The executive suite at 20th Century Fox has been emptying out over the past few months, as several key figures have departed to either join the former president, Alan Ladd Jr., at his newly organized production company or establish businesses of their own. While awaiting the arrival of a new production regime, recruited from former Columbia executives, the company shows obvious signs of drifting.
Incriminating examples are "The Runner Stumbles" and "Scavenger Hunt," two clinkers acquired for release in the holiday season from Mel Simon, a shopping-center tycoon turned film packager. "The Runner Stumbles," an outmoded tale of forbidden passion, limped in and out of town stirring only vague pity for director Stanley Kramer. "Scavenger Hunt," a solvenly farce about a frantic competition for a multi-million dollar legacy, is the studio's bottom-of-the barrel Christmas treat.
In its relentless facetiousness and stubbornly shallow, hatefull view of human nature, "Scavenger Hunt" suggests the ideal co-feature on a lethal double-bill with "1941." Indeed, "Scavenger Hunt" is a poor man's "1941." You never feel that director Michael Schultz is somehow misusing or betraying his primitive abilities. The inanity and crudity of "1941" are far more discouraging, because it's still apparent that director Steven Spielberg has prodigious talent.
"Scavenger Hunt" strains to provoke lusty guffaws with a premise ineptly cribbed from the delightful old Alastair Sim-Joyce Grenfell comedy, "Laughter in Paradise." Vincent Price appears briefly as a parlor games magnate called Milton Parker who croaks while playing a smutty pinball game with his nurse, Carol Wayne. After the funeral, his attorney -- a wonderfully unflappable Robert Morley -- reveals to the assembled heirs and dependents that Parker's $200 million fortune is up for grabs: It will go to the winner of a day-long scavenger hunt.
Five teams evolve to scamper around San Diego stealing hilarious items like toilets, safes, ostriches and suits of armor.Parker's greedy daughter, Cloris Leachman, heads the villainous team with her sneaky lawyer, Richard Benjamin, and imbecilic son, Richard Masur. The other teams are meant to be likeable, if no less cretinous. Servants Roddy McDowall, James Coco, Cleavon Little and Stephanie Farcay get together. A widowed son-in-law, Tony Randall, drives around with his four kids. Two nephews, Dirk Benedict and Willie Aames, recruit Leachman's neglected Step-daughter, Maureen Teefy. A dopey cabbie, Richard Mulligan, teams up with a watchman, Scatman Crothers.
The servants specialize in soggy slapstick: After flooding a men's room while abstracting a commode, they end up showered upon by a sprinkler system and engulfed in soap suds. Mulligan keeps getting knocked down and run over by cars. The young trio activates a nitrous oxide tank by accident and has a laughing fit. (The audience needs all the encouragement it can get).
Randall falls out of a window; and has a flat tire, an appropriate symbol for the whole show. The Leachman gang takes several amateurish turns at the old Laurel and Hardy specialty of moving heavy objects. (The movie itself still refuses to budge.)
The hunters encounter "funny" guest stars: Ruth Gordon as a pugnacious old lady, Meat Loaf as a Hell's Angel, Avery Schreiber as a spluttering zookeeper who speaks like Daffy Duck. While many of the performers obviously intend to be amusing, the only expert comic element is Morley's aplomb. The harder the actors try (like Leachman and Benjamin), the sorrier the results.
Director Schultz seems barely adequate as a good-humored traffic cop, let alone a slapstick stylist. According to Hollywood gosspiers, Roddy McDowall, of all people, threatened to punch out Schultz after the premiere. Now that has more comic potential than any situation in "Scavenger Hunt."