Panic Button (DVD Review)16 Feb, 2015 By: Mike Clark
Available via Warner Archive
Stars Maurice Chevalier, Jayne Mansfield, Eleanor Parker, Michael Connors.
From way, way deep in the vaults of the Warner Archive collection — this would be miles below where they send those canaries in the coal mine — comes a jaw-dropper whose existence I knew about only because I own a long string of Screen Worlds, those beguiling film annuals of yore that recapped the previous movie year with still photos and cast lists. In the volume devoted to 1964, I always stopped dead in my tracks whenever I hit that year’s foreign release section, thanks to a prominent entry for an obvious DOA otherwise unknown to me that managed to pair Maurice Chevalier and Jayne Mansfield (she at that downside point of her career when someone was marketing a Jayne Mansfield hot water bottle that captured my teenaged imagination at the time). The other thing that always grabbed me was Panic Button’s beyond-obscure production company/distributor: Gorton Associates, which, historically speaking, seems to have had an even shorter shelf life than Herman Cain’s presidential run.
Even before the script manages to get Chevalier into nun drag, we’re talking a cinematic one-of-a-kind here — though, in actuality, the story being told has a lot in common with Mel Brooks’ The Producers, which was a few years away. This movie definitely points up the difference between one conceived by an auteur and one that isn’t, but we’ll let that go for now. In Button’s case, a shady business executive who’s desperate to come up with a $500,000 tax loss elects to use the half-million on his hands to finance a TV pilot of Romeo and Juliet, which comes to star characters played by Chevalier (and we all thought Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer were too old for their R-J roles in George Cukor’s MGM take) and Mansfield. Jayne isn’t just playing a wannabe Shakespearean actress here but one who’s an artist on the side — which I suppose isn’t a conceit, given that I own a copy of the 1957 “Ed Sullivan Show” where she played the violin for real.
Anyway. This is apparently a 1962 Italian movie that employed an American director for the U.S. version two years later — one of those bizarre assembly jobs where even English-speaking actors sometimes appear to be dubbed, even when they’re speaking English. So if you’ve got an international production that manages to get Chevalier in nun drag against (turns out) a Venice Film Festival backdrop, the filmmaker you’re naturally going to choose is George Sherman, who had helmed John Wayne in Three Mesquiteers ‘B’-Westerns at Republic in the ’30s and then was at least the nominal director of Big Jake late in his career. (Which means that Sherman is likely the only director to have movies with Chevalier and Bobby Vinton on his resume.) Atop all this, three-time Oscar nominee Eleanor Parker is here as well: not long before The Sound of Music and The Oscar and looking as if she’d rather be anywhere else, including back in the cellblock in her classic Caged. Akim Tamiroff, who, far as I know, never worked with Bobby Vinton, plays the Shakespearean debacle’s director, while Michael Connors is the production’s string-puller and aspiring love interest who wants Jayne and not just her hot water bottle. At this point, a little annotation is needed: This is the same Michael Connors who was later Mike Connors of "Mannix" — several years after he’d been billed as Touch Connors and also Mike (Touch) Connors. (Which one did he use in The Ten Commandments? I can’t even remember.)
Warner Archive supplies an excellent 2.35 “Totalscope” print here, possibly because the original negative didn’t exactly get a Jack LaLanne workout at the time. Beyond the nun bit (Parker is in similar disguise as well), we get Mansfield on water skis (I think it’s the real deal and not a double) and a jarring cut from a previous scene that lands us on either a balcony or patio from which Chevalier warbles his centerpiece number (it’s in the spirit of “Thank Heaven for Barely Legal Girls,” though that’s not the literal name of the tune) to bikinied young things who are never seen in the film again. This wasn’t Chevalier’s big-screen swan song, but it was close; only I’d Rather Be Rich (in which Sandra Dee must choose between Robert Goulet and Andy Williams or saying “I’d Rather Be Celibate”) and Disney’s Monkeys, Go Home!, in which he played a priest (as he had opposite Angie Dickinson in 1962’s Jessica). Not every actor in his 70s gets to dress up as a priest and a nun within the same half-decade, though it had to be tough interacting with Angie and Jayne amid vows of celibacy.