Are American tourists really as pesky as they’re made out to be? I’ve only been to Canada, so I can’t really comment based on firsthand experience, but obviously the stereotype exists. I do however, have a couple of decades of experiences with tourists in general, and while most people are cool, I have encountered a few…high-maintenance folks, shall we say. That’s one of the reasons the 1969 film, If It’s Tuesday This Must Be Belgium was a lot of fun.
Charlie Cartwright (Ian McShane) is a tour guide with Whirl-Wind Tours, and he’s always taking groups of Americans on eighteen-day jaunts across England and Europe. It might seem like a cool job, but Charlie thinks it’s downright monotonous. Like Groundhog Day except that the loop is much longer.
The groups always go to the same places and see the same sights, Charlie always sticks to the same script, and no one ever seems to have any personality. Their eyes glaze over during the tours. They’d rather order hamburgers than try local specialties, so much so that Whirl-Wind deliberately stops at restaurants that cater to American tourists. And there’s always a lot of shopping.
Charlie’s latest group seems to be pretty run-of-the-mill, but a few of them stand out. There’s Jack (Michael Constantine) who fought in Europe during World War Two and is now eager to go down Memory Lane. There’s his buddy, John (Sandy Baron), who’s going to squeeze in a visit with his Italian relatives while the group is in Venice.
There’s Bert Greenfield (Marty Ingels) who bragged to his friends about how he’s going to score in Europe, and takes plenty of photos of women on the street to prove it. Or at least he hopes he’s proving it.
There’s also Harve and Irma Blakely (Norman Fell and Reva Rose), who packed way too much toilet paper. There’s Fred Ferguson (Murray Hamilton), who, along with his wife, Edna (Peggy Cass) is trying to give his daughter, Shelly (Hilarie Thompson) a change of scenery because she’s getting a little too hot and heavy with her boyfriend.
Then there’s Samantha Perkins (Suzanne Pleshette), a clothes buyer from Minneapolis, who’s engaged and just not sure about marriage, at least not to her guy, so she goes to Europe to clear her head. Charlie, who has a girl in every port, is suddenly very attentive and accomodating, especially after his London girlfriend sees he and Sam in a pub and promptly dumps him. Sam’s a savvy lady, though, so she’ll be harder to crack as far as romance goes.
Oh, and we can’t forget Harry Dix (Audrey Morris), a kleptomaniac who brings along an empty suitcase so he can stash all the things he nips over the course of the trip, whether it’s a hotel phone or a golf club or a fondue fork. He tries to steal a life preserver, too, but it’s too big to fit in his suitcase.
Everything about the tour is both typical and atypical. The group hits all the normal hotspots, such as the Tower of London and the Atomium, they eat big slices of gouda in Holland, they cruise up the Rhine, they eat fondue and drink beer in Switzerland. However, not everything goes smoothly. Irma accidentally gets on the wrong bus early in the tour and poor Harve is stuck calling her on the phone and yelling greetings to her as the two groups pass each other on the road.
Meanwhile, Shelly meets Bo (Luke Halpin), a cute American who’s touring all the various hostels and living off the free samples at the various festivals. He feeds Shelly some pretty hokey lines about passion and she’s dead gone, although the two of them don’t get too far, since Fred is like a bird of prey when it comes to finding his daughter, even in the unknown streets of Europe. Bo is just as wiley, though, and follows the tour like a donkey after a carrot.
If It’s Tuesday This Must Be Belgium was the first narrative film made by documentarians David L. Wolper and Mel Stuart, who were inspired by a 1957 New Yorker cartoon showing two confused tourists consulting their itinerary. The movie did decently well, grossing $8.6M and placing forty-third in the top films of 1969. Variety called the film “a miniature Grand Hotel on wheels.” The New York Times, on the other hand, said Belgium was like “a stopover in an airport where the only reading matter is yesterday’s newspapers.”
I don’t know about that. For guys who made documentaries they sure knew how to make an effective movie. Each character is shown to their best advantage even if they’re not the nicest sort, and they do a good job of communicating story without a lot of exposition. They save that for the tour guide stuff. I think that’s probably what anchored them as filmmakers: They were able to stick to history and tourist-y topics for the most part and kept the fiction as window dressing. It really works, and it’s a lot of fun. I especially enjoyed the wonderful Patricia Routledge as the very animated tour guide Mrs. Featherstone.
It’s also cool that the movie shows a little bit of Europe as it looked in the late sixties, when it was tooling along after the long period of austerity and war. This new Europe was smart and vigorous, with eyes on both the past and the future. It’s crazy and exciting and the scenery is gorgeous.
The cast is also great; my personal favorite was Suzanne Pleshette, who graciously and freely acknowledges she’s one of those ugly Americans. On the other hand, though, she’s the only one of the group who wants to try local fare instead of sticking to the familiar. It’s too bad she keeps getting overruled, though, because it would have been fun to see all of them try mussels and liege waffles and dip pommes frites in mayonnaise.
(Can you all tell I’d like to visit Belgium? Oh man, I totally would. And Spain. And Switzerland. And England. And Ireland. And Italy, especially the Amalfi Coast. All of that would be wonderful.)
These characters are bound by their itinerary, though, which can make the film slightly predictable. They mostly have to play to type, but they do get character arcs.
The only thing that kind of bugged me is that a couple of times the movie does these really quick cuts of London night life interspersed with quotes by Frederick Nietzsche. It’s like something out of a documentary or a rock opera, probaly done to satisfy the psychadelic trend of the late sixties. I guess the filmmakers couldn’t help themselves. The problem, though, is that these little flashes only appear in the first part of the movie, and if they hadn’t been there, probably no one would have missed them.
That’s a small quibble, though. If It’s Tuesday This Must Be Belgium might be a wee bit predictable, but it’s so cute that it doesn’t matter. I don’t know about anyone else, but I wouldn’t mind another jaunt with Whirl-Wind Tours, especially if there’s fondue.
Charlie’s group came out relatively unscathed, but (spoiler alert!) tomorrow’s bunch won’t be able to say that. Thanks for reading, all, and I hope to see you for Day Six of “Sorta Adios To Summer”…
If It’s Tuesday This Must Be Belgium is available on Blu-ray from Amazon.
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