BOOTLEG FILES 549: “Rabbit Test” (1978 comedy directed by Joan Rivers and starring Billy Crystal).
LAST SEEN: The film is on YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: There were VHS and Laserdisc releases, but no U.S. DVD release.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A dud that no one wants to be reminded about.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: There is a PAL DVD version, and a U.S. reissue is possible.
When Joan Rivers passed away last week, a great deal of attention was given to her extraordinary ability to reinvent herself and find new audiences over the course of her long career. However, there was one aspect of Rivers’ work where she fell down and never truly got up: her foray into filmmaking.
For the first part of her career, Rivers had minimal involvement in the film world. She claimed to be a teenage extra in a long-forgotten 1951 wrestling comedy called “Mister Universe,” and she was briefly seen in a comedy segment of an obscure 1965 indie called “Once Upon a Coffee House.” Her only significant film role came in a brief dramatic performance in the 1968 feature “The Swimmer,” for which she received respectable reviews. However, Rivers never made any attempt to leverage “The Swimmer” for further acting gigs, and she kept her focus squarely on television and concert appearances.
By the late 1970s, Rivers decided that she was ready to go where no female comic had dared to tread: behind the movie camera. Perhaps Rivers was emboldened by the success of funnymen Woody Allen and Mel Brooks, who spent the decade churning out comedy flicks rich with sassy one-liners and cheerfully vulgar sight gags. With her husband Edgar Rosenberg serving as her producer, Rivers happily mortgaged her home and set out to make her mark in the world of comedy movies.
And, boy, did she make her mark. The resulting production, titled “Rabbit Test,” turned out to be one of the worst comedy films ever made. I am not talking about a film being so bad that it’s entertaining. In the case of “Rabbit Test,” the film was so painfully incompetent at every imaginable level that absolutely no pleasure could be found at any frame in its 81-minute running time. If anything, “Rabbit Test” cruelly revealed that Rivers’ talent was far less invigorating than previously imagined.
The primary problem with “Rabbit Test” was that it was based on a hoary one-joke concept – in this case, a man becomes pregnant. But Rivers had no clue how to take the concept and expand it into a flowing, coherent comedy script. Instead, it seemed as if she recklessly emptied her legendary files of one-liners and putdowns into the screenplay, with the vague hope that audiences would be happily distracted by her barrage of crass jokes designed to stir up the mayhem. And many of these wisecracks were racially and ethnically offensive – even by the loose standards of the 1970s, the nasty element of the black and Hispanic jokes were weirdly mean spirited.
The secondary problem here was Rivers’ decision to cast Billy Crystal in the leading role as the pregnant man. Crystal’s career was beginning to gain momentum and he already enjoyed notoriety in the taboo-breaking role as the gay son in the controversial TV comedy “Soap.” But Rivers mercilessly scrubbed away the smart aleck persona used by Crystal in his comic act in favor of a bland, benign personality. Throughout the film, Crystal is treated like rubbish – he is badgered by an overbearing mother (played by Doris Roberts), impregnated by an aggressive babe in a storage closet (Sheree North) and treated like a freak by almost everyone he encounters. But because his character is so passive, Crystal fails to register as a comic force, let alone as a likeable performer who could gain the audience’s support, and in most of the film he is elbowed aside by a large supporting cast of veteran hams that have no problems stealing scenes from him. (The film nearly derailed Crystal’s star power, and it would be eight years before he was cast again in a leading film role.)
And that leads to the tertiary problem: Rivers jammed the film with a surplus of B-list comic actors that made the film look like an extension of “Hollywood Squares” – and even Peter Marshall and the game show’s legendary giant tic-tac-toe set turn up. Some of the casting had the potential to be amusing – Roddy McDowall in drag as an elderly fortune teller, Paul Lynde as a smarmy gynecologist with Alice Ghostley as his sycophantic nurse, George Gobel as a buffoonish U.S. president and Fannie Flagg as his wife, and Tom Poston as a priest who performs baptisms by holding the infants by their ankles and submerging them head-first into the baptismal fonts – but Rivers’ dialogue was so weak and her lack of skill in setting up sight gags and pacing dialogue made “Rabbit Test” look like a crummy all-star home movie.
And speaking of the look, “Rabbit Test” was (for no clear reason) originally shot on video and then transferred to 35mm film stock. Even though Rivers arranged for veteran cinematographer Lucien Ballard to shoot “Rabbit Test,” the film had a flat and dreary visual style. It was arguably the least impressive of Ballard’s distinguished career.
As for Rivers, she only turns up in a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo as a gregarious nurse. Oddly, Rivers dominated the film’s extensive advertising push – she was front and center in the film’s trailer and in the poster art, which gave the false impression that audiences were paying to see her on the screen.
But few people actually paid to see the film, due in large part to a violent reaction from the critics. Janet Maslin at The New York Times noted, “As a director, Miss Rivers is forever sandbagging her own scenes, throwing away a good chuckle in a sequence that desperately needs a punch line, or wasting something fairly subtle right after a broad, dopey joke about a urine sample. Whenever one does laugh, it’s in spite of the movie, rather than because of it.” Roger Ebert was even more blunt, complaining that Rivers’ work was “flat and mechanical, filled with funny ideas for a movie, but not with funny things in a movie.”
In later years, Rivers insisted that “Rabbit Test” was profitable, but that sexism prevented her from directing more films. Even if she made money on the film, the critical backlash left her unhappy – she conspicuously refused to cite “Rabbit Test” when highlighting her career highs and lows in the 2010 documentary “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.”
“Rabbit Test” turned up on U.S. VHS and laserdisc, but to date there has been no U.S. DVD or Blu-ray release. A PAL DVD can be imported via Amazon, and the entire film can be viewed in an unauthorized YouTube posting.
With Rivers’ death, a few critics have taken a second look at “Rabbit Test” and attempted to hold it up as a potential cult film favorite. In reality, the film is a miserable failure that is wholly lacking in anything funny. To her credit, Rivers was smart enough to step away from behind the camera and devote the remainder of her career in the spotlight and on the red carpet.
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