Before TV gave us the likes of Saturday Night Live or SCTV, there was Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. I admit, it was a bit before my time. I was almost two years old when the show went off the air, but I did catch up with it years later thanks to Nick and Nite. With the show such a big success, of course hosts Dan Rowan and Dick Martin were soon given the opportunity to hit the big screen. Though they borrowed a word made popular on their series for the title, that is the only thing about the film the bore any resemblance to their hit show. From 1969, it’s The Maltese Bippy.
The film centers on Sam Smith (Rowan) and Ernest Gray (Martin), a pair of filmmakers making cheapo skin flicks. Not for long, though, as they are soon kicked out of their New York City offices/studio once the landlord finds out what’s going on inside. They retreat to the old boarding house which Sam convinced Ernest to purchase in Flushing. Now, there is a lot of excitement in the town when they arrive as a dead body has been found in the cemetery next door. A neighbor has also reported hearing someone howling about the time this took place. Oddly enough, Ernest has been having strange urges to howl and do other rather canine activities. This soon has Ernest’s doctor (David Hurst) believing that Ernest may be suffering from Lycanthropy…in other words, he’s a werewolf.
Ever the opportunist, Sam decides he can create a show out of this. I mean, who doesn’t want to pay money to see some schlub turn into a werewolf on stage. Things may not be what they seem, though, as evidence seems to point toward the weird next door neighbors (Fritz Weaver, Julie Newmar and Eddra Gale) who are actually a family of werewolves out to find some diamonds hidden somewhere in Ernest’s house. So, now Ernest and love interest Robin (Carol Lynley) need to find the goods, and try not to be turned into werewolves.
The Maltese Bippy should probably be in the running for Most Misleading Title of all time. It is in no way a parody of The Maltese Falcon, and has no resemblance to the style of humor presented on Laugh-In, which coined the phrase “You bet your sweet bippy.” So, the only word in the title that is accurate is “The.” Bottom line, if you’re hoping this is Laugh-In the Movie…um nope. Only a handful of moments flirt with Laugh-In’s comedic style. The end sequence is probably the closest the film comes, featuring characters thought to be dead getting up and redoing the scene in a different way until they get it right. Another mildly amusing sequence features Dick Martin walking around town as a business suit wearing werewolf, with nobody really fazed by his appearance. Sadly, the rest of the film is a quite low on laughs.
It makes no sense why a studio would make a movie featuring the stars of a TV ratings champ known for its cutting-edge humor and then barely make an effort to use those same comedic sensibilities. This film really feels more like the kind of material we would’ve seen from Abbott and Costello or Martin and Lewis a decade or two earlier…except that either of those duos would’ve pulled this off better. Sure, Rowan and Martin’s act started in much the same style that those other performers did…but given what they had achieved success with on TV, it’s counterintuitive to go back to this sort of schtick for their jump to the big screen.
The film actually doesn’t even commit to the style of other comedic duos fully as it spends a good portion of its running time with the two leads separated from each other. Dick Martin has way more screen time with Carol Lynley than he does with Dan Rowan. In fact, Rowan pretty much disappears for a chunk of the movie, showing up again toward the climax for a somewhat amusing sequence with Julie Newmar. The supporting cast is actually pretty interesting, though, and does help to raise the level of few scenes. Still, I fear that things may have played out better had the folks behind this film turned to some of the performer’s who had been working with Rowan and Martin on Laugh-In. As I watched I couldn’t help but wonder what an improvement it would’ve been had the likes of Goldie Hawn, Artie Johnson, Henry Gibson or Ruth Buzie been a part of this film. Speaking of Henry Gibson, there are some similarities between this film’s premise and that of a film Gibson appeared in years later, The ‘Burbs. The backlot suburban street set Bippy was filmed on looks very similar to the one used by Joe Dante for The ‘Burbs, as well.
Rowan and Martin helped change the face of TV comedy in the late 60’s. There’s no doubt about that. To see them revert to a style of comedy that had passed its prime, in some ways thanks to them, is baffling. Unfortunately, The Maltese Bippy has appeal only as a misguided late 60’s curiosity, otherwise the film is just not “very eenteresting.” (That’s another Laugh-In reference, junior. Google it!)