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No one in his or her right mind would look to the family comedies of the 1960s for a subversive take on parenting. Most of these pictures trade in the "Take my teenage daughter - please!" tradition of comedy; as a snapshot of early '60s manners and mores, that approach is pleasing enough in small doses, though there's nothing daring about it.
Henry Koster's 1962 Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation isn't exactly an earth-shattering satire of early '60s family life. But the picture -- starring James Stewart as the Mr. Hobbs of the title, a St. Louis banker who gets less, and yet more, than he bargained for when he spends a month's holiday with his family on the northern California coast - is still surprising in some ways, employing some comedic shorthand that's surreptitiously less than squeaky-clean.
For one thing, it's strongly suggested - and not so much with words - that Mr. Hobbs and his comely wife, Peggy (Maureen O'Hara), still have a healthy sex life. And this is after a marriage that has produced four children, two of whom have already married and borne children of their own. Perhaps even more remarkably - or maybe it only seems so, in this age of parenting when children often rule the roost - that Hobbs and Peggy form a united front when it comes to dealing with their kids. They love them all, dearly, but when one of the grandkids behaves like a spoiled brat, Hobbs draws himself up to his full height and says so out loud. At night, he and his wife huddle in bed, discussing the events of the day; Peggy might defend the kids occasionally, but for the most part, she and Hobbs are on the same page. You wouldn't call their parenting style tough love, but they know a rude or sullen kid when they see one. (It's also interesting to note that the movie makes reference - twice - to Hobbs' buying Playboy for the couple's son, whose age isn't specified but who appears to be around 12. That's something you wouldn't get in a contemporary comedy.)
Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation was the first of three family comedies Koster directed in the early to mid 1960s, all of them featuring Stewart. (Take Her, She's Mine, with Sandra Dee, and Dear Brigitte followed in 1963 and 1965, respectively. Koster had also directed Stewart years earlier, in the 1950 Harvey.) Stewart was in his mid-fifties at the time he made these films, and if they don't stand among his best, and best-recognized, work, they at least show an actor who's fully at home in his own skin when doing comedy. New York Times critic Vincent Canby considered Stewart a "behavioral" actor - unlike, say, Sir Laurence Olivier or Daniel Day-Lewis, who "create characters that are immediately identifiable as being physically and emotionally separate from themselves." Instead, Stewart, as a behavioral actor, "somehow absorbs each role into his own particular physical frame, shaping the mannerisms, the voice and even the intelligence to coincide with those of the known actor. This he does with such simplicity and ease that, for many years, the initial response was to say that what he does isn't acting, followed up by the damp, desperate criticism that he is always the same."
That's as true in Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation as it is in any of Stewart's films. In one scene, he's forced to jump-start the antiquated boiler in the ramshackle house he and the family have rented. He gingerly approaches the thing (which appears to be modeled on a Rube Goldberg contraption), cranks it up and deftly steps back, waiting for an explosion, or worse. Stewart treats this cartoonish assemblage of pipes, cylinders, nuts and bolts as if it were an unpredictable dance partner; his caution and mistrust are expressed in a kind of offhanded fox-trot, a perfect example of Stewart's jackknife agility. Later, he tries to impress the potential employer of his out-of-work son-in-law - the would-be boss man is played by a hilarious John McGiver - with his bird watching skills; the sequence is delightfully silly, if only because Stewart somewhat resembles a gangly bird himself. (Stewart's performance in the picture netted him a Silver Bear Award for best actor at the 12th Berlin Film Festival.)
The script here is by veteran screenwriter Nunnally Johnson, adapted from a novel by Edward Streeter, and it includes the expected scenes of family disagreement and bonding: Mr. Hobbs and son Danny (Michael Burns), who haven't been getting along terribly well, go out for a day of sailing and get lost in a fog, subsequently drawing closer. In one of the movie's most charming sequences, Hobbs and Peggy bring their shy 14-year-old daughter Katey (played by Lauri Peters, who had originated the role of Liesl Von Trapp in the stage version of The Sound of Music) to a local dance. Katey has just gotten braces and is feeling self-conscious; she sits on the sidelines as the other kids hit the dance floor. Anxious about her, Hobbs singles out one of the boys and hands him a five-dollar bill to dance with her. The scenario might have ended disastrously, but its resolution is sweet - and it doesn't hurt that the boy Hobbs chooses for Katey is played by teenage heartthrob Fabian. Later, he and Katey, while hanging out with the other kids at the local pizza joint, perform the movie's only musical number, a ridiculous little ditty called "Cream Puff." But even with all its goofiness, it still works as a cartoon riff on teenage love.
Producer: Marvin A. Gluck, Jerry Wald
Director: Henry Koster
Screenplay: Nunnally Johnson (screenplay), Edward Streeter (novel)
Cinematography: William C. Mellor
Music: Henry Mancini
Film Editing: Marjorie Fowler
Cast: James Stewart (Mr. Hobbs), Maureen O'Hara (Peggy), Fabian (Joe), Lauri Peters (Katey), Lili Gentle (Janie), John Saxon (Byron), John McGiver (Mr. Turner), Marie Wilson (Mrs. Turner).
By Stephanie Zacharek
The New York Times