Bill (George Burns) is an aging vaudeville comedian who lives a solitary life in a house full of faded photos and vintage stage props. His favourite pastime is to play practical jokes that delight the staff at his local supermarket. On this particular morning however, it’s Bill who gets surprised when he discovers a beautiful, naked, fourteen year old girl hiding in the trunk of his car! Kate (Brooke Shields) is on the run from a violent criminal named John Demesta (William Russ), after stealing $20,000 in drug money. Bill kindly shelters the troubled teenager at his house and tries to win her trust. However, his nosy neighbours suspect something seedy is going on and his interfering daughter Shirley (Lorraine Gary, from Jaws (1975)) calls the police.
After his Oscar-winning comeback with The Sunshine Boys (1975), showbiz legend George Burns made a string of mediocre comedies that were modestly successful at the time, but today are as forgotten as his early vaudeville shorts with Gracie Allen. Here, someone thought it was a cute idea to pair the ancient comedian with fresh-faced Brooke Shields who, having broken through with the controversial Pretty Baby (1978), was evidently following the example set by Jodie Foster in courting a slightly more wholesome image.
Except wholesome isn’t exactly the word for a comedy that begins with Brooke fleeing stark naked in broad daylight, has her scorn Burns as a “lech” and a “fag”, and whose main source of humour hinges on a misunderstanding that an old man is sexually molesting a young girl. All this and the drug-dealing subplot sits strangely with the sitcom tone and nostalgia for a bygone era of showbiz whenever Bill launches into another anecdote about some vaudeville legend nobody remembers any more. Just who is this movie aimed at?
Director and co-screenwriter Leonard Stern was a gag writer for Abbott and Costello and Steve Allen before becoming a regular TV hand. He weaves a surprising trace of bitterness into the script, evident from Bill’s wry remark how “only the mediocre are remembered, the truly great ones are forgotten”, and a frustratingly vague anecdote that explains why Shirley has less than happy memories about her father. There is the germ of a good idea buried beneath the dross and it is rather sweet how Bill wins Kate over and sings her to sleep with an old vaudeville number, but the story stays stubbornly stuck in first gear and Burns’ windy one-liners fall flat. Brooke is as cute as a bug’s ear, but all her quiet self-assurance from Pretty Baby has evaporated. Though she improves as the film unfolds, her inexperience shows through.
Rather more endearing are the cameos from showbiz veterans like Burl Ives as Bill’s mute and embittered best friend now confined to an old folks home (this is a comedy, right?), Keye Luke and Ray Bolger as poker playing stage magicians who, in the best scene, use their old magic tricks to hide Kate from the cops. Aspects of the film are endearing, but it’s a strange mix of vulgarity, melancholy and sentimentality.