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In the mid-1960s, Natalie Wood was one of Hollywood's top movie stars. After the stunning success of West Side Story (1961), she'd had a string of hits, as well as critical praise for her dramatic performances in Inside Daisy Clover (1965) and This Property Is Condemned (1966). Her private life, however, was a mess. Following a divorce from Robert Wagner, and the end of her much-publicized affair with Warren Beatty, she'd had a series of brief and unsatisfactory relationships, which had left her deeply depressed. A former boyfriend, producer Arthur Loew, Jr., recommended work as the best therapy, and offered her $750,000 to star in a film that he and Executive Producer Joe Pasternak were making at MGM. Based on a novel by Howard Fast (written under the pen name of E.V. Cunningham), Penelope (1966) is a caper comedy about the neglected wife of a banker who disguises herself as an old lady and robs her husband's bank in an effort to get his attention.
Pasternak had been one of the studio's leading producers of frothy star vehicles and musicals, but his kind of film was passé in the swinging 60s. Still, he spared no expense for Penelope, hiring Edith Head to provide his star with a $250,000 wardrobe. Wood's glamorous costumes were such an important selling point for the film, in fact, that the closing credits featured a fashion show of Wood in deleted scenes featuring even more outfits.
With a million bucks spent on star and wardrobe, there wasn't much money left for important co-stars, which turned out to be one of Penelope's accidental assets. British actor Ian Bannen was suitably stodgy as the husband, and several terrific comic and character actors in supporting roles provided some of the film's best moments. Peter Falk's earthy detective was a warm-up for his "Columbo" character, who would first appear in a 1967 TV movie, and would settle into a long and profitable run as part of a rotating series of detective shows in 1971. Jonathan Winters contributed a manic three-minute bit in Penelope, and Dick Shawn was funny as a neurotic psychiatrist. Lou Jacobi and Lila Kedrova were also memorable as a pair of blackmailers.
In spite of the film's lighthearted story, Wood was in a fragile emotional state. She later recalled the making of Penelope as one of the most difficult experiences of her career. "I broke out in hives and suffered anguish that was very real pain every day we shot. Arthur Hiller, the director, kept saying, 'Natalie, I think you're resisting this film,' while I rolled around the floor in agony." Maybe some of that agony showed onscreen. Critics had little good to say about the film, or about Wood's performance. "Lavish and laughless," wrote Judith Crist in the New York World Journal Tribune. "Natalie Wood is not a comedian. She is a title-roleist." The best the Variety critic could come up with was "'cute' in the best-accepted use of the term....Natalie Wood does a nimble job and turns in a gay performance as well as being a nice clothes-horse for Miss Head's glamorous fashions."
Thanks to Wood's popularity, Penelope was booked at Radio City Music Hall, and broke opening day records there. But bad reviews and word of mouth quickly changed that, and the film fizzled at the box office. Wood's depression worsened, and she withdrew from the public eye, undergoing intensive psychotherapy. She would not make another film for three years. However, by 1969, she was involved in a new romance with agent Richard Gregson, whom she would eventually marry, and her comeback film, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) had become a huge hit, and one of the defining films of the culture of the era.
Director: Arthur Hiller
Producer: Arthur M. Loew, Jr.
Screenplay: George Wells, based on a novel by E.V. Cunningham
Cinematography: Harry Stradling
Editor: Rita Roland
Costume Design: Edith Head
Art Direction: George W. Davis, Preston Ames
Music: John Williams
Principal Cast: Natalie Wood (Penelope Elcott), Ian Bannen (James B. Elcott), Dick Shawn (Dr. Gregory Mannix), Peter Falk (Lt. Bixbee), Jonathan Winters (Prof. Klobb), Lila Kedrova (Sadaba), Lou Jacobi (Ducky).
C-97m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Margarita Landazuri