(aka Recharge Your Grandmothers on Time!)
When I was young, I saw a beautiful little made for TV movie, The Electric Grandmother, which was based on a short story by Ray Bradbury (which, ironically was based on his script for his one and only Twilight Zone episode, “I Sing the Body Electric“). It’s a lovely little children’s fantasy about a family devastated by the loss of their mother, who are helped by a wonderful robot grandmother who hopefully can be half as good as their mother by being ten times better.
Now you never can be sure which American films or authors or TV shows actually made their way behind the Iron Curtain, but I really do think that someone involved with ‘Babicky dobíjejte presne!’ — perhaps it was Zdenek Hrebík, the author of the short story this film was based on, “Cerná a bílá” (Black and White), or perhaps it was the director, Ladislav Rychman — must have been familiar with Ray’s story, from whichever source.
But this is not an elegiac film about wonderous and almost magical mechanical grandmas. Oh, no. It’s a Czech comedy, with all the no holds barred absurdity, pointed social satire, and turning familiar concepts completely upside down one expects from a Czech movie comedy.
The big corporation, Biotex, sells grandmothers.
They’ve got quite a product line, all aimed at different needs and situations. And what’s more, you can program them specifically to fit the needs of your family. They’ll do your laundry, wash the dishes, help the kids with their homework and even help you quit smoking.
Everyone has one, or wants one.
Except the Loudas.
Or perhaps I should say, Mr. Louda, who dislikes the entire notion, even if Mrs. Louda visits the factory and brings home an armload of flyers.
But what convinces him to get one is that their hated neighbors, the Páleks, stop by to brag about how wonderful their Grandmother is.
So naturally, Mr. Louda has to tell them that he’s buying the newest and most expensive model, the 350 GLS.
They soon learn that having a Grandmother does, as promised, free them from all their chores, even if she does wake Louda up at 4:30 every morning to practice on his violin.
And forces everyone to do calisthenics.
And constantly feeds them Kebabs and Moussaka that are so spicy they can hardly eat it.
But then strange things start happening. Windows are broken but no one knows who did it. Their Grandmother cuts the Palek’s clotheslines — while they are loaded with clothing.
And then someone strangles the Louda’s cat, and leaves it hanging where they can’t miss it.
The Palek’s dog is next, and both families suddenly realize that their Grandmothers are at war with each other.
And maybe the kids will be next…
I love Czech comedies. They have this strange and eccentric quality about them that is very distinctive. In particular, they seem to love to set absurd and bizarre science fiction and fantasy ideas against very mundane backgrounds. I’ll admit my favorites are the ones made from, say, ’68 to ’70, under the influence of the so-called Prague Spring when Czechoslovakia threw off Communist rule — only to have the Soviet tanks show up a few months later. Those made earlier, like Muz z prvního století [Man in Outer Space] are often filled with routine propaganda, while those later tend to be far tamer, and rarely offer any sort of direct criticism of the government.
But that never stopped them from giving us some very sharp social criticism or satiric looks at human nature.
We definitely have that here: the Grandmothers do not merely promise freedom from drudgery, but they offer status, self improvement, and the chance to live the life you always dreamed of having.
Even fairly early in the film there are signs that perhaps they aren’t quite as perfect as they seem, like the kids complaining that they don’t like it when the Grandmother pats them because her hands are hard and scratchy and she doesn’t know how strong she is. Perhaps my favorite are the trendy couple nearby who are constantly throwing parties with their Grandmother playing DJ and getting everyone to dance. We can see just how tired the couple are of the non-stop partying after awhile, and the last time we see them, the Grandmother is literally holding them both under her arms as she says goodbye to their guests in the morning — and reminding them of the next party on Thursday!
Note that what starts the robot war is that both families checked the wrong box when they filled in their programming questionaires — a problem which starts even before the Loudas get their 350 GLS Grandmother as the Palek’s robot sprays Louda with the garden hose when she catches him watching her. Which naturally means that they just got what they asked for and the company isn’t going to do anything to fix it, unless they fill in dozens of forms…
There are a lot of great digs at modern corporations, thoughts about how getting what we want isn’t always that good for us, but the film’s main focus is on how easily we are talked into the next new fad — and the very human desire to keep up with the Joneses.
Or the Nováks, if you prefer.
And it is interesting to note that the family’s real grandmother also has an important job (like both Mr. and Mrs. Louda) and is just as busy as they are.
This may be the best Czech Sci Fi comedy I’ve seen from the Eighties. It starts out in a very lowkey deadpan way, and slyly drops in a lot of details which tell us far more about what’s going on than the main plot does on its own. Like most of the others I’ve seen, the science isn’t all that important and is most used to set up the absurd central notion which their (mildly) exaggerated version of the real world plays out against.
Unfortunately, like so many Czech films, it is very hard to find it in the West. It used to be that many of these films were available on Youtube, but the copyright owners apparently started going after them in the last few years.
Which seems awesomely foolish to me. How can you sell a film on the American market if no one here has seen it? Admittedly, subtitled foreign film is a hard sell here, but there are always hardcore film buffs willing to try almost anything they can find. The Czechs made some of the best Sci Fi comedies ever — films like The Fabulous World of Jules Verne; Who Wants To Kill Jesse?; Adele Hasn’t Had Her Dinner Yet; I Killed Einstein, Gentlemen; You Are a Widow, Sir [Pane, vy jste vdova!]; and Srdecný pozdrav ze zemekoule [Hearty Greetings from the Globe], all of them fresh and unique enough to please most filmgoers — yet very few of these are familiar even to those of us who watch foreign film. I can remember, when I first looked into the wild time travel comedy Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea, that some sources identified it as a family drama or something equally improbable. A few have been released here, but for the most part they are very hard to find. Even a more recent Czech SF Comedy, like 2018’s Trash on Mars, is unlikely ever to get released here, despite all the good reviews it got on the festival circuit.
And that’s a real shame.
So this is one of those films you should watch if you can actually find it, particularly if you love Czech film, particularly if you love wacky comedies, and particularly if you want to see a classic Science Fiction story getting turned on its head. It may not be easy to find, but it is worth the effort.
Just don’t forget to plug in Grandma, every night at 11:00…
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