1 Hr., 46 Mins.
A Touch of Class
November 15, 2019
here’s a moment in A Touch of Class (1973), something of an anti-romantic comedy, where the couple driving the film, curt British single mother Vickie (Glenda Jackson) and vinegary American family man Steve (George Segal), watch Brief Encounter (1945) together. So far, A Touch of Class has been that movie’s antithesis. There are similarities, sure. Vickie and Steve meet under odd circumstances: While Steve is
playing baseball in the park with some of his friends, one of Vickie’s kids accidentally gets trampled (though fortunately not to death) by him. Both have familial responsibilities to which they must attend. Steve, who says frankly that he’s never been unfaithful to his beloved wife “in the same town,” isn’t interested in leaving his spouse and their kids behind. Brief Encounter, in contrast, is lyrical, and photographed in an otherworldly black and white that makes things feel almost casually poignant. Besides, it’s directed by David Lean, who isn’t stingy when it comes to handing you three hankies or so when a weepy ending comes out of the woodwork.
A Touch of Class, on the opposite end of the spectrum, is bouncy and distractible. It’s been rightfully compared to the zippy battle-of-the-sexes comedies starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, which tend to feature more games of verbal one-upmanship than warm embraces. In A Touch of Class, even the impending doom which we come to wish weren’t impending has a merriness to it. The invocation of Brief Encounter in the movie causes things to get serious for a moment, though. One could even call it a red flag, given how late it happens in the film. It causes both Steve and Vickie to fall into an ugly-crying session. That’s funny, and in tune with the fitful slapstick comedy preceding it. But less so is what Steve says. “How will it end with us?” he goes.
It’s a question neither party has considered lately. Vickie and Steve's romance, after all, has proven itself far more long-lasting than either person thought it would at first. Originally it was just supposed to be a fling. The pair ran into each other on the street and shared a cab while it was raining after the baseball incident; they had a good rapport and then started realizing they liked each other; grabbed lunch, then thought maybe they’d like to start an affair. Which they did — during a week-long Spanish getaway so rife with comedies of errors that whatever spark they initially had threatened to extinguish itself. (Things eventually warmed up; later, when Vickie and Steve are watching Brief Encounter, they happen to be watching it in an apartment they secretly purchased together just to clandestinely meet up.)
A Touch of Class does a lot of things well, but not among its highs is
decisiveness. Once it’s over, you’ve felt like you’ve watched two movies, neither of which worked altogether too well. Much of the time it’s an energetic farce where one bad thing happens after another — threatening to derail the relationship Vickie and Steve form early in the movie — and the chaos is funny, controlled, almost. Frank makes sense as the person behind this material: decades earlier, he was responsible, with collaborator Norman Panama, for a lot of popular, similarly batty comedies, including Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948) and a couple of Road to … movies. He directs A Touch of Class almost as if it were a series of comedy sketches. (Most of them set during Vickie and Steve’s Spanish vacation, they include Steve nearly breaking his back during sex, trips to faraway places in a too-tiny car with a broken clutch, an awkward dinner Vickie’s invited to that turns out to be hosted by one of Steve’s co-workers.) At its most frenetic, A Touch of Class works.
But then, during the last act of the movie, Frank and his co-writer, Jack Rose, abruptly decide to make the movie all tearful. It’s not impossible for lighthearted romantic comedies to suddenly be marred by relentless real life. As long as the tone is correct to begin with — entailing that there’s a level of awareness that whatever romp is going on is out of the ordinary — things can shift. But Frank and Rose don’t take us there with care: we’re expecting something at odds with Brief Encounter all the way. Steve will realize that he loves Vickie too much to stay stuck in a marriage that’s not quite as great as he tells himself. But Frank and Rose give us a finale that not merely cruel: it isn’t believable. It’s in sync with one of those plot devices where if someone just said a single line, everything would be cleared up, but since everyone keeps talking in circles problems continue on too long. A Touch of Class tries to tell us that the affair would end this way: not heartwarmingly but perhaps ethically. Sometimes ethics break the heart. But the tonal shift and change in objective are too jerky and unforeseeable to feel right.
It’s difficult to have much against an anti-romantic comedy in a world of entertainment where the anti descriptor in front of “romantic comedy” is something bemoaned most of the time. A Touch of Class could be a nice subversion of old tropes with a biting twist. But instead it’s an update on old tropes with a contrived twist. Jackson and Segal are so good in the movie — both actors are unlikely but stellar re-ups of the kinds of stars Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant could be in fast-paced comedies — that Frank and Rose’s final mess-up feels as if it were cutting a little deeper. B-