Cast & Crew
Trish Van Devere
Gordon Hocheiser, a New York City lawyer whose love life is being ruined by his widowed mother, awakens one morning, puts on a gorilla costume, and leaps on her bed, hoping to scare her to death; the 87-year-old woman merely responds by hitting him in the groin with her cane. At his office, Gordon interviews for a nurse to take care of his senile and eccentric mother and hires Louise Callan, a pretty nurse with a long list of patients who died while under her care. He takes her home and immediately falls in love with her, but his attempts at seduction fail miserably. In desperation, he calls his brother Sidney and pleads with him to take their mother away. Sidney runs across Central Park, where he is such a frequent victim of a group of muggers that he willingly hands them his wallet; this time, however, they also strip him of his clothes. At Gordon's apartment, Sidney explains that his wife hates the mother as much as they do and that their father's dying wish was that she never be put in a rest home. Sidney borrows the gorilla suit for his return trip; once at home, he is called back by the half-crazed Gordon. Running through the park, Sidney is again stopped by the muggers who want him to rape a woman in his costume, but Sidney is arrested when the woman turns out to be a policeman. His brother arrives to bail him out, and Sidney discovers that the policeman not only refused to press charges, but has sent him a bouquet of flowers and a thank you note as well. Meanwhile, Louise threatens to return to her home in Waukegan unless Gordon succeeds in getting rid of his mother. He rushes home, packs all of her belongings, lures her into the car, goes to a succession of rest homes, finally dumps her in front of one with an old man standing in front, and introduces him to her as "Poppa." [In the uncut version, Gordon returns home with Louise, receives a call from his mother, and rushes back to her.]
Trish Van Devere
Joe Keyes Jr.
William Le Massena
W. Benson Terry
Segal plays Gordon Hocheiser, a frazzled Manhattan lawyer who lives with his demented old mother. She drives him so crazy that he starts the movie by putting on a gorilla costume and trying to frighten her to death; when that doesn't work he tries reasoning with her, but you can't get very far with someone who keeps asking "Where's Poppa?" when Poppa's been deceased for years. Gordon can't put Momma in a rest home because he promised Poppa that he wouldn't, but every nurse he hires to care for her promptly quits. He finally catches a break when a young nurse named Louise applies for the job. It's love at first sight between Gordon and her until she meets Mrs. Hocheiser, who's on her worst behavior, ranting and raving and falling asleep with her face in the mashed potatoes. Desperate to salvage his new love affair, Gordon begs for help from his brother Sidney, who shows up at Gordon's apartment naked because Central Park muggers stole his clothes on the way over. I won't summarize the rest of the story, which is so off-the-wall wacko that you wouldn't believe me if you haven't already seen the picture.
The phrase "politically incorrect" wasn't fashionable back in 1970, and it's just as well, because Where's Poppa? is off the charts in that department. Here's a partial tally: making fun of senile dementia; a monologue about a pervert's wedding night; a dad who stops his wife's nagging by starting to strangle their little boy; a jive-talking gang of African-American muggers; an attempted rape of a policeman in drag; a slum-like nursing home where...you get the idea. What's wrong with this picture? Nothing at all if really, really awful taste is your idea of entertainment heaven.
Looking beyond the question of whether it's hilarious fun or just a string of sick jokes, Where's Poppa? is fascinating as a movie time machine. New York was entering a long and steep decline as the 1970s began infrastructure was crumbling, city services were deteriorating, financial crisis was looming, crime was soaring. Instead of ignoring these enormous problems, Where's Poppa? fights them off by laughing in their face. Of course it's offensive to have African-American actors play every hoodlum in the story, but exaggerating a stereotype can sometimes unmask its absurdity and drain away its power. It's also offensive to use dementia for laughs, but in her own weird way Mrs. Hocheiser is the most charming character in the story, much more appealing than her self-centered sons and the ditzy nurse who's clueless when it comes to actually nursing. And there's real political punch in a courtroom scene where Gordon defends a war protester who assaulted a military officer; just when you think the dignified officer will win in a walk, he turns out to be as belligerent and bloodthirsty as the protester claimed. This is pungent even now, and in 1970, with the Vietnam war still raging, it was dynamite.
Where's Poppa? is based on an eponymous novel by Robert Klane, who earned a WGA Award nomination for his adapted screenplay. But many good touches, such as the movie's constantly varying pace, come from director Carl Reiner, a long-life comedy specialist. Reiner has made a number of interestingly off-kilter pictures, including Oh, God! (1977), starring George Burns as the title character, and Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982), starring Steve Martin and a lot of film-noir excerpts; in the 1960s he also devised The Dick Van Dyke Show, one of the all-time-great TV sitcoms. In the cast, Gordon is great and so is Segal, who starred in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and California Split (1974) during the same phase of his career. Also present are Ron Leibman as Gordon's brother, Rob Reiner and Vincent Gardenia as two of Gordon's clients, Paul Sorvino as the proprietor of an old folks' home, and Trish Van Devere as nurse Louise, her first major role.
Reviews of Where's Poppa? have been mixed. Time critic Stefan Kanfer noted the Freudian implications of a story about a mother who keeps flummoxing her son's sex life: "From Oedipus complex it [is] an easy plunge to Oedipus simple," he wrote, "bottoming out in pop-psych idiocy like Where's Poppa?," a movie that "is but a single joke, and the punch line is the commonplace twelve-letter obscenity." Roger Greenspun was more upbeat in the New York Times, saying the film profits from "an exceptionally viable mixture of local jokes and black comedy" and becomes "desperately funny" at times. Variety said that while the screenplay is "very close to tragedy," the movie gets laughs because Reiner and the others "work from the firm conviction that everyone, at least everyone living in New York City, is insane." But closest to the mark was Roger Ebert, who compared the picture with The Producers (1968) and credited it with "a certain kind of humor that rises below vulgarity." Mrs. Hocheiser herself couldn't have put it better.
Director: Carl Reiner
Producers: Jerry Tokofsky, Marvin Worth
Screenplay: Robert Klane, based on his novel
Cinematographer: Jack Priestley
Film Editing: Bud Molin, Chic Ciccolini
Art Direction: Warren Clymer
Music: Jack Elliott, with songs by Norman Gimbel and Jack Elliott
With: George Segal (Gordon Hocheiser), Ruth Gordon (Mrs. Hocheiser), Ron Leibman (Sidney Hocheiser), Barnard Hughes (Colonel Hendriks), Vincent Gardenia (Coach Williams), Trish Van Devere (Louise Callan), Rae Allen (Gladys Hocheiser), Rob Reiner (Roger), Paul Sorvino (Owner of "Gus & Grace's Home"), William Le Massena (Judge), Michael McGuire (Army Lawyer), Martha Greenhouse (Owner of "Happytime Farms"), Israel Lang (Muthafucka), Garrett Morris (Garrett), Arnold Williams (Arnold), Buddy Butler (Buddy), Joe Keyes, Jr. (Gang Leader), Jane Hoffman (First Job Applicant), Alice Drummond (Woman in Elevator), Jack Manning (Lawyer for Memphis Maulers), John Gilliar (Policeman in Courthouse), Bill Adams (unidentified), Edward Brooks (Sheldon Hocheiser), Helen Martin (Second Job Applicant), Tom Atkins (Policeman in Apartment), Florence Tarlow (Miss Morgiani), Rehn Scofield (Bailiff), April Geleta (Taxi Lady), W. Benson Terry (Cab Driver), Vic Ramos (unidentified), John McCurry (Policeman in Jail Cell), Fuddles (Shoeshine Man)
by David Sterritt
She's not just another nurse, ma. It means a whole lot to me, ma. And I want you to know that if you mess this one up for me, I'm gonna punch your fuckin' heart out. Got it?- Gordon Hocheiser
Such a nice boy.- Mrs. Hocheiser
Location scenes filmed in New York City.
Released in United States Winter January 1, 1970
Released in United States October 1990
Released in United States 1996
Shown at Valladolid Film Festival, Spain October 19-28, 1990.
Released in United States Winter January 1, 1970
Released in United States October 1990 (Shown at Valladolid Film Festival, Spain October 19-28, 1990.)
Released in United States 1996 (Shown in New York City (Film Forum) as part of program "Out of the Seventies: Hollywood's New Wave 1969-1975" May 31 - July 26, 1996.)