What a great thing Dick Van Dyke has been. First there’s that improbable name. Even more improbable, it’s his real name. Then there’s his legs, long and lean and made for comedy dancing and comedy pratfalls. And his smile – as wide as the screen and surely the biggest on TV, if we’re not counting that of Mary Tyler Moore, who played his screen wife. We tend to think of him as a TV performer – no less than three TV series have been named after him, including the seminal Dick Van Dyke Show of the 1960s, the direct descendants of which (via Mary Tyler Moore and James Burrows) are Friends and The Big Bang Theory. And then there’s his stints in a number of different shows (Diagnosis Murder, Murder 101) in which he played the doctor who’s also an investigator, a weird TV hybrid that also did quite well for Jack Klugman, as Quincy. But though a vaudeville man by talent and inclination and a TV man in terms of success, Van Dyke also made a string of interesting movie appearances, at least one of which needs no introduction.
Mary Poppins (1964, dir: Robert Stevenson)
Not even nominated. That’s what the imdb tells us of Dick Van Dyke’s performance in Mary Poppins. Julie Andrews won an Oscar, as did the effects artists, the film’s editor and the Sherman brothers for their music. But the Best Supporting Actor Oscar that should by rights have been Van Dyke’s went instead to Melvyn Douglas for his work in Hud. Why should Van Dyke have won it? Look again and notice how the movie jumps up about two gears when Van Dyke arrives for the central sequence featuring Chim-Chim-Cheree, Jolly Holiday and Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious and then drops back again once Bert the chimney sweep (Van Dyke) has moved back to the wings.
Divorce American Style (1967, dir: Bud Yorkin)
A 1960s “sex comedy” (as in “the battle of the sexes” rather than the sort of thing you get in American Pie) but this one has an unusually astringent streak. Van Dyke and Debbie Reynolds play the couple whose marriage hits a bump after 17 years and they find themselves being rushed, American style, through divorce proceedings. Whether that rush was or was not an entirely good thing is what the film is all about, and the two leads play their roles with far less saccharine than they’re usually required to deliver. Funny, trenchant, charming and underplayed, Divorce American Style is an overlooked gem.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968, dir: Ken Hughes)
Ian Fleming wrote the original novel, Roald Dahl did the screenplay, the James Bond production team made it and they lured the Sherman brothers over from Disney to do the music. No wonder Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – the soppy love stuff apart – looks so great and works so well. Dick Van Dyke’s Caractacus Potts gets more of the song-and-dance numbers he’d excelled at in Mary Poppins, though he’s not required to put on a British accent this time round (gor blimey). Look closely and it’s clear Van Dyke is no dancer. But the routines are tailored so well to his frame, and he attacks them with such enthusiasm, that it barely matters.
The Comic (1969, dir: Car Reiner)
A labour of love for Van Dyke – who had read the eulogy at Stan Laurel’s funeral in 1965 – and Carl Reiner, who had been his producer on the Dick Van Dyke Show, The Comic is the riches to rags tale of a silent comedian whose brilliant career hits the skids. It’s based loosely on the life of Buster Keaton and plays straight to Van Dyke’s tendency to aim his performance at the back row. “Dick Van Dyke has the true manic feeling for the silent-comedy routines,” is how the critic Pauline Kael described it, and the film works best as it runs through the early life of Billy Bright (Van Dyke), essentially a montage of gags made famous by Chaplin, Keaton, Langdon, Turpin, Laurel and Hardy and the first generation of Hollywood funnymen. Too bittersweet to be considered a true comedy, The Comic also daringly attempts a portrait of a man with very few, if any, redeeming qualities and was part of Van Dyke’s never entirely successful quest to move himself into edgier territory.
The Comic – no DVD at Amazon, as yet
Cold Turkey (1971, dir: Norman Lear)
A tobacco company boss (Edward Everett Horton) offers $25 million to the town that can give up smoking for 30 days in a satire on smalltown manners that never forgets that it’s primarily going to be watched in smalltown cinemas. Which is another way of saying that the satire isn’t too stinging. Dick Van Dyke plays the local pastor, a man determined to get the town of Eagle Rock, Iowa (population 4006), singing from the same no-smoking hymn sheet, though for entirely selfish reasons. Cold Turkey’s big strength is the humour it draws from its supporting cast, who are more often than not great character actors. This was, for instance, the last time the great Edward Everett Horton ever appeared on screen.
The Morning After (1974, dir: Richard T Heffron)
A TV movie written by Richard Matheson, better known for sci-fi, from The Twilight Zone to I Am Legend. It deals with the crippling alcoholism of a PR man, played by Dick Van Dyke. Van Dyke had been an alcoholic for years himself, only going into rehab in 1972, and The Morning After was one of his ways of outing himself (still a very rare thing to do in the early 1970s). Perhaps armed with this first-hand knowledge the movie pulls few punches, showing alcohol to be not just a scourge in terms of health but a cause of the breakdown of relationships, family, self-respect. It did a lot to challenge the actor’s nice-guy reputation. The following year he was playing a villain in Columbo.
The Morning After – not availabe at Amazon, as yet
© Steve Morrissey 2013