Dick Van Dyke Double Feature: ‘Fitzwilly’ And ‘The Art Of Love’

by Rachel Bellwoar

From Bert in Mary Poppins to Rob Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show, Dick Van Dyke could’ve retired in the ’60s and he would still be a household name. Just recently Belfast paid tribute to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, in which he also starred. To celebrate his 96th birthday today, it seemed like a good time to visit two of his ’60s films that aren’t discussed as much.

Unfortunately, in the case of The Art of Love there could be good reason for that. All of the colorful wigs in the world can’t save this movie or help it set the right tone for its comedy (and Ethel Merman wears enough of them, so it’s not for lack of trying).

It all starts when Van Dyke’s Paul is mistaken for dead, and instead of telling people the truth his friend, Casey (James Garner), convinces him to stay dead and make some money. The logic is that since people didn’t buy his paintings when he was alive, they’ll appreciate his work more now that he’s dead, like Vincent Van Gogh’s, and while that’s not true (or at least not a given), the film acts like it is.

The ingredients are there for a black comedy. There are even points where the film could’ve gone in a different direction and become a Hitchcock thriller, but ultimately The Art of Love wants to be something lighter, and the result fails. Garner plays the jokes too broadly and while his character’s a cad, there’s trying to steal your best friend’s girlfriend fairly, and there’s ruining your best friend’s character to get the girl. Not that Van Dyke’s Paul garners much sympathy. If anything, he’s cruel and while Van Dyke commits to his character having a cold, sneezing isn’t funny. Only Elke Sommers manages to find some humor in her character’s romantic pursuit of Paul. Angie Dickenson doesn’t get much to do other than faint. Merman’s backup dancers giggle (and to add insult to injury you can’t really see them during Merman’s big number because they’re in shadow).

In his commentary, film historian and critic, Peter Tonguette, sometimes comes down hard on director, Norman Jewison (Fiddler on the Roof and Jesus Christ Superstar are two of my favorite musicals) but he’s right to call the film out for its questionable depiction of the artist’s life, and his theory about opening titles being animated stands true in this case.

If The Art of Love was a disappointment, Delbert Mann’s Fitzwilly couldn’t be more fun (and it’s a Christmas movie, so the timing’s perfect)! As the title character, Van Dyke plays a butler who’s secretly using his employer’s staff to carry out all kinds of get-rich schemes. He’s not, however, cheating his employer (Edith Evans), who wouldn’t have any money to steal anyway, but is actually making it possible for her to maintain her standard of living.

While some heist films only work if you can follow the heists completely, it’s not always necessary to know what Fitzwilly’s up to here. What’s important is he’s surrounded by great character actors, and it all leads up to a department store scam that’s chaotic in all the best ways.

Get Smart’s Barbara Feldon plays the love interest who stands to spoil Fitzwilly’s plans, while Van Dyke flourishes in lovable rogue mode. As much as the entitlement of Evans’ character can be upsetting, the dictionary her character’s working on is a clever device and while filmmaker, Michael Schlesinger, and film archivist, Stan Taffel’s, style of commentary is looser than others, they definitely succeed at imparting an appreciation for Fitzwilly. A lot of thought went into the film’s trailer, too, which begins with a scene specifically filmed for the trailer.

The Art of Love is available on Blu-Ray and DVD now from Kino Lorber. Fitzwilly is available on Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber.

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