On several occasions, George Axelrod characterizes his film, Lord Love a Duck, as a cross between Love Finds Andy Hardy and Dr. Strangelove. This may be so, but the film could use some of the formal rigor Kubrick applied to his. An anti-beach party film, Duck unloads a scattershot of rounds at all things sacred – education, religion, family, and marriage --, sacrificing rhythm and narrative coherence as a result.
At the center of this freewheeling film is Barbara Ann Greene (Tuesday Weld), a Lolita clone who wants. Want twelve cashmere sweaters? Done. Want out of botany class? You got it. Want that boy-toy who has the hots for you? No problem. Granting all her wishes is Allan “Mollymauk” Musgrave, a brainy teenager played by a going-on 40 Roddy McDowall. He is the genie granting her every wish. He will even resort to murder in order to make her happy. In Duck, Musgrave’s mad, devotional love is the only kind of love. All the other men in the film are sex-crazed.
Sex rules the day here. In one of the film’s most bizarre moments, sex merges with materialism. Heeding Musgrave's advice, Barbara calls on her absent father, Howie (Max Showalter). Spending the day with dad is an excuse to buy twelve sweaters on his tab. As she comes out of the dressing room wearing a sweater, Axelrod cuts to a googly-eyed Howie. Barbara comes out with another, causing Howie to cackle wildly.
There are some “freaky frames” in this scene. Axelrod cants camera angles as the shot-reverse-shot quickens. Out of nowhere, the film enters into delirium. Howie’s yuck-yucking belly laughs give way to grunting and moaning between him and his daughter. The scene climaxes with the two covered in a pile of sweaters – a clothes orgy. Here, Axelrod captures commodity fetishism as a sexual frenzy.
“All that’s missing is an ‘ahh-oooo-ga’ sound effect for this incestuous pairing to go full cartoon,” R. Emmet Sweeney writes. Resembling a live-action Tex Avery cartoon, nothing before or after rivals this scene.
With the sweaters, a prerequisite for admission, Barbara becomes part of a girl’s club. Now part of the “in crowd,” she spends spring break at Balboa beach, since everyone’s going. There, Barbara starts a relationship with Bob based purely on physical attraction, which inevitably leads to marriage.
Barbara just wants attention. “Everyone has got to love me, everybody!” she tells Musgrave during their first meeting. (A fitting subtitle for Duck could be “The Loved One,” which is also a film some critics compare Axelrod's to.)
Axelrod offers a parallel to Barbara -- her mother, Marie (Lola Albright). With her, the film slides into sorrow. She’s a 42-year-old pixie that hits the bottle, brings home middle-aged men, and works as a cocktail waitress during the day.
In one scene, we see Marie sprucing herself up before going to bed. She looks into a magnifying mirror, which distorts her face. It’s an image of her mangled mind, perhaps. Reflected in a vanity table mirror in the background is Barbara, a miniature version of mom. One wonders if Barbara is following in Marie’s footsteps. Yet mom and her way of life just seem like a roadblock to what Barbara wants, Bob.
Marriage, however, involves mutual agreement. When Bob tells her not to make a screen test for a B-movie, it’s time for Barbara to leave. If Bob gets in the way, so be it, murder the man for its time to be a star.
Near the film’s end, once Barbara reaches celebrity status as a B-Star, as the lead role in Bikini Widow, the camera follows her from the POV of the paparazzi. Here, the camera turns handheld and the frame starts to shake. Removed from school, from home, the camera captures Barbara as a beauty, empty of personality, of character, of psychology. The last glimpses of her, Barbara is an image, glowing with the aura of fame.
The aesthetic, however, is just as empty as Barbara. Although Axelrod packs Duck with acerbic wit, he doesn’t seem to fair the transition from writing to cinema too well. Little contrast in the lighting, most shots come off as a muddled gray. (To be sure, the paltry look may be due to the poor DVD transfer MGM released in 2003.) The shabby décor and clear use of sound stages seems to indicate that little of the 1.2 million spent on the film went into its look. Of course, Axelrod may have wanted an artificial look, but I don’t think so, since the aesthetic varies from scene to scene. Perhaps his next film, one I hope to see eventually, The Secret Life of an American Wife, Axelrod irons out the particularities of the medium. For this film, however, he’s not shooting a film, but writing one.