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The Bootleg Files: Another Nice Mess

BOOTLEG FILES 586: “Another Nice Mess” (1972 comedy film starring Rich Little).

LAST SEEN: It is on YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Even the film’s producers admitted it stank.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Unlikely.

Humorist Leo Rosten once commented, “Satire is focused bitterness.” It is hard to find a more accurate description of satire – and in view of today’s surplus of Alt-Left comedians going out of their way to denigrate the president and his family, the level of bitterness has become hopelessly poisoned.

But satire once had more bite than bile. In the late 1960s, the Smothers Brothers got the rare chance to use a national television platform to present their view of the political scene within the context of skits and songs. By 1972, Tom Smothers opted to bring his brand of political humor to the big screen. Brother Dick chose to abstain from this effort, and he was replaced by Bob Einstein, an actor/writer who was part of the Smothers Brothers’ controversial television show, and Jonathan Haze, an actor in B-level flicks (most notably Roger Corman’s “The Little Shop of Horrors”). Smothers and Haze served as producers and financed the work from their own savings, while Einstein was the writer/director. Their project was a feature film send-up on the Nixon Administration called “Another Nice Mess,” which was scheduled for release ahead of the 1972 election.

However, “Another Nice Mess” had the sad distinction of being the worst political satire ever put on film. Even Smothers and Haze later admitted the film was terrible. Much of the problem was that the film did not attempt to offer any satirical comment on how Richard Nixon conducted his presidency. Instead, it provided the strange notion of reimagining Nixon and his vice president, Spiro Agnew, along the lines of Laurel and Hardy. In this case, Agnew (as played by character actor Herb Voland) was given Stan Laurel’s voices and mannerisms, while Nixon (mimicked by Rich Little) imitated Oliver Hardy’s on-screen persona. (The characters are called Spiro and Richie, not by their surnames.) Adding to the confusion is Little playing Nixon as Nixon, who is intercut watching the film in a screening room while offering dour commentary on what is transpiring, along with old clips of Laurel and Hardy that are arranged in a manner to suggest they are either watching the film or are involved in its action.

“Another Nice Mess” gets off feebly at the presidential inauguration, with Spiro pulling a very long thread from Richie’s clothing that eventually causes his pants to drop while he ascends the stairs. The duo then get into more mischief in a presidential limousine ride, with Spiro mistaking the middle finger salute for a peace sign.

The film’s one and only charming moment comes when the pair arrive at the White House for the first time and discover a Victrola. Although there is no crank to operate it, Spiro sticks his index finger into the machine and twirls it, enabling the Victrola to come to life. With music filling the room, Richie and Spiro duplicate the Laurel and Hardy dance from “Way Out West,” and Voland and Little perfectly capture the choreography of that classic old comedy segment.

From there, “Another Nice Mess” gets into a more contemporary vibe, with Richie and Spiro being introduced to their multi-ethnic Secret Service detail – the Polish member is identified as a “Polack” and the African-American agent, we are told, “jumps like a true Negro.” There is also a sexy secretary for the men, and Spiro puts the “vice” in vice president by squeezing her breast. (It makes a loud bicycle horn-worthy honk.)

At this point, “Another Nice Mess” wobbles all over the place between lame shenanigans with a vaguely political foundation. The President of Persia and his wife come for a state dinner, with Richie spilling his drink down his front while Spiro placing a hot food tray into the Persian leader’s hands, causing him to empty its contents on his unsuspecting wife. Richie and Spiro go out in public and get into the middle of a riot that is started when a hard-hat construction worker throws a brick at a long-haired hippie (Steve Martin, in his movie debut) – the brick misses the hippie but bangs into the president, who mistakenly believes his vice president hit him.

If that’s not bad enough, there is a subplot involving an elderly Adolf Hitler living in the White House while working as a spy for the Communist Chinese government. Really, don’t ask about that.

The backstory behind “Another Nice Mess” is far more entertaining than anything captured on camera. It seems that the real President Nixon got wind of the film and was not amused. Tom Smothers then got the word that Nixon was wise to him, and he made a concentrated effort to ensure that neither his home nor office had any trace of illegal substances. This advance word paid off for Smothers, as his home was the subject of a drug raid by the police during the post-production period.

“Another Nice Mess” had John A. Alonzo as its cinematographer. Alonzo was behind the camera for Smothers’ starring film “Get to Know Your Rabbit,” so one can assume Smothers recruited him for this flick. Alonzo was very much in demand as a cinematographer – his 1972 credits also included the Oscar-nominated “Sounder,” the documentary “Wattstax,” “Pete ‘n’ Tillie” and “Lady Sings the Blues,” and in 1974 his work on “Chinatown” earned him an Academy Award nomination.

A screening of “Another Nice Mess” was used in a Hollywood fundraiser for the Democratic Party, but few moviegoers ever got to see it. The film played briefly in a handful of theaters in the Midwest and the West Coast – it doesn’t seem to have opened in New York or any East Coast market. Part of the problem could have been the running time – “Another Nice Mess” clocked in at a scant 66 minutes, far shorter than the average feature film – and it did not help that another satiric film about Nixon, Emile de Antonio’s harsh documentary “Millhouse: A White Comedy,” had already been in theatrical release. Ultimately, though, the creators of this film failed realize that the American public did not share their views: the 1972 election saw an extraordinary landslide victory for Nixon and Agnew. Of course, the public quickly turned on the men and they were forced to resign their offices as a result of separate criminal scandals within two years of the release of “Another Nice Mess.” (The fact that Nixon and Agnew had a terrible working relationship was not public knowledge until they left Washington.)

The film also created a major financial loss for Smothers and Haze – despite a low $250,000 budget, it only grossed $30,000. The poor quality of the work plus the quickly dated nature of its content kept it out of re-release – it was never on television, nor was it ever made available in any home entertainment format. A blurry dupe is on YouTube for anyone that has become bored today’s line-up of would-be political satirists and wants a retro injection of bad comedy.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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  • Peter Winkler

    Bob Einstein is the brother of Albert Brroks, whose birthname is Albert Einstein.