Vintage Movies: “Petulia”

MAGNET contributing writer Jud Cost is sharing some of the wealth of classic films he’s been lucky enough to see over the past 40 years. Trolling the backwaters of cinema, he has worked up a list of more than 500 titles—from the silent era through the ’90s—that you may have missed. A new selection, all currently available on DVD, appears every week.

Petulia

Petulia (1968, 105 minutes)

It’s not very often that Hollywood uses a major cultural movement—in this case 1967’s still bubbling “Summer Of Love” rock trip in San Francisco—as the backdrop for a major motion picture, at least before all the life has been sucked out of the scene. Directed by Richard Lester, who’d struck gold four years earlier with the runaway success of the Beatles’ debut, A Hard Day’s Night, Petulia features a pair of A-list stars, Julie Christie and George C. Scott, a soundtrack score by John Barry, party music from Janis Joplin fronting Big Brother & The Holding Company and incidental appearances by all six members of the Grateful Dead.

Benefitting “highway safety,” it’s one of high society’s fund-raising landmarks of the season at one of San Francisco’s poshest hotels. Not to say the upper crust isn’t slumming somewhat tonight as hippie pin-up star Joplin is wailing away to “Roadblock” backed by the gnarly sounds of Big Brother, whose personnel she once referred to as “the ugliest band in America.”

Dr. Archie Bollen is scheduled to award a shiny new limousine as the door prize to tonight’s lucky ticketholder. But he’s determined to bail out early if they can only find his raincoat at the coat-check desk. “You can’t leave, you’re an official host,” says Petulia (Christie) to Archie (Scott). He removes his name tag and begins to pin it on Petulia, a girl he’s never met before. “Careful,” she warns. “Can’t you tell I’m not wearing a bra?” “No,” he mutters, pretending not to show much interest. “Don’t think about it. It’ll only excite you,” replies Petulia with auburn curls piled high on her head and a pair of pearl-cluster earrings as big as her fist.

“That’s my husband David over there,” she says pointing at a young man in tuxedo and modified Prince Valiant bangs. “I’ve been married six months and never had an affair.” Archie mumbles, “Well, it happens.” Petulia rambles on, “He’s a naval architect, but we’re starving. You wouldn’t by any chance want to buy a 60-foot sloop?” “No,” replies Archie, improving every time on the delivery of his limited dialog.

“Archie, you can’t go. I’d be very disappointed,” says Wilma, a mean-spirited woman in dark curls clutching the doctor’s shoulder. “Who do you think I bumped into last week? Have you seen what she’s done to her hair? I said, ‘Polo, for heaven’s sake, you look like a teenager.'” As Archie prepares to leave, with Petulia now clinging to his arm, Wilma addresses her: “I don’t believe we’ve met.” Petulia turns around and says, “Get stuffed, Wilma.” Archie rolls his eyes and says, “You have now.” At the hotel’s front door, Petulia looks up at Archie and murmurs, “My name’s Petulia.” He looks down at her and replies, “I’m not surprised.”