Director: Elaine May
Starring: Walter Matthau, Elaine May, Jack Weston, George Rose, Doris Roberts, James Coco, William Redfield
Screenplay: Elaine May, based upon a story by Jack Ritchie
A New Leaf follows the travails of aging playboy Henry Graham (Walter Matthau), who wakes one morning to discover that he has finally exhausted the trust account that has been supporting his absurdly extravagant lifestyle. Flat broke, and constitutionally incapable of taking on anything resembling gainful employment, Henry is forced to pay reluctant heed to the advice of his gentleman’s gentleman, Harold (George Rose), who suggests marriage as a cure for Henry’s woes. Henry funds his quest for a rich wife via financial assistance from his Uncle Harry (James Coco). In a state of evil glee at seeing the mess his nephew has made of his life, Harry agrees to a loan of $50,000 which must be repaid in six weeks, or everything in the world that Henry owns will be his.
Henry’s hunt for a suitable bride does not go well. After terrifying encounters with the sex-starved widow of a Texas cattle-baron and a New York socialite who uses her fortune to – quelle horreur! – practise philanthropy, Henry is on the verge of despair when he stumbles across the perfect candidate in the shape of Henrietta Lowell (Elaine May), a woman as socially inept as she is wealthy – and she is very wealthy. Swept off her feet by Henry’s ardour, Henrietta agrees to an immediate marriage – to the utter dismay of her lawyer and trustee, Andrew McPherson (Jack Weston), who has been quietly bleeding her estate for years.
Despite Andrew’s best attempts to stop the wedding, Henry prevails. After their honeymoon, Henry and Henrietta establish themselves in her Long Island mansion which, to Henry’s infinite fury, is populated by a crowd of overpaid and under-worked servants. Desperate to protect his hard-won fortune, Henry banishes this blood-sucking brood from the house, and then finds himself forced to do some actual work for the first time in his life, as he takes the running of the estate into his own hands.
Seeing this, Harold is briefly encouraged to think that this cold-blooded exercise in fortune-hunting may have unintentionally been the making of his employer—until he realises that the only thing in the world that Henry is more interested in than Henrietta’s money, is what chemical pesticides might be found in the gardener’s shed of Henrietta’s estate…
Reading this synopsis, some of you by now are probably wondering what A New Leaf is doing in this set of reviews. The answer is simple enough. Henrietta Lowell is not only clumsy, gauche, lacking in any sort of taste, and helpless almost beyond comprehension— she’s also a scientist. While it’s never quite clear whether the inference is that all scientists are maladjusted, or that science is the one thing that anyone as maladjusted as Henrietta could be good at, her choice of career seems somehow inevitable, and the film makes all the mileage it can out of it.
(Closing in on his intended marital victim, Henry inquires of a mutual acquaintance whether she’s engaged? “No, she’s a botanist,” is the simple response.)
But despite all the fun-poking, the screenplay does play commendably fair. For one thing, the fact that, despite her countless millions, Henrietta chooses to work (she teaches college-level botany) sets her miles apart from Henry and the rest of his parasitic ilk, and adds an unexpected touch of complexity – perhaps the only one – to her character. Moreover, there is never the slightest hint that Henrietta has “bought” her way into her position. She may be useless at everything else, but she is good at her job, and passionate about it.
The film’s turning point comes when Henrietta achieves the ambition that she shyly confessed to Henry upon their first meeting, and discovers a new species of fern. Presenting her husband with a fern frond set in a small plastic token, Henrietta tells him that she has named the plant Alsophila grahami. Henry’s immediate response is an impatient tirade, criticising his wife for the stupidity of naming the specimen using her married name, Graham, when she has published all of her career as Lowell.
So intent is he upon scolding poor Henrietta that he barely hears her soft-voiced explanation that she named the fern not for herself, but for him – “grahami, for Henry Graham” – and that in the future, whenever the plant is mentioned in a text-book, he will be mentioned too, “As a footnote. Are you pleased, Henry?” she asks almost fearfully.
There is a moment of stunned silence before Henry replies slowly, clearly surprised at himself, “Why, yes, Henrietta. I believe I am pleased.” We infer that in Henry’s world, selfless gestures are few and far between. Caught off-guard, Henry is actually kind to Henrietta here, spinning a tale in which his plastic token becomes an object of wonder and envy: “‘What frond is that?’ they will ask. ‘Why, my own frond!’ I will reply…”
Furthermore, Henrietta’s selfless gesture is rewarded as, sadly, selfless gestures so seldom are. In fact, it inadvertently saves her life – not that she ever realises it. Already thwarted in his murderous intentions by the discovery that his wife is a firm believer in “the organic method” – no chemical pesticides allowed on her estate – Henry accepts Henrietta’s invitation to accompany her on her yearly field trip, eagerly contemplating the many ways his inconvenient bride might be disposed of in the great outdoors. (Cue Henry’s mental image of Henrietta being mauled by an hysterically unconvincing grizzly bear). Henry’s chance comes when their canoe overturns amongst a stretch of rapids. He saves himself easily enough, and is leaving Henrietta to her fate when—what should he find upon the riverbank but a lone specimen of Alsophila grahami…?
As it stands today, A New Leaf is not the film that writer-director-star Elaine May envisioned; indeed, when she saw the way that Paramount had re-cut her work, she sued unsuccessfully to get her name taken off the credits. May’s version of this story was far darker, far bleaker, than that which was finally released. It included, for instance, an encounter between Henry and a couple of blackmailers, which did indeed end in murder; while I believe (although I’m not sure about this) that the film’s outcome delivered a far less happy fate for Henrietta.
Still, the version of the film that was released is still a pungent little comedy, as enjoyable as it is cynical. The humour in A New Leaf runs the gamut from pure slapstick to some wickedly funny verbal gymnastics. Set-piece follows set-piece: Henry’s initial “rescue” of Henrietta when she spills her tea at a party, berating the understandably irritated hostess for her “erotic obsession” with her carpet; the proposal, which sees Henry kneeling on broken glasses that once contained [*shudder*] “Mogen-David extra-heavy Malaga wine with soda water and lime juice”; the wedding, highlighted by Andrew McPherson’s incessant weeping, and the attendance of a particularly noxious little girl; and the wedding night, during which Henrietta manages to lose herself completely in a “Grecian” nightgown.
My personal favourite moment, however, comes when Andrew McPherson tries to spike Henry’s guns by making it impossible for him to touch Henrietta’s money, arguing that this will prove he’s not marrying her for it. The inestimable Henrietta counters with a request that Andrew sign her fortune over to Henry immediately, reasoning that if he already has her money, then no-one can say he’s marrying her for it.
Jack Weston is very funny as the desperate attorney, who can only watch in helpless misery as his life of illegal luxury is ripped away from him by a man just as criminally inclined as himself, and far more ruthless. Another sterling supporting performance comes from George Rose as Harold who, knowing full well what his employer has in mind for his new bride, does try to dissuade him from it, although not all that strenuously. After all, as he puts it himself, so few people these days require the services of a gentleman’s gentleman—what would he do without Henry?
William Redfield also contributes an hysterical cameo as Henry’s banker, who must attempt to convey to his uncomprehending client the news that he is broke, and finds that he has no language suitable to the task. (“You have no money. You have no money. I wish there were some other way of putting it. You have no money!” “You mean I have no money?”)
As good as its supporting cast is, however, A New Leaf is completely dominated by its two stars. Walter Matthau is wonderful as Henry: selfish, insensitive, snobbish, greedy, homicidal – and damn funny with it; and he is matched all the way by Elaine May. As guileless as she is clumsy, as well-meaning as she is annoying, Henrietta is an unforgettable creation. Half the time, you want to bundle her up and shield her from the big bad world; the other half, like Henry, you just want to strangle her. In fact, A New Leaf works primarily because the viewer is forced into a certain sympathy with Henry’s desire to dispose of his wife—which isn’t always just so he can inherit her money.
(“I forgot to check her before she went to school this morning!” cries Henry at one point. “She’ll be walking around all day with price tags dangling from her sleeves!” “I took the liberty, sir,” replies the invaluable Harold in a soothing tone. “Was she free of crumbs?” “Only a slight sprinkling, sir.”)
The remarkable thing about A New Leaf is that by the end, these impossibly mismatched individuals make a strangely believable couple. And if it is too much to say that Henry undergoes reformation as the result of his experiences, he has at least explored the limits of his amorality. “Oh, damn it to hell!” he exclaims in a helpless fury when he finds that he cannot bring himself to murder his wife. “Damn, damn, damn, damn! Nothing ever works out the way it’s supposed to!” As for Henrietta, she’s a lost lamb with no concept of wolves; she triumphs without ever being aware of it.
Science: one day, it will save your life.