BOOTLEG FILES 278: “The Fat Spy” (1966 comedy starring Jack E. Leonard and Jayne Mansfield).
LAST SEEN: We cannot confirm the last public exhibition of the film.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Only on labels specializing in public domain titles.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: The film’s copyright appears to have lapsed.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not likely.
As a film reviewer, I get to see an awful lot of movies – not to mention a lot of awful movies. Most bad films tend to be forgettable, which is understandable since few people tend to place undue importance on the banal or the mediocre.
However, every now and then, it is possible to come across a film that goes beyond just being bad. Such films provoke all of the right emotions for all of the wrong reasons, and the viewer is both baffled and blessed by the insanity unleashed by such a motion picture.
The 1966 feature “The Fat Spy” falls into that unique category. While the title may suggest a spoof on the 007 genre, “The Fat Spy” is actually a spoof on the “Beach Party” flicks of the early 1960s. Indeed, there is very little spying going on here, and the intrigue that shows up is closer to corporate espionage than secret agent derring-do. But there is a fat man in the film – actually, there are two of them, played by the same actor.
The titular girth belongs to Jack E. Leonard, and you probably never heard of him unless you were watching TV in the 1950s and 1960s. Leonard was a bombastic stand-up comic who specialized in putdown humor and Borscht Belt jokes. His brand of comedy was acceptable in five-minute appearances on Ed Sullivan’s variety show, but he clearly wore out his welcome with an extended presence. “The Fat Spy” gave Leonard his first starring film role – and, not surprisingly, his last.
“The Fat Spy” takes place in Florida, where a group of teenagers take a boat to a seemingly deserted island on a treasure hunt for the golden goodies buried by the Spanish conquistadors of the 16th century. Unknown to them, the island is the property of the House of Wellington, a cosmetics conglomerate. Mr. Wellington (veteran character actor Brian Donlevy, clearly reading his lines from cue cards) and his daughter Junior (Jayne Mansfield) receive word of the teenagers’ presence from Irving (Leonard), a bumbling botanist on the House of Wellington staff and the caretaker/sole tenant on the island. Mr. Wellington fears the teenagers are after the legendary Fountain of Youth that can be found on the island, so Junior volunteers to fly her airplane to the island to keep an eye on the teenagers – and to keep an eye on Irving, whom she adores.
Meanwhile, the House of Wellington’s smarmy marketing chief Herman, who is Irving’s twin brother (also Leonard), is in cahoots with the company’s corporate nemesis Camille Salamander (Phyllis Diller) – they are in love and both are eager to bring down the House of Wellington. Camille has a Sikh servant who loves to be whipped by his boss, and he is jealous that Herman has taken Camille’s attentions from his daily whippings.
Meanwhile, the teenagers on the island sing, dance, make out, and look for the buried treasure. One of the teens, a boy named Dodo, meets a mermaid. He decides to leave his bipedal friends and walks into the waves when his fishy female friend calls for him. No one seems to miss Dodo after he departs.
“The Fat Spy” is not a boring film, by any stretch. In fact, the film often tries too hard to be energetic and creative. Director Joseph Cates (best known for producing the Oscar telecasts and 80s bombshell Phoebe Cates) constantly elbows the audience with a skein of jokes designed to call attention to the silliness of the procedures: the chief teen couple are dubbed “Frankie and Nanette,” the actors constantly look into the camera to comment on the action, thought balloons pop up on screen, and intertitles appear to speed along the zanier aspects of the plot. The film also promises a wealth of sequels at its conclusion, but none of the potential follow-ups like “The Son of the Fat Spy” were ever made (thank you, God!).
The problem (or joy, depending on your taste) is that nothing in the film is intentionally funny. Diller and Leonard try to engage in insult joke one-upsmanship, but the efforts are dismal: she pats his considerable girth and comments about seeing an entire basketball team in one suit while he sings a song that compares kissing her to kissing Darryl F. Zanuck. (What?!?) Leonard tries to engage in physical humor, with shtick that includes pretending to play a telescope like it is a flute, balancing himself on a child’s bicycle, and shaking his generous belly while surrounded by bikini girls. He is so wrong for big screen stardom that it is impossible not to consider who thought it was a good idea to put him on camera. Mansfield tries to generate laughs with her dumb blonde shtick, but that stale joke was already 10 years old by the time the film was made.
Where the real laughs occur, however, is where the laughs are not intended. Mansfield goes through the film wearing a wig that looks like a dead lamb is resting on her head. She was five months pregnant during the production, and some fun can be seen in trying to locate her condition amid her wildly unflattering costumes. And poor Brian Donlevy is so lost and confused that it is easy to feel sorry for him. His climactic moment comes when he is sailing to the island while offscreen voices trying to sound like Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney encourage him to be a tough guy – Donlevy sits in silence, wearing sunglasses, looking out at the horizon, registering no emotion whatsoever while the inane voices fill the soundtrack.
As for the teenagers – well, they seem a bit mature to be high school kids (especially the guy with the beard and the guy with the tattoos). They are given the bulk of the musical numbers, and at one point “Nanette” even announces it is time for her song (which she performs by standing like a statue on an empty beach). The songs represent the worst of American pop in the mid-1960s, particularly the big dance number where everyone is encouraged to dance “The Turtle” (though the gyrating hips and swinging arms suggest rabid chimpanzees rather than sedate turtles).
“The Fat Spy” was an independent production that was picked up for release by Magna Pictures Distribution Corp., a small distributor that was clearly clueless on how to market the film. The advertising campaign played up Leonard, Mansfield, and Diller while de-emphasizing the teen beach aspects of the film. As a result, the youth audience stayed away because they thought the movie was for grown-up squares, while adults stayed away because no one wanted to see something that was hyped as “It’s a killer. . . a Diller. . . a blast of laffs!” Ironically, the poster art showed Jayne Mansfield in a bikini, which the film never offered.
“The Fat Spy” appears to have fallen into the public domain, and many labels presenting copyright-lapsed titles are now offering it. I picked up a DVD for one cent via an eBay auction, while the title can be located in numerous dollar-DVD bins at retail stores. The film could probably be rescued from the public domain if the copyright owners to the film’s songs make a vigorous claim to intellectual property rights – but hey, who would ever think of linking “intellectual property” and “The Fat Spy” in the same sentence?
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!