangelove accent and Paula Prentice has fun as a stripper and would-be poet. 

Pussycat StarsBut as a Woody Allen film, how does it fare? It’s still an identifiable if curious mix of his typical targets of satire (psychiatry, free love) but they are lost among the trappings of a big budget 1960s farce (Burt Bacharach soundtrack, Richard Burton cameo). My favourite scene is a two-hander between Woody Allen and Peter Sellers at night by the Seine. Besides the novelty of watching two of the most important, talented and wildly different figures in movie comedy together, the scene has a focus that the rest of the film lacks. 

It’s difficult to judge What’s New Pussycat as a Woody Allen film, since it was a job for hire (written to star Warren Beaty; the title was his pickup line) and since it was greatly reworked from the original script. Despite it being a box office hit, Woody was embarrassed by the end result. “They made it into a film that I was very unhappy with,” he told Stig Bjorkman for his 1993 book length interview. “I didn’t like it at all. And I vowed at that time that I would never write another film script unless I could be the director of the film.”

Watching it again today, the manic tone and the wacky finale (a go-kart chase) both seem very forced. But some of the one-liners and the handful of scenes with Woody are funny. Plus for giving the writer the inspiration to direct his own scripts, the film deserves some credit. 

Next week: What’s Up, Tiger Lily?

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One thought on “What’s New Pussycat (1965)

  1. Pingback: 1960s Movies: The 17 Best Fashion Moments

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