After conquering television in the 1950s, Jackie Gleason notched impressive achievements as a film actor in the 1960s, balancing credible dramatic work with loud comedic turns of the sort that made him famous. Then came flops including How Do I Love Thee?, Gleason’s last film for seven years and his final romantic leading role in a feature. Turgid and unfunny, How Do I Love Thee? is part character study and part romantic farce. Gleason plays Stanley Waltz, the aging proprietor of a small moving-and-storage company. Vexing Stanley are his wife, Elsie (Maureen O’Hara), a Bible-thumper constantly telling Stanley to embrace God, and Stanley’s son, Tom (Rick Lenz), a philosophy professor caught in a power struggle with uptight superiors. At the beginning of the picture, Stanley suffers a seizure while visiting a religious shrine in Lourdes, France, with the devout Elsie, so Tom rushes overseas to visit his ailing father—who refuses to see him. Through flashbacks, we learn that in a past moment of weakness, Stanley pledged to embrace God and never speak to Tom again. (Long story.)
The central question is whether a man can truly change. Alas, the filmmakers want the benefit of presenting a heavy topic without the hard work of properly exploring that topic, so they wriggle free of serious implications by way of silly plot contrivances.
Playing to the cheap seats, Gleason does everything from physical comedy to poetry recitals to sappy speeches. It’s exhausting to watch. And when he plays comedic bedroom scenes with the equally uninhibited Shelley Winters, brace yourself for enough screaming to make anyone’s ears bleed. How Do I Love Thee? is one of those awkwardly “with-it” late ’60s/early-’70s pictures, in which older Hollywood professionals try to infuse hokey storytelling with youth-culture attitudes. Unfortunately, every time something contemporary edges into the mix, the filmmakers quickly retreat to more conservative tropes (for instance, an endless car-chase scene). Therefore How Do I Love Thee? is mildly interesting as a snapshot of culture in transition. As a cinematic experience, it’s confusing and tiresome. As a showpiece for its legendary star, however, it’s labored and overbearing, which feels just about right—love him or hate him, Gleason worked hard for his laughs. Here, the strain shows.
How Do I Love Thee?: FUNKY