By Phil Hall | April 23, 2010

BOOTLEG FILES 320: “The Maltese Bippy” (1969 comedy starring Dan Rowan and Dick Martin).

LAST SEEN: This turns up occasionally on cable television.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: No commercial release to date.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Eventually, though no one will be happy to see it.

In 1968, the comedy team of Dan Rowan and Dick Martin hit pay dirt with the TV series “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.”  The show’s irreverent mix of slapstick skits, loony sight gags, comedy songs and pointed comments at then-relevant political issues helped to shake American television out of blandness and into a new state of hipster humor.

Oddly, Rowan and Martin were not the likeliest choices to lead such an endeavor. The team had been performing since 1952, but never quite found their niche.  Guest appearances on TV variety shows and headlining at nightclubs kept them busy, and they were able to star in a low-budget comedy Western called “Once Upon a Horse” in 1958.  Their act was smooth, predictable and mildly amusing, but they lacked the vibe that allowed them to make the leap to a higher level of stardom.

Actually, the beauty of “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” came in the show’s mix of a bright young ensemble of comic actors (most notably Goldie Hawn and Lily Tomlin) and a parade of prominent guests who turned up in either quickie cameos or in wacky sketches (John Wayne, Peter Sellers, Ringo Starr, Diana Ross, Raquel Welch and even Richard Nixon popped in for guest shots). Rowan and Martin served primarily as emcees that opened the show, commented on its wackiness, and wrapped up the proceedings.

The ratings success of the program tempted Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) to bring Rowan and Martin to the big screen. The duo turned up in a 1968 MGM-produced public service short called “Rowan and Martin at the Movies,” and that used the “Laugh-In” brand of staccato editing and zany guest appearances to sell U.S. Savings Bonds. The short came with the unusual presence of a laugh track that went off whenever the duo or their guests said something funny – and this might be the only time in motion picture history that a laugh track was used in a movie soundtrack!

MGM then pushed the team forward into a feature film. However, no one from the “Laugh-In” cast was invited to join them. Even worse, it was decided to reconfigure the team’s established persona (Rowan’s debonair straight man and Martin’s appealing bubblehead) into new on-screen characters: Rowan was given a Bud Abbott fast-talking schemer part while Martin absorbed a Lou Costello-style frenzied shnook who winds up in the middle of the mayhem.

The film was called “The Maltese Bippy” – the title is a riff on “The Maltese Falcon,” and “bippy” was one of the team’s popular catchphrases (specifically: “You bet your bippy!”). However, the film has no connection with “The Maltese Falcon” or anything even vaguely Maltese.

Adding to the irreverence (or, perhaps, irrelevance) was the film’s pre-credit sequence, involving the reign of “Irving the Horrible” in 13th century Mongolia. After a minute of this, the film then abruptly switches to contemporary Flushing, New York, where a woman screams when a prowler follows her to her doorstep.  Suddenly, “Intermission” flashes on the screen while tuxedo-clad Rowan and Martin appear to chat about the opening credits that flash around them.

It is not a particularly funny way to start a film – it lacks the pace and vibe of “Laugh-In” and the duo’s timing seems a bit off.  When this over, the real film begins. The funnymen are adult filmmakers shooting their latest endeavor, “Lunar Lust,” in a crummy Manhattan office.  Rowan is the film’s director, Martin is cast as the overly romantic astronaut and buxom starlet Pamela Rodgers (who would later join the “Laugh-In” cast) is the extra-terrestrial queen who knows nothing about the Earth habit of kissing. However, a landlord demanding payment on unpaid rent interrupts the proceedings and the film is shut down.

The men pack up their belongings in a moving truck and go to Martin’s creepy old home in Flushing. The house is next to cemetery, where the discovery of a dead body (not shown on-screen) brings about police investigators (including a young Robert Reed). Martin lives in the house with a wisecracking housekeeper (Mildred Natwick) and a young blonde college student (Carol Lynley) who is renting a room.

Next door, an equally creepy house is home to a pair of Hungarian siblings (Fritz Weaver and Julie Newmar) and their stern housekeeper (Edra Gale). The latter has few lines and serves no purpose except to be the butt of wisecracks about her weight. The home also features a German shepherd that is constantly barking at Rowan and Martin.

For no clear reason, Martin has found himself howling at odd moments.  His psychiatrist believes he is turning into a werewolf, while the Hungarians next door confide that they are actually 300-year-old werewolves. Martin is aghast, but Rowan thinks he can make a variety show act from the werewolves. However, the blonde student helps Martin learn that the Hungarians and the psychiatrist are trying to drive him insane so they can locate a valuable jewel hidden in the house.

Does any of this sound funny?  If you’re not laughing, you’re not alone. “The Maltese Bippy” is the rarest of birds: a comedy film that does not contain one single funny moment.  In fact, the film’s utter lack of mirth actually becomes fascinating in a sick way – it is impossible to watch it unfold without wondering how it could possibly get worse. And it gets worse and worse with each new reel. From the miscasting of Rowan and Martin in Abbott and Costello roles to the dust-covered haunted house clichés to Norman Panama’s dreary direction, “The Maltese Bippy” is a joyless experience.

MGM found itself with a major turkey when it tried to launch “The Maltese Bippy” in the summer of 1969.  Despite an unusually loud promotional campaign, audiences stayed away from the film.  A planned second vehicle for Rowan and Martin, tentatively titled “The Money Game,” was scrapped and no other studio wanted to gamble on the duo after this film flopped.  They never made another movie, although “Laugh-In” remained a high-rated TV series through 1973.

To date, “The Maltese Bippy” has never been commercially released in any home entertainment format.  Bootleg DVDs based on the film’s occasional appearance on Turner Classic Movies can easily be located.  But, really, why would anyone want to seek out this awful film?

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!

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  1. Dennis DeMarco says:

    Phil –

    Sadly, I agree with you – “The Maltese Bippy” is a not very good film. As a huge Rowan and Martin fan, I was excited when it ran on Showtime late last year but it really is a boorish affair. One question: where can I get a copy of “Rowan and Martin at the Movies”?

    – Dennis

    P.S. Love your column. and look forward to it each week.

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