Magic Act
Nicolas Rapold on Get to Know Your Rabbit

Most De Palma movies provoke divisive laughter: are you basking in his sense of camp and grand guignol, or echoing the giggles of a sadist (“It’s funny ’cause it’s true!”)? So we pore over his straight-up comedies, which once comprised half his output, for the seeds of the glee that would later seem the mark of a depraved mind. And if you had to name some quality that allows the same man to make Dressed to Kill and Get to Know Your Rabbit, it would be his sense of a movie as an exquisite mechanism, all its parts (body and otherwise) whirring and shifting into place. That’s the disquieting artifice of his horror and thriller work—art as death mechanism, creation and destruction inseparable. In Rabbit, though, the craftsman’s eye and slight distance provide the view askew and ruthless logic necessary for executing an absurdist premise, and as usual with De Palma, there’s a lot more going on than he’s usually given credit for.

Get to Know Your Rabbit (1972) is, if you couldn’t tell from that wacky title, a counterculture satire in a funny disguise. One day, after a wacky terrorist front’s bomb threat (some Sixties period detail), market analyst Donald Beeman walks out on his job. His ex-boss falls to drinking and loses his own job, but then rebounds in a most inventive way, by commodifying Donald’s walkout into a product: a lucrative executive self-improvement program, sold with the slogan “Live life at the gut level.” But Donald’s chosen escape differs from that of contemporaneous embarrassing hippie-freedom movies: he wants to be a tapdancing magician. Rabbits and hats, shim sham—the whole nine yards, learnt at the foot of a master, played by Orson Welles.

Rabbit is more than just an excuse to see Welles muster a pricelessly ludicrous dignity, scold his pupil (“No, no, no. You’re holding your rabbit all wrong”), and wear a cloak that makes him look like he’s slowly inflating into Rodin’s Balzac. In fact, the director of Citizen Kane is not the movie’s only important bit of casting: Donald is played by Tom Smothers, in an early example of De Palma’s risky tendency to cast TV or “lite” stars (Josh Hartnett a casualty this year, Rebecca Romjin-Stamos a recent example of a success). On their CBS variety show, the Smothers Brothers had perfected a folksy look with their barbershop haircuts, glee-singer blazers, and guitar-strum tunes that allowed cover for gadfly criticism of the fatal hypocrisies of the day. So Tom, who here shades slow and boyishly earnest, but not dumb, is a perfect match for Rabbit’s old-fashioned sidestep of most escape-the-establishment premises. Instead of a dazed romp through “California lifestyles” with god-awful ersatz sunshine pop, Rabbit gives us a man whose passion is to look “seedy” and practice a métier that had its heyday in vaudeville.

On the one hand, this slippery setup, however high concept, parodies everyone involved: yes, Tom is a typical square pursuing a silly escape, but the conceit also tweaks the clueless cool-chasing of an industry whose raiding of subcultures has always seemed this ridiculous (until it becomes ubiquitous and people forget to tell the difference). But De Palma’s picture also takes a distinct pleasure in the low, lo-fi culture that’s an exaggerated flipside to the life he’s left behind. Donald hits the road on endless Greyhounds to near-empty out-of-the-way joints like Felix’s Golden Egg, sharing the stages with strippers, whom his contract stipulates he must introduce as part of his duties. And though Welles, the master magician, may appear only in the film’s first half hour, whenever he’s on screen he’s doing effortless little tricks; for a nice ritual flair, he has Donald pass his hand through a candle for his graduation. (“It’s symbolic,” the master mutters.)

Donald takes his rabbit seriously, but his classmates also include two little girls in tutus. In the pathetic but glorious outcast auteurhood of this quick-buck magician, there’s some of Welles’s rhetoric about illusions and fakery (F for Fake came four years later). Above all, it’s a fraught bit of casting and scripting for a young director’s first studio film—especially since Warner Brothers would finish the editing, in a bellwether for De Palma’s many tense later studio encounters. The young apprentice hopes to ply his trade, learning at the foot of the master, and all that happens is his ex-boss spins it into a mass-produced experience (“Step forward. Pass your hand through the candle. Step forward. Pass your...”).

That’s Hollywood, mass-marketed magic, but De Palma’s always been just as realistic about cinema’s voyeurism, and the idea of the magician, deceiving through his little mechanisms, runs both ways. And, fortunately, the fate of the production doesn’t seem to have yielded results too estranged from the shaggy-dog feel of the comedies that landed De Palma the gig, like Greetings. I actually prefer it to the others (though the absurdity of the premise may not have staying power for all audiences). Tom Smothers’s gullible deadpan, the way he holds back as if he’ll deliver a wisecrack and then doesn’t, a delayed technique of missed expectations that seems so mannered elsewhere, fits this story.

Rabbit also gives us two hallmarks of De Palma’s comic style: a scene of bedroom intrusion, maybe sexually dubious, here skewing a little towards Monty Python; and an also sexually dubious bit character, whose drive is both perverse and burlesquely comic. In an early scene, a routine-bound piano tuner interrupts Donald and his wife (dressed identically to another housewife in a flat visible in a picture window) one morning as they’re waking up. The fellow, finding there’s no piano, barely knows what to do with himself but immediately keys into their marital tension and somehow contrives to serve them breakfast—thereby making up, and prolonging, his intrusion. Later on, when Donald has moved to a bare-bones room for rent, a leering cigar-chomper barges in and drags him to a six-day party, a creepily silent affair as crowded and lurid as a German Expressionist painting. The guy loudly maintains that the woman Donald picks up there is some sack artist, but himself turns out to be an obsessive brassiere salesman who wants to find her a perfect fit.

The strength of the scenario is its loopy consistency; the three make up eventually, the guy apologizes for his temper, and he leaves muttering that he just wants to find a woman who appreciates a good, mid-range bra. Similarly, when Donald has returned to the company his ex-boss has built up, the movie neatly brings back a groupie from his traveling-magician days (Katharine Ross, billed as “The Terrific-Looking Girl”), who’s still expecting him to show up at a gig for a welders association. And his anxious ex-boss, played by an excellent goggle-eyed John Astin, is treated as an executive just searching for his habitat, a desk set.

Get to Know Your Rabbit ends as many De Palma movies would—at the beginning—with Donald seated at least momentarily at a desk once again. (The company is called Tap Dancing Magician—TDM—the umpteenth IBM-ethic reference of the period.) It’s an unsung cult comedy of the Seventies, another casualty of the black hole that seems to open up around, horror of horrors, bad industry buzz and aborted-production legend. But it’s those same rough edges that give us a divinely non sequitur scene like Bob Einstein (aka Super Dave Osborne, aka a Smothers Brothers writer) as a cop talking an airplane pilot down from a tree, which is much better than the New Yorker cartoon it might suggest. In 1973, Vincent Canby wrote of the film: “It reinforces my expectation that De Palma will one day make a really fine American comedy.” Maybe we’re still waiting, but with a director who delivers such magic, I’m more inclined to quote the hands-off attitude of the master magician upon sending Donald off: “Kid, I don’t care what you do,” he says, turning to conjure a glass of whiskey.