Ernie Kovacs played one version of “Captain Buzzkill” or another in most of the movies he made for Columbia. He was being cast for what he looked like, his “type”. Kovacs made two attempts to upend this: one we know about and one that may be more conjecture on my part, but I think the theory fits.
What we do know about is that in 1961 Ernie took out a full-page ad in Variety that said, in Ernie’s handwriting, “No more @#$% Captains!”, surrounded by photos of him in each of those roles. But I think Ernie had another solution up his sleeve, one that would allow him to make his kind of movie and with his alter ego at center stage.
In the summer of 1961, Ernie gave a television interview for a show on the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s network called The Lively Arts. It is the only interview in which Ernie speaks in great detail, and candidly so, about his process and his thoughts on comedy, and on what television is and is not. He also talks about a movie he wanted to make.
A movie called “Eugene”.
Eugene was a wordless persona that Ernie had created, and the half-hour color “silent show” with Eugene making his way through a stuffy private men’s club is what put Ernie on the map in January of 1957. Ernie had been workshopping the surreal, dialogue-less, sound-effect augmented Eugene sketches on the nights he hosted “Tonight!” in the fall of 1956.
While it’s not known exactly what date the CBC interview was filmed, from the details of the ABC specials he talks about in it and what I know about the taping dates of the specials, I’d say it would have been the summer of 1961. He also tells host Bill Bellman, “some 2 or 3 years ago I submitted an idea to Columbia to do the story of a man called Eugene, who lived in a world of amplifications both of sight and sound”.
Whether there was a written script or not, Ernie had very specific ideas about the film, including wanting to cast Alec Guinness as Eugene:
…it’s called “Eugene”. The opening shot is in Carnegie Hall, with a 35mm lens showing the entire symphony orchestra. They’re doing a Wagnerian piece. Alec is the cymbalist, he’s waiting for his cue, and as he is cued he crashes the cymbals together, and the inertia of the upward movement pushes him completely through the floor, and through the hole in the floor come the credits.Ernie Kovacs to host Bill Bellman, on the CBC program The Lively Arts, airdate 10/31/61
Because I’ve seen the opening slates for the ABC specials, which show the tape date and intended airdate, I can tell you that when Ernie did the CBC interview, he had not yet taped the B&W version of “Eugene” that most fans are familiar with. Kovacs made the new Eugene TV in the fall of 1961. It aired the Friday of Thanksgiving weekend in 1961, instead of the specials’ usual mid-month Thursday. And, instead of its usual 10:30pm time slot, it aired in prime time…pre-empting The Flintstones.
My feeling is that Ernie did this as a way to lobby with studio brass at Columbia (or at any studio) for making the Eugene movie.
Also, doing a feature film version of what the two “Eugene” TV shows were like was not an idea from outer space. 2 or 3 years prior to this 1961 interview, Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle (1958) was in theaters in the US. I have to imagine that Kovacs had seen this as well as Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953), and saw that a non-linear or loose, gag-based, narrative with a wordless comedy protagonist could work.
Additionally, a precedent had recently been set on American soil for this feature-length comedy format. Jerry Lewis’ The Bellboy had been released in 1960, and The Ladies Man came out the summer this interview took place.
I think that, had Kovacs lived, he might have had a good shot at getting his Eugene movie made. And when you consider that Ernie befriended Buster Keaton while making the Medicine Man pilot in January 1962…ooh, boy. Can you imagine the possibilities?
The complete CBC “Lively Arts” interview is on The Ernie Kovacs Collection: Centennial Edition, as is the 1957 “Silent Show”, the 1961 Special #6, and the two surviving trial-runs Ernie did on “Tonight!” In 1956. They are also on the original box sets either on volume one or volume two.