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