There are two kinds of people in this world; those who appreciate the comic genius of Tim Conway, and those who stare in blank, abject moral terror at him, as if Dorf sprang from a Lovecraftian dimension where humor does not conform to Euclidian geometry. Before we begin, let us discern which type of person you are.
Tim Conway as The Dentist
I defy you to watch this and not find it funny.
While not as funny as let’s say, watching someone in a Judd Apatow movie trip over a litterbox and fall dick-first into a bong, he’s certainly a master of comic timing and physical comedy. Now take Don Knotts; while us children of the 70’s and 80’s remember him most as the manic, bug-eyed Mr. Furley from “Three’s Company,” he’s the perfect foil for Conway as the straight man with the sardonic smirk.
The story is that they wrote this movie in 2 days, and it sort of shows; it really exists to get these two guys together in a loose Sherlock Holmes 30’s-era drawing room mystery spoof, and it’s all so improvised that it works. The movie begins with two British upper-class twits of the year in their car outside the mansion; Lord Morley is a good enough soul, but he’s a master of mixed metaphors and his wife heckles him for it. He forgets his cigars in the house, and when he goes to retrieve them, a black cloaked figure strangles Lady Morley with a silk kerchief. When he returns, he is conked on the noggin and the car is driven into the lake.
Inspector Winship (Knotts) and Dr. Tart (Conway) are on the case, driving to the manor. Scotland Yard received a letter requesting them specifically, to the chief’s chagrin. On the drive to the manor we learn of Dr. Tart’s crazy inventions, such as the Time Gun, which goes off every hour. He also has a coop of pigeons in the back of the wagon for sending messages to the Yard. Dr. Tart also believes in the supernatural, such as ghosts and wookelars. What’s a wookelar? You’ll have to watch it to find out.
Drawing room mysteries have been ripe fruit for spoofing, probably done best in Murder By Death; by the time The Private Eyes came out it was starting to turn, and nowadays you can smell the gags a mile away. But they manage to go over the top enough to make it work. We meet the Phyllis, the heiress of the estate, who is suitably seductive; She introduces them to the staff, who are a motley crew of stereotypes just off-kilter enough to be funny.
There’s the British butler, who killed his wife’s thirteen lovers and can’t bear to hear the m-word, the dour German hostess, the sexy ditzy maid, the severe Japanese chef Mr. Uwatsum (Uwatsum chicken teriyaki? Get it?), Jock the hunchback, and Tibet the drunken groundskeeper. We learn that Jock’s tongue was cut out as punishment for stealing a ruby, and that it was in a woman’s navel at the time. He’s one of the funnier members of the cast, with his half-grin half-grimace and barely comprehensible manner of speaking, followed by the Butler raving every time someone says murder (now you’ve done it!)
Rather immediately we find a shadowy cloaked figure offing the staff, while Tart and Winship bumble through secret passages and try to interrogate them to solve the crime. The killer leaves notes on the bodies in sort of rhyme- one running gag is that he keeps screwing up an easy rhyme, such as:
If Jock could talk, he’d give you a clue.
But now that he’s dead, what can you do?
He deserved what he got, I don’t regret it a bit.
By the way, you’re standing in bull ca-ca.
That still made me laugh. Once in a while they’ll break the rules and actually make it rhyme if it’s funny enough. Such as when the maid gets hers.
Hilda is dead, and here’s something to note. You can’t bury her at sea, ’cause her bosoms will float.
The movie progresses like Abbott & Costello Meet The Dude In the Black Cloak, with their unique humor stamped on it. One running gag is whenever Dr. Tart tries to send a message by pigeon, the bird is consigned to a bizarre, grisly fate. My personal favorite is when one refuses to fly in the presence of a plucked chicken, instead floundering over it with an obvious voice-over meant to be the sound of a pigeon mourning. It’s so ridiculous that it still made my inner 12-year old laugh. Other little touches include when they fall down a chimney, and they just decide to drop two action figures in costumes down a chute for the effect. It’s in the trailer, check it out.
It’s to the movie’s credit that even though there are huge hints as to who the killer is and what the plot twist will be, and even though I’d seen this movie a few times, I was quite riveted when all is revealed. They pace the story quite well, moving from one skit to another and finally an extended chase scene of sorts, when even the skeptic Inspector Winship is believing that wookelars might be able to return from the grave. After all, they can suck a pig’s brain right through its nose.
The movie revels in its low budget and makes great use of the mansion set, playing gags on every expectation you have. Conway’s brilliant physical comedy even makes the “walk this way” gag work, when he’s paired with Knotts to smack him around. I must admit that this movie was corny even in the early 80’s, but it’s miles beyond last week’s stinker, Heartbeeps.
It goes to show that even with a $2 million budget and a script written in a weekend, when a few comic geniuses are having fun, it’s infectious. Sometimes it’s just Tim Conway trying to talk with canned peaches in his mouth, but it’s still damn funny. The only clip on youtube is the trailer, which does have quite a few gags in it, so check it out there. It is criminally absent from Netflix, but you can get it at Amazon.