I’ve reviewed a few films detailing the growing generation gap between adults and youths spanning the 1960s and ’70s. Films like Superdad are wholly adrift, wallowing in tired eye-rolling regarding stoned adolescents and the straight-laced squares raising them. These movies point out the differences and say “kids today…” in favor of making any type of statement. This isn’t to say How Sweet It Is! solves the formula on how these films work – there’s no way of getting beyond their dated peace signs and tripping references – but it entertains where other movies don’t. With a script from 1970s television staple Garry Marshall, How Sweet It Is! hints at the friskiness going on in the era of psychotropics while remaining staunchly within the Production Code milieu of sweetness and light – it stars Debbie Reynolds, after all – while keeping things entertaining nonetheless.
Grif and Jenny Henderson (James Garner and Debbie Reynolds) are a happy suburban couple raising a teenage son named Davey (Donald Losby). Davey wants to follow his girlfriend around Europe for the summer, an idea Grif is completely fine with. Jenny thinks Davey is too young and turns the trip into a family vacation. Unfortunately, a series of errors leaves Jenny in an opulent house with a French Lothario (Maurice Ronet), putting her marriage at risk.
Jerry Paris was a prolific television director and what makes How Sweet It is! work is the sitcom attitude it takes, right down to very candid sequences of our main couple hopping into bed together at every turn. By the late-1960s the Production Code had crumbled, but movies were hesitant jumping into embracing this sinful brave new world. The opening scene will shock old-school filmgoers as clothes are strewn on the floor during our introduction to Mr. and Mrs. Henderson enjoying a little afternoon delight. Much like Garner’s other film, The Thrill of It All, we see an older suburban couple who actually enjoy spending time together and knocking boots. The latter part is important because as we all know there aren’t many happy marriage movies. Even Paul Lynde’s cruise ship purser – who ends up in a brothel….funny on its own – comments that the Hendersons shouldn’t want to spend time together, “you’re married.”
Debbie Reynolds works just as well with Garner as Doris Day did, but it’s hard comparing her with Day after watching these two so close together (and, in fact, being inspired to watch this after enjoying The Thrill of It All). Reynolds is cute as a button, but it’s easier buying she and Garner would be on each other all the time, although Day never put herself in those situations to begin with. Humor is derived from the two trying desperately to be alone and failing miserably, similar to two horny teens trying to escape their parents. When they sneak away to a make-out point on the ship to Europe, the teens already there stare at these two old people in disgust. Garner’s look of horror is hilarious on its own, alongside his admission that he’s never felt so old in his life. For all the movie’s attempts to make fun of the generation gap, and the stoned-out teens who don’t know a thing, the humor works best at comparing how the two are similar when it comes to love. The thrill of life and love never gets old if you refuse to let it.
Reynolds gets the standard inconcievable European plotline for a housewife: neglected suburbanite playfully manipulated/harassed sexually by a native. Jenny catches the eye of Ronet’s Phillipe, a man she meets after Terry-Thomas (in one scene) dupes her into purchasing a summer home he has no business selling. It doesn’t help matters that Grif has a wandering eye before they leave – he is James Garner, after all – and makes no bones about how attractive he finds the European tour guide working opposite him. The entire third act revolves around the couple arguing over Reynolds rocking a bikini (at 36, more power to her), culminating in some hilarious sequences of her thrusting her bikini-clad body into men’s faces, like a turquoise Medusa expecting her navel to turn men to stone. Garner almost seems superfluous, suckered into boring “bonding” moments with his teenage son that sum up the tired idea that fathers are friends to their sons and mothers are their wardens.
Stuck hitting himself in the head far too often, there isn’t anything compelling about Davey’s story because it’s mired in overdone 1970s teen conventions. So we’re treated to humorous moments of parents saying kids mature faster, cut to said mature kids watching the static on the TV and finding it transcendent. There’s nothing too ridiculous – a la the Manson figure in Superdad – but it painfully dates the movie and there’s no resolution to it. Davey and his paramour, Bootsie (Hilary Thompson, one guess on why she’s called that), get a soda at the end marking their going off into the sunset. Because it’s 1968 and there’s no end in sight regarding the generational schism the movie can’t make any significant statements for fear of being wrong twenty years down the line, better to just look archaic. The Picardy Singers are utilized for two songs in this movie treating us to some of the worst musical accompaniment I’ve ever listened to. The title song isn’t terrible but the big romantic ballad sung as Jennifer and Maurice run on the beach has the worst lyrics every composed. “The pimple on my neck began to hurt / I changed my shirt.” No one’s expecting Mozart, but, seriously?!
There’s also a strong push and pull between the old-fashioned humor found in the earlier works of Reynolds and Garner, and the more forward-thinking humor Marshall and Jerry Belson were thinking of. The entire movie plays out like an extended television episode – the ones where the family took a vacation – and for all the scandal of a couple getting caught constantly in flagrante delicto, along with Davey discussing a girl getting pregnant, the entire climax involves safe shtick of everyone falling into a big jumble on the ground. Since it all takes place in a brothel, maybe that’s supposed to make up for how silly everything winds up, but it feels anticlimatic and ridiculous from how saucy it starts out. It’s also the second of two films I recently watched with a weird incest turn. In this case, Jennifer ends up in the same brothel as Davey. The two go into a room together, so Jennifer can give Davey a stern reprimand, as others joke about her “working” a client.
Overall, for how preposterous it gets by the end, How Sweet It Is! (why is it called that, by the way?) works through the relationship between Debbie Reynolds and James Garner. If you’re a fan of either star, like I am, give it a watch.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.