Dec 4, 2015

If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium

 If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium (1969) was advertised as a hilarious comedy about a group of Ugly Americans on a whirlwind tour of Europe, but I found it heartbreaking.  In fact, I was hesitant about revisiting it after forty years, for fear that it would bring back the intense feelings of longing and loss that had me almost in  tears as a kid.

When you find something heartbreaking that the rest of the world thinks is hilarious, there must be a subtext somewhere.

There was beefcake.  Lots of it.  Ian McShane, the Swinging Sixties Bachelor who herds the tourists around Europe, displays his body frequently as he falls for and loses prim librarian Suzanne Pleshette.

Luke Halpin, formerly a teenage hunk on Flipper (1964-67), wanders around Europe as a hippie in painted-on jeans as he falls for and loses apathetic teen Hilary Thompson.

Even the hunky Sandy Baron, fresh from his odd-couple sitcom Hey, Landlord (1966-67), displays a toned hairy chest as he rips his shirt off and dives into a Venetian canal to avoid a marriage-crazy relative.  (Incidentally, Sandy Baron would become famous thirty years later on Seinfeld, as the doddering oldster Jack Klompus).

But beefcake doesn't make for poignancy.

Sandy Baron's character doesn't seem to be interested in girls, but otherwise I find no significant gay content.  No male bonding, no same-sex rescues.

So why was it heartbreaking?

Maybe it was the metaphor of escape. Dozens of Boomer movies and tv programs were about people trapped in a dangerous alien world -- Gilligan's Island, My Favorite Martian, Danger Island,  H.R. Pufnstuf, Lost in Space.  They are desperate to get home, to return to their conventional lives, to their jobs and houses and husbands and wives and stark heterosexist conformity.  But If It's Tuesday has it backwards -- the alien world is a Paradise, an escape from their conventional lives to a world of light and color and infinite possibility.

At the end of the movie they all reject the romantic partners they've fallen in love with and go home -- you can't stay in Oz forever -- as the theme song says, "Can't wait to tell the folks back home."  But for a nine-year old in a dull factory town, it was heartbreaking to know -- or to suspect -- that Oz existed, that there was a good place out there somewhere.