There's no such thing as a universal opinion, of course, and we wouldn't want there to be. Even so, I don't think anyone would seriously call my tastes or judgment into question if I propose that Cary Grant was absolutely the suavest motherfucker in the history of cinema. So it is with no little bit of intentional perversity that his solitary appearance in this project is in his penultimate film, Father Goose of 1964, which finds him deliberately and cheerfully burlesquing the persona that he'd successfully built over the preceding thirty years and change. The Grant of Father Goose is not an erudite, well-dressed man of class and breeding; this Grant - named Walter Eckland - is a dissolute alcoholic drifting around the South Pacific, living as a grifter and beachcomber, with a face full of stubble and a tendency to holler in a disagreeable, throaty growl. And yet the face, the general quality of the voice underneath the scratches and gravel - it is quite unmistakably the same Grant who was so unrelentingly classy and sharply-dressed in so many movies. The film gets a frankly unfair amount of mileage out of that one piece of casting: watching Cary Grant shuffle about like an angry, disheveled bum is funny to a degree that it wouldn't be for virtually any other actor who could have conceivably fit the role at the time the film was made.

The film takes place in February, 1942, when America's entry into the Second World War following the escalation of Japanese aggression in the Pacific (specifically the attack on Pearl Harbor, of course, though it's not like Japan had just been drifting along aimlessly prior to 7 December) triggered a spike in militarisation throughout the region. The part that specifically concerns the characters and thus ourselves was a wave of evacuations overseen by the Royal Australian Navy as the Imperial Japanese Navy began to move south through New Guinea. This has caused a great deal of anxiety for a certain Commander Houghton (Trevor Howard), whose posting was nearest to the newly-forming Pacific front, and his orders include setting up coast-watchers - volunteers and military mean set up on desolate small islands throughout the region, watching for any air or sea military activity - among whom numbers the unwilling but ultimately helpless Walter, an American who has been devoted to keeping away from war even as his country finally entered the conflict (the dissonance of hearing Howard describing Grant as "American" imbalances the opening scenes considerably, but it's mostly resolved itself by the time the first act ends and Walter's nationality ceases to be germane).

Stuck on a flyspeck named Matalava, under the code name "Mother Goose", Walter grumpily settles into his role, until Houghton is able to find a more willing (and more reliable) replacement; this requires Walter to take a dinghy across the open ocean to another island, where he finds no trace of any military man. What he does find is a French national, Catherine Freneau (Leslie Caron), along with seven French and Australian children she was caring for during the evacuation before they became stranded on the island. Bringing the whole lot back to Matalava, Walter wars with Catherine on nearly every point that can be contended between them; his deliberate primitivism and her prim, schoolmarmish refinement clash so boldly that obviously they're going to end up in love with each other. Even though Grant was, by this point in his career, actively unhappy with roles that required him to make love to women 20 years his junior or more (he only made 1963's Charade on the grounds that this creepy tendency would be openly mocked in dialogue), and probably as a direct result, he puts so little effort into implying any kind of affection towards Caron, no matter how hidden, that when Peter Stone and Frank Tarloff's Oscar-winning script finally clicks over to that plot development, it plays in the most arbitrary, unconvincing way imaginable.

Prior to its desperation gambit to position Grant and Caron as well-matched lovers despite both performer's acute unwillingness to build a foundation for that twist, Father Goose is actually quite a delightful, limber little action-comedy, mostly on the backs of the badinage between Grant and Howard, or Grant and Caron, as the situation requires. For her part, Caron is playing a weird iteration of her stock type much like Grant, though not to anywhere near the same degree: tasked throughout the '50s with playing witty, sexless gamines (even in films explicitly about sex, like Gigi and Fanny); she only first exploded past that stock type at the age of 31, with The L-Shaped Room in 1962, and in Father Goose she pushes herself in a somewhat different direction, playing the same immaculate innocent only aged up to her mid-30s, and suffused with a kind of fanatical devotion to propriety and classiness; Gigi all grown up and gone demented with sexlessness.

It's fun to watch, and despite a puffy 118-minute running time with virtually no actual story to fill the time, director Ralph Nelson keeps the pace quick and the spirits light. It's a frivolous & silly movie, a fun throwback to the early Cary Grant pictures when he wasn't quite Cary Grant yet; I don't know if it was that, or if it was a chance to play a rough, snarling bastard with lots of drunk scenes, but legend says that Grant considered this one of his favorite performances. And he's plainly the best thing here: as good as Howard is in his smug, authoritarian Britishness (it's kind of like a more distant, imperious version of his character from The Third Man), and as shockingly gifted as Caron is at pulling out a certain zippy energy from her stuffy stereotype - I am no fan at all of her earlier work, even when I like the films she's in, but her command of sharp comic timing here almost makes me want to re-evaluate some of it - neither of them could make nearly as much impact without such a garrulous scene partner. Grant goes big: it has the distinct feeling of an actor showing off in what he knows to be his twilight years (loathing the rise of Method acting as a dominant force in cinema throughout the '50s, he was perpetually on the brink of retirement from 1953 onwards), and just having a huge, giddy blast at playing make believe on the shoot in Jamaica, stomping around looking like an angry hobo and everything. There's little nuance in the performance or the movie; it's just a sloppy good time. But it's a good time, and not just a flopsy bit of goofing off.

That the backdrop to all of this is WWII is a bit weird; the stakes are so low - so nonexistent, really - that it's easy to forget that the situation the film describes was, in fact, deadly serious at the time it was happening, and a drunken grouch like Walter more a force of danger than a lovable comic figure. In this regard, the film is part of a long, slow evolution: the days of serious war films were well over a decade in the past by 1964, and a series of increasingly flippant comedies and action extravaganzas set during the war had largely overtaken sober articulations of what combat means to the combatants. In this regard, Father Goose is by no means exceptional; it's just part of a larger crowd of funny wartime romps. The only noteworthy thing about in this respect is that it came out in just about the last year filmmakers could get away with that kind of thing; by '64, American involvement in Vietnam was starting to reach a point where the culture at large was starting to notice, and while "war is fun!" movies still came out, after '64 or 65, they start to seem disingenuously naïve.

Its Oscar and two nominations notwithstanding, Father Goose is a fairly low-key, minor film. But it typifies a certain kind of '60s film: a mixture of authenticity and glossiness (it manages to make its location shooting look setbound), an odd sort of collision of verbal and situational comedy, a salty, vulgar tone that still has to pull back and stay comfortably within Production Code guidelines. It's the last one that really makes the film feel like part of its era: it's genuinely dirty in many ways, but it keeps having to be coy and faux-innocent about it, and while there's a certain charm to that, there's something that's undeniably musty about it. It belongs to a weird transitional generation of filmmaking that had largely abandoned classical Hollywood technique but hadn't found anything to replace it with. I like the film without loving it, but I love how much it feels like it could only have come out in 1964 - maybe up to 1966, but no later - and how even something so winsome bears the unmistakable markers of its moment in history.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1964
-It's dueling megamusicals set in Edwardian London, as Disney's Julie Andrews vehicle Mary Poppins throws down with Warner's conspicuously Andrews-free My Fair Lady
-It's dueling films about accidentally triggering nuclear apocalypse, as Columbia finds itself handling the very serious Fail-Safe, and the very flippant Dr. Strangelove
-It's dueling films about outsmarting the Nazis, as United Artist releases the brainy, burly action film The Train by John Frankenheimer, while MGM lobs the politically incendiary D-Day satire The Americanization of Emily

Elswhere in world cinema in 1964
-Jacques Demy and Michel Legrand conspire to make everybody cry with The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. If you do not cry, presume yourself dead
-Richard Lester films the Beatles in the hyper-modern comedy about music and mass media, A Hard Day's Night
-The Soviet/Cuban co-production I Am Cuba does things with camera movement that just aren't fair