Faced with financial ruin, Henry Graham takes his butler Harold Henrys advice to marry money and descends upon naive heiress Henrietta Lowell with the dual intention of marriage and murder.
Based on Jack Ritchie's short story, The Green Heart, Elaine May's directorial debut was so compromised by the studio that it's funny almost in spite of itself. May's original version came in at 180 minutes and included a bogus marriage, blackmail, two murders and a fantasy sequence, in which Henrietta envisions herself as an irresistible femme fatale. However, Paramount chief Robert Evans ordered a second cut that so enraged May that she threatened to have her name removed from the credits. Typically, Walter Matthau claimed to prefer the bowdlerisation, as it bore a less obvious resemblance to the Jack Lemmon vehicle, How to Murder Your Wife, which also featured an unwanted bride and a calculating valet.
The missing 78 minutes remain a tantalising prospect. But this is still a wonderful character study that harks back to the screwball era, while retaining the bleak cynicism of Nixonian America. It's also something of a musical curio, as its score was imported wholesale from the 1967 black farce, Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad. Matthau is superb as the playboy who has frittered away his father's estate and marries May's myopic socialite in the hope of bumping her off during her annual botany trip to the mountains. The contrast between the tetchy charm Henry turns on to seduce Henrietta and the barely concealed disdain with which he deals with her scheming lawyer Andrew McPherson and grasping housekeeper Mrs McTaggart (Doris Roberts) is effortlessly amusing. But it's his response to Henrietta's endless muddles and infantile clumsiness that gives the film both its edge and its affectionate undertone. Best known then for her satirical cabaret teaming with Mike Nichols, May is an absolute delight as the harmlessly hopeless heiress, whose quirky character traits are infinitely more amusing than her crassly schematic wardrobe. However, her disastrous display at the haute tea party and her inability to don a nightgown on her wedding night are masterclasses in gauche pantomime and the comedy of embarrassment.
This character study should not be as funny as it is.