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All of My Pets Have Names
by Jon Schuller

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There are plenty of statistics about people and their pets; which pets are the most popular; which pets are smart and which ones help people the most. I'm thinking of the thousands of service dogs and how many people depend on them. Of course, giving your pet a name is all part of the process and how close their owners bond with their pets: as much a part of the family as any child or relative. There have been literally hundreds of movies about the ages-old interactions between animals and humans:

101 Dalmatians 1996
Babe 1995
Beethoven 1992
Benji 1974
Black Beauty 1946
Call of the Wild 1935
Doctor Doolittle 1967
A Dog of Flanders 1960
Francis 1950
Harry and Tonto 1974
Lassie Come Home 1943
My Dog Skip 2000
Old Yeller 1957
The Shaggy Dog 1959
Tarzan 1999
We Bought a Zoo 2011
The Yearling 1946
The top-grossing films usually centered around dogs and horses, the owners and their children as secondary players. Many movies were light-hearted fun, while others were serious dramas, with life-and-death situations as common themes. But the relationships were the key. In July, 1988
an American-British movie premiered that was simultaneously a crime drama, a romantic comedy and a story about one man's journey through life with the pet of his choice. A Fish Called Wanda starred Jamie Lee Curtis, John Cleese, Michael Palin and Kevin Kline, directed by Charles Crichton and written by John Cleese and Charles Crichton.

A somewhat famous London gangster, George Thomason (Tom Georgeson, really) and his stuttering partner, Ken Pile (Palin) are planning a jewel heist. They've added two Americans, the beautiful con artist, Wanda Gershwitz (Curtis) and her secret lover/pretend brother, Otto West (Kline) who hates everyone and loses his mean temper at the drop of a hat. The large diamond robbery works out; they hide the diamonds in an old workshop, but Wanda and Otto betray George to the police so they can take the catch for themselves. George had moved the diamonds to a safe-deposit box and Wanda finds the key in Ken's fish tank. She puts it into her pendant. Wanda's already planned to betray Otto as well.

George has a barrister named Archie Leach (Cleese), the same as Cary Grant's real name, Archibald Alexander Leach. Wanda decides to seduce Archie so he will, at Wanda's suggestion, convince George to plead guilty, get a lighter sentence and give up the location of the diamonds. By now, I guess you've noticed the plot is
getting more than a little convoluted. Archie falls head-over-heels for this stunning American woman, especially since his marriage to Wendy (Maria Aitken) has become stale and not anywhere near exciting anymore. Wanda exudes excitement and adventure. Archie and Wendy have a daughter, Portia, who was portrayed by Cleese's real-life daughter, Cynthia.

Otto has been watching Wanda and Archie as they try to find moments alone; he's dangerously jealous and decides to scare Archie and threaten his family. Eventually Archie has to end the affair as he fears for his life and doesn't want his wife to discover what he's been doing outside of court.

The only witness to the robbery, the elderly Mrs. Eileen Coady (Patricia Hayes), dies of a heart attack after an inept Ken kills her dogs outside her flat. Now that the Crown hasn't anyone who actually saw George commit the crime, they're about to release him. At his trial Wanda suddenly turns on George and becomes a witness against him. Archie cross-examines her and calls her darling. Wendy, watching from the upstairs gallery, realizes Archie's been involved with Wanda and tells him he's finished.

Otto tortures Ken into revealing the diamonds' location by eating his raw pet fish, one at a time, until he swallows the favorite, Wanda. Ken's incredible stutter (done to perfection by Michael
Palin) reveals the loot is at a hotel near Heathrow Airport.

Archie has decided to throw everything away, run away with Wanda and steal the diamonds for himself. George told Archie that Ken knows where they are. He goes to Ken's flat, and, after agonizing minutes with Ken, finds out the diamonds are at the Ca-Ca-Ca-Ca-Cathcart Hotel. Otto steals Archie's car and grabs Wanda, heading for the airport. They get the diamonds, but Wanda again doublecrosses Otto, pushing him into a closet. Otto shoots his way out, confronts Archie and they wind up outside where a new runway is being built. Otto falls into deep wet cement, can't move as Ken, ranting and raving about his dead fish while driving a steamroller, runs the machine over Otto. Wanda and Archie, safely inside the plane to South America, take off. A cement-covered Otto, somehow clinging to a wing, gets blown away.

This is a film made for fun and laughter. It was nominated and won Academy Awards, BAFTAs and the Golden Globes. It received honors from AFI's and BFI's Top 100 lists. A 1997 sequel, Fierce Creatures, didn't gain the same receptions as Wanda did. All of the actors in Wanda were top-notch and rather convincing. Kevin Kline's never been nastier or crazier. Michael Palin's stutter magically disappeared when Otto did. This is one of those movies I can watch again without being bored.

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Cinema Savant
Every other Thursday

My views on an eclectic mix of films and personalties, past and present; emotional interpretations; some laughs, some cries.

Other Columns
Other columns by Jon Schuller:

When Is It Leaving? Where Is It Going?

I'd Forgotten About That Completely

He's a Spy? Yeah. Right.

May I Quote You On That?

A Penultimate Year For Movies

All Columns

Jon Schuller
I am a former New Jersey native, living in Charlotte, N.C. for almost 29 years. I am a lifelong movie lover with lots of movie trivia knowledge and soundtracks in my CD collection. I enjoy sharing my love of films with everyone and have so many fond memories growing up in darkened movie theaters. I have been married 50 years (as of December 22, 2018) and we both share a passion for film (and each other of course).

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Jon Schuller by clicking here.

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