I think I went to see Harry and Tonto after Art Carney won the Academy Award for his portrayal of Harry Coombes in the title role. For some reason, however, I went to see the film with no particular expectation that I would enjoy it. Probably for that reason the movie caught me by surprise and bowled me over. Watching it again on cable yesterday, I found that the film holds up remarkably well.
Harry is a retired high school English teacher and widower. When his New York City apartment building falls victim to redevelopment, Harry compares himself to King Lear: “He gave up his real estate, too.” Like King Lear, Harry turns to his kids to put him up. (Harry’s children are played by Phil Burns, Ellen Burstyn, and Larry Hagman, who are phenomenal).
Harry’s travels to and from his kids across the country with his pet cat (the Tonto of the title) give rise to a series of closely observed portraits, slightly mocking but without the least hint of rancor or cruelty. One dinner with his oldest son and his family on Long Island early in the film is almost excruciatingly real and painful. Co-written, directed and produced by Paul Mazursky, this is a comedy with a difference. At the end of the film, you realize that Mazursky has made just about every character in the film likable in his or her own way. He showers them with affection, and you are sorry to see the film come to a close.
Mazursky says little about the film in his memoir, Show Me the Magic. Mazursky describes his desperation to find the money to get the film made: “It was a funny and touching story about a seventy-year-old widower looking for a place to live. I loved the script, but nobody wanted to finance a film about old age.”
Having written sketches for Danny Kaye’s variety series back in the sixties, Mazursky thinks to approach Kaye about playing the lead role and possibly financing the film, killing two birds with one stone. In their meeting, however, Kaye tells him: “I think it needs a few more jokes.”
Mazursky comments: “I suddenly saw the project jump out the window! Humor, yes. Jokes, no.” As I say, this is a comedy with a difference.
Mazursky asks Kaye what kind of jokes he had in mind. “Oh, I don’t know, Paul — some physical stuff. Why can’t this old codger bump into things? You know what I mean.”
Mazursky knew he had lost Kaye: “I felt like throwing up.” He tells Kaye: “I think there is a lot of humor already, Danny. Once we get into it, the situations, you’ll see the humor. After all, the man talks to his pussycat. He walks his cat on a leash.”
Mazursky brings his account to an abrupt conclusion: “Two years later Art Carney won the Academy Award for his devastatingly simple looking portrait of Harry.”
For whatever reason, Mazursky omits the heart of the story about the making of the film from his memoir. (He puts back in some of the good stuff in his voiceover commentary on the DVD.) He leaves the impression that there must have been a few miracles along the way. The movie puts the evidence for them for all to see right up on the screen.