A NEW LEAF
(director/writer: Elaine May; screenwriter: short story The Green Heart by Jack Ritchie; cinematographer: Gayne Rescher; editors: Don Guidice/Fredric Steinkamp; music: Neal Hefti; cast: Walter Matthau (Henry Graham), Elaine May (Henrietta Lowell), Jack Weston (Andy McPherson), George Rose (Harold), James Coco (Uncle Harry), Doris Roberts (Mrs. Traggert), Renée Taylor (Sally Hart), William Redfield (Beckett), Graham Jarvis (Bo); Runtime: 102; MPAA Rating: G; producers: Hillard Elkins/Howard W. Koch/Joseph Manduke; Paramount Pictures; 1971)
“Very funny in patches.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Writer-director Elaine May’s first feature is very funny in patches. May based the black comedy on a short story by Jack Ritchie called The Green Heart. Paramount, unhappy she went over budget, the shooting went 40 days over schedule and the editing took over ten months, changed her original black ending and made other drastic cuts along the way which prompted May to request her name be removed from the credits; she also sued to prevent its opening, but a judge overruled the motion. The film opened to good box office and reviews.
Middle-aged playboy Henry Graham (Walter Matthau), a pompous, selfish, unlikable cad, is informed by his lawyer (William Redfield) that he has no more money left from his trust fund, which he squandered through his foolishly extravagant lifestyle (which included driving a temperamental, always needing repairs, impractical Ferrari sports car around in the city). The now bankrupt Henry only wanted to be rich and has no talents that are bankable, and is not capable of seeking gainful employment. Upon the advice of his very proper gentlemans gentleman, Harold (George Rose), who tells Henry he would be forced to resign from his ideal job if he doesn’t come up with a means of getting solvent again, Henry decides to marry a wealthy woman as the solution to his problem. Henry requests a loan of $50,000 from his Uncle Harry (James Coco), someone assigned by his late father to be the guardian of his trust and who has grown to despise Henry for being so irresponsible. Uncle sees this as an opportunity to put the screws on Henry and agrees to the loan on the condition it’s repaid with exorbitant interest in six weeks and if not everything in the world that Henry owns will be his.
After futile attempts to engage wealthy society women, Henry meets in the last days of the loan becoming due Miss Perfect. She’s the single, wealthy heiress and isolated botanist Henrietta Lowell (Elaine May). The dysfunctional socialite lives alone in a Long Island mansion. She’s klutzy, gauche, primitive in taste (preferring Mogen David wine), a plain jane, lacks the social graces and is helpless. Henrietta falls in love with Henry because his boldness gives her confidence and they get married after a three-day courtship despite her crooked trustee lawyer Andrew McPherson (Jack Weston), who has been stealing from her for years, strongly objecting to the wedding and offering proof that Henry is broke and marrying her only for her money. Settling down in her mansion after their brief honeymoon, Henry begins protecting his new fortune by firing the thieving household staff of seventeen after seeing how they are cheating her by not doing their jobs and getting paid excessive salaries (which they split with McPherson). Henry then schemes to murder Henrietta by reading up on poisons. But on a field trip with her to the isolated Adirondacks, Henry turns over a new leaf when he can’t let his wife drown as he fondly thinks of the Alsophila Grahamicus–a new fern leaf Henrietta discovered and generously named after him, immortalizing her undeserving hubby as a botany footnote. Allowing his cold heart to melt slightly, Henry pledges to protect Henrietta for the rest of his life.
The humor ranges from slapstick to witty verbiage to set-piece shticks (spilling drinks on the carpet). Not a perfectly realized retro screwball comedy but, nevertheless, inviting because of the sharp performances of the stars Matthau and May, the engaging ones by supporting actors Weston and Rose, the intelligent script and the freshness in how May presents her self-important characters as assholes but not without charm.
REVIEWED ON 4/5/2006 GRADE: B+ https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/