A New Leaf is the best movie W.C. Fields never made.
That is completely intended as a compliment, and it in no way belittles Walter Matthau, who delivers a fine lead performance. But there is no mistaking the spirit of Fields in Matthau, whose body language and voice inflections deliver most of the laughs that writer/director/co-star Elaine May doesn’t steal away from him.
The movie is a whimsical black comedy, if there is such a thing. Matthau plays Henry Graham, a pampered man who has depended all his life on the kindness of rich not-quite-strangers (his well-off uncle and his accountant, among others) and his trust fund for his livelihood. Henry has now run through his trust fund and the goodwill of said strangers, and in a very funny scene (one among many), his accountant (William Redfield) has to meticulously and repeatedly explain to Henry why and how he has no more money to burn through.
Having no particular skills or drive in life, Henry concludes that he must find a rich woman to marry and enable him to continue the lifestyle to which he has become accustomed. Eventually he finds the easiest of targets — heiress Henrietta Lowell (May), a nondescript botanist and teacher who practically trips over herself with her every move.
Through a rapid series of machinations, Graham takes charge of Henrietta’s life and bank account, nonchalantly planning to eventually off Henrietta and continue to live off her riches. But gradually, a funny little thing called conscience slips into Henry’s crevisses, and having never previously had such feelings — in himself, or for anyone else — he is at a loss at how to cope with it.
This was May’s writing-directing movie debut, and she never strikes a wrong note. The dialogue is crisp, and every loving shot is held just long enough to make its comic point.
May also gets wonderful performances from the entire cast, including herself. As with the heroine in her later The Heartbreak Kid, at first we seem meant to laugh derisively at mousy Henrietta and her uncouth ways. But just like the flora she catalogs, Henrietta begins to blossom under Henry’s (reluctant) tutelage.
The rest of the cast similarly blossoms under May’s direction, including Redfield, James Coco, Jack Weston, Doris Roberts, and most notably George Rose as Henry’s Jiminy Cricket of a butler. They all underplay beautifully and deliver a smashing comedy almost nonchalantly. A New Leaf was initially a box-office flop but has long since become a cult classic, its comic bloom never fading over the years.