Movie Review: “Generation”

Generation (1969)

Starring David Janssen, Kim Darby, Peter Duel, Carl Reiner and Sam Waterston. Directed by George Schaefer. From AVCO Embassy Pictures.

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Doris (Darby) and Walter (Duel) are getting married. It’s a small ceremony attended by no one but the two are obviously in love. And Doris is obviously pregnant. They walk back to their industrial-looking apartment in a New York slum that idealistic, anti-establishment photographer Walter has turned into a combination wood shop, dark room and operating room – the couple has planned a natural childbirth at home.

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Newlyweds Walter and Dory arrive home.

Dory calls her father, Jim Bolton (Janssen), a progressive Madison Avenue advertising man who has somehow avoided becoming jaded by his frustrating profession. When she announces she is married he is dumbfounded. When Jim says he is catching the next flight, Dory is flustered and Walter is apoplectic – when Daddy sees the operating room, he’ll know what the kids are planning.

On top of the normal nervousness of meeting his new bride’s father, Walter is a proud man and he is determined for he and Dory to be themselves during Jim’s visit. Walter is resentful of who he thinks Jim is and is preparing to stay true to himself and to his plans with Dory and to not be swayed by the disapproval he’s sure is coming.

Walter has to pick Jim up at the airport in his landlord’s rattly old truck and things get off on the wrong foot. On top of that they run out of gas on the way home. Walter is disgusted that Jim is writing this visit off and Jim is disgusted when he sees where his daughter lives. When he finds she is pregnant, he is staggered but congratulatory.

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“Is that a baby?”

Things get more and more awkward as Jim and Walter try to figure each other out. When Jim hears they plan to have the baby at home, he is sure there will be a fatality. He contacts his doctor friend (Reiner) and contrives to circumvent the kids plan for childbirth at home. The battle of the generations continues until Dory goes into labour. Jim has promised his daughter he won’t interfere with their plans but can Jim risk losing his daughter or grandchild if things go wrong?

I stumbled on this film because I’ve always wanted to be one of the few white artists working for Motown Records. Let me explain; Rare Earth was one of the few white acts that recorded for Motown in the golden era and the label’s only white act that consistently provided hits. I’ve always loved them and one day when I was listening to them I noticed that their song, “Generation (Light Up the Sky)”, was from the film of the same name. I looked the film up and sure enough their song is performed over the opening credits. It was released as a single but quickly withdrawn when the film tanked.

Generation began life as a 1965 play by William Goodhart that had starred Henry Fonda and was directed by Gene Saks, who went on to direct film versions of plays such as Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple. Our film was directed by George Schaefer who had enjoyed an extensive career in television before turning to features in 1969 with the excellent Pendulum starring George Peppard. Generation was his second feature of the year but he would go on to direct only four more films.

The score for our film was provided by legendary pianist and composer Dave Grusin. Grusin had provided music previously for another film from this same production company, The Graduate, which had featured his excellent “Sun Porch Cha-cha-cha”. Grusin would go on to score many films including Three Days of the Condor, The Goodbye Girl, On Golden Pond, Tootsie, The Bonfire of the Vanities, Mulholland Falls and Hope Floats. Dave also provided scores for two of my personal favourites; Tequila Sunrise and The Fabulous Baker Boys. Grusin has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Score 8 times, winning in 1988 for Robert Redford’s The Milagro Beanfield War. He also did some arranging/conducting on the Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66 album Crystal Illusions, which features my 5th favourite song of all time, “Pretty World”.

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Walter helps Dory with her breathing exercises.

Generation – and, incidentally, I have seen this film referred to as A Time for Giving – was produced by Joseph E. Levine’s company AVCO Embassy Pictures. AVCO was responsible for The Graduate, The Lion in Winter, Carnal Knowledge, Escape from New York and This is Spinal Tap before being sold and shuttered in 1986.

David Janssen and I go way back. When I was a child and I would visit my mother and stepfather in the sticks, I would sleep on the couch in the living room. I would lay in bed late at night and watch reruns of The Fugitive. Later, when my kids were little, I would watch the show on DVD with them and my wife as we ate supper. Janssen had been a prolific television actor before landing his own series starting in 1957 with the TV version of the radio drama Richard Diamond, Private Detective. Next up was the iconic The Fugitive series that ran for four years. It is notable in history for being one of the first shows to have a series finale that actually wrapped up the events of the show. Janssen’s Dr. Richard Kimble finally caught his one-armed man in an episode that was watched by 72 percent of the people that had televisions in 1967, a record at the time. Janssen followed those shows with O’Hara, U.S. Treasury produced by Jack Webb and the private eye show Harry O, set in San Diego.

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His career in films is somewhat less remarkable. He started in small roles in small films (three Francis films and one Bonzo film) making his most notable appearance in 1968 in John Wayne’s The Green Berets. After our film, he made only a handle of small, nearly invisible movies.

Janssen is a funny guy. Knowing him best as Richard Kimble, I am accustomed to his stone face. Dr. Kimble has a terrible life and is running all the time, chasing and being chased, so there is not much reason to smile. When you see Janssen in something else and see him smiling and emoting it can be odd. I like the guy but I’m still not sure if he’s a good actor or not. Part of me thinks that his “stoic look” is just the way he acts. If that’s the case then he’s not good. You can see him making an effort in Generation but it comes off as clunky.

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I went into this film with a loathing for Kim Darby. Watching her in True Grit made me want to punch her out. Another point against her is the fact that her three uncles made up the “comedy” trio, the Wiere Brothers. These three oafs are a big part of what is wrong with the worst of all Elvis Presley’s movies, Double Trouble. Darby had appeared in Bus Riley’s Back in Town (1965) starring Michael Parks and Ann-Margret before being cast as Mattie Ross in the Oscar-winning John Wayne vehicle. Later that same year, she made our film. She would go on to a career of no note. Kim does alright as the pregnant Dory, though. I can see that she is engaged and earnest and she plays off both leads well. When she was making Generation, she was in the middle of getting a divorce after a year of marriage to actor James Stacy. Stacy would go on to live a tragic and troubled life. During filming of our film, Darby and her co-star, Pete Duel, fell in love. It couldn’t have gone far, though, as Darby would marry again in 1970 – only to divorce again later that year; married and divorced twice and had a baby in an active 18-month stretch. She never remarried but is alive today, aged 72.

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Pete Duel had appeared on various television series before getting work on the Gidget TV series portraying Gidget’s brother-in-law, John Cooper. Two years after appearing in Generation, he landed his most visible role on the television western Alias Smith and Jones. By June of ’71, Duel was 6 months in to a prime gig as a regular on his own TV series. In spite of this, Duel was battling an alcohol problem and had recently pleaded guilty to driving under the influence and causing an accident that injured two people. With a loving girlfriend, a home in the Hollywood Hills and an enviable position in the industry, Duel found himself battling depression over his alcoholism. On New Year’s Eve, 1971, Duel was at home with his girlfriend, Dianne Ray. Together, they watched an episode of Alias Smith and Jones after which Ray went to bed. Later, Duel went into the bedroom to grab his revolver. Dianne awoke and Pete said “I’ll see you later”, went into another room and killed himself with a gunshot wound to the head.

In a small role in Generation is legendary comedian Carl Reiner. Still alive today at 97, Reiner is a prolific screenwriter – The Thrill of it All, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid – and director – The Jerk, Summer School. Acting for him seems to have been something of a sideline, as he often only appeared for kicks in films he was directing. He has made notable appearances in good films such as Gidget Goes Hawaiian and as one of the gang in the Ocean’s Eleven remakes. His work in our film will likely not be mentioned in retrospectives of his career.

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And watch for Sam Waterston as a wacky hippie-type who measures vibrations. Generation was Sam’s third picture and – aside from playing one of the most iconic narrators in history, Nick Carraway, in 1974’s The Great Gatsby – Waterston did not make his name in films but instead became well known and celebrated through his work on the stage and for his long run on television’s Law & Order.

Generation is funny – and not “funny ha-ha”. It took me awhile to pinpoint the issues but I think most of them stem from the fact that the film has a decidedly “television” look to it. It’s as if you wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it was actually intended to be a pilot film. This may come from Schaefer’s time spent directing for TV. His previous feature, Pendulum, has that same look although it’s a much better film. I feel like the main problem is direction as this cast is not bad; Janssen a veteran and Darby and Duel fresh-faced and competent. There is perhaps not enough meat to the story and the action unfolds in a stuttering manner.

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Jim plans strategy with his lawyer (Andrew Prine) and doctor friend, Stan (Reiner).
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The baby arrives.
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Also known as…

However, as most of you know, we at Your Home for Vintage Leisure love a lot of films that we may consider “bad”. Generation is a fun time capsule with lots to recommend it including a great look at life in 1969; street scenes, vehicles, office furniture, men’s suits. Perhaps it’s most favourable depiction, though, is it’s attempt to show to audiences of the time that maybe the generation gap is not such a wide chasm. Maybe there are those of a previous vintage that are bristling under the constraints and hypocrisies of “adult” society as well. And maybe young people needn’t assume that all those over 30 are harsh judges of youth. I like this film. It’s an earnest attempt to tell a meaningful story.

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