[dropcap]B[/dropcap]efore the term “politically incorrect” was ever used, Where’s Poppa? acquired the reputation of being in “bad taste”. The movie is guilty as charged. If you are not easily offended you will probably find it as hilariously funny as I did. Struggling thirtyish attorney Gordon Hocheiser lives in a New York apartment with his mother (Ruth Gordon) who suffers from dementia. She’s constantly asking “Where’s Poppa?” (meaning her deceased husband). She remembers Gordon as a little boy and often mistakes him for “Poppa.” Mrs. Hocheiser becomes more impossible to deal with but Gordon had vowed to his late father that he would never put his mother in a home. So Gordon creates a rich fantasy life in which he invents ways to cause his mother’s death. In an attempt to frighten her into a heart attack he wears a gorilla costume and enters her room as if he’s ready to attack. Mrs. Hocheiser punches him in the crotch saying, “You almost scared me to death.” Gordon replies, “Almost doesn’t count.”
Mrs. Hocheiser’s reputation precedes her so no nurse will stay in the job. When naïve young Louise (Trish Van Devere) shows up in full nurse regalia, it’s love at first sight for Gordon. He hires her on the spot but he fears his mother will, as usual, thwart his attempts at romance. Gordon calls his married brother Sidney to look after his mother so he can have an interlude with the attractive young nurse. Sidney takes a shortcut to the apartment through Central Park where he is regularly confronted by a black gang (one member is played by later Saturday Night Live regular Garrett Morris). Sidney’s clothes are stolen and he sprints to the apartment door in his birthday suit. Gordon offers Sidney the gorilla costume to cover himself!
While Gordon experiences wild fantasies, the entire movie has a wild black comedy tone. Outrageousness rules as there are gags about overbearing Jewish mothers, racism and even rape. In a courtroom scene Gordon’s defiant client (played by Carl Reiner’s son Rob) baits a highly-decorated general (Barnard Hughes) who launches into a racist tirade about “killing gooks.”
The entire cast throws themselves into their roles but special notice should be given to Ruth Gordon just a few years after her Academy Award win as Best Supporting Actress in Rosemary’s Baby (1967). As Mrs. Hocheiser she remains obliviously in her own little world of senility. Her performance is comic perfection. Segal is totally believable as the long-suffering son and Leibman is manic as his seriously twisted brother. Van Devere, in only her second film role, beautifully defines the daffily innocent nurse.
Also impressive is the score by Jack Elliott and songs by Elliott and Norman Gimbel. Most of the songs are period-appropriate pop and r&b tunes with lyrics that comment on the action. An exception is a twenties-style ballad near the end of the movie titled “Pleasure Palace” sung by one Bright Cheerstrap (pseudonym for director Carl Reiner).
- Theatrical trailer with a “Where’s Poppa?” song not in the movie
- Alternate original ending
- Choice of standard 1.33:1 aspect ratio or original theatrical release version 1.85:1 (within a 1.33:1 frame)
- Subtitles in English, French and Spanish
The MGM DVD is currently out of print and selling for high prices on Amazon. Since the correct aspect ratio of 1.85:1 is within the 1.33:1 frame, Where’s Poppa? is long overdue an upgraded DVD and/or Blu-ray release optimized for 16X9 screens.
DIR: Carl Reiner. PROD: Jerry Tokofsky, Marvin Worth. SCR: Robert Klane adapted from his novel. CIN: Jack Priestley. ED: Chic Ciccolini, Bud Molin. SCORE: Jack Elliott with songs by Norman Gimbel and Jack Elliott. CAST: George Segal, Ruth Gordon, Ron Leibman, Trish Van Devere, Barnard Hughes, Vincent Gardenia, Paul Sorvino, Rob Reiner, Garrett Morris. Color. Aspect Ratio: Standard 1.33:1 and theatrical release version 1.85:1 within a 1.33:1 frame. Running Time: 82 minutes. United Artists.