As hilarious as Inspector Clouseau, Clare Quilty, Chance the Gardener and Dr. Strangelove are to the pop culture conversation, there must be a little bit of room for Peter Sellers’ Harold Fine. In the mostly forgotten 1960s film, I Love You Alice B. Toklas, he plays a very straight Los Angeles lawyer whose life changes one night after accidentally gorging himself on pot brownies. Giving up the suit and tie he grows his hair long and moves in to a swanky bohemian pad with Nancy (Leigh Taylor-Young), his gorgeous hippie paramour.
As far as I know, I Love You, Alice B. Toklas is the first great caricature of the 1960s counterculture, satirizing the movement’s embracing of Native American dress, Mao fetishism, Warholian weirdness, astrological infatuations, colorfully painted automobiles, and most especially, its language. (“Groovy… yeah, very, very groovy scene,” Harold says to his brother, Herbie, with the enthusiasm of a man greeting his dentist: it seems that already in 1968, the exclamatory power of ‘groovy,’ had slipped out of fashion.) Consider Harold’s conversation with a guru regarding his path of knowingness:
Guru: “How can you know a flower if you don't know who you are? Who are you? Do you know who you are?”
Harold: “I’m trying, Guru, I’m really trying.”
Guru: “When you stop trying, you’ll know who you really are.”
Harold: “I’m trying to stop trying.”
How many well-intentioned truth-seekers have been ripped off by such ambiguities substituting for life advice? Coming from a rational background—the law— in which arguments must be substantiated with some degree of proof, the semantics of Hippie colloquialism have begun to wear thin for Harold, especially when their general meanings really do seem to indicate general emotions.
This dearth of substance hits Harold when he discovers his lovely Nancy painting flowers on some handsome stud’s back. She is doing this because she “likes him,” but reassures Harold she likes him too. Enraged, Harold yells, “Is there anybody you don’t like?” This acting out of possessiveness betrays hippie etiquette and when she confronts him on his desires to be free, Harold cries aloud, “You bet I want to be free, but I want to be free with you alone.” It appears, thus, Harold would like to eat his pot brownie and have it too. Bourgeois love dies hard, especially when the girl you love is as gorgeous as Nancy.
The film climaxes at a party with Harold suffering a bad trip, but this being a Peter Sellers film, it is more ridiculous than frightening. I Love You Alice B. Toklas is a vision of the 1960s that can only exist within Hollywood, a place where hitchhikers don’t get molested and junkies don’t OD in the bathtub. As much as it has its fun at the movement’s expense, the film embraces the counterculture as well— marijuana certainly makes Harold Fine a better person. He may use the word “love” as casually as any bell-bottomed babe but there’s an awareness of his feelings and the needs of others that didn’t exist when he was a straight attorney. And having experienced the best and worst of both worlds, Harold remains committed to his revelations, abandoning his fiancé, Joyce, at the altar a second time so that he can find himself. Strutting down a busy Downtown street in an tuxedo, a stranger asks where he’s going, to which Harold cries, “I don’t know and I don’t care but there’s gotta be something beautiful out there, I just know it.” Harold’s choice is the filmmakers’ of course, and more than just an ending, it suggests that for all the silliness and naivety involved in finding oneself, it’s worth it.
Who needs a house when you have a girl like Nancy?
One last interesting parallel: I Love You Alice B. Toklas premiered in October, 1968. Though it wouldn’t be released until July, 1969, Easy Rider had already finished principal photography and was undergoing a lengthy editing process. It had a very different take on the counterculture. Like Harold Fine, Captain America and Billy the Kid want to be themselves, living apart from conventional social constructs. They take to their bikes to see America, a paranoid and dangerous journey in which they are martyred for their choice of freedom. Easy Rider thus feels like a cautionary tale, while I Love You Alice B. Toklas endorses the skewing of conventions wholeheartedly. One can't help but dissect the irony in this just a little: was it accidental, this bewildering of their intended audiences or were the mixed messages intentional? No wonder nobody says, ‘groovy,’ anymore…