What your view of sports and life would be if you had too many concussions
This movie is not on my list of essential films.
NOTE: This installment of Story Time With J-Dub is the only the third installment of this relatively new series being done as part of a movie event. This time, the distinction belongs to a monthly event hosted by MovieRob called Genre Grandeur. The way it works is every month MovieRob chooses a film blogger to pick a topic and a movie to write about, then also picks a movie for MovieRob to review. At the end of the month, MovieRob posts the reviews of all the participants.
For September of 2021, the honor of being the “guest picker” went to Michaela of Love Letters to Old Hollywood. I’ve been a regular participant in her blog-a-thons, and when she picked “1960s Comedies” as the theme for this event, there was no way I was missing it!
Fans of Cary Grant tend to dig him for his suave, debonair presence; I know a blog whose founder might be one of those. But by the time Father Goose was made in 1964, the now-aging but still dapper leading man extraordinaire Cary Grant was interested in a role where he could “play against type.” For a time, he considered taking the role of the coarse, grizzled poker player in 1965’s The Cincinnati Kid; the role which eventually went to Edward G. Robinson.
But Grant became interested in the role of “Walter Eckland” after screenwriter Peter Stone described the character as “a drunk disgusting irascible misanthrope.” Grant lunged at the role because he said Eckland was more like hie off-screen persona. In his own words:
“I was a bum. I was all broken down, in jeans and a beard. It was me. After dressing so carefully for my films for so many years, I wanted to do the opposite.”~ Cary Grant on playing “Walter Eckland”
Speaking of opposite, Grant did not get his choice to play opposite him. Originally, Grant lobbied for Audrey Hepburn to play the fetching French school headmistress “Catherine Frenau,” but Hepburn was already committed to begin shooting My Fair Lady. Grant had just made Charade the previous year with her, and ironically he had just refused the role of Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady in order to do Father Goose. Eventually the “Catherine Frenau” role went to Leslie Caron (who I think should have nominated for an Academy Award for her role in this film, but that’s for another day…) The casting matters here for reasons you will see later, but suffice it to say for now that I can’t stand Audrey Hepburn.
As for the plot, Father Goose opens in 1942. The Second World War is well underway, and the Allies find themselves in dire straits. The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) is in the process of evacuating an island called Salamaua, and being a classic opportunist, Grant’s “Walter Eckland” slips in under the chaos and begins loading his boat with RAN supplies.
Little does Walter know that the Harbormaster happens to be somebody he knows, RAN commander Frank Houghton (played by Trevor Howard). Walter also doesn’t know that he is about to be “Shanghai-ed” into being a coastal observer on a nearby island to monitor Japanese air and naval movements.
Once Frank essentially maroons Walter on the island of Matalava, it becomes clear Frank has figured out how to make Walter compliant to his duties. For every confirmed sighting of Japanese activity the ever-thirsty Walter reports, Frank will reveal the location of a hidden bottle of booze.
However, the stakes get raised when Frank discovers another coastal watcher named Perry on a nearby island is surrounded by the Japanese. Frank then makes a deal with Walter that if he rescues Perry, he will arrange for Perry to be Walter’s replacement on Matalava…and Perry will help fix Walter’s boat. At first, Walter refuses, but makes it clear he will do it only in return for the location of all the liquor hidden on the island.
The real problem comes when Frank reaches Bundy Island only to discover that not only has Perry been killed, he was sheltering French school headmistress Catherine Frenau (played by Leslie Caron) and seven school girls in her charge. Walter only has his small seven-foot launch to transport all of them since Frank disabled his main vessel in order to keep him on Matalava.
After a harrowing night on the open ocean getting back to Matalava, Walter radios Frank to tell him about Perry and to demand a rescue mission to pick up Catherine and her students who were marooned on Bundy Island during the attempt to evacuate them to Australia. Needless to say, Walter is not thrilled with having Catherine and the girls on “his” island, and his ire only increases when Frank tells him picking them up will be impossible for the time being.
Once it becomes clear they are all stuck together for the long-term, as the cliché goes, hilarity ensues. As the battle between Catherine and Walter breaks out for who “runs the ship,” it doesn’t take Walter long to realize he’s outnumbered; as such he retreats to his boat and continues his efforts to repair it. Meanwhile, Catherine and the girls set up housekeeping in the hut.
During a close encounter with a Japanese landing party, Walter not only discovers that Catherine understands Japanese, but his efforts to keep them all safe gives the girls pause to change their attitude about him. The same is happening between Walter and Catherine, although both are loathe to admit it.
The comedic peak comes when Catherine is foraging for berries with one of the girls when she slips off a log and into some shallow water. She exclaims that something has bitten her, and they both misidentify a partially-submerged tree branch as a snake. Upon returning to the hut, Catherine tells Walter what has happened, In turn Walter contacts Frank, who tells him there are three species of snake native to Matalava, and they are all lethal. Since nothing can be done, Frank advises Walter to keep Catherine “comfortable” until “the end comes.”
As such, Walter plies Catherine with the one thing of which he has plenty…whiskey. It also takes no time for the booze to loosen Catherine’s tongue and demeanor. As the liquor flows, the stories follow…ultimately with Catherine admitting she’s an over-disciplined “picture-straighter” and Walter revealing his deepest secrets about what caused him to flee the academic world…a cautionary tale about neckties.
Catherine finally passes out, and since they all believe she has died, one of the girls sets out to exact revenge on the supposed snake. She brings what was mistaken for a snake back to the hut. Now that they all know the “snake” is just a stick, Walter whips the blanket back he had placed over Catherine…to discover she is quite alive.
The next morning everything comes to a head. A hung-over Catherine confronts Walter about things she confided in him, he does the same to her…after all of which they finally realize they have fallen in love. But before we can all live happily ever after, those pesky Japanese return. This time however, it’s not in the form of a small landing party. Now, there’s a Zero strafing the hut with machine gun fire and a landing party looking for more than just turtles.
Expecting an American submarine to be waiting for them beyond the reef, Walter devises an escape plan using his freshly-repaired boat as a decoy while the girls and Catherine make their way past the reef in the same launch in which he brought them to the island. The Japanese patrol boat which carried the landing party fires at the launch, but is distracted by Walter racing past them in his boat. The Japanese give chase; they unknowingly head straight into the aim of torpedoes from the American submarine, but not before their gunfire explodes Walter’s boat into matchsticks. With little hope, the submarine commander gives the order to surface and look for survivors…but is pleasantly surprised with what he discovers.
At its core, Father Goose is a tale of two star-crossed school teachers. You can have fun with all the possible allegories here…I could be the boat, I could be the island of Matalava, I could be Frank…hell, I could be the whole damn war…the point is only in my world does another case of two polar opposite school teachers cross paths as in Father Goose.
In my tale, they never actually meet, but they definitely intersect in my own version of the grid of events that shape us all. As a child who came from a divorced family with one parent being a career military officer, I moved around so much that I never went to the same school two years in a row until is in the 8th grade. While that may explain why I’m a
socially-maladjusted misanthrope blogger. it certainly lends credence to the idea that teachers played a larger role in my development of that aforementioned grid than for most.
From the first time I saw Father Goose until this very day, watching it is an exercise is wondering how the grids of those who helped form yours came to be. From the first time I saw “Walter Eckland,” something told me that before he crossed the “International Enough Line” and checked out of civilization, he likely was a guy just like my 4th-grade teacher “Mr. C” (names have been changed to protect individuals and/or their estates who may want to drag me into court). While when I saw them they may have been on opposite ends of the “suave” spectrum, it was clear they both still had a level of “smooth” most of could never hope to have.
Face it, even unshaven and unbathed, Cary Grant’s “Walter Eckland” still reeks of “top-flight Hollywood leading man.” That’s why if you watch Father Goose, all you have to do to see “Mr. C” is to imagine “Walter Eckland” ten years before he was stealing Australian gasoline…when he was in front of a grade-school class resplendent in an sans-necktie open-collared shirt. Toss in a pair of horn-rim glasses and splash the cocktail with a dash of Dean Martin (since “Mr. C” was Italian) and you’re there.
In other words, “Mr. C” was the Cary Grant we were used to before he took the role of “Walter Eckland” to play against type. At that point in time, “Mr. C” was too cool yo be your father, wasn’t grouchy enough to be your grandfather, but was still full enough of life lessons that you wished he wasn’t “Mr. C.” You wanted him to be “Uncle Lou.” He drove a sweet car, had great taste in clothes, and looked cool smoking a cigarette just like those old-school leading men did. He felt like he would be that uncle who not only sneaked you your first sip of scotch, but taught you how not to be a knucklehead while doing it.
Flash the clock ahead a few years, and this story gets it “Catherine Frenau” in the form of my high-school French teacher “Miss R.” If “Mr. C” gave me a glimpse of the “cool,” “Miss R” showed me you can’t get there if you spend your life imprisoning yourself in the walls of what other people think.
The trick is she’s coming at this from a different direction. While I picture “Mr. C” being the Cary Grant who “shabbies up” to become “Walter Eckland,” I’m convinced that in places deep down she would never admit, “Miss R” wanted to be “Catherine Frenau.” While “Walter Eckland” went from “suave” to grizzled,” “Miss R” went from “destitute” to “sophisticated.”
Considering her roots, my suspicion is she would have loved to live as an “overly-disciplined picture-straightener” swaddled in the softness of a life in the periphery of the diplomatic corps. But that proved to be a life journey just a bit too far. That’s not to say I ever thought “Miss R” felt her life was a disappointment; quite the opposite. I can’t think of anybody else who was born in 1947 in a refugee camp in post WWII Europe and went from a non-English speaking Polish émigré to America to getting on the ballot for Governor of a U.S. state.
If “Mr. C” had a dash of Dean Martin to complete his cocktail, “Miss R” needs a double-shot of Frank Sinatra’s My Way. If “Mr.C” and “Walter Eckland” were bound by a disdain of neckties, “Miss R” and “Catherine Frenau” shared a backbone of solid steel.
Despite her affinity to napkins and “tea things,” “Catherine Frenau” was one tough woman. In the span in that movie, she stays one step ahead of the Japanese while keeping seven school girls in tow, essentially conquers Walter Eckland, even to the point of sowing the seeds of civilization in the middle of a war. Know who else might have done that? How about somebody who landed in America with literally only their hands in their pockets and ended up being a respected educator who spoke at least three languages and got more than just write-in votes in a state-wide election?
Not only did “Miss R” do it all her way and show me the value of doing so…I’m pretty sure she would have hated Audrey Hepburn too…especially after Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
You can see all the episodes of “Story Time” here.
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