‘Cactus Flower’ (1969): Rusty & predictable, but still makes us laugh

Hey—ready to have some fun in an already crappy 2019…regardless of your personal orientation, religious beliefs, or political persuasions?! Mill Creek Entertainment’s dynamite Old Dudes Creepin’ On the Young Taint Blu-ray double feature, Age of Consent and Cactus Flower, has something for everyone: the raincoat brigade can get their pervy jollies at home, and the Pound Me, Too fanatics have some more innocuous, old-timey entertainment to knicker-twist into phony Twitter outrage!

By Paul Mavis

A perfectly-matched double feature (“the Fourth” over at that other DVD site can’t figure out why they’re partnered here?), 1969’s Age of Consent, directed by Michael Powell and starring James Mason and a largely naked Helen Mirren (or is she “nakedly large”?), and 1969’s Cactus Flower, the Broadway hit-turned-big screen b.o. monster starring Walter Matthau, Ingrid Bergman, and Goldie Hawn, offer up unique peeks at what was considered “risque” on the big screen, as the Age of Aquarius began to rapidly transform popular culture. Foreign-made, self-financed (by star Mason and director Powell) Age of Consent went the unrated 60s “nudie” route, while Hollywood-filmed and financed Cactus Flower kept its strictly G-rated naughty implications buttoned up tight, for all the moms and pops out there who still didn’t know a key party from an episode of Laugh-In. Let’s split this disc up into two reviews; we’ll look at Cactus Flower first.

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Swingin’ Manhattan dentist Dr. Julian Winston has it all, pallie. He has his long-time “office wife,” Nurse Stephanie “Buttoned-Up Tight” Dickinson (Ingrid Bergman), who not only keeps his practice running with pinpoint efficiency, but who also looks after his personal needs, much like a real wife (for example, when his fraying shirts go unnoticed, she buys new). And…he has a “mistress,” kooky Greenwich Village record store clerk Toni Simmons (Goldie Hawn), a 21-year-old doll who is so crazy about Julian, she’s willing to kill herself on their one-year anniversary, when Julian stands her up again for his non-existent wife and three kids.

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Toni’s neighbor, struggling playwright Igor Sullivan (Rick Lenz), smells the gas in her adjoining apartment and rescues her with the kiss of life. When Julian finds out what happened, he’s genuinely moved, and decides to marry Toni…which presents an immediate problem: he has to create a “wife” to divorce, or honest-to-a-fault Toni will surely leave him. Enter Nurse Dickinson, who secretly loves Julian, and who decides to help him (against her better judgement). Unfortunately for Julian, Stephanie and Toni bond, and Toni won’t marry Julian until she helps find a new man for Stephanie. Enter Igor and Julian’s patients Arturo Sánchezand (Vito Scotti) and Julian’s old friend Harvey Greenfield (Jack Weston) into Julian’s machinations, as Stephanie begins to blossom just like that cactus plant on her desk….

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Considering his A-level fame and power at the time, and despite being top-billed here, Walter Matthau is often shunted to the side of the action in Cactus Flower. That shouldn’t be surprising, though, when you see that the movie’s inspiration—David Merrick’s long-running 1965 Broadway production—intended that the Nurse Dickinson role be the central laugh-getter.

RELATED | More 1960s film reviews

Legendary Broadway producer Merrick had equally notable director/writer Abe Burrows Americanize the French play, Fleur de cactus, with the hopes of scoring Rosalind Russell for the lead. Flinty, difficult Lauren Bacall was eventually hired, and after some last-second recasting of the Julian part (Barry Nelson took over mere days before opening night), Cactus Flower bowed on December 8th, 1965, and was a massive “White Way” hit, playing on Broadway almost three years, until November 23rd, 1968 (1,234 performances).

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Naturally, a success like that would be catnip to the Hollywood studios still then-seeking built-in, proven Broadway-to-screen adaptations. However, such was Columbia Pictures’ belief that Merrick had a winner with Cactus Flower, Merrick was able to sell the play’s screen rights one month before it opened, securing a profit on the theatrical production before it ever sold a ticket (Columbia immediately reimbursed him the initial $125,000 production cost, along with sliding payments to the eventual sum of $750,000). Entrusting the movie production to Mike Frankovich (who had a big year in 1969, with Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and Marooned also bowing), Columbia wasn’t about to let Bacall–who had only been “A-level” when co-starring decades before with her husband, Humphrey Bogart–headline a potential blockbuster.

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Columbia, sensing that Paramount was going to have a monster hit with director Gene Saks’ version of Neil Simon’s smash Broadway comedy, The Odd Couple (they were right–it became the 4th highest-grossing movie of 1968), hired Saks and The Odd Couple‘s star, Walter Matthau, to guide scripter I.A.L. Diamond’s adaptation of Burrow’s adaptation (Dick Van Dyke was apparently briefly considered for the randy dentist role, before Columbia passed, correctly believing his only big movie hit, Mary Poppins, wasn’t a hit because of him). Diamond was a long-time collaborator with director Billy Wilder (Some Like it Hot, The Apartment, Irma La Douce); hiring him again indicated that Columbia wasn’t taking any chances with Cactus Flower.

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Matthau, a red-hot property in 1969, was given co-star approval; when his first choice, Lee Grant, wasn’t available, it was suggested he consider Ingrid Bergman, who hadn’t set foot on a Hollywood sound stage in 20 years. Even though Bergman was 54 (playing a character who was supposed to be 35), she accepted the hefty fee offered ($800,000), while Matthau, who was in for a percentage of the movie’s profits, knew the publicity value of having the iconic Bergman back in a Hollywood production. Matthau also knew that having TV’s Laugh-In sensation, Goldie Hawn co-starring (it was the number one-rated show on television, with Hawn its break-out star), wouldn’t exactly hurt Cactus Flower‘s box office, either. And he was right. Cactus Flower turned out be irresistible to movie audiences, becoming the 8th most popular movie of 1969, with a 4-to-1 return on investment to a grateful Columbia Pictures.

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Watching Cactus Flower today, you wouldn’t be faulted for initially wondering what all the fuss was at the box office. Certainly its farcical central premise had been varied to death by 1969, let alone 50 years later, while the “naughty” aspects of the storyline creak with rusty predictability (some critics even back in 1969, like Gene Siskel—he was so much better than the portly one—pointed out that what was “hip” to square Broadway audiences in 1965 was stale by 1969). Cactus Flower’s groovy 60s poster art may have promised “now, happening” vibes (thank you, Albert Brooks…), but its comedy framework went back to Restoration days, at least (even Bergman’s 1958 romantic comedy, Indiscreet, features the same “married/unmarried” hook).

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However…we here at Movies & Drinks love the rusty and the predictable. We don’t judge movies from the past by today’s standards—not because that would be incredibly stupid (which of course it is)…but because we have no standards. Funny is funny to us here, regardless of sell-by date, and Cactus Flower still makes us laugh. And that’s the only thing a comedy has to do to justify itself.

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To be fair: those expecting big yoks on an Odd Couple-type level, because of Matthau’s and director Saks’ involvement, might be a tad disappointed with Cactus Flower. Inexplicably, Saks contributes a rather somber, almost dark tone to the proceedings (not aided by a rather dank, cramped production design), and his timing, at least in this particular outing, is strictly from hunger (had he kicked everyone in the ass to speed things up, the long, long run time could have been trimmed by a good 15 minutes).

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As for Matthau, he doesn’t really have much to do in Cactus Flower except fumble around while Hawn and Bergman further complicate his lie (and for those new, ahem, “critics” trying to score timely points in their Blu-ray reviews, pillorying Matthau’s fake actions in this transformed Pound Me, Too atmosphere…tell me again how Hawn—his willing mistress of one year who knew he was “married”—isn’t morally questionable, too? On second thought, don’t bother; I don’t care). Most of the best lines go to Goldie and Ingrid, after all, whose growing empathy and friendship drive the storyline. Matthau’s strictly along for the ride (the equally reliable Weston gets all the big “lecher” laughs, anyway…while poor Rick Lenz is entirely forgettable as Igor. As expected).

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Goldie Hawn somehow won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for this role, a frankly bewildering feat considering her competition that year included Susannah York’s terrifying turn in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They, and the criminally unknown Catherine Burns in Last Summer (what happened to that remarkably talented actress?). I guess “kooky” is the word most often used by the critics back then for Goldie’s character. It’s difficult today to recover that sense of discovery the critics had with her performance, considering she milked it for all it was worth for years and years in subsequent outings (and after decades of increasingly bizarre notions of what constitutes “kooky” for our young actresses). However, what Hawn does she does very well in Cactus Flower, and you can’t help but be charmed by her doe-eyed openness, combined with a savvy awareness underneath.

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For me, the big surprise in Cactus Flower was Ingrid Bergman (I don’t think I’ve seen it since I was a kid, when it played on the afternoon “Big Show” all the time). A big fan of “early” Ingrid, the sexy, erotic, enigmatic Ingrid of Notorious, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Gaslight, and of course, Casablanca…“later” Ingrid, of Murder on the Orient Express and Autumn Sonata, left me cold (I could have cried when I saw her made up as Golda Meir). Carefully lit and filtered here, she’s still beautiful, but I was more impressed with her deft comedic touch, getting sly little laughs out of her confrontation with Goldie (“I’ll write you every day,”), and big guffaws when shaking it out on the dance floor (period comedy alert: the disco is called, The Slipped Disc. Harrrrr-dee).

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Despite second billing, Cactus Flower is Bergman’s movie, and in the face of two inveterate scene-stealers like Matthau and Hawn, she not only holds her own, but walks away with the picture. Just watch that old Hollywood professionalism in action when free, happy, newly-blossomed Bergman picks up her newly-bloomed cactus, quietly marveling at its little white flower. It seems like a small moment in the movie (especially the way director Saks essentially throws it away), but the skill behind it is enormous.

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PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.Read more of Paul’s film reviews here. Read Paul’s TV reviews at our sister website, Drunk TV.

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