Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Favorite Film: A New Leaf starring Walter Matthau and Elaine May

I was going to talk about a Christmas movie today, but then I remembered that I'd already listed my favorites on a previous post a while back, so decided to talk about one of my favorite romantic comedies instead. Romantic comedies (the rare good ones) are fun at any time of the year - don't you think?

A NEW LEAF starring Walter Matthau and Elaine May (who also directed) is one of my favorite films of the 1970's. It is also on my list of Top Five Romantic Comedies of all time. It is everything a film should be on so many levels: screenplay, direction, acting, you name it. It is, to my mind, the perfect romantic comedy starring what is, admittedly, not a very romantic individual: Walter Matthau.

Here's the story: Henry Graham (played by Walter Matthau) is a fastidious, grumpy, upper crust snob, living the life of a wealthy n'er-do-well in fashionable New York circles. But after years of carelessly living on the principle rather than the interest, he finds he's gone through the enormous fortune he inherited. Henry is bottomed out, tapped out, done for. (The scene at his lawyer's office when he discovers the bleakness of his situation is one of many hilarious moments in the film.) There's not a penny left (he can't even pay his butler's salary). Since, admittedly all Henry has ever wanted to be is a 'rich man', there's not much he isn't willing to do to replenish the coffers.

The build-up to the moment when Henry finally decides what he must do in order to continue living his egocentric, hedonistic lifestyle is made up of little oh-so-hilarious vignettes as Henry slowly, painfully, stops denying the truth and decides on a course of action: he must marry money. Not that he intends on staying married, no, his scheme calls for a bit of murder.

The habitually squeamish Henry considers this sort of thing (marriage not murder) a debasement of himself and his values. He doesn't even like women much. Not that he's gay - if anything he seems asexual - he's just one of those men who prefers a solitary life of selfish luxury. The idea of having to marry now, at this stage in his life, is abhorrent to him.

Walter Matthau is so perfect in these scenes; while you laugh at his situation, his obvious distaste, his discomfort, you also, in some odd way, completely understand his point of view. That's the beauty of the screenplay by Elaine May and Jack Ritchie. (I understand this film is considered the 'butchered' version of the original, but if so, it's still quite wonderful enough.)

More vignettes follow as Henry begins searching for someone rich enough and gullible enough -eligible women who are known to have money - to fall for his rather obvious gold-digging scheme. (The rumors are circulating that he's broke.) His obnoxious uncle, played by James Coco, has staked Henry to a loan and bet him that by a certain date he can't repay it (Henry uses the last of his expensive possessions including his Porsche as collateral.) The money goes to fund Henry's must get married scheme.

Enter Elaine May as Henrietta Lowell, a pathetically clumsy, charmless, clueless heiress with piles of money and a mansion staffed with loathsome, larcenous servants. Besides being an heiress, Henrietta is a botanist, a professor at a local college - leaves and plant life are her main interesta in life. Her goal: to discover a new plant species and have it named after her.

Henrietta falls for Henry when he comes to her aid - socially speaking - at a tea party. From then on Henry steps in whenever she needs saving from disaster usually brought about by her extreme clumsiness. Elaine May plays this part for all it's worth: she is a total social and aesthetic disaster. When she eats, food splatters her clothing and elsewhere, when she moves about, objects go flying. She is nothing short of a walking train wreck. As far as Henry is concerned she is the perfect patsy.

He decides to marry her immediately.

Well, you know what's coming, if you know anything about romantic comedies. But how these two work their way towards an ending which is one of the best and most satisfying (at least to me) in movie history, is a total joy to watch. As Henry dreams about murdering his bride on their honeymoon, he is, in actual fact and against his better judgement, taking pretty good care of her. His understanding of her faults and eccentricities is an almost instinctual thing. It's as if he was born to take care of her. (Matthau was born to play this part. I can't imagine any other actor as Henry.) These two were meant for each other.

This is such a funny movie. But while you're laughing, Henry and Henrietta have worked their magic - somehow - inevitably, you begin to care what happens to them. Two characters that, at first glance, are utterly charmless and unlikeable, become just the opposite.

What a terrific movie. I absolutely love it.

And by the way: the supporting cast of characters is almost as good as Matthau and May.
There's James Coco, Jack Weston, George Rose, Doris Roberts, Renee Taylor and William Redfield among others. It's rare to see a film so perfectly cast from top to bottom.


  1. Another movie that I have not seen before. This one I had never even heard of. I have a feeling I'm going to be adding a lot of movies to my DVD collection because of these posts.

  2. Oh Ryan, you HAVE to see this! It's such a terrific movie. So funny and also, in a very odd way, quite touching. I think you will love it.

  3. Not only have I never seen this I've never heard of it. I will add it to my lovefilm list pronto.

  4. Juxtabook: Well, then I'm doubly glad I posted about A NEW LEAF! You must see this. It is an absolute gem.

  5. Fantastic choice, Yvette! I don't think Matthau was ever more funny or endearing than in 'A New Leaf'. Reading your lovely synopsis has made me want to rewatch this in the New Year. I think it's one of the few 70s comedies that stands comparison with the classics of the 30s and 40s.

  6. You seem to be one of the few who's familiar with this film, Nicolas. I'm so glad you liked my post. Yes, it does stand the comparison and the test of time, I think. I loved Matthau in this. In the end scene, he is just perfection. I kind of fell in love with him. :)

  7. I saw it a few years ago when one of my film professors did a screening. Otherwise I don't think I would have known it, it does seem to have been unfairly forgotten. I know what you mean about Matthau: it's hugely satisfying to see that crusty exterior crumble into resignation!

  8. A happy resignation, I think, in spite of himself. A great ending. The beginniing of a very good marriage, I believe. Notice how she gets him to agree to become a 'working' man - he's going to be a professor too, if I remember correctly. I think I'm going to buy the dvd so I can watch it whenever I want.

  9. Yes, you're right, it's that "in spite of himself" that assures us of their future happiness. Both characters will grow through their alliance, rather like the screwball characters that preceded them.

    Thanks for reminding me of such a happy film, I think I will be recommending it to friends in the New Years!

  10. You're welcome, Nicolas. Have a great Christmas!!

  11. Absolutely my favourite film ever. Get stuffed Orson Welles. Only recently available on DVD, and that a rather indifferent copy of the VHS version, but who cares? The story and the acting are so good. And it contains the greatest line in cinema: "She's unscrewing my Montrazini!"

  12. Red Admiral: Thanks for dropping by. I love this film as well as you can tell. :)

  13. I adore this film and I need to see it again soon. Wonder if my library owns it.

  14. imolosuI remeber seeing this movie long ago and putting it on my must have list. I bought the bootleg VHS transfer DVD and was hapy to have it. I am pleased to announce that the movie is available on bluray now, I purchased on E-Bay. I gave my DVD to one of my brothers who is a Mathau fan also and did not know of this movie. Definitely one of my favorite all time movies, up there with Something For a Lonely Man, with Dan Blocker. Another movie that is hard to obtain.

  15. lishacuA New Leaf is one of my favorite movies as well. I belong to Netflix, and they do not have that one available. Do you know where I can get a copy?

  16. I love this post, and thank you for recognizing my favorite comedy of all time. I just got it recently on Blu-Ray, and we think it has the original soundtrack and looks purely fabulous.

    Please join me in asking the National Film Preservation Board to add "A New Leaf" to the National Film Register. The comment period is open NOW!

  17. It's great to know that there is a DVD available now. I'm going to look for it. HAVE to own this film. It's my favorite comedy as well.

    I looked on the National Film Preservation Foundation website but couldn't find the 'comments' section. I'll keep looking. This film is a definite keeper.

    Neflix doesn't have a copy - It's still on the 'Save' list.

  18. My parents loved this movie when it came out (so did I, in my 20's then) I have to see if I can find it and show my now late 80's mom, it will make her day. Loved your review.

    1. Rulayne, thanks so much, glad you enjoyed it. Netflix has the film for viewing on DVD. At least they did a little while ago. I think I'm going to have to buy myself a copy one of these days. You and your mom have good taste in movies. :)


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