Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 15, 2019)
A comedic take on the Cold War spy genre, 1966’s The Glass Bottom Boat introduces us to Jennifer Nelson (Doris Day), a tour guide at NASA. She moonlights as a “mermaid” for a local tourist business run by her father (Arthur Godfrey), a job that allows her to meet research scientist Bruce Templeton (Rod Taylor).
Bruce hires Jennifer to work for him, and he also hopes to woo her. While their relationship develops, Bruce’s colleagues start to suspect that she may function as a Soviet spy, a belief that leads to a mix of wacky complications.
Animation fans know director Frank Tashlin for his 1930s/1940s work on many classic Warner Bros. cartoons. He leapt to live-action in the early 1950s and never looked back, though a glimpse at his filmography indicates that he didn’t really distinguish himself as a feature filmmaker.
With an emphasis on light comedy, it’s hard to find a single Tashlin effort that a general modern audience would remember, and Boat fits that bill. While film buffs recall it, like other Tashlin efforts, it mostly exists as a largely forgotten relic of its era.
To a lesser degree, Doris Day remains stuck far in the past as well. Though an enormous star in her day, few of her films earn much notice among movie buffs. At this point, 1956’s The Man Who Knew Too Much probably stands as her best-remembered effort, and that’s mainly because Alfred Hitchcock directed it.
A look at Day’s filmography indicates that she quit movies in 1968 at the relatively young age of 46. Day continued to work on TV – mainly via her own sitcom – but she never made another film.
Why did Day leave movies in 1968? Apparently because her third husband committed her to do the TV series before he suddenly died, and Day had to fulfill this commitment to pull herself out of the financial hole this deadbeat left for her.
If you wonder why I’ve spent so much time on a discussion of Tashlin and Day, there’s a good reason: to avoid a critique of Boat. Because Day offers a fairly charming onscreen presence and because she’s acted as an animal rights activist for decades, I feel loathe to criticize her movie, so I’m in “stall mode”.
Alas, I need to do more than ramble about extraneous issues and admit that Boat offers a tepid mess of a movie. Dated and silly, the film rarely offers much entertainment value.
Much of the problem stems from the disjointed nature of the narrative. At least for the film’s first two-thirds, it lacks real continuity.
Instead, much of Boat simply consists of loosely connected, wacky scenes. The vast majority of these serve no dramatic purpose, so they exist just to fill space.
Most of these seem to run forever as well. Take a sequence in which Jenny and her dad sing the title song for what feels like five hours – and then they break into “Que Sera Sera” because Congress dictated that every Day movie needed to include that signature tune.
Did this material delight Day fans? Perhaps, but Boat shoehorns the songs into the film without subtlety, and along with many other extraneous bits, they just slow down an incoherent tale.
Boat does come together with more definition in the third act. That’s when the spy plot comes to the fore, and the movie manages a semblance of actual story thrust at that time.
It’s too little, too late, though, and even when Boat finally embraces its main narrative, it still feels borderline random. We never get anything much more than a collection of barely linked scenes.
All of this allows the viewer to focus on other topics, such as the prevalence of atrocious combovers. Poor Taylor was only mid-30s when he shot Boat, but his craggy countenance makes him look 20 years older, and his desperate, ineffective, Trumpian attempt to hide his baldness doesn’t help.
Others follow Taylor’s lead. Godfrey suffers from a combover nearly as bad as Taylor’s, and Dick Martin’s starts somewhere under his left ear.
Would I have noticed these follicle foibles if I’d felt more involved in the movie? Maybe – man, those combovers really do look terrible – but it seems less likely, as mainly my boredom led me to focus on awful hairstyles.
Boat doesn’t come devoid of entertainment value. Day manages to elevate the material to a minor degree, as her sunny charm abets the project.
The most consistent amusement stems from Paul Lynde’s turn as a security guard. He maintains his smarmy comic persona to good effect and turns a series of pretty awful gags into actual laughs via his performance.
Outside of Lynde, Day and some atrocious combovers, though, Boat offers little to entertain. Instead it feels like an unending series of silly gags without much purpose or impact.