Review: Scathing and Sexy, 'Lord Love A Duck' Still Topical

by Frank J. Avella

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday September 23, 2020

Review: Scathing and Sexy, 'Lord Love A Duck' Still Topical

Roddy McDowall is a most fascinating actor. I became transfixed with him when I was quite young, watching the "Planet of the Apes" movies on TV. As I immersed myself in gems from the '60s and '70s, he began popping up everywhere. From "Cleopatra" to "Inside Daisy Clover" to "The Poseidon Adventure" to "The Legend of Hell House" to "Funny Lady," McDowall was the cinematic definition of ubiquitous.

His career actually began when he was nine. He appeared in film classics like Oscar-winning Best Picture "How Green was My Valley" and "My Friend Flicka." And, along with friends Elizabeth Taylor and Natalie Wood, he would become one of the few child stars able to make the transition to adult roles.

But most of McDowall's post-teen career would see him in supporting parts (out of his "Apes" costume, that is).

George Axelrod's "Lord Love a Duck," released in 1966, was one of the few films he headlined, opposite starlet, Tuesday Weld. The film was based on the novel by Al Hine. Axelrod was a celebrated screenwriter ("The Seven Year Itch," "Breakfast at Tiffany's," "The Manchurian Candidate") making his directorial debut (he would go on to direct just one more feature, "The Secret Life of an American Wife," in 1968).

Weld, forever underrated, would graduate from playing sex kittens to doing quite powerful work in films like "Play It as It Lays" (1972) and "Looking for Mr. Goodbar" (1977), for which she received her sole Oscar nomination.

"Lord Love a Duck" is an odd film, even today. It's a black comedy that satirizes a host of things including (but not limited to) youth culture, unfit parents, student apathy, religion, education, psychiatry, moviemaking, and the toxic behavior of the patriarchy (how prescient)! The marketing posters and trailer rightfully announced, "This Motion Picture Is an Act of Pure Aggression."

McDowall, in one of his most beguiling roles, plays Alan Musgrave, a high school senior with no known backstory who becomes obsessed with a seemingly vapid but beautiful student Barbara Ann Greene (Tuesday Weld). Alan's alter ego, "Mollymauk," named for a bird thought to be extinct, has decided to make all of Barbara's dreams come true: "Tell, Mollymauk," he purrs.

Barbara is a child of divorce, named after her mother's two favorite actresses, Barbara Stanwyck and Ann Sheridan. Her mother (a fine Lola Albright) is a cocktail waitress, which back then meant prostitute. Her father (Max Showalter) is mostly absent — except for one scene noted below.

Mollymauk soon shows Barbara Ann that she possesses the power to get what she wants. She needs only to turn on her manipulative charm, and all the straight, middle-aged white men around her will yield to her every want and will. (Harvey Korman hilariously plays one of these men.)

The antics build to a murderously mad climax.

"Lord Love a Duck" is a wildly subversive, scathing satire with an often-twisted, swirling sexual energy. Many scenes verge on the creepy, and Axelrod is constantly cutting to gyrating and shimmying teens on the beach, with the camera fixated on the rear ends and crotches, mostly of the females — but the boys get in there, too, for some equal opportunity exploitation!

And I haven't even mentioned the weirdly suggestive scene where Barbara Ann guilts her dad into buying her 13 cashmere sweaters (don't ask why, it's too strange). As she tries each one on, he becomes more and more excited. The extended scene builds to a bizarre orgasmic crescendo as she blurts out the names of the colors in alphabetical order ("Grape Yum Yum," "Periwinkle Pussycat"), with the camera capturing dad's sleazy, incestuous laughter and her seductive poses. It's truly disturbing, but also transfixing. (It brings to mind what a shopping spree between Daddy Donald and Ivanka might have been like — gads!)

Ruth Gordon enters at the hour mark to do her hilarious schtick. Watching Roddy and Ruth interact made me wish they had done some kind of "Gay Harold and Maude" movie together — they have such terrifyingly wonderful chemistry.

And speaking of chemistry, Barbara Ann wonders out loud to Alan early in the narrative, "You know you're not like Billy and the rest of the kids. They always want to fool around. What do you get out of it?"

It's a fair question, because this is not a romantic relationship. Alan is obsessed with giving her what she wants (which, in the end, turns her into a selfish, greedy monster), but we are never told what he actually gets out of it. The character is basically asexual, with a dose of Norman Bates' insanity. The enigmatic nature of Alan adds to the significance of the performance.

The actor was 36 playing 18 (yet it worked) and a closeted queer. (It was an open secret in Hollywood.) And he brought that curious queerness to almost every role he played. In this film, it truly enhanced the performance and gave Alan a deeper and more nuanced sense of mystery and mischief. Had the film really wanted to go whole-hog aggressive, it would have had Alan seduce Barbara Ann's eventual husband. Alas, that would have been too much back then.

The late '60s saw a host of anti-establishment movies like "The Loved One" (also with McDowall), "Wild in the Streets," and "Cult of the Damned" (also known as "Angel, Angel, Down We Go"). None were box office smashes.

From the accounts I could find, "Lord Love a Duck" wasn't very successful at the box office, but it has amassed quite the cult following in the ensuing years.

Kino Lorber has done a terrific job cleaning the film up. The sleek "brand new 2K Master" transfer preserves the striking black and white cinematography by Daniel L. Fapp ("One, Two, Three").

The DTS-HD Master dual-mono track highlights the repetitive, yet infectious, title song (which repeatedly plays throughout the film, thus in your head for a long time after) by Neal Hefti. The song is sung, appropriately enough, by The Wild Ones.

Sadly, the only extra included here is the trailer, which captures the essence of the film pretty well and might also help explain why the film didn't attract a bigger audience.

Incidentally, so many reviewers at the time of the film's release took issue with the title "Lord Love a Duck," stating they had no idea what it meant. A little research would have found that the British phrase was used to convey shock or surprise in situations where no other word/phrase fit. Not a hard one to figure out, and certainly appropriate!

"Lord Love a Duck"

Blu-ray

$14.97

https://www.kinolorber.com/film/lord-love-a-duck

Frank J. Avella is a film journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He also contributes to Awards Daily and is the GALECA East Coast Rep and a Member of the New York Film Critics Online. Frank is a recipient of the International Writers Residency in Assisi, Italy, a Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship, and a NJ State Arts Council Fellowship. His short film, FIG JAM, has shown in Festivals worldwide (figjamfilm.com) and won awards. His screenplays (CONSENT, LURED, SCREW THE COW) have also won numerous awards in 16 countries. He is a proud member of the Dramatists Guild. https://filmfreeway.com/FrankAvella https://muckrack.com/fjaklute