NOVEMBER 2007 – NO. 19
The Fat Spy
A forgotten film reveals forgotten gardens on Florida's coast
Because film is a popular art, it is said that every film — no matter how poorly crafted or ridiculously plotted — will have some fans who like it. The Fat Spy sorely tests this assumption.
Spy is a spoof of several movie fads popular in the mid-60s, particularly beach movies and spy adventures. The nonsensical story line involves a group of teenagers who look for an old Spanish galleon on an island off the coast of Florida, an island that happens to be inhabited by a horticulturalist named Irving who is searching for Ponce de Leon's Fountain of Youth. Irving is played by 1960s stand-up comic Jack E. Leonard, who plays a dual role, also costarring as Irving's ruthless twin brother, Herman. Both Irving and Herman work for a cosmetics tycoon named Wellington, played by Golden Age leading man Brian Donlevy. But Herman is in love with rival cosmetics mogul Camille Salamander, and the two scheme to find the Fountain for themselves. The role of Camille, who is also called Rapunzel Fingernail for reasons never explained, is not performed so much as "inhabited" by comedienne Phyllis Diller. As an additional complication, Irving is in love with Wellington's daughter, Junior, played by the only movie star in the film, Jayne Mansfield.
The Fountain of Youth quest is an attempt to spoof James Bond and other spy adventures. The addition of references to current fads in pop culture and the absurd plot are reminiscent of the intentional campiness of the popular spy spoof What's New, Pussycat?. But Spy is so poorly conceived, directed, and acted that it misses the mark by a wide margin. The teenagers' slight story line is heavily padded by forgettable pop songs. Indeed, The Fat Spy, which has a 78-minute running time, averages a song every four minutes. The central teenage couple are named Frankie and Nanette, which is supposed to be a joke on the Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello Beach Party movies, but it is a one-note joke stretched over 78 minutes.
Joseph Cates directed the film with the same exaggeration and superficial tone of the television variety specials that were his bread and butter. Diller and Leonard perform in the broad manner of TV comedy sketches, while Mansfield falls back on a parody of her characters from earlier comedies. The appearance of Mansfield in the film is particularly sad, because it reveals the decline of her career. Though she was a gifted comedienne, her range was limited by her star image as a sex goddess and her unique physical appearance. Bad management and an addiction to publicity combined to push her career into a series of too-similar roles in increasingly poor films. In The Fat Spy, Mansfield, who was pregnant at the time, looked tired and bloated.
Cates's directorial skills were so poor that he could not handle so basic a technique as matching eye-lines from shot to shot during a conversation. In their close-ups or medium shots, the characters rarely look directly at the person speaking to them, but rather stare off into space or in a completely different direction. In an early conversation between Mansfield and Donlevy, for example, the two seem to be standing across the desk from each other. As the conversation progresses, they appear to address someone at the far side of the office. A cut to the master shot reveals that they are actually standing next to each other and there is no one else in the room.
The Fountain of Youth ties the film to its Florida locale, though screenwriter Matthew Andrews changes the legend completely to suit the ridiculous plot. In The Fat Spy, the Fountain of Youth is not the legendary water source sought by explorer Ponce de Leon. As a matter of fact, it is not water at all but twin black roses that, when consumed, turn the characters into younger versions of themselves.
If The Fat Spy has one redeeming feature, it's that it was shot entirely in Cape Coral, Florida, in 1966, when the community was small and fairly new. The island where the teens search for the galleon is one of the barrier islands near Cape Coral, which was relatively untouched at the time. Long shots reveal strips of scraggly land not yet landscaped or developed, while the Wellington cosmetics headquarters is a generic glass-and-steel office building that looks recently erected. The film is thus a kind of record of a young community in the process of development.
The growth of Cape Coral began about 1957 when Leonard and Julius Rosen purchased 103 square miles of land along the north shore of the Caloosahatchee River, across from Fort Myers. Two years later, the Rosen's bought 15,000 additional acres at Redfish Point, intending to plan a modern city that would attract people from all over the world. They dug more than 400 canals, laid out streets, and developed plans for shopping areas and other commercial enterprises. They even built an airfield to be the primary access to the city they dubbed Cape Coral — an airstrip seen in The Fat Spy in several scenes. The tiny community grew comparatively quickly, incorporating in 1970. By the 2000 census, its population had swelled to 102,000.
Ironically, the rapid growth of Cape Coral caused the demise of one of the original attractions that the Rosen's had built to entice people to their community. In 1964, the grandly named Cape Coral Gardens at Rose Gardens opened to draw tourists and potential residents. The landscaped areas included the promised rose gardens and an array of tropical plants, a replica of a Spanish galleon, a porpoise show, and the Waltzing Waters fountain display. A copy of the famous Iwo Jima statue in Washington, D.C. was one of the landmarks in the gardens that delighted tourists. By the 1970s, the property that encompassed the gardens had become too valuable for developers to consider keeping the attraction intact, and Cape Coral Gardens was closed. The enterprise was typical of those small-scale, offbeat attractions of the 1950s and 1960s that visitors could see in a day — unlike the mega-theme parks of contemporary Florida. Sadly, these kitschy but colorful tourist spots are rapidly disappearing.
For those who find the "lost attractions" of Florida an enticing bit of pop culture, The Fat Spy offers an opportunity to see one of those attractions in its heyday, because the final sequence was shot in Cape Coral Gardens at Rose Gardens. At the end, the various plots and subplots collide at the gardens as the teenagers discover their Spanish galleon, Herman and Camille find one of the twin black roses, and Junior and Irving stumble upon the other. The gardens' key attractions are on display, including the roses, the dolphin show, the Iwo Jima replica, and the Spanish galleon.
From Florida on Film by Susan Doll and David Morrow. Copyright © 2007 by the authors and reprinted by permission of the University Press of Florida.
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