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When the late Nora Ephron went off to college in 1958, she probably didn't know that the letters she'd send home from Wellesley would become the basis for a hit Broadway play, later a movie. Or perhaps she did. As her mother, playwright and screenwriter Phoebe Ephron, had famously said: "Everything is copy."
Henry Koster's 1963 film Take Her, She's Mine, based on the play Phoebe and Henry Ephron wrote about the trials and tribulations of sending a spirited daughter off to college, probably rang true for lots of parents in early 1960s America. There were no hippies per se at that point, but under the shadowy threat of nuclear war, young people were becoming much more politically astute, and more vocal. And so in Take Her, She's Mine, James Stewart plays Frank Michaelson, a typical American dad who's driven to distraction - and who treks as far afield as Paris - while trying to keep his vivacious, irresistibly attractive college-age daughter Mollie (Sandra Dee) out of trouble.
It's a losing battle, but it takes Stewart's Frank - an upstanding California lawyer and school board president -- the whole movie to figure that out: The picture's comic structure hinges on his belief that his daughter can't take care of herself, though it's perfectly clear that she can, chiefly because he and the girl's mother (played by Audrey Meadows) have raised her wisely and well. When Mollie takes a gig singing folk songs in a campus coffee shop, Frank somehow gets the impression that she's doing a striptease act there. He boards a train, pronto - the college Mollie's attending is on the East Coast -- and barges into the establishment, only to be greeted (and entertained) by a ridiculous and completely harmless beatnik troubadour. (He's played by Bob Denver, in a role reminiscent of Maynard G. Krebs, the character he was playing on TV's The Many Lives of Dobie Gillis at the time.) Later, after Mollie transfers to an art school in Paris, Frank becomes certain that a French artist-lothario is leading her down the wrong path. He boards a plane for the City of Lights and eventually ends up - after a chance encounter with a wiggy visiting Englishman played by Robert Morley -- losing his pants at an elegant French costume soiree. (Those trousers are, incidentally, fringed buckskin.)
The gags in Take Her, She's Mine are ridiculous, but they're also goofily pleasing, not least because it's always fun to watch Stewart stammering his way out of awkward situations. (One of the movie's running jokes is that Frank keeps being mistaken for a tall, lanky actor - known as Jimmy Stewart.) At that point in his career, Stewart was still making westerns: The year before had seen the release of both How the West Was Won (directed by John Ford, Henry Hathaway, George Marshall and Richard Thorpe) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (directed by Ford), and in 1961 he'd made Two Rode Together, also with John Ford.
Though Stewart's mid-late career was largely defined by his roles in westerns (as well as by his work with Alfred Hitchcock), he hadn't lost his knack for comedy, and he made three of them with Henry Koster in the early-to-mid 1960s: The other two were Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation (1962) and Dear Brigitte (1965). (Koster had also directed the star in the 1950 Harvey.) If the jokes in Take Her, She's Mine are at times a little broad, Stewart still manages to keep them down-to-earth and reasonably believable; as overprotective parents go, he comes off as reasonably hip, particularly in a scene where he ends up defending the right of his daughter and her friends to protest, peacefully, the banning of a "dirty" book. (It's Henry Miller's "Tropic of Cancer.")
The script is by veteran screenwriter Nunnally Johnson, who used the Ephrons' play as a starting point and fleshed out the story with additional monkeyshines. Some of those scenes - many of them featuring only the subtlest of off-color suggestions - caused the Catholic Church's Legion of Decency to slap the movie with an adults-only rating, for its "tasteless sexual innuendo,'' which, as New York Post critic Lou Lumenick pointed out in a 2012 assessment of the film, probably only enhanced its performance at the box office. (The picture was a hit.)
The notoriously stuffy New York Times critic Bosley Crowther didn't care much for Take Her, She's Mine, either. "Let's all be thankful that society is generally, if not entirely, free of such farcical types as the doting father played by James Stewart in 'Take Her, She's Mine,'" he wrote with characteristic condescension. "And let's hope the screen will not be burdened for too much longer with such drivel as is in this old-hat Hollywood picture."
He didn't care much, even, for Stewart's co-star Sandra Dee, who was still riding high as America's teenage sweetheart after winkling and twinkling her way through pictures like Gidget (1959), Tammy Tell Me True (1961) and Tammy and the Doctor (1963). Crowther denounced Dee's performance, asserting that the actress "treats the whole thing as though she were modeling bikinis." Dee could, at times, be a little saccharine; she's sunny, cheerful and winning in Take Her, She's Mine. And she does, in fact, wear a bikini or two in the picture. But only the most churlish sort would complain about that.
Producer: Henry Koster
Director: Henry Koster
Screenplay: Nunnally Johnson (screenplay); Phoebe Ephron and Henry Ephron (play)
Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Film Editing: Marjorie Fowler
Cast: James Stewart (Frank Michaelson/Narrator), Sandra Dee (Mollie Michaelson), Audrey Meadows (Anne Michaelson), Robert Morley (Mr. Pope-Jones), John McGiver (Hector G. Iver).
by Stephanie Zacharek