Judge George Hatch thinks the best view for this film is from the poop deck.
"The name is Nelson, Jennifer Nelson."
Marketed as both a spy caper and a romantic musical comedy, The Glass Bottom Boat couldn't even find focus for its advertising. Note the cover art with a rather confused-looking Doris Day in one of several "Mata Hari" costumes. This is from a fantasy sequence that fills less than 60 seconds of running time. The plot is simply a case of mistaken identity and misinterpreted conversations, the romance is minimal, and there are only two-and-a-half songs.
The big shocker here is that the film was directed by comedy veteran Frank Tashlin, best known for two outrageous films starring Jayne Mansfield, The Girl Can't Help It (1956), in which a mobster tries to make a chanteuse out of his blonde, buxom but brainless bimbo; and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, a bold satire that skewered advertising, television and the "cult of celebrity" before that phrase was ever coined.
In the mid-1960s, James Bond was the big box-office draw, and television was trying to keep the pace with shows like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Mission Impossible. The not-too-funny Cold War and the race-for-space were at their peaks, but neither were promising topics for light, escapist entertainment. Unfortunately, with The Glass Bottom Boat, it appears that Tashlin chose to play it safe, and didn't want to push the envelope as he'd done in his earlier films.
Facts of the Case
The young, and recently widowed Jennifer Nelson (Doris Day, Love Me or Leave Me) is trying to keep her life on track by going to night school four times a week and working two jobs, 24/7. Jenny is a NASA tour guide and public relations consultant. On weekends, she dons a mermaid costume to help her father, Axel Nordstrom (Arthur Godfrey of early TV's Talent Scouts), provide some cheap thrills for the tourists looking beneath his titular vessel.
For companionship, Jenny also has a menagerie of pets at home, one of which is a dog named Vladimir—a not-too-wise moniker for a pooch during the paranoid days of the Cold War. Since Jenny is too busy to walk the dog, she calls home several times a day because the ringing telephone makes Vladimir run around her apartment for exercise. (But doesn't Vladimir have the urge to go outside, at least occasionally, to answer nature's call? Not surprisingly, that point is never dealt with.)
Aeronautics genius Bruce Templeton (Rod Taylor, The Birds) takes note of Jenny's moxie and asks her to write his biography. Bruce is the head honcho of the top-secret NASA Project G.I.S.M.O. (Gravity Inertial Stabilized Manned Observatory), a high-priority development that could put the United States years ahead of the Russians in the exploration of outer space.
But representatives of the military, the C.I.A., and an overenthusiastic security guard are convinced that Jenny is a Russian spy, out to seduce Bruce for the G.I.S.M.O. formula.
The Glass Bottom Boat is typical mid-1960s fluff, and a far cry from Doris Day's earlier romantic comedies: Pillow Talk and Lover Come Back, both with Rock Hudson. During her box-office heyday, she co-starred with a number of handsome leading men: a few old-timers who hadn't lost their charm, like Clark Gable in Teacher's Pet and Cary Grant in The Touch of Mink, and newcomers like James Garner in The Thrill of It All and Move Over, Darling.
In 1965, her romantic lead was Rod Taylor, a rising star from Australia who was earning his Hollywood creds with small but significant roles in blockbusters like Giant and Raintree County. He took the lead in George Pal's sci-fi classic The Time Machine, and gave a heroic performance in Young Cassidy, playing writer Sean O'Casey in his youth.
It seemed a good idea to pair Day and Taylor in Do Not Disturb, but, in spite of their obvious chemistry, the film was a critical flop. Directed by TV veteran Ralph Levy, who had helmed dozens of classic sitcoms like I Love Lucy, Green Acres and The Bob Newhart Show, Levy's television style didn't translate to the movie screen. It was time to bring in a film director with a flair for the absurd, who would take sarcastic digs at current social fads and political agendas.
Frank Tashlin started his career by directing such headliners as Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig and Daffy Duck for Warner's Looney Toons cartoon series. He applied his zany slapstick and surreal methodology to a string of Jerry Lewis comedies that were a series of hits—Artists and Models and Rock-a-Bye Baby, co-written by Tashlin and Preston Sturges—and misses—The Geisha Boy and Cinderfella. But with Glass Bottom Boat, Tashlin suddenly seemed to be out-of-touch with the times, and to have lost his brazenly comic edge. His follow-up film, 1967's Caprice, also starred Day in an industrial spy comedy thriller. Confused marketing struck again, and it, too, was considered a failure.
Glass Bottom Boat has more sight gags and slap-shtick humor than dialogue, and enough French-farce doors slamming to create a small hurricane. But, the overall effect is that of a dog-day August afternoon: stale, oppressive and unmoving. Day and Taylor try hard, but the weak script stifles their already forced relationship. Top-notch supporting actors—Edwards Andrews (Elmer Gantry), John McGiver (Midnight Cowboy, Eric Fleming (Conquest of Space), and even comedian Dom DeLuise (Blazing Saddles)—are left wading through a quagmire of bad dialogue, desperately in search of a punchline.
Paul Lynde (Bye Bye Birdie) earns the best laughs as the intrepid security guard who dresses in drag to "infiltrate" the Ladies Room. In a gaudy turquoise gown and red beehive wig, Lynde pulls off the role with his usual smarmy aplomb and comic timing, but it seems Tashlin may have asked him to "tone it down a bit." Too bad, because Lynde is the one genuine bright spot in the film. Rather than allow him to let loose, Tashlin saddles him with one lame gag after another. When Lynde crosses his legs, Day spots white socks in his come-do-me pumps. She tells him the huge bow at the back of his gown has come undone, and offers to tie it. She does—to a large ceramic lamp—and you know what's coming.
To keep you awake and remind you that The Glass Bottom Boat is supposed to be a trendy satire, watch for Lynde's double-take when he catches a glimpse of Robert Vaughn, Napoleon Solo from the popular The Man from U.N.C.L.E TV series, complete with a few notes from the show's theme.
The cream-pie-in-the-face cliché is replaced with a banana cream cake, but the "hit" happens off-camera, so even this cheap laugh is lost. Modern science is plumbed for a few jokes in Bruce's high-tech kitchen, where appliances, from blenders and sink disposals, (un)expectedly go awry. But, Bruce does have a prototype for today's "Roombot," that little disc of a vacuum cleaner that roams around your house picking up dirt, and then automatically returns to an outlet to recharge itself. Bruce's "bot," however, hides in a closet until its services are required, and, need I say, it still has a lengthy hose attachment to provide some naughty, but predictable, visual innuendos.
Doris Day sings the title song with Arthur Godfrey, accompanied by his ukulele, and this scene is so spontaneous and enjoyable, it appears to have been done on the first take. This segues into a few bars of "Que Sera Sera." Day also sings a beautiful ballad, "Soft as the Starlight," co-written by an uncredited Curly Howard of The Three Stooges. Who knew he had it in him?
Warner's transfer of The Glass Bottom Boat is near pristine, with little aging present that might distract from the beautiful outdoor scenery or the eye-popping 1960s interiors of Bruce Templeton's Florida Xanadu. Leon Shamroy was the cinematographer of choice for epics and musicals, South Pacific (1958), The King and I(1956), The Robe (1953) The Egyptian (1954); and he won an Oscar in 1964 for Cleopatra. Shamroy paints a lavish picture of the opulent lifestyles of the rich and famous of the era. Templeton's home is decked out with bright pastel walls and subtly contrasting furniture. Lime greens and beiges highlight the NASA offices. The costumes by Ray Aghayan, perfectly capture the haute couture of the period, particularly those designed for Doris Day. The Dolby Digital 2.0 is very good, rendering both the somewhat mediocre score by Frank De Vol and Day's songs crisp and clear.
The extras are a strange mix. Every Girl's Dream is a period short following the winner of a "Miss Cotton" contest (!) as she visits the MGM sets, while a narrator describes the clothes she's wearing. The five-minute NASA is hosted by Doris Day, as she praises the space program and its heroes, accompanied by a few seconds of military footage and a lot of clips from the film. Catalina is a travelogue narrated by Arthur Godfrey; and the original trailer is also included. The most fascinating extra is the 1966 Oscar-winning short, The Dot and the Line, co-directed by one of Tashlin's early cohorts, Chuck Avery. The simplicity of the animation offsets the complicated whys-and-hows of opposites attracting. And the pastel colors nicely complement those used in The Glass Bottom Boat.
Overseas, The Glass Bottom Boat was released as The Spy in Lace Panties, and I suspect Day may have refrained from any press junkets promoting the movie under that title. Both she and Taylor went on to better films and TV series; but The Glass Bottom Boat remains Frank Tashlin's mediocre swan song.
After Caprice, his last film was The Private Navy of Sgt. O'Farrell (1968). Even with Bob Hope and Phyllis Diller in the leads, the "laff factor" registered a near zero. Tashlin passed away a few years later without ever reprising the spark and ingenuity of his earlier work in both animation and film. I highly suggest that you click on the accomplices link, "Frank Tashlin at Senses of Cinema" for an in-depth commentary on his ingenious contributions to comedy.
Frankly, I'm a sucker for films from the 1960s, but The Glass Bottom Boat left me cold and unsatisfied. If you're a Doris Day fan looking for something light and frothy, but not particularly effervescent or demanding, featuring attractive stars, scenery and period flavor, you could do worse.
Both a stinker and a sinker, The Glass Bottom Boat is guilty and hereby sentenced to be deep-sixed to Davey Jones's Locker.
But since it's one of Frank Tashlin's last film efforts, I'm going to toss him a laugh preserver and a few extra points, hoping viewers will help keep this overlooked and underrated director's head above water. "Th-th-th-that's all, folks!"
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Three Vintage Featurettes: Every Girl's Dream, NASA, and Catalina
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