Neglected Films No. 10: ‘Where’s Poppa?’

The Arts

The opening sequence; George Segal gets up, gets dressed for work and then puts on a gorilla outfit, bursting into his mother’s bedroom and leaping onto her bed before she punches him in the nuts. ‘Oh Gordon, it’s you,’ she laughs, ‘you nearly scared me to death.’

Segal pulls off the gorilla head and eyes her coldly. ‘Nearly doesn’t count,’ he says before going off to get her breakfast.

Born 1941, writer Robert Klane was described as ‘Max Schulman spiked heavily with the Marquis de Sade’, but also incited comparisons to Joseph Heller and J D Salinger. Klane’s prose is as blunt as a chucked brick. He has no time for niceties, and recognizes that the best dark comedy, like life, is painful, mean and short.

‘Where’s Poppa?’ (1970) is a black comedy that may be the ultimate Jewish mother novel. Trapped at home with a senile parent, a dominated and sleep-deprived lawyer continually loses his cases and his girlfriends. His attempts to frighten his ancient mother to death must be nightly defeated by his guilt-laden married brother, who runs a gauntlet of Central Park muggers in order to prevent matricide, and to halt the receipt of said mother into his own home. The film version, made with George Segal and Ruth Gordon, suffered a failure of nerve in the final furlong and avoided the novel’s brilliantly ghastly Oedipal outcome – but it’s still brilliant and very much of its time.

Segal is the lawyer, hopelessly underprepared for his cases because his mother occupies every waking moment, Trish Van Devere is the whispering nurse who comes to love Segal, and Gordon – of course – is the fabulously embarrassing senile mum who pulls her son’s pants off at her first dinner with the new girlfriend and survives every attempt to kill her.

Meanwhile, Segal’s brother is raped by gang-bangers on his nightly chase across Central Park, although one of the gang members does bother to send him roses from jail.

Klane’s third novel, ‘Fire Sale’, in which the owner of a failing department store plans to have it torched for the insurance by hiring an arson-prone mental patient to do the job, was filmed with Alan Arkin and Sid Caesar. The books are oddly endearing because they capture the sheer unfairness of life, particularly as it was lived in the early 1970s. Like great farceurs before him, Klane tackled sex, family, madness and death, roughly in that order.

‘Where’s Poppa?’ was directed by Mel Brooks’ comedy partner Carl Reiner, and has a lovely opening song that you won’t get out of your head.

12 comments on “Neglected Films No. 10: ‘Where’s Poppa?’”

  1. Sam Tomaino says:

    Please do not refer to Carl Reiner as “Mel Brooks’ comedy partner.” He is a successful writer/director/producer in his own write. On the whole, I like his movies better than Brooks’. He knows better than to star himself, which is one of the big drawbacks of Brooks.
    And when Reiner did perform, like as Alan Brady on the brilliant “Dick Van Dyke Show” (which he created/produced/wrote) he was much funnier in a few minutes than Brooks in a couple of hours.

  2. David F says:

    I think this would make an excellent double bill with “No Way to Treat a Lady”. A much lighter film, one might say ludicrously OTT thanks to Rod Steiger’s (ought to be) restrained performance, but is full of Oedipal elements in both the killer and the detective. Although for me the biggest mystery of all in this film is why Segal DOESN’T try and kill his mother…

  3. Dan Terrell says:

    May I come in here without fear?
    I saw many of the “Your Show of Shows and “Caesar’s Hour” (Sid Caesar, Imogene Coco & Carl Reiner) TV shows and must admit that I didn’t much like anyone one in them. Although Reiner was more contained and did his bits of business in a less flamboyant and burlesque manner. (Perhaps he was ill matched in such loud and broad humour, “wet” humour so called because the actors unintentionally spitting, but Reiner’s sketches often didn’t play well. They went on too long, were too detailed, and were too repetitious.
    As to the movies, I don’t know how he faired. I’m afraid I avoided most of them.
    Still I think Reiner’s primary role was of the straight man to Brooks, Caesar and others, just as Hardy was to Laurel, and Abbott was to Costello.
    Maybe, I missed something. I forget: who did the Princess Bride?

  4. Sam Tomaino says:

    I have never found old bits from “Your Show of Shows” very funny at all. Look at Carl Reiner on the bits he did as Alan Brady on “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” Reiner wrote thse and they are very funny. So are movies “The Man With Two Brains.”
    Also, playing the straight man is considered, by many, to be harder. In old vaudeville, the straight man got 60% and the funny guy 40%.
    Oh, and “The Princess Bride” was directed by Carl’s son, Rob, best known as Mike “Meathead” Stivic on “All in the Family.”

  5. Helen Martin says:

    I must be very unperceptive because I enjoyed Your Show of Shows except that Carl Reiner was often either too loud or too coarse. The Princess Bride was almost perfect.

  6. Dan Terrell says:

    Thanks Sam. I should have remembered Rob did “The Princess Bride.” My twin brother and sister were friends of his in high school, but after I went off to the university. And I do remember being the straight man was harder and beter paid.

  7. Sam Tomaino says:

    Dan, I’m glad to find someone else who doesn’t care for the “classic” “Your Show of Shows.” It was broadcast just a few years before I was old enough to watch, so I’ve only seen it on video, etc. One time, I did see a panel discussion with a bunch of the writers from the show talking about it and I found THAT hilarious.

    And, by all means, if you’ve never seen “The Man with Two Brains”, do. It does have a lot of madcap Steve Martin stuff, but it’s pretty funny. It also has one of the best payoffs to a minor plot point I’ve ever seen.

  8. snowy says:

    I shouldn’t probably do this, but it’s a question that has been dogging me for ages. Can any one of the fine folk here, help me find a early to mid seventies film.

    American film in colo(u)r, a farce, set in a ?hotel?, with people running in and out of rooms in towels and there is a running joke involving a detective with squeeky voice. Not much to go on sorry.

    (I have tried all the usual search engines)

    Oh and if we are talking Rob Reiner don’t forget Spinal Tap.

  9. Dan Terrell says:

    I have seen Spinal Tap three times and I still like Led Zep and Foreigner, etc. As to the film, it sounds like a classic stage farce set up, but I was out of the States nearly all of the Seventies. Anyone?

  10. Sam Tomaino says:

    I don’t know the movie that snowy is talking about.

    But I do want to mention a possibly overlooked little gem from Rob Reiner called The Sure Thing. Wonderful little movie.

  11. admin says:

    Hi Snowy – the film you’re thinking of is ‘The Ritz’. The hotel is in fact a gay bathhouse, and the detective with the high-pitched voice is Treat Williams. It was based on a successful Broadway farce and also stars Rita Moreno as a lousy singer. It was directed by Richard Lester.

  12. snowy says:

    YOU ARE A STAR! WOOP WOOP

    *Sorry got a bit overexcited.*

    Correct in every respect, I was able to find the trailer, and spot on. The trailer is very poor and doesn’t do justice to my memory of the film.

    Released on DVD in 2008, only region 1, that’s irksome.

    Amazon UK £52, good grief!
    Amazon US $36, better but still pricey, does get 4 and a half stars though.
    LoveFilm says it will be available to be streamed free as part of a trial package soon, but no date.

    Perhaps there is a Richard Lester boxset? No.

    Mr Fowler, a thousand thank you’s, at least my obsession now has a name.

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