An immensely talented playwright, screenwriter, and satirist, George Axelrod has rarely received the recognition he deserves within the Hollywood industry yet he was the man behind some of the wittiest screenplays of the fifties and early sixties. Foremost among them are two of Marilyn Monroe’s best films (The Seven Year Itch (1955) and Bus Stop, 1956), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) starring Audrey Hepburn in her signature role, and The Manchurian Candidate (1962), a highly paranoid thriller about a political conspiracy which prefigured President Kennedy’s assassination by a year. Less well known but equally audacious is his go-for-broke directorial debut, Lord Love a Duck (1966), a wicked lampoon of the movie business that nourished him and a satire of Southern California culture with its drive-in chapels, fast food restaurants, and self-improvement seminars.
In the opening moments of Lord Love a Duck, we are introduced to Allan Mollymauk Musgrave (Roddy McDowall), a possibly deranged high school student who relates, in flashback, his infatuation with Barbara Ann Greene (Tuesday Weld), a beautiful but blank blonde teenager who became a movie star. Barbara Anne’s rise to fame is soon revealed to be the result of Mollymauk’s Svengali-like influence over her. Whenever he jingles a set of keys in her face, Barbara reveals her deepest fantasies and desires; an obvious movie homage to the hypnotism scene in Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (1957). With Mollymauk’s guidance, Barbara Anne climbs the ladder to Hollywood fame via sexual manipulation, deception, and premeditated murder, all set to a catchy pop tune that parodies the types of songs featured in Beach Party movies. Axelrod later admitted that the films of Richard Lester had also been an influence.
[Spoiler alert] No one is spared Axelrod’s misanthropic depiction of SoCal denizens with the exception of Marie Greene (Lola Albright), Barbara Ann’s lonely, financially strapped mom, and she commits suicide. Barbara Ann ends up the heroine by default and she transforms into an insatiable materialist and egocentric fame whore. Still, the women come off better than the men in Lord Love a Duck, even though they are mostly depicted as scheming, self-destructive, or just plain loony like Barbara Anne’s eccentric mother-in-law (Ruth Gordon). That’s still better than the writer/director’s view of the American male who is represented here by a debt-ridden, incompetent and possibly incestuous father (Max Showalter aka Casey Adams), a slick and pandering “new age” minister (Joseph Mell), a mama’s boy (Martin West), an effeminate high school principal (Harvey Korman in his first major role), and the real protagonist of the film – Mollymauk – who appears to be asexual.
SoCal culture has been satirized and parodied in numerous films, enough to constitute a distinct subgenre. Among some of the more famous are The Loved One (1965), Don’t Make Waves (1967), Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), Serial (1980), which also featured Tuesday Weld, and L.A. Story (1991) starring Steve Martin but Axelrod possibly targets more institutions and lifestyle choices to comedic effect in Lord Love a Duck than all of those films.
While the film was in production, Axelrod described it as “a cross between Andy Hardy and Dr. Strangelove” and that it would “focus on the bizarre rites of adolescents in Southern California.” He also surmised that his movie might be a caustically funny attack on his own teenage children. Unfortunately, Lord Love a Duck was virtually ignored by moviegoers.
The director said in an interview, “I love, for all its mistakes and dumbness, Lord Love a Duck…I can’t imagine why it wasn’t a hit. It got no reaction. I couldn’t get anybody into the theaters to see it. It was one of those pictures that died. United Artists sold the shit out of it. I went on the road with it. I got reams of press. I ran what I thought was a clever ad campaign, parodying all the other campaigns. “Suddenly last summer, United Artists realized it was being used for something evil . . . Lord Love a Duck! “
Despite the box office failure of Lord Love a Duck, Axelrod received a second opportunity to direct another comedy based on his own screenplay, The Secret Life of an American Wife (1968) starring Walter Matthau. It too was a financial and critical failure and Axelrod later admitted it was originally written as a play and should have remained a play. Still, he relished the experience of directing his debut film. “I was learning to be a pretty good director,” he said. “Indeed, when you see Duck now, the problems with it are in the script, not the directing. It is very well directed. I never quite solved the script. I was a little bit overconfident and thought I could wing it… Gene Siskel…told me, “God, I love Lord Love a Duck. ” I said, “Where were all you guys when I couldn’t sell any tickets?”
As expected, critics were divided over Lord Love a Duck when it was released due to its eclectic mixture of black comedy and social comment but it still stands as one of the more original and offbeat comedies of the sixties, even if it does unravel completely in the second half.
Among the film’s admirers was Variety, which said, “Whatever the reaction, there is no question that the film [based on Al Hire’s novel] is packed with laughs, often of the truest anatomical kind, and there is a veneer of sophistication which keeps showing despite the most outlandish goings-on. Some of the comedy is inspirational, a gagman’s dream come true, and there is bite in some of Axelrod’s social commentary beneath the wonderful nonsense.”
Less favorable was this assessment from critic Pauline Kael: “…Lord Love a Duck is not really about anything that’s been thought through; it’s just way-out – and that, finally, is no place…Like The Loved One, Lord Love a Duck is a new-style hate letter to America. Axelrod selects the easiest, most grotesque targets and keeps screaming at us to enjoy how funny-awful everything is. And then, after we’ve sat laughing occasionally, but also being rather appalled by this exhibition of lack of control, we are preached at from the screen for our tiny minds and our family spray deodorants.”
One aspect of the film most critics seemed to agree on, however, were the performances. The New York Herald Tribune noted that “The best thing about the movie is its display of Tuesday Weld not only as a teen-age Lolita of unsurpassed loveliness but also as an actress of unexpected range…Lola Albright is also extraordinary in turning the cocktail waitress (Barbara Ann’s mother) into a figure of tragedy, rather than pathos.” Albright ended up winning the Best Actress award at the Berlin International Film Festival with Axelrod earning a nomination for the Golden Berlin Bear award.
Tuesday Weld is nothing less than mesmerizing in Lord Love a Duck and she would play a much more homicidal variation on Barbara Ann in the 1968 cult thriller Pretty Poison. Often underrated as an actress, Weld has given memorable performances in several critically acclaimed dramas such as Play It As It Lays (1972), based on the Joan Didion novel, Who’ll Stop the Rain (1978) opposite Nick Nolte and Michael Moriarty, Michael Mann’s Thief (1981) and Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977), in which she received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination.
Lord Love a Duck was initially released on VHS and later on DVD by MGM in December 2003. More recently the film has been upgraded to a fine Blu-ray transfer by KL Studio Classics in September 2020.
*This is a revised and expanded version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.
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