One-eyed mama Mrs. Taggart (Bette Davis) demands that her adult sons come together once a year to commemorate her wedding anniversary regardless of the fact that the patriarch of the family has been dead for many years.
Reaction & Thoughts:
“My dear, would you mind sitting somewhere else? Body odor offends me.”
“Comedy is the lecherous little elf whispering in the king’s ear, always telling the truth about human behavior,” legendary funny-man Mel Brooks (The Producers and Blazing Saddles) said in a recent interview. From Hammer Studios comes this “lecherous little black comedy” that showcases our worst instincts. The Anniversary revolves around things like avarice, opportunism and emotional codependency.
The Anniversary was adapted by Jimmy Sangster from Bill MacIlwraith’s play. The film was meant to reunite the people responsible for making Hammer’s thriller The Nanny. Unfortunately, Nanny‘s director Seth Holt wasn’t available and his replacement, TV director Alvin Rakoff, was fired a week into filming at Bette Davis’s request. Roy Ward Baker (Asylum and And Now the Screaming Starts!) agreed to replace Rakoff on the condition that he would be allowed to start from scratch.
Rakoff’s firing created great animosity between Davis and the rest of the cast. The behind-the-scenes pandemonium probably helped the movie, though. Davis’s brood, played by James Cossins (The Man with the Golden Gun), Jack Hedley (For Your Eyes Only), Christian Roberts (To Sir, with Love) and Sheila Hancock (Take a Girl Like You), is supposed to hate her, so it takes no great stretch of the imagination to think that the actors didn’t need much encouragement to look angry and contemptuous.
Admittedly talky, claustrophobic and campy, The Anniversary is a surprisingly entertaining comedy-drama with a macabre sense of humor. The film aims to elicit nervous chuckles from the audience. Some of the humor is extremely crude and politically incorrect (many jokes are at the expense of transvestism), but the actors approach the material with their tongues firmly planted in their cheeks — it’s hard to be offended by a movie that doesn’t take itself seriously.
The Anniversary plays like a parody of dysfunctional family melodramas — think Carol Burnette spoofing Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes (by the way, Burnette did lampoon Foxes on her TV show). It’s the kind of comedy that makes you feel guilty for laughing at bad behavior. I don’t want to sound like I condone any of the cruel jokes (the movie deliberately punches down), but dear lord, some of the quips are darn hilarious! The only drawback is that, unless you come from a highly dysfunctional family, it’s nearly impossible to identify with any of the characters.
Though the entire cast does a fantastic job (Hancock is particularly great as Davis’s feisty daughter-in-law), the film belongs to star Davis, who squeezes every drop of venom out of a poisoned-filled script. The Anniversary is built on Davis’s outrageous performance — Davis’s Mrs. Taggart is the ultimate “Mommie Dearest!” She is a mixture of Mother Courage and Lady Macbeth, Cyclops and Cruella de Vil.
Throughout her career, Davis voiced her frustration over the fact that she was never offered comedic roles. Frankly, she could have never played a character like Auntie Mame. Davis’s natural edginess does seem perfect for black comedies. Case in point, Davis is absolutely hilarious as insult after insult rolls off her viperine tongue. Five decades later, many of the things she says (and does) are still pretty shocking.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
Bette Davis is quoted in Charlotte Chandler’s book, The Girl who Walked Home, as saying: “You asked me to name a film I liked that wasn’t discovered by my fans. Well, I loved The Anniversary!” I loved it too. The Anniversary isn’t to everyone’s taste — the movie revels in its own perversity — but I heartily recommend it to people who enjoy the films of John Waters (Pink Flamingos and Serial Mom) and/or Alexander Payne (Election and The Descendants). The film inspired the popular 1980s Mexican soap opera Cuna de Lobos (aka Cradle of Wolves). Color, 91 minutes, Not Rated.