Adapted from a short story by Jack Ritchie, writer/actress Elaine May made her directorial debut with A New Leaf, a dark romantic comedy co-starring Walter Matthau (The Odd Couple, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three). A perfectionist, May’s original cut of the film was reportedly 180 minutes long, and included several subplots. Recut by Paramount, over May’s strong objections (she unsuccessfully sued the studio to have her name taken off the project), the movie was released with a slim running time of 102 minutes. A critical success, A New Leaf didn’t fare well at the box office, but has since become a cult classic.
Used to a life of luxury, and never having worked a day in his life, Henry Graham (Matthau) had no concern for the rights of others. However, Henry’s overspending has caught up with him. He is poor “in the only way one can be poor in that he won’t be rich” and for someone of his breeding that simply cannot do. After considering the alternatives, Henry takes the suggestion of his butler Harold (George Rose): borrow money from his vindictive Uncle Harry (James Coco) to find himself a rich heiress to marry, and do it quickly. Enter Henrietta Lowell (May), a mousy, clumsy botanist. Henry does everything he can to charm her, Henrietta is so trusting she doesn’t see through his facade. Meanwhile, Harold is shocked to learn of his boss’s nefarious plan: to follow marriage with murder!
Really though, Henry’s plan shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, remembering the conversation he had with his financial advisor Beckett (William Redfield), Henry isn’t at all affected when Beckett volunteers he’s been personally paying some of Henry’s debts. No, thank you’re aren’t in order, Henry simply wants what he sees as a huge inconvenience–the unpaid bills–to go away, so he can go on living his wealthy, patrician lifestyle. The biggest jerk imaginable, Henry believes he’s doing something special just by being willing to speak to others in order to find a wife.
By contrast, Henrietta is immediately likable. An adorable klutz you can’t help but root for, she’s a walking social faux pas–give her a glass of wine or a cup of tea, and it will land on the carpet–but she’s not stupid. Distracted by ferns and fronds, her ambition is to find a new species, have it named after her, and become immortal. Every girl who’s ever been the unpopular kid in school can probably relate.
While a series of hilarious dates Henry and his intended ensues, the road to wedded bliss is anything but smooth. A major obstacle turns up in the form of one Andy McPherson (Jack Weston). Henrietta’s lawyer, McPherson has been in love with her for years, though his feelings have gone unrequited. Unfortunately for Henrietta, McPherson (with the help of an army of servants) has also been grossly mismanaging her estate. And so, the zingers fly as Henry tries to expose McPherson’s deceit. Will Henry kill his wife?
I alluded to the post-production difficulties that plagued A New Leaf. The ending as it is works, even if it blunts, until the last minute, what had been a very black comedy. Walter Matthau handles the role of Henry with his usual aplomb. Elaine May’s comedic partnership with Mike Nichols (The Graduate) was always highly intellectual, her performance here is one of intellectual fussiness with heart. While the third act stalls a bit (likely due in part to the studio cuts), as delivered, A New Leaf is a fun comedy starring talented people. Also, be sure to watch for the always underrated Doris Roberts (Everybody Loves Raymond) as one of Henrietta’s servants.
This Olive Films Signature Edition has been given a wonderful 4K restoration scanned from the camera negative. The image is crystal clear throughout, and reveals a stunning level of detail. Compared to Olive’s 2012 Blu-ray release, tis one is a cut above in every respect. Colors are more vibrant, and grain is more evenly distributed. Blacks are also inkier. I did notice a couple of instances of slight crush during darker scenes, but it didn’t mar an otherwise top notch viewing experience.
The Master Audio mono track seems to be remastered, because it’s definitely cleaner than Olive Films previous Blu-ray release.
English SDH subtitles are included.
The following extras are available:
- Audio Commentary: In this new commentary, film scholar Maya Montanez Smukler delivers an extensive analysis of the film, discusses the complicated production history, the socio-economic environment that the film was made in, the cast and crew, etc.
- The Cutting Room Floor: Editing A New Leaf: In this new interview with A New Leaf assistant editor Angelo Corrao he discusses how he got the job, May’s original cut, etc.
- Women in Hollywood: A Tragedy of Comic Proportions In this new interview, director Amy Heckerling (Clueless) discusses the difficulties she faced while trying to establish herself in Hollywood, Elaine May’s career, and her thoughts on A New Leaf.
- Booklet: 14-page illustrated booklet featuring:
- “Ode on a Grecian Nightgown” new essay by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas.
- “The Green Heart” by Jack Ritchie, the source material for Elaine May’s script for A New Leaf.
Movie title: A New Leaf (1971)
Director(s): Elaine May
Actor(s): Walter Matthau , Elaine May , Jack Weston, Doris Roberts , William Redfield, Graham Jarvis
Genre: Romance, Comedy