Classic Film Guide

Mating Game, The (1959)

Directed by George Marshall, this average comedy with a contrived romance features the physical comedy of Debbie Reynolds, five years before she played the rambunctious title character in The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964), for which she earned her only Oscar nomination. Persnickety Tony Randall plays an I.R.S. agent sent to investigate a "horse trader" farmer, played by Paul Douglas (his last feature film role), whose wife is played by Una Merkel; Reynolds plays their stereotypical farmer's daughter. Character actors Fred Clark, Philip Ober, Charles Lane, and Trevor Bardette (among others) also appear. Full plot summary below:

When Pop Larkin (Douglas) returns his wealthy neighbor's (Ober) prize pig, which he'd borrowed without permission to stud his own hog, it's the last straw as far as he, Wendall Burnshaw, is concerned. Tired of living next to the only ramshackle farm in semi-rural Maryland, Burnshaw decides to tell the I.R.S. about Larkin, hoping he and his tax lawyer David (Addison Powell) can influence official Oliver Kelsey (Clark) with his claims of knowing a high ranking Treasury official. Kelsey's top man, Lorenzo Charlton (Randall), discovers that not only has Larkin never paid any taxes, he's never even filed a return! So, Kelsey assigns Lorenzo, who's future is sure to be in Congress, to investigate further by visiting the Larkin Farm.

While driving onto Larkin’s humble 19 acres, Lorenzo's government car is nearly hit by an attractive blonde on a horse that's being chased by three young men. The blonde turns out to be Mariette (Reynolds), Larkin’s eldest daughter. She rassles with the young men, especially Barney (William Smith), in a hayloft before her father, by now introduced to Lorenzo, calls her down. Pop, Ma (Merkel), and Mariette are then confused by Lorenzo's questions and intentions, and they equally confuse him with their answers, as he tries to explain the reason for his visit. Lorenzo learns that Pop has no income and has come by all the equipment he "owns" including his home's furnishing by trading with his neighbors. So, Lorenzo's course of action is to determine what the initial value of a traded item was to subtract it from the resultant value of the final item in order to derive a profit figure that can then be taxed. It's hard to tell whether Pop is just a bumpkin or instead is slyly deceitful as he evades Lorenzo's direct questions by providing simple, yet unclear answers. Later, however, it seems clear that it's a little of both as Pop instructs, sometimes non-verbally, his family in various activities such that Lorenzo becomes an overnight guest after becoming intoxicated. Lots of physical, even slapstick humor is utilized to spice up this crazy comedic situation.

Mariette's intentions also hard to definitively read - she seems at once truly interested in Lorenzo as a potential husband prospect while at the same time appears keenly aware of the trouble her family faces. In the latter case, she is sharp enough to show Lorenzo a near 100 year old document that ultimately becomes a key plot point in this comedy's resolution. Stuffy Lorenzo is transformed by his experience at the Larkins, and the beginnings of an infatuation with Mariette is evident. When Burnshaw reports that Lorenzo's integrity may have been compromised by his wacky neighbors, Kelsey replaces him and, without Mariette's attentions, refuses to be swayed. In fact, he renders a $50,000 judgment against the Larkins in the tax case.

But Mariette's determination, combined with Lorenzo's attraction to her, leads the two to Washington, D.C. where they ultimately meet with big shot Bigelow (Lane), who's Kelsey's superior. Bardette plays the local police chief, long acquainted with the Larkins. Philip Coolidge plays Reverend Osgood, whose long association with the humble family leads their neighbors to a It's a Wonderful Life (1946)-like moment before Bigelow's helicopter arrives & descends onto the farm. The resolution to the judgment, with the aforementioned antique document (which is in remarkably pliable condition considering its age), is both humorous and somewhat predictable, and obviously not satisfactory to the film's villain, Burnshaw.

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