Wednesday, December 26, 2007
More than any other decade in American film history, the 1970’s are filled with colorful, offbeat and quirky character studies. None fit that order more than one of the inaugural films of the decade, 1970’s QUACKSER FORTUNE HAS A COUSIN IN THE BRONX. While this odd and touching little film did in fact garner much praise upon its initial release, it is typically left out of discussions involving the more interesting works of the period.
QUACKSER FORTUNE HAS A COUSIN IN THE BRONX was the first screenplay credited to actor Gabriel Walsh, best known for some television work in the sixties and seventies. Walsh sold his strangely moving little script, concerning a lonely young Dublin man who helps support his family by picking up horse dung off the street and selling it as fertilizer, to the independent Scotia-Barber productions in 1968. The wheels were quickly set in motion to make Walsh’s touching little script a reality and director Waris Hussein signed on to helm the low budget project in late 1969.
Hussein was born in 1938 and had begun directing television productions in the early part of the sixties. After helming his debut theatrical feature, 1969’s A TOUCH OF LOVE, Hussein quickly began prep work on QUACKSER FORTUNE HAS A COUSIN IN THE BRONX in 1969. Key to the film’s success and resonance was the casting of the title role in the film, a part that would demand someone not only talented but also an actor with just the right amount of eccentricity to sell such an odd role.
The complex role of Quackser instantaneously fascinated legendary comedian Gene Wilder when he got the script in 1969, and he signed on to play the part immediately despite the film’s budgetary restrictions. The Milwaukee born Wilder had been on a role since his small role in BONNIE AND CLYDE three years earlier and films like THE PRODUCERS (1968) and START THE REVOLUTION WITHOUT ME (1969) had cemented his status as one of the brightest and best young American actors in the world. He would give arguably his best and most moving performance in QUACKSER FORTUNE HAS A COUSIN IN THE BRONX, although he has never gotten his full due for it.
Cast opposite Wilder in the important role of Zazel, the pretty American college student who steals and breaks Quackser’s heart, was a charming young actress who had only appeared in one theatrical film before being given the part. Margot Kidder was just twenty-one when she stepped on the set to work opposite Gene Wilder, but her relative inexperience was unnoticeable as she matched him every step of the way. She gives a moving and multi-layered performance as a young girl still trying to figure out who exactly she is and it remains among the most finely crafted roles of her distinguished career.
With his cast in place, Hussein took the filming to Ireland and shot nearly all of it on location in and around Dublin. There were reports of problems mostly centering around budgetary issues and personality clashes, but none of that affected the film. QUACKSER FORTUNE HAS A COUSIN IN THE BRONX is one of the oddest and most oddly moving films of the seventies, and its virtually anonymity since is most unfortunate.
What makes Hussein’s film so incredible good, outside of the inspired casting of Wilder and Kidder, is that it is simply a story we have not seen before. There is something so lovably tragic about this poor small town man who travels the streets each day with a shovel and a wagon, literally collecting something that is by its very nature, waste. Wilder is astonishing in the film, and he injects the role with so much humanity and tenderness that it is impossible to think of another actor who could have played it. Kidder is equally rewarding, and the young beauty manages the near impossible task of creating a character simultaneously overwhelmingly inconsiderate and yet still loving towards our poor hero.
The supporting cast is splendid, and is made up of a cross section of American actors and Irish locals, with special note going to Mary Ollis and Seamus Forde for their performances as Quackser’s parents. The film’s strikingly dingy look is courtesy of famed Roman Polanski cinematographer, Gilbert Taylor, and his low-key approach fits the films tragi-comic atmosphere perfectly.
In the director’s chair, Hussein fills the role very nicely. None other than Jean Renoir was approached at one point to helm the film, so Hussein had some fairly large shoes to fill. It remains, sadly, one of the only notable films the clearly talented Hussein ever helmed, as he would return mostly to television after.
QUACKSER FORTUNE HAS A COUSIN IN THE BRONX opened in the summer of 1970 to so-so business but a strong critical backing. Walsh would receive a Writer’s Guild nomination for his lovely and original script but would end up not taking the coveted prize home.
Distribution problems plagued the film immediately and these continued up into the mid seventies when it gradually made its way across Europe, under the title FUN LOVING. It was released on VHS in the early eighties and then fell off the map completely before VCI issued a solid widescreen DVD of it in 2003. It is thankfully still available and can usually be found for under ten dollars.
While rarely mentioned among the best American films of the seventies, QUACKSER FORTUNE HAS A COUSIN IN THE BRONX is without a doubt one of the most original. Both Margot Kidder and the much missed Gene Wilder would go onto many more popular and well known roles in their long careers, but QUACKSER FORTUNE HAS A COUSIN IN THE BRONX remains one of the definitive works by both of them. It is one of the great under seen American films of the period, and a reappraisal is due.
***This is a slightly revamped version of my article that appeared in The Amplifier a while back. The original version can be viewed here. This particular article will always be special to me as it is the first one that ever appeared in actual print. I hope it proves enjoyable for Moon In The Gutter readers who haven't read it already.***