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I Love You, Alice B. Toklas!

I Love You, Alice B. Toklas!(1968)

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I Love You, Alice B. Toklas (1968) is one of several Hollywood films of its time to poke fun at the then-burgeoning "hippie" counterculture. Post 1967's "Summer of Love," caricatures of hippies began to appear on camera with increasing frequency as either magnets for derision or targets for cheap laughs, in films such as Richard Rush's PSYCH-OUT (1968), Barry Shear's WILD IN THE STREETS (1968), Richard Lester's PETULIA (1968), Disney's THE LOVE BUG (1968), Don Siegel's COOGAN'S BLUFF (1968), George Seaton's WHAT'S SO BAD ABOUT FEELING GOOD? (1968) and Ralph Nelson's CHARLY (1968). Clearly, 1968 was a boom year for hippie-bashing, but the following summer found Hollywood's mellow harshed by the infamous Tate-LaBianca slayings committed (in the words of The Los Angeles Times) by "an occult band of hippies" commanded by messianic failed songwriter Charles Manson. The brutal killings were horrific enough, resulting in the murders of pregnant actress Sharon Tate and stylist-to-the-stars Jay Sebring (among others); worse yet was the revelation that the killers had a Hollywood hit list that read like the Walk of Fame. Not so funny anymore, hippies became synonymous with dark motives and the threat of drug-fueled violence. Hippie costumes were worn by the criminal protagonists of both BUNNY O'HARE (1971) and BANK SHOT (1974), while Clint Eastwood hunted a serial killer with a peace symbol medallion in DIRTY HARRY (1971) and Russ Meyer's BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1970) wrapped up with a main character being decapitated by a transvestite hippie sociopath. Heavy.

More condescending than condemnatory, I Love You, Alice B. Toklas takes its title from a famous recipe for hashish fudge attributed to Toklas (longtime companion of writer Gertrude Stein) but which was really the work of Beat Generation artist Byron Gysin, whose prank flew under the radar of Toklas and the British censors. Directed by radio and TV veteran Hy Averback, the film stars Peter Sellers as repressed Jewish attorney Harold Fine, whose asthmatic, buttoned-up Los Angeles life comes undone when he meets-cute Nancy (Leigh Taylor-Young), the free spirit girlfriend of his hippie kid brother (David Arkin). Offering Nancy a chaste bed for the night, the beguiled Harold is rewarded with a gift of brownies laced with hash, which he unwittingly serves to his old world parents (Jo Van Fleet and Salem Ludwig) and fiancée Joyce (Joyce Van Patten). Stifled by the dull routine of his life and impending marriage, Harold takes a liking to turning on and ditches Joyce at the huppa to cohabitate with the more adventurous Nancy. Growing out his hair, Harold is feelin' groovy until Nancy's predilection for free love (and six-hour Andy Warhol movies) drives a wedge between the pair, and a contrite Harold returns to his four-square kith and kin.

The script by Larry Tucker and Paul Mazursky, only a year away from their success with Mazursky's directorial debut BOB AND CAROL AND TED AND ALICE (1969), has dated badly. That the characters are Jewish never feels any more essential to the plot than as an excuse to wring laughs out of the occasional Yiddishisms, while-- oy vey-- the drug scenes are uninformed and silly. From the summit of his star-making turns in DR. STRANGELOVE (1964) and A SHOT IN THE DAR (1965), Peter Sellers had by this point begun his decade-long career slide in to poorly-conceived projects like CASINO ROYALE (1967) and THERES' A GIRL IN MY SOUP (1970); despite indulging his penchant for accents and multiple costumes, the actor never appears fully engaged with the role and his performance amounts to little more than a glum walk-through. It's also hard to watch dynamic stage actress Jo Van Fleet reduced to doing shtick as Harold's doting Jewish mother the very same year she etched COOL HAND LUKE's dying white trash mama so indelibly. Joyce Van Patten, Herb Edelman (as Harold's lecherous law partner) and future Robert Altman stock player David Arkin (whose life ended in suicide in 1991) provide stellar support in amusing but thankless roles. Look for Averback in a cameo as a rabbi and Tucker and Mazursky as hippie hitchhikers.

The Warner Home Video I Love You, Alice B. Toklas DVD is a no-frills affair that does at least present the feature in widescreen, framed at 1:85:1. While the transfer is clear, colors are muted throughout and the image is flat and unimpressive. The soundtrack is available in monaural English and French, with optional subtitles in English, French and Spanish. A standard frame trailer is the only extra. Warners' keepcase box copy mistakes Paul Mazursky for the director of this "blissed-out comedy classic."

Hy Averback directed only six feature films in his lifetime, and only half of these are currently available on DVD. It would be nice to see his earlier Doris Day comedy WHERE WERE YOU WHEN THE LIGHTS WENT OUT? (1968) receive the digital upgrade or, better yet, his unsold 1966 pilot film CHAMBER OF HORRORS, deemed too violent for television and released instead to theaters.

For more information about I Love You, Alice B. Toklas, visit Warner Video. To order I Love You, Alice B. Toklas, go to TCM Shopping.

by Richard Harland Smith