Oldies but goodies … and not-so-goodies

A few months ago, I picked up a DVD of an old movie I once adored – The Private Eyes, from 1980, with Don Knotts and Tim Conway. I recall loving this flick as a little kid; I think it came on HBO in heavy rotation in ’81, which would have meant I was six years old … and I watched it repeatedly, as kids are wont to do, while staying at my dad’s place for the summer.

It was my favorite movie. My first Favorite Movie Ever, if you will, and upon spying the DVD I told myself that I would buy it, save it, and savor it. This would be a treat to be indulged whenever I got “caught up.”

Laughable, yes I know. I’m never really caught up. On anything. But these first six weeks of 2011 have left me not so much “between deadlines” as “within some marginally more flexible deadlines than usual,” and last night I was bored. Last night I thought to myself, “Self, perhaps the time has come to watch ol’ Don and Tim and see how the flick holds up.”

So I popped it in. Hit play.
And woo boy howdy, I kind of wish I hadn’t.

(Cut to spare those who still regard the movie fondly.
Click below – or keep scrolling – to read the rest.)

When I mentioned on Twitter that I was busting out this bad-boy to give it another gander, my @-replies filled up with cheery nostalgia from other people who loved this movie. And some of these people, I daresay, STILL love this movie. Which is fine. I’m not hating, here. It’s just … well, this time around … I didn’t.

Let’s be frank: It’s perfectly awful. The only thing worse than the acting is dialogue, or perhaps the lack of sense made at every turn (when subjected to even the barest modicum of examination). It looks hideously dated, the special effects aren’t, and the production values are nothing short of ghastly.*

And yet … and yet. I understand why I loved it once upon a time.

All my favorite set-up/backdrop/narrative elements are present, in some rudimentary fashion. The Private Eyes is a gothic in the truest old sense, about wealthy murdered people and a beautiful grieving heiress in peril; there’s a sprawling mansion chock full of secret passageways and hidden corpses and treasures; it has clue-filled notes that even (mostly) rhyme OMG; a cast of freaks, geeks, and weirdos – any one of whom could be a killer; the body count rises in gruesome and creative fashion; and two out-of-towners are dumped into the middle, where no one wants them and yet they’re unable to leave … and no one believes them even when they’re telling the truth.

A mansion. Some murders. A capricious mystery figure who lurks within the walls, spies on people, and sometimes murders them. HOW DID THIS GO SO WRONG? It could’ve been so right.

Then again, my six-year-old self thought it was an absolute riot; so I think it’s only fair to admit that in some weird way, this daffy flick may have flipped the breakers for many of my storytelling “on” switches. After all, I wasn’t allowed to watch Scooby Doo – that other bastion of kinder-gothic of the late 70s/early 80s.** What else was there to show me the possibilities? Where else might I have picked up such an affinity for the gothic tradition? WHY ON EARTH would I otherwise have watched this movie a hundred times over the span of one slim summer? Or these are the things I asked myself last night.

So when The Private Eyes was over, I sat on the couch a bit shell-shocked with rue. I mean … wow. Just … wow. Then I did the only sane thing I could do: I popped in Clue, poured another glass of wine, and watched a gothic murder comedy done right, goddammit.

* The hardest my husband and I laughed at this movie was during one scene wherein we noticed a giant fur-covered microphone creeping into the bottom of the frame, homing in on Tim Conway’s crotch like a big wobbly baby wearing a bear suit.
** Mom had primary custody, and she thought Scooby Doo was of the devil. See also: Superfriends, Voltron, He-Man/She-Ra, Star Wars, and men who could do the splits.

7 thoughts on “Oldies but goodies … and not-so-goodies

  1. Rick

    I’ve found out that the same warnings apply to fantasy and science fiction novels that you loved as a teenager… you may find that the “suck fairy” has given them a few whacks with her wand at some point between then and now (along with possible visits by the racism and sexism fairies, too).

  2. Duane

    Clue is good; I’m a fan of Murder By Death as well.

  3. Mary

    I can sympathize…I was 18 before I watched my first PG-13 movie. Yeah.

    It was all downhill from there, on the warp-speed sled from “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” I jumped straight to the rated R movies, starting with “From Dusk Till Dawn.” This was only possible because I worked at a movie theater at the time.

    I loved (and continue to love) every minute of it!!

  4. Len de Vlaming

    I had just about exactly the same experience last month with “The Apple Dumpling Gang”, again with Tim Conway and Don Knotts. I LOVED that movie as a kid, watched it every chance on could on Disney Sunday nights, rented it for sleepovers (back when we had to rent the VCR too…)

    Watched the DVD with my kids just before Christmas, and was AGHAST at what an insipid piece of poo it was.

    My kids loved it, though.

  5. Murphy Jacobs

    Well, there is something to be said for age and education refining one’s sense of aesthetic quality. I have fond memories of The Apple Dumpling Gang as a kid. My dad loved anything with Tim Conway in it, so he’d take me to see those movies (I was already too old in 81 to be interested in anything with Conway and Knotts, who I thought of as “kiddie movie actors”), though, having taking the train to hell with Star Wars and skipping class to line up for the first Star Trek movie).

    I go through that with movies a lot, too, and I’m especially cautious about watching movies I attached to as a kid. This weekend, on a whim, I pulled out my original VHS set of Star Wars to watch. My husband and I spent much time picking apart logic flaws, bad dialogue, and generally silliness. At the same time, I could recall distinctly the awe and wonder I felt sitting in the front rows in the crowded theater watching that Star Destroyer flow in forever at the top of the screen.

    Anne Fadiman edited a collection of essays from various authors about rereading books they’d loved when younger, which made for VERY interesting reading. That whole thing about “you can’t step in the same river twice” holds true for books, movies, TV shows, even music.

  6. Joylyn

    I had the same experience when I tried to watch Labyrinth with my husband. It was my favorite movie when I was in elementary school, but watching as an adult…..not the same at all! He decided that the reason I liked it was to see David Bowie in tights:)

  7. JD

    I’m so hapy that “Clue” was the pallete cleanser of choice for this. I love that movie way too much. My hubby and I quote vast swaths of that movie at the drop of a hat.

    “What are you afraid of, a fate worse than death?”
    “No, just death, isn’t that enough?”

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