Brian De Palma | 1972 | 91 mins | USA
If you're a fan of Brian De Palma, his name might conjure up some hits - Carrie, Scarface, The Untouchables, or my personal favourite, Blow Out (the suspense filled Conversation-meets-Blow-Up-ish film starring John Travolta and John Lithgow). If you're not a fan, you might just think "that guy makes hackneyed psychological thrillers" and leave it at that.
And yet, love him or hate him, almost no one thinks of the bizarre 1972 Tom Smothers vehicle Get To Know Your Rabbit. In fact, the comedy was his first studio picture, an absolute catastrophe from which Warner Brothers removed De Palma's name & which was shelved for two years before a small release with little fanfare or promotion. De Palma was forced to retreat into independent filmmaking after his nasty studio experience, licking his wounds while making the Hitchcock-inspired Margot Kidder / Siamese twin thriller Sisters.
Perhaps because the film was such a failure, De Palma never really returned to the slapstick genre he dipped his toe into with Get To Know Your Rabbit. And yet, somehow, seeing this obscure little number has had a strong effect on my perspective of the man's oeuvre. Somehow, I can't quite think of him in the same way anymore.
Tom Smothers stars as Donald Beeman, a young executive who's sick of the rat race and decides to throw it all away in order to pursue his dream: touring the country as a tap dancing magician. Donald doesn't even bother to officially resign, he just leaves his job, his disapproving fiancée, and his ultra-mod apartment, and starts taking tap dancing magic lessons from Dell'Assandro (an impressively imposing-yet-bumbling Orson Welles).
Donald moves into a sleazy motel, perfects his act, goes on tour and even strikes up a new romance with Terrific-Looking Girl (Katharine Ross). Unfortunately his old boss (John Astin, a.k.a. the original Gomez Addams) isn't ready to give him up so easily. He hounds Donald so persistently that he ends up becoming a bum himself, only to rebuild his empire by getting into the tap dancing musician business as well.
The absurd plot twists in Get To Know Your Rabbit make little sense, and the film is full of non sequiturs and odd digressions. In one scene, Donald and a man he meets in his hotel appear to be competing for the attentions of a woman, until we realise the guy is an obsessive bra salesman who wants to find the perfect fit for her, and takes Donald to be his bra-selling competition. Scenes such as this one (or the one with the piano tuner who's taking clients who don't own pianos) don't go anywhere, but ultimately that doesn't matter. The absurdism makes it funny, and the "shove your corporate alienation up your you-know-what" message comes through clearly enough.
In 1973, Vincent Canby said, of Get To Know Your Rabbit, “It reinforces my expectation that De Palma will one day make a really fine American comedy.” I kind of hope he's right.