Monday, October 1, 2012

Baby, This is "Where It's At!"

How is it possible that I never even heard of, much less got to see, this movie until quite recently? As a dyed-in-the-wool lover of all things late-'60s, I am always on the look out for films that showcase the clean, simple sportswear, the far-out décor and the fab hair and makeup that marked this era. It was only in looking up Robert Drivas after spotting him in an old episode of Hawaii 5-O that I came upon today's movie, the Las Vegas-set, father-son drama Where It's At. Imagine my delight when it finally showed up on TCM some months later (in wide-screen high-def, even!)
Set almost entirely at the then-new Caesar's Palace casino and resort, Where It's At is an invaluable document of 1969 Las Vegas and would be worthwhile to any fan of the city whether they enjoy the actors and storyline or not! Fortunately, for me, I did like watching the actors and, for certain scenes at least, was fascinated at what I saw.

The story begins with two naked lovers cavorting in bed (in extreme shadow, this being near the dawn of increased permissiveness in the American cinema – one of my favorite periods, by the way!) They turn out to be Caesars Palace owner David Janssen and his live-in lover, the younger by about a decade Rosemary Forsyth (shown here from behind as reflected in a bathroom mirror and below with more clothes on.) A widower with one young adult son, he is anticipating the son's arrival from college at Princeton in the wake of his graduation.
Janssen is supposed to meet him at the airport, but Forsyth proves so tantalizing that he opts to make love to her again rather than head over to meet his son. Janssen's loyal secretary, the slightly kooky Brenda Vaccaro, tries to act as a go-between, but primarily has to do the commanding Janssen's bidding.

Janssen runs everything from a stunning penthouse and a state-of-the-art office, outfitted with multiple television screens with which to display the pictures from many cameras he has secreted about the resort. Most impressive is an automatic sliding glass door that leads to his domain (remember, this was prior to 1970, so such things weren't to be found everyplace yet!) Contrary to what they might like you to think, though, this part was clearly filmed on a soundstage and not at the actual resort.

The son, Robert Drivas, arrives decked out in low-slung pants and an open shirt with a scarf tied at the neck. This is automatically at odds with the crisply-dressed Janssen. Janssen wants his son to learn the business from the ground up so that they can make it a family affair, but Drivas has his mind made up to tour Europe instead. Janssen has noticeable difficulty accepting his son's age and independence (demonstrated though this scene of him viewing the boy at stages younger than he is) and ultimately, this being Vegas and all, offers to settle the whole matter with a cutting of some cards.
Drivas is compelled to stay at the casino and soon is put through the paces of learning about the operations. He is shown the ropes and even consulted on the viability of potential showgirls, even being asked to weigh-in on the quality of one in particular's breasts. Edy Williams plays the curvaceous gal in question (as if there ever was any... She's stacked and packed to the hilt and sports voluminous blonde hair!)
Drivas, though, has little to no interest in the buxom babe and hesitates to even look at her body. This, paired with the way he dresses and his general lack of interest in dating, leads Janssen to worry that he might be homosexual! Eager to figure out his son's orientation, he takes to searching Drivas' room (which is decked out with large posters of old Hollywood stars like Bogart and Theda Bara) as well as bugging it.

During the course of the men's day of running Caesars Palace, they take time out for a semi-private, outdoor massage. (This was one of my very favorite parts of the movie for reasons which ought to be clear in a moment!) Apparently feeling free of any modesty that might be considered inside a spa and since they are in the corner of a veranda, outside of prying eyes, Janssen and Drivas lie face down and naked on the massage table, minus the obligatory towel across their rear ends which usually appear in these types of scenes. The shot below, perhaps a run-through or camera test, shows Jansssen with a different masseur!
Each of the men has his own masseur rubbing him down and running his hands against his ass cheeks as the camera looms before them! True, this may very well be the way things were done back then at Turkish baths and so forth, but rare indeed is the movie that ever depicted a massage this way. It's not meant to be sexual at all, but when one of the subjects is tan, trim ferret Drivas, it can't help but be rather tantalizing! I found this sequence positively exhilarating to watch.

When Drivas begins to extrapolate on the charms of one of his college professors, claiming to “love” him, Janssen's concerns about his sexuality go into overdrive. He arranges for the Amazonian beauty Williams to appear in Drivas' room and seduce him, figuring that if he can resist that, he has to be gay!

Here again, the viewer is tempted by the sight of sizzlean Drivas, furry and fit, dressed in nothing but a thin, flimsy pair of skimpy white swim trunks. You will note that he has a rather out of place sweater draped across his shoulders. This is because the actor for some unknown reason had a major league scar down the right side of his torso.
In shirtless scenes, he is typically shot from the left and when facing front, there is usually something to obscure this lengthy crevice in his stomach. (See below in this Mexican lobby card his hand against the scar...
...and in this on-set photo, a more prominent view of it.)
Anyway, he is hot to death in these white trunks (with even the beginnings of a pup tent) and Williams is not dissatisfied in her erotic, impromtu assignment, yet he seems to be toying with her, not really denying that he is homosexual and not automatically giving in to temptation. However, in the end, he goes for it and dives onto the bed, much to her delight.

Appearing briefly, but surprisingly effectively, in a cameo role is nightclub comedian (and master of the put-down) Don Rickles. He plays, against type, a blackjack dealer who is secretly losing on purpose to a certain player and then splitting the winnings with that player. When Janssen finds out about it (through some of his ever-present hidden cameras), he brings Rickles to his office for an interrogation.

Janssen's temper and lack of forgiveness come to light in the scene as he breaks Rickles down and informs him that he will be washing dishes for a few years in order to pay back the near ten grand he's embezzled during the scheme. It's quite unusual to see the normally brash and assertive Rickles reduced to a quivering mess this way.

As the story wears on, we learn that Janssen wants to rid himself of some partners who own one-third of the casino. He has a third, himself, Drivas has a third left to him by his deceased mother and then another third belongs to some rather shady characters in New York. He determines that Drivas should take a large case of money to Switzerland in order to spirit it away for use later, even though the trip puts Drivas in the path of potential arrest or worse.

Drivas makes his way across the ocean, but from there things take a twist. Janssen, Drivas, Forsyth and even Vaccaro become embroiled in a scenario of mixed-up loyalties, romantic complications and one-upsmanship.

It's the end of the movie before we find out who truly feels what for whom and how much each is willing to give up to that end. Mirroring the decision of Drivas' staying in Las Vegas through the cutting of cards earlier in the movie, another major decision is made the same way at the end.
In promoting this film, the publicity people took an unusual approach indeed, which probably led to lackluster box office in the long run. The lobby cards mostly depicted gaggles of sexy ladies either posing by a fountain, playing roulette or otherwise lounging around. Few of the cards featured the actual stars of the movie and, in fact, in a very rare move, the primary actors' names don't even appear on the lobby cards!
Those who came to the film expecting endless scenes of scantily-clad females were only going to get a bit of that. True, the film contains female figures on display, but the focus is primarily on Janssen and Drivas, and to a lesser extent Forsyth and Vaccaro, for the bulk of the time, with only snippets of the other gals here and there.

Note how they stacked the deck, so to speak, with gorgeous lovelies at the pool for this photo below, but didn't bother to ask the paunchy, middle-aged patron in the background to skedaddle out of the shot!
This film had the full cooperation of Caesar's Palace (with the casino even warranting a bizarre blurb in the opening credits, “Caesars Palace as Caesars Palace.”) Considering that at the time the place was surrounded on at least one side by an expanse of desert, Where It's At serves as a priceless reminder of what this resort (and the town it is in) was once like. This photo shows a quite nerdy doorman dressed in Roman gear as Janssen approaches. This young man is only shown in long shot in the movie, but thankfully the usual centurion greeting folks out front is more handsome (if no less silly!)
The décor alone in the film makes for interesting viewing. Janssen's pad, with its patterned wallpaper, curved staircase and collection of large mirrors is far out, man!
During a late night mosey down the real Las Vegas strip, the camera catches a hilarious woman in blue watching through a window who waves furiously, with an ear-to-ear grin, at the passing cinematographer. I wonder if the poor dear ever got to see this movie and her “performance” in it!
One scene takes place at a competing hotel that overlooks Caesars Palace (again filmed on a soundstage with a cyclorama backdrop) and it hilariously includes a fashion show amidst the cocktails and conversation.  A remarkably "mature" model comes around and describes the swimsuit she's wearing, complete with a matching cover-up, and announces that it's for sale at $28.00.  (This reportedly used to be a common practice at various restaurants and hotels.)
In between scenes of the screenplay, multiple, brief shots of the card tables and other areas of the place are shown while disembodied voices provide snapshots of dialogue, meant to add a comedic or atmospheric bent to the proceedings. These came courtesy of an improv group called The Committee, who saw a flash of success during the '60s in a couple of troupes across the U.S. and on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour among other shows. Their last gig on TV was in about 1974.
Where It's At was written and directed by Garson Kanin, a noted playwright and director (as well as author) who was responsible for the Broadway hit Born Yesterday. He also co-wrote such Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn films as Adam's Rib and Pat and Mike. Having also directed the Dick Van Dyke-Angie Dickinson satire Some Kind of a Nut in 1969, he then ceased directing, but occasionally continued to write.

His longtime wife and frequent collaborator was actress Ruth Gordon (of 1968's Rosemary's Baby and 1971's Harold and Maude fame.) They were co-nominees for three writing Oscars: A Double Life (1947), Adam's Rib (1949) and Pat and Mike (1952), losing to The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, Sunset Boulevard and The Lavender Hill Mob respectively. After Gordon died in 1985, Kanin married Marian Seldes in 1990 and remained wed until his death in 1999 of heart failure. He was eighty-six. His legacy lives on still in surprising ways, such as the fact that the current TV series Smash is named for and partly based upon a 1982 novel he'd written!

In 1969, Janssen was enjoying a stint in movies thanks to the immense popularity of his prior television series The Fugitive, which ran from 1963 to 1967. It's two-part finale in 1967 (the first time a dramatic series had ever been ended with a proper and final resolution) produced staggering ratings that were not to be outdone until the famous “Who Shot JR?” resolution on Dallas about a dozen years later. During The Fugitive, he was nominated three times for an Emmy in 1964, 1966 and 1967, but lost to Dick Van Dyke in The Dick Van Dyke Show and twice to Bill Cosby in I Spy. He did pick up a Golden Globe in 1966 after having lost to Gene Barry in Burke's Law the year before.
Unfortunately, his choice of cinematic material in the wake of The Fugitive left something to be desired. His first project, the 1968 John Wayne war movie The Green Berets, was reviled for its gung-ho attitude towards The Vietnam War. His peripheral role in the same year's The Shoes of the Fisherman also did his career no great favors. Following this film, a supporting part in 1969's Marooned and the low-budget western Macho Callahan in 1970, it was back to TV for him. Janssen did appear, however, in 1976's Two-Minute Warning, which gives him disaster movie cred in The Underworld. He continued to work steadily up until his death of a heart attack in 1980 at only age forty-eight.


At this point, Canadian-born Forsyth was still fairly new to the business, having made her movie debut in 1965 as James Stewart's daughter in Shenandoah. (A Golden Globe nomination as Most Promising Newcomer was lost to A Patch of Blue's Elizabeth Hartman.) This was followed the same year by The War Lord with Charlton Heston and Texas Across the River in 1966. A marriage to actor Michael Tolan and the birth of their daughter took her out of the loop for a couple of years until Where It's At. Though she worked on the Geraldine Page-Ruth Gordon chiller What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? and Kanin's next film Some Kind of a Nut, her career momentum never regained its earlier promise.

She did go on, however, to a hefty amount of television, guest-starring on practically all of the hot shows of the '70s and '80s (including Charlie's Angels, as shown here. Check out those ruby talons!) She's an honorary, not full-fledged, member of the "'70s Disaster Movie Society" thanks to all but one of her scenes and the bulk of her dialogue being edited out of 1978's Gray Lady Down. In the mid-'90s, she popped up in small roles in such features as Disclosure (1994) and Daylight (1996) and continued to act through the late 2000s. Now sixty-nine, she hasn't worked on screen since 2008.
There was quite a hubbub during Where It's At because the married Forsyth and the married Janssen took their naked frolicking seriously and began having an affair. The relationship signaled the end of Janssen's twelve-year marriage to his first wife Ellie and did in hers of about three years as well. The couple stayed together for a few years, even living together for a time, but ultimately they parted company some time in 1971.
1969 was the potential break-out year for Drivas, who'd been acting on television for a decade prior. He'd worked on Route 66, The Defenders and even two episodes of Janssen's show The Fugitive. In 1967, he won a part in Cool Hand Luke as a fellow convict of Paul Newman's and then two years later landed this movie along with the higher profile The Illustrated Man, with Rod Steiger and Claire Bloom. Still, acting stardom was not to be his in the end and he eventually turned to directing the theatre, an occupation he was quite successful at.

Drivas tended to read young on film (if the camera wasn't too close!) while Janssen read a bit older. This helps to account for the fact that they were cast as father and son yet were only seven and a half years apart in age in real life! Despite this fact, they do manage rather well to come off as parent and child here. Drivas died far too young in 1986 at only age forty-seven, one of the many gay men of that era to be claimed by AIDS.
Like Drivas, Vaccaro had been working on TV for about a decade prior to this, but she was also a highly accomplished stage actress. This was her movie debut and she brought a striking level of quirky freshness to the project. In one of her initial scenes, she does have a fall-down funny moment as she makes an entire series of facial expressions culminating in the expression of one simple word, “Hi.” The more I see of her early work, the more I appreciate her as a uniquely talented actress.
She would bring her particular brand of performing to Midnight Cowboy this same year and then to Summertree in 1971 (a movie I recently profiled here in The Underworld.) Also, like Drivas, she had been a guest star on an installment of The Fugitive, playing a young lady held hostage along with Janssen in a moving car. Like two of the other stars, she also worked the '70s disaster circuit, starring in Airport '77! Miss Vaccaro still works today and will be seventy-three this November.

A stand-up comedian known for his stinging insults, Rickles had been appearing on TV since the mid-'50s. In 1958, he took a straight role in the submarine drama Run Silent Run Deep and thereafter put in an occasional serious appearance, such as in this movie and 1970's Kelly Heroes, to contrast his many funny ones. From 1976 to 1978, he had his own sitcom called CPO Sharkey and later costarred on Daddy Dearest with Richard Lewis in 1993, but that show failed to last. In recent years, he's kept himself in the public's consciousness by providing the voice of a grouchy Mr. Potato Head in the series of Toy Story movies. In 2008, he won an Emmy for his 2007 special Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project. He is currently eighty-six.

Statuesque Williams had been a model and a starlet who was picked up by 20th Century Fox for use as curvy decoration in a number of their film and TV projects. Her earliest parts were often uncredited bits in which she was little more than eye-popping scenery. As the late-'60s arrived, this began to change and she won slightly larger parts, but it was her marriage to exploitation director Russ Meyer in 1970 that really jump-started her career. He featured her in both Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) and The Seven Minutes and it must be said that she was a provocative, striking persona.

Things began to slip after their 1975 divorce and her projects became more and more tacky (titles like 1983's Chained Heat, 1984's Hollywood Hot Tubs and 1990's Nudity Required clue one in on where her career had headed.) Worse still, in an effort to keep herself in the public eye, even if it was in a less than positive way, she took to shamelessly appearing at the Golden Globe awards and the Oscars in some of the most tawdry, tasteless, eye-scorching concoctions imaginable, often with a coordinating pet in tow. (She's lucky no one called the SPCA for cruelty to animals what with them being attached to her during these excursions!) This, believe it or not, is actually one of her less offensive get-ups! Now seventy, she hasn't worked in a legitimate project since 1992.

Where It's At is not any sort of amazing, classic film, but its previously mentioned location filming in a pre-overproduced Las Vegas makes it quite a curio. Additionally, for those who like this time frame and the makeup and fashion trends that went with it, it goes down rather easily. And if none of that does it for you, then there is still the specter of Robert Drivas and his fun pair of white swim trunks (if only he'd actually gotten them wet... the mind reels!)

6 comments:

Ivan said...

That scar was real?!? Wow... In Cool Hand Luke, because it's used as a joke (new con asks Drivas, "Where'd you get that scar?" and Drivas threateningly replies, "What scar?"), I always figured it was makeup.
BTW, Rickles is also great in Corman's The Man With the X-Ray Eyes as a scheming carny.
Thanks!
Ivan

Poseidon3 said...

Ivan, thanks for pointing out the reference to Robert's scar in Cool Hand Luke. I need to check that out again. I haven't seen Luke since Robert Drivas stood out in my conscienceness in an episode of Hawaii 5-O. His scar was visible there, too. It will be nice to go back to Luke and watch him more closely now.

This was the post in which I first spoke of him (and showed him wearing a fun, patterned swimsuit!) -- http://neptsdepths.blogspot.com/2011/09/be-our-guest-volume-two.html

joel65913 said...

I also have never heard of this but must keep an eye out for it. It sounds trippy which is always fun. Robert Drivas was good looking but that haircut has got to be one of the least flattering I've ever seen!

I vaguely remember a few times when I was a kid and went to certain restaurants where they had models walking around the tables showing clothes and telling the prices, never swimwear though. I thought it was kind of strange but my mom and grandmother didn't seem to think a thing about so I guess it was standard for years.

Michael O'Sullivan said...

Perfect! I remember this from seeing it at the time, when I was in my early 20s - Drivas also stripped and showed his rear end, along with Steiger! in 'The Illustrated Man', and we love Brenda Vacarro in anything. Kanin, despite marrying again after Ruth's death, was always supposed to be gay as well ... but then Vincente Minnelli married several times too. Where Its At is certainly a long-lost late '60s treasure, along with Last Summer, The Sterile Cuckoo or Tuesday and Tony Perkins in Pretty Poison.
I now have 2 other 60s rarities to indulge in - The Loved One and Lord Love A Duck!
Janssen then is another of those guys who died far too young, like Stephen Boyd, Stanley Baker or Laurence Harvey ...

Michael O'Sullivan said...

Rosemary Forsyth is another we liked from that era - she was lovely with Heston in The Warlord, a great medieval movie made on the Universal backlot. Interesting to see how her career panned out....

Ken Anderson said...

I really am behind in my Poseidon posts. I came to look at the Treat Williams tribute (loved it!) and was thrilled to see you wrote about this movie. I saw it on TCM as well. I had wanted to see it for years (when I was young "Rona Barrett's Hollywood" devoted several columns to the torrid, home-wrecking affair between Forsythe and Janssen, all the while alluding to what a nudity-filled symbol of Hollywood's New Permissiveness this movie was).
Seeing it finally after all these years was a jaw-dropper (it feels like it was written by an old man trying to be hip), and your post highlights every single aspect that caught my eye. Especially the frequent undraping of Drivas. I had written about Kanin's "the Right Approach" just a week or so before, then this film popped up. He was better off collaborating.
Thanks for another amazingly fact-filled post!