Panic Button (1964) DVD Review: When Mannix Met Mansfield

The Warner Archive Collection releases the rarely-seen comedy that may have inspired a famous Mel Brooks movie.
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Considering how many times the Italian film industry has shamelessly ripped off American productions, I suppose it's only fitting (ironic, even, depending on whether or not you're a hipster and actually use that word in the right context) that the very movie which helped to launch the career of zany American filmmaker like Mel Brooks may have been derived from an Italian production. And I use the word "may" with both apprehension and caution alike because I don't think there's a single person on the planet that has a bad thing to say about Brooks, though it's very hard to not take note of the remarkable similarities between 1964's Italian-made English-language production Panic Button and Mel's iconic 1968 American masterpiece, The Producers.

Filmed a full two years before its stateside release, Panic Button opens with a grey-haired Mel Welles (in an unbilled part) as the head of an "organization" who discovers he will surely come under fire from the IRS if he doesn't find a way to get rid of a half-million dollars immediately. Thankfully, his financial advisor has a suggestion: produce a terrible TV pilot just so that they can report the failure as a tax write-off. According to the research at hand, the lowest-rated personality on late-night television is a forgotten, washed-up French actor named Philippe Fontaine (Maurice Chevalier). So, the boss man sends his son, Frank Pagano (Mike "Touch" Connors, who would later be known to an entire generation of TV lovers as Mannix), over to Italy to sign the faded star on for the turkey of a lifetime.

Thanks to a suggestion from his Italian connection (Vincent Barbi), Frank finds the perfect co-star: a completely untalented (but kind) lass named Angela (Jayne Mansfield, who was reduced to making terrible movies abroad after having been axed by Fox) who makes a living by selling her struggling artist friend's paintings as her own - which she is able to two thanks to her two big, God-given talents. But it isn't until Frank finds an outrageously demented acting teacher (Akim Tamiroff) that he discovers the perfect director to helm their television monstrosity. In a different approach to the story we already know and love, the finished product winds up being stolen by its aging star - which predates the plot point of another bad movie, An Alan Smithee Film: Burn, Hollywood, Burn.

Trust me, it sounds much better than it actually is. Of course, it doesn't take very long for even the most simple-minded of viewers to notice one big difference between the two films: The Producers is good, Panic Button is not. In fact, one has to wonder if its very reason for being called in existence imitates the plot itself (shady-looking production company included). Eleanor Parker co-stars as Chevalier's supporting ex-wife, who allows the self-obsessed, overacting (but lovable) has-been to live in a hotel she runs specifically for young women. (Wait, such places exist?) Italian comic Carlo Croccolo also stars as Parker's one and only employee: a con man who changes coats to match whichever service is being required of him at the establishment.

Chevalier is practically unbearable throughout the film, chewing up every scene even when he is not required to, while taking the time out to sing a couple of songs. Jayne Mansfield, on the other hand... well, let's face it, she was never hired for a movie solely for her acting talents. And that's just fine, but when you're surrounded by overactors like Chevalier (Mr. Tamiroff is another performer who can take it to the limit and let it ride) and an action/TV star such as "Touch" Connors, your own limited abilities stand out. Strangely enough, when Mansfield is seen in the final cut of the TV movie, wherein the actors are supposed to be bad, her acting seems to improve.

Despite the fact that Panic Button could have very well inspired Mel Brooks, it's safe to say that - even if it's true (and it probably is) - Mel succeeded in making the story much, much funnier. Granted, Panic Button has a few scenes going for it (Signori Croccolo manages to breathe some life into his part, but of course, he probably knew the film would be seen in his country, to say nothing of the various beauty of Rome and Venice, and the Georges Garvarentz score is pretty good) - but ultimately, is a bigger bust than the one its legendary female co-star sported. The film was re-released in America some time down the line as Let's Go Bust! - which, sadly, is far funnier than most of the actual gags used in the film itself.

Interestingly, the English-language version of the film (which was, like most Italian productions, shot without sound and brought most - if not all - of the original actors back in to record their own dialogue in post-production) was directed by a former western filmmaker George Sherman. The Italian cut of the film (known as Panic Button… Operazione fisco!) is slightly different, and is credited to Giuliano Carnimeo, who would wind up making several Spaghetti westerns immediately after Panic Button (before moving into the highly profitable giallo and post-apocalyptic genres of the '70s and '80s). Neither version was readily available for years, mostly owing to the fact that the film is bad no matter what language it's in.

In fact, apart from a couple grey-market VHS releases and the odd late-night television airing (wherein it probably ranked even lower than the collective works of the film's fictional Philippe Fontaine himself!), Panic Button has really never enjoyed (if the employment of such a verb is possible there) a legitimate home video release. Thankfully (?), the folks at the Warner Archive have rectified that by adding the title to its collection of manufactured-on-demand releases. The anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen presentation looks fairly nice, though the image appears to be squished here and there, and there are a number of flaws in the print (I see no reason for anyone to bother restoring this, do you?), and the barebones disc does not even sport not so much as a trailer. (Which is fine by me!)

Yes, in case it slipped past you the first couple of dozen times I stated it outright, Panic Button is a bad movie. Granted, it doesn't sink as low as another one of Mansfield's infamous European-made pictures, Primitive Love, where she co-starred alongside the nearly impossible-to-watch antics of Italian comedians Franco Franchi and Ciccio Ingrassia, but it would be perfectly content sitting a good five or six circles above the Franco & Ciccio filmography in Hell. Nevertheless, Panic Button is still a fascinating piece of cinematic history just the same, mostly for the remarkable (if wholly dissimilar) connection it has to The Producers (which also sat on the shelf for a spell, and was actually completed the same year Mansfield met with her untimely death).

And, should it ever come to light that Mel Brooks really did rip Panic Button off when he made The Producers, we can't be too judgmental on the poor guy. After all, he did wind up co-starring in Ezio Greggio's god-awful English-language Italian comedy Screw Loose in 1999 - and anyone who has ever had the misfortune of seeing that abysmal Italian comedy knows that the slate was most assuredly wiped clean that day.

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