I have several good friends who are magicians. I even worked in the same office with one for many years. If he had a show in the evening, and didn’t have time to run home for his gear after work, it was not unusual for his rabbit to spend the day at his desk. Our film today takes us into the world of a magician in training, and its title is a good piece of advice for any aspiring illusionist. Released in 1972, and from director Brian DePalma (believe it or not) it’s Get to Know Your Rabbit.
The film centers on a businessman named Donald Beeman (Tom Smothers) who has had just about all he can take when it comes to the world of business. Much to the chagrin of his boss, Mr. Turnbull (John Astin), he decides to quit. Also none-too-thrilled is Donald’s girlfriend Paula (Susanne Zenor), especially when she learns what Donald has decided to devote his time to…becoming a tap dancing magician. Soon he has a rabbit and is taking classes from the mysterious Mr. Delasandro (Orson Welles).
When Paula refuses to make love with Donald until he goes back to his regular job, he ends up moving out. He takes up residence in a skid row hotel and begins working extra hard with his magician studies. He even convinces Delasandro to give him some extra training. This results in Donald graduating several weeks ahead of the rest of his class. Right after he gets his diploma, Delasandro manages to get Donald a booking in the midwest. At the train station, however, Donald runs into Mr. Turnbull, who has lost his job and is desperate. Out of the goodness of his heart, Donald hires Turnbull to be his manager and sets him up with a desk at the hotel before hitting the road.
Out on the road, Donald quickly starts to make a name for himself. He even ends up with a bit of a groupie (Katharine Ross), who soon becomes his romantic interest. He also sends progress reports back to Turnbull in the form of postcards. In one of his notes, Donald says he is “living life at the gut level.” Turnbull is inspired by this phrase and ends up placing an ad in the paper looking for businessmen interested in living life at the gut level. Many frustrated business types answer the call and soon Turnbull has built a huge company with Donald as its figurehead, all without his knowledge while he’s on the road.
DePalma was hired to direct Get to Know Your Rabbit shortly after his first success Greetings. It is certainly not the type of film one would associate with the man who directed the likes of Carrie and Scarface. Supposedly DePalma was removed from the project due to disagreements with the studio and the film sat on the shelf for a few years after it was completed. The film definitely has an absurdist approach to its style of comedy which I felt DePalma managed to handle quite well. The young director also manages to insert a few unique visual elements here and there. His often used split screen technique pops up right at the beginning of the film. DePalma’s first view of Donald’s apartment, shot from above so it looks like a rat maze, is also a funny visual.
Both Smothers and Astin are very skilled comedic performers and they both contribute a number of laughs. Smothers gives Donald a real earnest quality that quickly endears him to the viewer. I also love the extremes in Astin’s performance, pulling off both the wild-eyed executive as well as the down-on-his-luck version of the same character. The comic highlight of the film, however, is actually Orson Welles. He’s just so serious as he instructs Donald in the ways of being a tap dancing magician that it ends up being hilarious. I’m sure Welles knew exactly what he was doing and was possibly even channeling many an acting instructor who takes themselves just a bit too seriously.
Where the film misfires a bit is with some side plots that come into play as the film progresses. One of the strangest involves the manager of a club where Donald is performing getting a call from his wife that there is a man under their porch. He tells her to poke him with a stick, when she does the man runs out and up a tree. The whole town gathers to see the cops get him out of the tree (including M. Emmett Walsh in a small part). Turns out the man is a pilot who is afraid to fly. It’s strange and has nothing to do with the rest of the film, and ultimately isn’t very funny. By the way, the cop who has to get him down is played by Bob Einstein (aka Super Dave Osborne). A similarly unfunny diversion in the story has to do with Donald meeting a strange lingerie salesman in his hotel. The filmmakers should’ve just stuck with the magician training which, though quite funny, has a bit more comic potential than what ultimately made it to the screen.
Get to Know Your Rabbit is nothing fantastic, but it does manage to be entertaining and occasionally very funny. It will certainly be of interest to fans of DePalma, who has rarely ventured into the realm of comedy. It is possibly the least “DePalma” DePalma film.