Out of the Past: Get to Know Your Rabbit

[Originally published in Movietone News 41, May 1975]

Get to Know Your Rabbit represents a transition in the work of Brian De Palma, from the unrestrained precocity of his grainy independents Greetings (1969) and Hi, Mom! (1970) to the more controlled and purposeful talent critics have seen in his recent films Sisters (1973) and Phantom of the Paradise (1974). Genre-parody is clearly one of the beacons of De Palma’s career so far; and what Get to Know Your Rabbit boils down to is a parody of dropping-out films. De Palma’s drop-out here, Donald Beeman (Tommy Smothers, characteristically naïve in a role that really calls for the more complex subtlety Robert De Niro brought to the earlier two films), drops all the way: from promising junior executive with an expensive apartment and a sexy mistress, to lonely flophouse roomer seeking a new lifestyle by attending a sleazy school for tap-dancing magicians. Informing the film’s plot are the untiring efforts of Beeman’s former supervisor Turnbull (superbly played by John Astin) to, first, get Donald to come back to work, and, when that fails, to build around Donald (and without his knowledge) a multimillion-dollar corporation devoted to training executive drop-outs to be tap-dancing magicians and managing their road tours through fifth-string night spots in bush-league towns.

In the context of the comic/pathetic tension between these two characters, De Palma manages a wild pastiche of genre parody and unpredictably surreal comic vignettes that suggests the mighty influence of Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduite. The film opens with the terrorist bombing of a large office building as Beeman walks off his job. The sequence serves as both introduction to the film and swan-song of the world of guerrillas and revolution suggested in Greetings and lampooned in the later reels of Hi, Mom! In the 91 minutes that follow, De Palma keeps plot and character development moving, while still managing to ding a wide range of trendy drop-out films, most notably A Thousand Clowns, The Graduate, and Midnight Cowboy. At its best, De Palma’s satire is extravagant: Orson Welles, in the role of the Great Delasandro, instructor of tap-dancing magicians, is introduced in a series of mirror shots before he ever actually faces the camera. Katharine Ross, as the Terrific-Looking Girl, justifies her fascination with Donald by comparing it to her youthful infatuation for the neighborhood newsboy, in a long monologue that Ross builds and climaxes with a brilliance I never knew she had in her. And the film’s final shot, which De Palma manages to justify completely, is his boldest touch: Ross in the backseat of a bus.

Get to Know Your Rabbit is informed throughout with an agitated restlessness—both the wanderlust of the dropout and the impatience of the satirist—and with an organic structural dynamism created by De Palma’s genius for association and transition. One sequence develops a life of its own within the film’s larger context, beginning and ending in Donald’s flophouse room: Vic (Allen Garfield) enters, looking for a party. It’s the wrong room, but Donald agrees to accompany him to search for the party. They find it next-door, a single room filled with smoking, sweating, absolutely silent people who seem to be having a lovely time. Vic and Donald meet Susan (Samantha Jones), just the kind of “cheap broad” Vic is dying to pick up. They leave the party and there is a brief scene with the three of them in a cab. In the next scene, in Vic’s store, we discover his intentions: he is a trafficker in sexy underwear and wants Susan to try on a number of Frederick’s of Hollywood thingies. She agrees, but soon loses interest, attracted instead to Donald’s less bizarre interests. Vic is hurt, but resigns himself to losing Susan. Another cab scene returns the three to the flophouse, and the final scene of the sequence places us in Donald’s room again, right where we started, except that Susan has replaced Vic as the second player on screen. And even the ending of this cyclic episode carries its own transition to the next sequence: In high camp, Susan says. “My ship leaves tomorrow, so we must make tonight last forever.” Far from forever, the night lasts only a cut to: Donald, alone on the jetty, looking out to sea (a cut that achieves both the zaniness and the genuine feeling that A Thousand Clowns—in its “Bon Voyage” sequence and elsewhere—consistently misses); Donald’s panning gaze gradually picks up Delasandro, who has just seen a friend off on the same unseen ship, and we are back in the world of tap-dancing magicians.

John Alonzo’s camera is rarely still. Especially when the film is dealing with pre-magician Donald and with Turnbull, that restlessness prevails: Donald’s discontent with conformity, Turnbull’s seething bureaucratic energy. Overhead tracking shots early on in Donald’s bachelor apartment and later in the corporate offices of “Tap Dancing Magician, Inc.” allow the tops of walls and partition to cut the frame into a labyrinth, through which the characters move like laboratory rats.

The look of the film (anticipating Alonzo’s work in Chinatown, though here less polished and less appropriate) is a murky near-haze. But the coarse-grained texture creates neither a deliberate unreality nor a documentary realism so much as simply a thickness—both literal and metaphorical—that characterizes the packed, unpredictable, stifling yet exhilarating density of Get to Know Your Rabbit.

GET TO KNOW YOUR RABBTT (1971)
Direction: Brian De Palma. Screenplay: Jordan Crittendan. Cinematography: John J. Alonzo. Music: Jack Elliott, Allyn Ferguson. Production: Steve Bernhardt, Paul Gaer.
The Players: Tom Smothers, John Astin, Suzanne Zenor, Orson Welles, Robert Ball, Allen Garfield, Samantha Jones, Katharine Ross.

Copyright © 1975 Robert C. Cumbow