Judge Clark Douglas has fathered countless reviews.
The birds and the bees are taking lessons from "What-a-Man!" Pennypacker!
As The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker opens, we see seventeen children of varying ages line up across the screen (a sprawling Cinemascope screen, no less). We learn that these are all the children of Mr. Horace Pennypacker (Clifton Webb, Laura), who then appears in close-up and declares, "Now you know why they call me The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker." I suppose so, though surely the world "remarkable" applies even more accurately to Mrs. Pennypacker.
Actually, as we eventually learn, there are two Mrs. Pennypackers: one lives in Philadelphia and the other lives in Harrisburg. Mr. Pennypacker has a company office in both cities, and goes back and forth between the two locations each month. Miraculously, he's been able to keep the two families from knowing about each other for over two decades. Alas, when his Harrisburg wife (Dorothy McGuire, Old Yeller) and a young Pennypacker from Pennsylvania meet each other, the patriarch's life begins to unravel.
The premise is a rather bold one for a film made in 1959, an idea that offers plenty of potential for comic mayhem. Indeed, early on the title character seems like a delightfully deluded comic figure. The film is set in the early 1900's, and Mr. Pennypacker is presented as one of the era's boldest progressives. He shocks his co-workers with his declaration that women should be permitted to wear rouge at work. He speaks to local civic clubs about the importance of giving women the right to vote. He's a firm believer in the theory of evolution and even heads up a pro-evolution organization called The Darwin Club (though the majority of his activism in this area seems to involve printing flip-books which demonstrate an ape slowly transforming into the local police chief). He owns one of those newfangled automobiles and—wait for it—he drives it himself!. And, um, he's a bigamist. Oh, those wacky turn-of-the-century liberals.
While the first half-hour or so of the film is good fun (particularly when Webb is onscreen), the film starts turning sluggish once Pennypacker's two families find out about each other. While the movie could have used this notion as the springboard for a lot of funny stuff, it chooses to turn preachy and surprisingly conservative. One scene after another finds Pennypacker hanging his head as various friends and family members berate him for his selfishness. While I certainly sympathize with that point of view (c'mon, Pennypacker should have known that his actions would end up hurting the people he loved most), it's still disappointing to see a potentially frothy comedy turn into something so somber and lifeless. Additionally, by presenting Pennypacker as a self-deluded fool, it (intentionally?) presents many of his worthwhile beliefs as something ridiculous.
In one scene, several of Pennypacker's brokenhearted children run away from home. The parents and older children look all over town for the missing youngsters, and finally the kids are found sleeping on the pews of a local church. The minister looks up with a smirk on his face and says, "Well, they didn't come running to you, Mr. Darwin." Um…what exactly would "running to Darwin" entail, Reverend? Engaging in some sort of The Hunger Games-style contest until there was only one child left standing? It's no surprise that the film concludes with a reserved, serious-minded scene that reaffirms the importance of fidelity (again, a belief I wholeheartedly subscribe to), but that doesn't make the film any less of a bummer. Just as movie junkies are more interesting when they're off the wagon, movie scoundrels are more entertaining before they're forced to reform. The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker misses its chance to provide big fun by forcing its protagonist to acknowledge the error of his ways far too quickly.
This DVD release is the latest from Fox's Cinema Archive collection, a bare-bones line of manufactured-on-demand releases which is comparable to the Warner Archive. Unfortunately, this Cinemascope production has been given a non-anamorphic release, meaning those of you with widescreen televisions will be looking at a disappointingly small box within your screen. That's inexcusable in 2013, but it's standard operating procedure for this particular line. Until that changes, I can't really recommend picking up any of their widescreen releases. Otherwise, the transfer is okay, but it's obvious that no work has been put into restoring the film. The Dolby 1.0 Mono track gets the job done, but don't expect anything more. No supplements are included.
The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker starts off in promising fashion, but never lives up to its full potential. Too bad.
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