Something Wilder: THE ADVENTURE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES’ SMARTER BROTHER (20th Century-Fox 1975)

The late Gene Wilder was well loved by filmgoers for his work with Mel Brooks, his movies alongside Richard Pryor, and his iconic role as Willie Wonka. Wilder had co-written the screenplay for Brooks’ YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, and now branched out on his own as writer/director/star of 1975’s THE ADVENTURE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES’ SMARTER BROTHER.

The zany tale, set in 1891, finds Sherlock’s jealous brother Sigerson (Wilder, who derisively calls his more famous sibling “Sheer-Luck”) assigned to the case of music hall singer Jenny Hill (Madeline Kahn) who’s being blackmailed by opera singer Eduardo Gambetti (the enormously funny Dom DeLuise ). Assisting Sigerson is his own Watson, the pop-eyed Sgt. Orville Stacker (Marty Feldman), blessed with “a photographic sense of hearing” that he can only access by whacking himself upside the head. The plot thickens as Sigerson learns Jenny’s a practiced liar (who only trusts men when she’s sexually aroused), she’s actually the daughter of British Foreign Secretary Redcliff… which is another lie; she’s Redcliff’s fiancé, and has handed over an important document to Gambetti, who’s about to sell it to none other than the infamous Professor Moriarty (Leo McKern)!

Wilder displays a keen eye for film in his directorial debut. Like his friend Brooks, he’s obviously a student of the medium, and the film is a visual delight. There’s plenty of laughs to be had, like the scene where Sigerson and Sacker are trapped by Moriarty and Gambetti in a tiny room menaced by a buzzsaw, and escape by the seats of their pants… literally! The comic highlight is “A Masked Ball”, an opera parody starring Gambetti and Jenny invaded by Sigerson, Sacker, and Moriarty’s henchman (Roy Kinnear) where the document is passed around, all with expert comedy timing. Following this is a swashbuckling sequence with Wilder taking on the dastardly McKern.

Wilder, Feldman, and Kahn are all reunited from YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, while McKern and Kinnear were previously paired in The Beatles film HELP! Douglas Wilmer, who starred as Sherlock in the 60’s BBC TV series, donned the deerstalker cap once again; his Watson is Thorley Walters, who essayed the part in three Holmes films. And yes, that’s the voice of Mel Brooks behind the door in a parody of “The Lady or The Tiger?’.

There are plenty of musical sequences in the movie, including the bizarre “Kangaroo Hop”. THE ADVENTURE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES’ SMARTER BROTHER is a madcap romp, but just a notch below Wilder’s films with Brooks. He’d go on to write and direct three more films; THE WOMAN IN RED was his most popular, though I prefer his silent era spoof THE WORLD’S GREATEST LOVER (let’s not talk about HAUNTED HONEYMOON). Still, it’s a solid first effort for Wilder in the director’ seat, with a sterling cast of comic pros, and if you like Mel Brooks’ brand of buffoonery, you’ll definitely enjoy this film, too.

 

Musclebound Mess: HERCULES IN NEW YORK (RAF Industries 1969)

Well, I can finally cross HERCULES IN NEW YORK off my bucket list. This fantasy-comedy starred the team of bespectacled, scrawny comic actor Arnold Stang and musclebound ‘Mr. Universe’ Arnold Strong. Who? Why, none other than the Governator himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger, making his film debut as the Greek Demi-God paying a visit to modern-day Earth. Hercules is all-powerful, and can only be defeated by one thing… a lousy script!

The plot, if you can call it that, has half-human Herc pining to go to Earth against father Zeus’s wishes. Zeus finally relents and transports the headstrong Herc to Terra Firma, where he befriends Stang playing Pretzie, so named because he sells pretzels. Brilliant! The two then have a series of adventures. Herc battles an anemic looking grizzly bear in Central Park! Herc becomes a pro wrestler! Herc falls in love with a mortal! Meanwhile, on Mount Olympus, Juno conspires with Pluto to get rid of Herc once and for all. This all culminates in a “wacky” chase involving some shady gangsters, and a happy ending is had by all.

Arnold isn’t very good in this. His accent is so thick you’d have to cut it with a chainsaw to understand him half the time. The original version (released in New York in 1969, nationwide in ’70) dubbed his lines, only restoring it when Arnold soared to fame in the 80’s. Arnold Stang’s Brooklynese accent is just as thick, but then again that was his trademark. Stang was a voice actor in radio and cartoons (TOP CAT) who made a few films (THE MAN WITH THE THE GOLDEN ARM, IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD ); he’s certainly an acquired taste, you either like him or you don’t. I do, though I’ll admit this isn’t his finest hour.

Producer/screenwriter Aubrey Wisberg is mainly responsible for the film’s failure. Wisberg had his good days ( MAN FROM PLANET X ) and bad (THE NEANDERTHAL MAN ). HERCULES IN NEW YORK definitely falls into the latter category. The script’s lack of quality, combined with the extremely low budget and non-existant direction by Arthur A. Seidleman, ruin what was a not-bad idea. The supporting cast consists of mostly unknown New York actors, familiar only to fans of 60’s-70’s TV soap operas, except former MGM demi-starlet Tania Elg (LES GIRLS). I will give props to Michael Lipton as Pluto, giving a hammy performance worthy of Price or Carradine!

HERCULES IN NEW YORK is a curiosity for sure, being Arnold’s screen debut and all, but is it worth watching? I’ll be honest, it’s not very good, but I’ve seen worse drive-in flicks. The NYC location filming has some historic value, including a chariot ride through Times Square showing what things looked like during the era (EASY RIDER is playing at one theater). It’s in the “so-bad-it’s-good” category of movies, and if you’re into that, give it a shot. Otherwise, stay away.

Rat Pack – 3 = FOUR FOR TEXAS (Warner Brothers 1963)

The wait is finally over, my new DirecTV receiver has arrived and is all hooked up! Unfortunately, all my DVR’d movies have vanished. And since it was filled to about 70% capacity, that’s a lot of movies! Needless to say, I’ve got to load up the ol’ DVR again. Thanks to TCM, I re-recorded one of my old favorites the other day, FOUR FOR TEXAS, an action-packed Western comedy I’ve seen about 100 times already (ok, that’s a slight exaggeration). This combines the two leaders of the Rat Pack, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin , with the talents of director Robert Aldrich. The result is an all-star, slam-bang entertainment that is loads of fun for film fans.

The pre-credits sequence looks like we’re about to watch a traditional Western, with a gang of outlaws led by Charles Bronson   riding out to ambush a stagecoach. But wait, that’s Frankie and Dino defending the coach, shooting it out with the robbers. Frank is Zack Thomas, who’s got a $100,000 hidden onboard; Dean is Joe Jarrett, a sharp-shooting con artist. After the stage crashes, Zack and Joe are the only survivors. Joe holds Zack at gunpoint intending on stealing the loot. Zack turns the tables, but Joe turns ’em right back and leaves Zack in the desert, high, dry, and horseless.

Seems Zack “persuaded” Galveston banker Harvey Burden (a dyspeptic Victor Buono ) to get the money so he could open a riverboat gambling operation. Zack serves as “protection” to Burden and his crooked cronies. What he doesn’t know is it was Burden who hired Matson (our man Bronson) to bushwhack the stage and kill Zack in the process. While Zack relaxes with his main squeeze Elya (the voluptuous Anita Ekberg), who should come riding into town but good ol’ Joe Jarrett. Zack sends some of his boys (led by Mike Mazurki and Richard Jaeckel ) to jump Joe and get the dough back, but Joe’s aided by his driver (Calypso singer Edric Connor) and little Angel (Nick Dennis), who deposits Joe’s loot (sewn into his jacket!) and takes him to meet riverboat owner Max.

Joe has second thoughts about investing when he sees the run-down, decrepit boat, and even thirds when Max begins shooting at him from a window! That is, until he gets a look at Max in the flesh – it’s Ursula Andress , fresh off her success in DR. NO! Naturally, they hook up, refurbish the boat, and get ready for opening night. Meanwhile, a cargo ship owned by Zack gets scuttled, and Zack assumes Joe’s behind it. He and his men storm the dock, looking for a hostile takeover, and the two go mano y mano (or at least their stunt doubles do!). Little do either of them know Burden’s the guilty culprit, and has sent Matson and an army of men to destroy the boat and kill Zack once and for all.

My favorite scene in the film has nothing to do with the plot; it’s the arrival of The Three Stooges   (Moe, Larry, and Curly Joe) delivering a nude portrait of Ursula to the ship. The comedy vets get to do their old “point to the right” gag, receiving a triple-slap from Dino for their troubles. They’re then accosted by a couple of elderly widows out to ban the painting, and revive their “toughest man in Texas” routine. It’s a fun scene, and I’m sure Martin appreciated it, having been a member of a comedy team himself with Jerry Lewis.

Director Aldrich is noted for his testosterone-fueled films like KISS ME DEADLY and THE DIRTY DOZEN , but he had his lighter side, too (THE LONGEST YARD, …ALL THE MARBLES ). He co-wrote the script with Teddi Sherman but allegedly wasn’t happy with it, nor with Sinatra. The film works for me though, with its plush sets and gorgeous Technicolor, Frank and Dean trading quips and barbs, Anita and Ursula both looking beautiful, and the top-notch supporting cast. Bronson plays his role totally straight, and it’s one of his best villainous performances. (His sick offscreen laugh is dubbed by Frank Gorshin, warming up for his later gig on BATMAN as The Riddler!). Buono gives another of his ace bad-guy turns as the cowardly, corpulent Burden. The roster of Familiar Faces popping up includes Wesley Addy, Marjorie Bennett, Virginia Christine, Ellen Corby, Jack Elam , Fritz Feld, Arthur Godfey (in a comic cameo), Percy Helton , Jonathan Hole, Yaphet Kotto, Jack Lambert , Manuel Padilla Jr, Eva Six , Abraham Soafer, Bob Steele, Grady Sutton , and Dave Willock . Now THAT’S what I call a cast!

There’s plenty of brawling, romancing, double entendres, and laughs to be had viewing FOUR FOR TEXAS, but curiously, there’s no singing from either Frank or Dino. Most critics tend to dismiss the film as just another Frankie & Dino vanity production, but I enjoy it each and every time I watch. It did what it set out to do – it entertained me. And when it’s all said and done, isn’t that what a movie’s supposed to do?

From the VHS Vault: The Three Stooges in HAVE ROCKET, WILL TRAVEL (Columbia 1959)

My DirecTV receiver decided to fry itself the other day. A new one won’t be shipped for another five days – no TCM, no DVR’d movies, no Red Sox, no nothin’! What’s a film blogger to do? Since my DVD player isn’t working either, I thought I’d reach into my collection of VHS tapes and see what I could come up with for viewing. Hmm, let’s see… wait a sec, what’s this? An unopened copy of HAVE ROCKET, WILL TRAVEL, the Three Stooges  comeback starring feature! Good Lord, I haven’t seen this movie in years! The Stooges it is!

A little background first: after making shorts for Columbia since 1934, the studio dumped the trio when their contract ended in 1957. Television had killed the short subject market, and the boys were thrown out on their collective keisters. Ironically, it was television that revived their career when the Stooges shorts were released to TV a year later, and a whole new generation fell in love with their physical slapstick brand of humor. Moe Howard and Larry Fine recruited burlesque comic Joe DeRita (who had his own series of Columbia shorts in the 40’s) to replace Joe Besser. DeRita was a better fit than Besser anyway, and his resemblance to Curly Howard (always the most popular Stooge) led to him being dubbed Curly Joe. The reconfigured Stooges toured successfully, and Columbia came crawling back to star them in a feature film titled HAVE ROCKET, WILL TRAVEL.

HAVE ROCKET, WILL TRAVEL isn’t vintage Stooges, but it’s not half bad, either. The Stooges are bumbling janitors at the “National Space Foundation” who are accidentally locked in a rocket ship and blast-off for Venus, encountering a giant fire-breathing tarantula, a talking unicorn, and a robot super-computer who shrinks them to mouse-size and makes android clones of them. They return to Earth as heroes, are given a ticker-tape parade and a gala celebration, a distinguished affair that devolves into a slap-happy donnybrook. The whole thing gives them an excuse to trot some of their old schtick like the “plumbing” gag, the “chased through multiple doors” gag, and the “couch-spring-stuck-in-the-rear-end” gag. They even get to exercise their tonsils, breaking into song about halfway through, a ditty called… what else, “Have Rocket, Will Travel”!

The Stooges are a bit more kinder and gentler here, older but definitely not wiser. The familiar eye pokes, hair-pulling, and face slapping are still around, as are the familiar sound effects, and Moe still hurls insults at his partners (at one point calling Curly Joe “ya baby hippopotamus”). Robert Colbert (later of TV’s THE TIME TUNNEL) and Anna-Lisa provide the romance, while veteran character actor Jerome Cowan takes his lumps as the Stooges’ foil, head of the space foundation. HAVE ROCKET, WILL TRAVEL was aimed directly at their new juvenile audience and is ultra low-budget, with cheezy special effects and cardboard sets, but fans of the boys will enjoy revisiting their antics. I know I sure did!

Strange Days Indeed: Woody Allen’s SLEEPER (United Artists 1973)

(I’m posting a bit earlier than usual so I can head up to the Mecca of baseball, Fenway Park! Go Red Sox!!)

Full disclosure: I lost interest in Woody Allen around the time he decided to become a “serious” filmmaker beginning with INTERIORS. Sure, I thought ZELIG and PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO were funny, and A MIDSUMMER’S NIGHTS SEX COMEDY had its moments. But for me, the years 1969-1977 were Woody’s most creative period, spanning from the absurd TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN to the Oscar-winning ANNIE HALL. Landing right about midway in that timeline stands his brilliant sci-fi satire SLEEPER, which owes more to Chaplin and Keaton than Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke.

The fun begins when Miles Monroe (Allen) is woken from his cryogenic sleep in the year 2173. Two hundred years earlier, Miles had been the proprietor of the Happy Carrot Health Food store, and went in for minor surgery on his peptic ulcer. Somehow he was cryogenically frozen, and is now a stranger in a strange land. The premise just serves as an excuse for Allen to indulge in some of the wackiest schtick and sight gags he’s ever done. Some of the funniest involve him disguised as the robot servant of wacky poet Luna (Diane Keaton, Woody’s significant other at the time). Ersatz robot Woody gets into a battle with a bowl of pudding that grows to Blob-like proportions, gets wrecked on the Orb (a futuristic drug that’s passed around at a party), and is brought in by Keaton to have a head change, where he engages in a sped-up slapstick fight that’s reminiscent of the great silent comedies.

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Allen and Keaton have a wonderful comic chemistry, a sort of 70’s neurotic version of Tracy and Hepburn. Keaton’s Luna is a ditzy bubblehead who comes into her own when she joins the underground movement against the oppressive totalitarian regime, and the two of them sparkle as they infiltrate government headquarters masquerading as doctors and kidnap The Leader, or rather what’s left of him… seems the rebels have blown him up and all that remains is his nose, which is about to be cloned! This scene features a send-up of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY complete with the voice of HAL (Douglas Rain) as a medical computer. A hysterical scene in the rebel camp has Allen and Keaton parodying A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, with Woody as Vivien Leigh’s Blanche and Diane imitating Brando’s Stanley Kowalski!

A Woody Allen film isn’t complete without his trademark one-liners in the grand tradition of his heroes Groucho Marx and Bob Hope (1), and SLEEPER is packed with some gems. Asked to become a spy by the underground, Allen quips, “I’m not the heroic type, I’ve been beaten up by Quakers!”. Keaton asks, “What’s it like to be dead for 2,000 years”, to which Allen replies, “It’s like spending a weekend in Beverly Hills”. When she inquires nonchalantly if he wants to “perform sex”, he rakishly answers, “I’m not up to performing, but I’ll rehearse with you”. Nervous about infiltrating the government, Allen remarks, “I’m 237 years old, I should be collecting Social Security”. Allen’s political philosophy comes into play when he states to Keaton, “Political solutions don’t work, I told you, it doesn’t matter who’s up there, they’re all terrible”. The movie’s last line, with Keaton asking him since he doesn’t believe in God, science, or politics just what does he believe in, is a classic: “Sex and death, two things that come once in my lifetime. But at least after death, you’re not nauseous”.

The jokes and gags come fast and furious, from escaping the stormtroopers via The Hydraulic Suit, to the Yiddish robot tailors voiced by comedians Jackie Mason and Myron Cohen, to Woody discovering the wonders of The Orgasmitron, all set to an incongruous Dixieland Jazz score by Allen and The Preservation Hall Jazz Band. SLEEPER is silly and ridiculous and loads of fun, though some of the jokes are a bit dated (spoofing Howard Cosell, for example). Nevertheless, it’s one of Woody’s best efforts, and as a whole it holds up nicely. Woody Allen is still making films today, one of the last of a dying breed of 70’s filmmakers who helped change the course of cinema. He’s a genius of the cinema of the absurd, and SLEEPER is one you won’t want to miss!

(1) according to Conversations with Woody Allen (2007) by Eric Lax (New York City; Knopf), SLEEPER is dedicated to Marx & Hope.

Lunatic Fringe: Wheeler & Woolsey in HOLD ‘EM JAIL (RKO 1932)

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The comedy team of Wheeler & Woolsey is pretty esoteric to all but the most hardcore classic film fans. Baby-faced innocent Bert Wheeler and cigar-chomping wisecracker Robert Woolsey made 21 films together beginning with 1929’s RIO RITA (in which they’d starred on Broadway), up until Woolsey’s untimely death in 1937. I had heard about them, read about them, but never had the chance to catch one of their films until recently. HOLD ‘EM JAIL makes for a good introduction to W&W’s particular brand of lunacy, as the boys skewer both the prison and college football genres, aided by a top-notch comic supporting cast that includes a 16-year-old Betty Grable.

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Football crazy Warden Elmer Jones (slow-burn master Edgar Kennedy ) is the laughing-stock of the Prison Football League. His team hasn’t had a winning season in years, and he sends a message to the president of “the alumni association” to send some new recruits “for the old alma mater”. He goes to the president’s office, and enter Wheeler and Woolsey, two novelty salesmen who proceed to drive him crazy. When he leaves, the real “alumni” show up, and after the boys brag about their gridiron prowess, they’re set up to stick up the joint with real guns instead of their water pistols.

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Of course, the framed fools are sent to Bidemore, where Spider trades barbs with the warden’s spinster sister Violet (the marvelous Edna May Oliver ) and Curley tries to romance daughter Barbara (Miss Grable). They continue to infuriate the poor warden with their antics, especially when Violet has them made trustees. When Bidemore’s star quarterback gets paroled, Woolsey touts Wheeler as a superstar. Let’s just say Tom Brady, he ain’t!! This all culminates in the most improbable victory since Super Bowl LI , with Bidemore winning the game and getting cleared of the frame-up to boot.

The deliriously funny script is by S.J. Perelman, Walter Deleon, and Eddie Welch. Perelman was a writer for The New Yorker magazine, and one of the early 20th century’s best known humorists. He wrote two of the Marx Brothers movies (MONKEY BUSINESS and HORSE FEATHERS), the stage and screen versions of ONE TOUCH OF VENUS, and won an Oscar for his screenplay AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS. His fingerprints are all over the film’s dialog, as in this exchange between Woolsey and Oliver- Edna: “I spent four years in Paris. Of course, I’m not a virtuoso”. Woolsey: “Not after four years in Paris”. Edna (pausing a beat): “I trust we’re talking about the same thing!”. Earlier in the film, W&W get booted out of a swanky nightclub on their keisters, followed by this-  Wheeler: “You know, I met that bouncer’s foot before”. Woolsey: “Yeah, I met it behind”.

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Deleon was no slouch when it came to comedy either, having written films for W.C. Fields , Bob Hope, Jack Benny Abbott & Costello , and Martin & Lewis. Welch seems to be a kind of “comedy doctor”, with three other W&W films to his credit, and an uncredited contribution to Laurel & Hardy’s SONS OF THE DESERT . All this madness was directed under the deft hand of Norman Taurog, who began in films in 1912, won an Oscar for 1931’s SKIPPY, and directed all the great comics of the classic era. Wheeler & Woolsey’s slapstick sight gags and pun-tastic wordplay are on a par with other teams of the time, and are worth rediscovering. Start right here with HOLD ‘EM JAIL.

 

Growing Pains: YOU’RE A BIG BOY NOW (Warner Brothers 1966)

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Francis Ford Coppola  was still a UCLA film student when he made YOU’RE A BIG BOY NOW, the 1966 coming of age comedy he used as his MFA thesis. The young Coppola was 27, and had gained experience working for Roger Corman ; indeed, Corman gave him his first break when he hired Coppola to write and direct the horror quickie DEMENTIA 13. But YOU’RE A BIG BOY NOW was his first major studio release, and put him on the map as a talent to keep an eye on.

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Bernard Chanticleer is a 19 year old nerd with a way-overprotective mother and disinterested, authoritarian father. He works for Dad at a New York City library, and is constantly goofing up on the job. Dad thinks it’s time for Bernard to spread his wings and move on his own, much to Mom’s displeasure. She finds him a room at a house owned by Miss Thing, who’s tenants include conservative Patrolman Graf. The house comes complete with Miss Thing’s late brother’s chicken, who’ll peck at any females coming to Bernard’s floor, making Mom extremely happy.

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Co-worker Amy Partlett has a crush on Bernard, so man-of-the-world pal Raef tries to school Bernard in how to get in her pants. But Bernard only has eyes for Barbara Darling, a weirdo actress in an Off-Off-Off Broadway play. Barbara, who’s best friend is a dwarf writing her biography, reads Bernard’s gushing fan letter and decides to meet him. But little does he know his dreamgirl is a bipolar nightmare, having him move in, sexually teasing then degrading him to the point where he can’t get it up. Meanwhile, Amy’s frantic calls to the rooming house cause Miss Thing to pay a visit to Dad, winding up locked in a vault with his antique collection of erotica, and the craziness really escalates after Bernard steals Dad’s rare Gutterberg Bible and makes a mad dash through the streets of New York!

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There’s no doubt this was made in the swingin’ 60’s, from the frenetic jumps cuts to the drug references (Raef slips Bernard some LSD) to the soundtrack by John Sebastian and The Lovin’ Spoonful, including the hit single “Darlin’ Be Home Soon”. We even get treated to shots of Bernard touring Times Square in it’s mid-60’s sleazy Grindhouse heyday. Editor Aram Avakian does an outstanding job putting together Copploa’s scenes, incorporating footage from the director’s DEMENTIA 13 and Corman’s THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM  for good measure.

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The casting is an eclectic mix of newcomers and veterans. Canadian Peter Kastner plays Bernard as earnest yet endearingly goofy, conveying the youthful angst of a mama’s boy trying to break free. Karen Black makes her major film debut as Amy (she had a miniscule part in the 1960 exploitaioner THE PRIME TIME), and went on to a long career. Tony Bill (Raef) had been seen in COME BLOW YOUR HORN and SODLIER IN THE RAIN, later becoming a director (MY BODYGUARD, SIX WEEKS) and producer of note. Elizabeth Hartman (Barbara) had been Oscar nominated the previous year for her debut in A PATCH OF BLUE; at the time, she was the youngest (22) ever nominated for Best Actress.

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The vets include husband-and-wife team (at the time) Rip Torn and Geraldine Page as Bernard’s befuddled parents, Julie Harris as the prudish Miss Thing, Michael Dunn (THE WILD WILD WEST’s Dr. Miguelito Loveless) as Barbara’s confidant, and New York actor Dolph Sweet (later of the sitcom GIMME A BREAK) as the cop. YOU’RE A BIG BOY NOW is no GODFATHER or APOCALYPSE NOW, but Coppola fans will want to check out this early work, when the young director was just finding his voice and vision.