Comedy Tonight: A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM (United Artists 1966)

Director Richard Lester made the jump from The Beatles to Broadway in filming A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, but it wasn’t that far a leap. In adapting the Tony-winning musical comedy to the screen, Lester energizes the film with his unmistakably 60’s cinematic style, resulting in one of the decade’s best comedies, aided and abetted by a cast of pros including Zero Mostel , Phil Silvers, Jack Gilford, and the great Buster Keaton in his final film performance.

The credits roll to the tune of Stephen Sondheim’s “Comedy Tonight”, which may be my favorite song from any musical, as Zero introduces us to the main players. He’s Psuedolus, a slave owned by young Hero (Michael Crawford), son of unhappily married Senex (Michael Hordern) and his shrewish (not Jewish) wife Domina (Patricia Jessel, who’s a riot!). Hero has fallen in love with Philia (Annette Andre), the girl next door… except next door happens to be a whorehouse run by oily Marcus Lycus (Phil Silvers). Pseuodlus, who longs to be free, is charged with keeping tabs on Hero while Senex and Domina are away, and head house slave Hysterium (Jack Gilford) is charged with keeping tabs on Pseudolus! On the other side is the house of Erronius (Buster Keaton), an elderly man with poor eyesight still searching for his “lost children stolen by pirates” years before.

Got all that so far? Good, because things get complicated from here: Pseudolus takes Hero to Lycus’s emporium, only to discover Philia is pledged to Roman Captain Miles Gloriosus (Leon Greene), who’s on his way, while Pseudolus himself falls for the beautiful mute courtesan Gymnasia (Inga Neilsen). Houses gets switched, Senex returns home and thinks Philia is for him, Hero is sent to search for mare’s sweat (don’t ask!), Pseudolus and Lycus constantly try to screw each other over, Hysterium gets hysterical, Erronius thinks his house is haunted, The Captain demands his courtesan, and Domina is on her way home! All capped off by a mad chariot chase that, though I can’t find any evidence to back it up, looks like it contains some of Buster’s handiwork!

Zero, Silvers, and Gilford were all veterans of comedy, performing in venues from vaudeville to burlesque, and The Catskills to Broadway. This was Zero’s first film appearance after being blacklisted in Hollywood for fifteen years, during which time he became a huge Broadway star, originating the role of Pseudolus there (and winning a Tony), followed by his Tevye in FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (garnering another Tony). Mostel mugs for the camera and hams it up mercilessly, and I mean that in a good way! His inspired clowning has influenced generations of comics, and here he goes full throttle in a part he was born to play.

Equally uproarious is Phil Silvers , without his trademark glasses but as Bilko-like as ever as procurer Marcus Lycus. Silvers and Mostel play off each other like two dueling swordsmen, engaging in a battle of “Can You Top This?” with each other and generally having a ball. The underrated Jack Gilford doesn’t get discussed much these days, mostly being remembered from the film COCOON, but was a great comic actor in his own right, and his song “Lovely” (performed while dressed in drag!) is just one of the movie’s many highlights. Michael Crawford went from playing the naïve Hero to Broadway’s original PHANTOM OF THE OPERA a few decades later. Besides those previously mentioned, Familiar Faces include Alfie Bass, Roy Kinnear, DR. WHO #3 Jon Pertwee (whose brother Michael cowrote the screenplay with Melvin Frank), and an uncredited Ingrid Pitt as one of Lycus’s courtesans.


Then there’s Buster Keaton , still taking pratfalls at age 70 while suffering from the cancer that would kill him before the films’ release. Keaton’s role isn’t as big or as showy as the rest of the gang, but The Great Stoneface is always a sure-fire laugh getter, and his character plays an important part at the film’s conclusion. A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM is a fitting ending to Keaton’s feature film career, surrounded by a top-notch group of funnymen, and given a chance to make us laugh one more time. But let’s not end things on a melancholy note, but rather with how things begin, the opening credits from A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM. Take it away, Zero:

Drive-In Saturday Night 2: BIKINI BEACH (AIP 1964) & PAJAMA PARTY (AIP 1964)

Welcome back to Drive-In Saturday Night! Summer’s here, and the time is right for a double dose of American-International teen flicks, so pull in, pull up a speaker to hang on your car window, and enjoy our first feature, 1964’s BIKINI BEACH, starring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello:

BIKINI BEACH is the third of AIP’s ‘Beach Party’ movies, and this one’s a typical hodgepodge of music, comedy, and the usual teenage shenanigans. The gang’s all here, heading to the beach on spring break for surfing and swinging. This time around, there’s a newcomer on the sand, British rock star The Potato Bug, with Frankie playing a dual role. Potato Bug is an obvious spoof of the big Beatlemania fever sweeping the country, with all the beach chicks (or “birds”, as he calls ’em) screaming whenever PB starts singing one of his songs, complete with Lennon/McCartney-esque “Wooos” and “Yeah, yeah, yeahs”. Avalon has a good time in a wig and Granny glasses (and a Terry-Thomas like accent) poking fun at the latest teen fad, and in typical low-budget AIP fashion, scenes with Frankie and Mr. Bug together have Beach regular Ronnie Dayton doubling for Potato Bug.

The villain of the piece is Keenan Wynn as Harvey Huntington Honeywagon III, who wants to get rid of the surfers so he can expand his old folks home. To prove his theory that the teens are nothing but Neanderthals “with an abnormal preoccupation with sex”, he has his simian sidekick Clyde (Janos Prohaska, The Bear from Andy Williams’s 60’s variety show) ape them by surfing, driving hot rods, and dancing. Martha Hyer is schoolteacher Vivien Clements, who stands up against Harvey for the kids, and guess who sides with him? That’s right, Eric Von Zipper (Harvey Lembeck ) and his Rats, who hates the surfers even more than Harvey!

Frankie and Annette argue (because of course they do), and she takes up with Potato Bug to make him jealous. Since Bug is a drag racing buff, Frankie decides to take up the sport and challenge him to a grudge race. Don Rickles Don Rickles returns as Big Drag (the former Jack Fanny), proprietor of Big Drag’s Pit Stop, the surfer’s hangout, and he’s funny as ever. There’s plenty of tunes and musical guests, including Little Stevie Wonder (singing “Dance and Shout”), The Pyramids, and The Exciters Band (who worked with the shimmying sensation Candy Johnson). There’s also plenty of padding, with lots of stock footage of surfing and racing, and though it’s an incredibly silly romp, it still manages to entertain if you like these sort of things (and I do!). Oh, and that mysterious art collector who keeps popping in and out of the film is none other than everyone’s favorite monster…

Boris Karloff  in a cameo! Now let’s go to the concession stand and load up on burgers and hot dogs during Intermission:

Our second feature is PAJAMA PARTY, also released in 1964:

Considered by aficionados as the fourth in the series, besides the fact it shares Annette, Jody McCrea, Eric Von Zipper and his Rats, and other regulars (Luree Holmes, Candy Johnson, Donna Loren, Michael Nader, Ronnie Rondell, Salli Sachse), it bears no relationship to the usual ‘Beach Party’ movies. In fact, PAJAMA PARTY is even goofier than normal – if you can imagine – a surreal, almost plotless piece of escapism with self-knowing winks to the audience! It may not be ‘Beach Party’ canon, but the film knows it’s goofy and revels in it.

Martians (yes, Martians!) send their biggest goof-up, an outer space teen named Go-Go (Tommy Kirk ) to infiltrate Earth and pave the way for their upcoming invasion. Don Rickles plays a Martian on the spaceship, and it’s not a spoiler to reveal Frankie Avalon is the alien chief – you’ll recognize his voice instantly. Go-Go lands in the backyard of dotty Aunt Wendy (Elsa Lanchester ), who renames him George and introduces him to her teenage borders, including Connie (Annette) and her dumb jock boyfriend Big Lunk (Jody). Von Zipper and his Rats are around, out to get “them volleyball kids”, and a crook called J. Sinister Hulk (Jesse White) is plotting to steal Aunt Wendy’s millions, left to her by her late husband – in cash! All this takes place amid one slapstick situation after another, until whatever plot ends are neatly tied up.

Among J. Sinister’s henchmen is Buster Keaton , making his first appearance in the series. The Great Stoneface has some funny gags and bits, and could still take a pratfall with the best of ’em! Also making her ‘Beach’ debut is Bobbi Shaw, the “ya, ya” girl, and actor and nightclub comic Ben Lessy rounds out the villainous quartet. Dorothy Lamour guest stars as hostess of a fashion show, and even gets a musical number, “Where Did I Go Wrong”. Sexy Susan Hart gyrates her way through the film without any dialog, which isn’t a bad thing; the wife of AIP co-founder James Nicholson was better at window dressing than acting.

The songs are no great shakes except for Loren’s rocking “Among the Young” and Annette’s uptempo “Pajama Party”, but there’s some real energetic 60’s dancing going on (see if you can spot Teri Garr and Toni Basil movin’ and groovin’ in the crowd). The Nooney Rickets 4 provide a few instrumentals for the kids to boogie to, and the soft drink Dr. Pepper pops up everywhere (Loren was the Dr. Pepper Girl for years in 1960’s TV ads). Both BIKINI BEACH and PAJAMA PARTY are products of a bygone era, and both are still a lot of fun. A perfect double feature to watch on a hot summer night, with some popcorn and a cold Dr. Pepper!

KOWABUNGA!

New Recipe: HOW TO STUFF A WILD BIKINI (AIP 1965)

HOW TO STUFF A WILD BIKINI, the sixth entry in American-International’s “Beach Party” series, attempts to breathe new life into the tried-and-true  formula of sun, sand, surf, songs, and corny jokes. Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello are still around as Frankie and Dee Dee, but in this go-round they’re separated; he’s in the Navy stationed on the tropical island of Goona-Goona, while Annette has to contend with the romantic enticements of Dwayne Hickman .

Frankie’s part amounts to a cameo, enlisting local witch doctor Buster Keaton (!!) to keep those girl-hungry beach bums away from Dee Dee (while he frolics unfettered with lovely Irene Tsu !). Keaton’s magic ain’t what it used to be, so he has his daughter conjure up a knockout named Cassandra, who first appears on the beach as an animated bikini. All the boys go ga-ga for Cassandra, including a go-go ad man named Peachy Keane, who wants to promote her and Hickman as the ‘Boy and Girl Next Door’ in a series of ads for a motorcycle. And where there’s “sicles”, there’s Erich Von Zipper, who “adores” the stunning Cassandra and wants to enter the cross-country motorcycle race with her against Hickman and Dee Dee to win the coveted ‘Boy and Girl Next Door’ titles… even going as far as changing his image from black leather clad hood to button-down Madison Avenue man!

The movie’s a mash-up of beach party silliness and HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING, playing more like a traditional musical instead of a rock’n’roll dance party. In fact, the only rock ‘guest act’ in this one are The Kingsmen (of “Louie, Louie” fame), who get one song during a nightclub scene. Substantial time is given to the Madison Avenue Madmen, led by Mickey Rooney as Peachy, who mugs his way through the part in his own inimitable style, and even gets to sing a couple of numbers. Rooney’s boss is veteran Brian Donlevy as B.D. “Big Deal” McPherson, getting a chance to play a comic role for a change, and he’s fun to watch. Harvey Lembeck does his own mugging once again as Von Zipper, while comedian Len Lesser replaces Timothy Carey as ‘North Dakota Slim’s’ even meaner brother, ‘South Dakota Pete’.

Annette’s more covered up than usual, due to the fact she was pregnant during the film’s shoot. The producers got pretty creative hiding her bulge, even using a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken at one point – how’s that for product placement! Beverly Adams , the future Mrs. Vidal Sassoon, makes a sexy (if extremely klutzy) Cassandra. Regulars Bobbi Shaw (as Keaton’s assistant Khola Koku), Alberta Nelson, Andy Romano, Michael Nader, and Marianne Gaba are on hand, and reportedly Beach Boy Brian Wilson is in the movie as… well, a beach boy! And there’s a cameo appearance at the end by everyone’s favorite TV witch as Keaton’s daughter:

Yep, Elizabeth Montgomery, star of BEWITCHED and then-wife of director William Asher! The slapstick cross-country race shows signs of Keaton’s handiwork; alas, this was his last in the franchise. The formula had worn pretty thin by this point, and the next ‘Beach’ movie, GHOST IN THE INVISIBLE BIKINI, didn’t even feature Frankie and Annette, and is a disappointing end to the series. HOW TO STUFF A WILD BIKINI is a game try to resuscitate the franchise, but failed to keep the ‘Beach Party’ money machine running.  Frankie and Annette went on to star in a racing drama, 1966’s FIREBALL 500, but fans would have to wait thirty years to see them get back to the beach… in 1987’s aptly titled BACK TO THE BEACH!

Tears of A Clown: Charles Chaplin’s LIMELIGHT (United Artists 1952)

Charlie Chaplin was unquestionably one of the true geniuses of cinema. His iconic character ‘The Little Tramp’ has been entertaining audiences for over 100 years, enchanting both children and adults alike with his winning blend of humor and pathos. But by 1952, the 63-year-old Chaplin had been buffeted about by charges of immoral behavior and the taint of Communism during the HUAC years, and filmgoers were turning against him. It is at this juncture in his life and career he choose to make LIMELIGHT, a personal, reflective piece on the fickleness of fame, mortality, despair, and most prominently, hope. It could be considered Chaplin’s valedictory message to the medium he helped establish, even though there would be two more films yet to come.

 

“The story of a ballerina and a clown…” It’s 1914 London, and the once-great Music Hall clown Calvero arrives home from a drunken bender. Fumbling with the key to unlock the door to his squalid rooming house, Calvero finally enters and, smelling gas, bursts into an apartment, saving the life of suicidal failed ballerina Thereza. Bringing her upstairs to his own humble room, the washed-up clown tries nursing her back to health, despite the protestations of landlady Mrs. Alsop. Calvero is upbeat, enjoying life as it is, even though he’s no longer able to amuse the crowds that used to love him; Thereza, on the other hand, hates life and “the futility of it all”, an invalid no longer able to use her dancer’s legs.

A doctor tells Calvero her symptoms are psychosomatic in nature, so Calvero acts as both nurturer and therapist, getting Thereza to open up about her past life and unrequited love. He’s able to get her back on her feet, both physically and emotionally, though he can’t get himself back in the limelight, dismally bombing out at a low-rent music hall. The roles are now reversed as Terry encourages Calvero to not give up hope, and when she lands the role of prima ballerina in “Harlequinade”, she manages to get Calvero a part as the clown. It is here she meets her lost unrequited love Neville, now a pianist for the company. Thereza confesses her love for Calvero, but the old clown doesn’t wish to stand in the way of what he perceives as her true happiness.

Thereza becomes a huge success, but impresario Mr. Postant doesn’t think the clown is funny. Calvero overhears, and once again goes out and gets sloshed, leaving the production and Thereza behind. While Thereza dances to world-wide acclaim, Calvero becomes a pitiful street performer begging for change. When Postant learns of Calvero’s plight, he arranges a gala benefit in the great clown’s honor, where Calvero returns to the limelight to take his final, fatal last bow…

LIMELIGHT is autobiographical on many levels, as Chaplin mixes both his current situation in America with the lives of his mother and father. Originally a Music Hall performer himself, Chaplin’s Calvero closely resembles his Tramp in spirit, the perpetually downtrodden Everyman who always looks at the sunny side of life. Walking that familiar tightrope between comedy and pathos, Chaplin gives a commanding performance here. Moving between pantomime and eloquence, Chaplin expresses a worldview of acceptance as Calvero, determined to remain true to himself no matter the circumstances, even when he feels he can no longer connect with the audience. His devotion to his craft is amazing, not only as star of the film, but producer, writer, director, music score (for which he won a belated Oscar in 1972, twenty years after the film’s initial release!), and even co-choreographer. LIMELIGHT is also a family affair, with son Sydney Chaplin playing Neville, Charlie Chaplin Jr. as one of the ballet clowns, and younger children Geraldine, Josephine, and Michael as urchins on the steps in the opening scene. Chaplin’s half-brother Wheeler Dryden appears as a doctor, and even wife Oona O’Neill Chaplin has a part as an extra.

The role of Thereza is played by 21-year-old Claire Bloom , whose ethereal poignancy as the ballerina is brilliantly portrayed. We watch in amazement as the despairing Terry, wanting only to die, blossoms into a beautiful artist radiating hope. Marjorie Bennett gets a chance to shine as Mrs. Alsop, probably her best screen role. The always-welcome Nigel Bruce is Postant, Norman Lloyd plays stage director Bodalink, and popping up in small parts are silent veterans Charlie Hall, Charley Rogers, Snub Pollard (as one of Calvero’s street musician cohorts), and Edna Purviance, Chaplin’s costar in many of his early films, making her final screen appearance.

Most notably, LIMELIGHT features the first and only pairing of Chaplin and the great Buster Keaton , who rivaled Chaplin in popularity during the silent era. The duo perform a musical comedy number at Calvero’s benefit show, almost completely done in pantomime, and though their screen time together if brief, it is both funny and memorable. Though an unmistakable air of melancholy pervades the film, Chaplin gets to strut his stuff in some amusing solo numbers, including a flea circus sketch and the comical song “The Life of a Sardine”.

The ballet section, highlighted by the performance of “Harlequinade”, is hauntingly beautiful. Danced by Andre Eglevsky and Melissa Hayden (subbing for Bloom) of the New York City Ballet, the two teamed with Chaplin on the film’s choreography, and create a marvelous and moving piece of work. The entire film is a splendid balance of that same humor and pathos Chaplin had walked successfully for almost forty years, when the “Little Fellow” (as he called his most beloved creation) first arrived on the screen with his baggy pants, beat-up bowler, scrub moustache, and cane. LIMELIGHT is the sum of Chaplin’s entire career as an entertainer, a film of love and loss, hopes and dreams, and one no movie lover should miss.

Fun in the Sun: BEACH BLANKET BINGO (AIP 1965)

You’d think by the fourth entry in American-International’s ‘Beach Party’ series, 1965’s BEACH BLANKET BINGO, the formula would be wearing a bit thin. Frankie and Annette are still trying to make each other jealous, Eric Von Zipper and his Rats are still comic menaces, and the gang’s into yet another new kick (skydiving this time around). But thanks to a top-notch supporting cast of characters, a sweet subplot involving a mermaid, and the genius of comedy legend Buster Keaton , BEACH BLANKET BINGO is loads of fun!

Aspiring singer Sugar Kane skydives from a plan into the middle of the ocean and is “rescued” by surfer Frankie. But not really… it’s all been a publicity stunt by her PR agent ‘Bullets’. Sugar is played by lovely Linda Evans, right before she landed on TV’s THE BIG VALLEY, and ‘Bullets’ is none other than the fantastically sarcastic Paul Lynde. But wait… Eric Von Zipper (Harvey Lembeck) and his motley crew have spied Sugar, and the Head Rat immediately declares she’s “nifty”, and Sugar replaces his idol, “Marlo Brandon”.

Frankie wants to try skydiving, and so does Dee Dee (our girl Annette, for those unfamiliar with the series), but macho Frank thinks a woman’s place is in the kitchen. The gang heads to Big Drop’s Skydiving school, run by ‘Mr. Warmth’, the late, great Don Rickles . Instructors Steve and Bonnie (real-life husband and wife John Ashley and the delectable Deborah Walley ) cause romantic complications for Frankie and Dee Dee, because that’s just the way things go in these films. Meanwhile, big goofy Bonehead ( Jody McCrea ) opts out of the skydiving scene, and winds up meeting and falling in love with Lorelei the mermaid, played by marvy Marta Kristen (LOST IN SPACE’s Judy Robinson).

Things get real (or about as real as they can in a drive-in flick) when Von Zipper kidnaps Sugar, only to be snatched from him by his no-goodnik pool hall pal South Dakota Slim (the one and only Timothy Carey !). Slim takes her to his “bubby” house (he calls everyone “bubby”) and ties her to a buzzsaw, resulting in a silent-film style slapstick ending straight outta THE PERILS OF PAULINE. That ending, along with other comic bits, was devised by Keaton, who’s Big Drop’s “assistant”, and it’s obviously the comedy master’s handiwork. Buster has some wonderful sight gags spread throughout the film, like having troubles casting his fishing line in the surf, chasing (and chased by) Bobbi Shaw along the seascape, doing his own crazy version of the watusi, and hanging from a tree limb during the sped-up race to Slim’s sawmill. Buster Keaton still did his own stunts here at age 69, and his dedication to his comic craft, even in a low-budget teen movie like this, is a testament to his considerable talents.

Lynde and Rickles each get to showcase their own comic personas, with Rickles doing some of his stand-up insult comedy while emceeing Sugar’s singing performance, and it’s one of the movie’s comic highlights (Don to Frankie: “You’re 43, Frank! You’re old!”). Donna Loren returns to sing “It Only Hurts When I Cry”, surf rockers The Hondells appear, and even Lembeck and his Rats get a musical number, “Follow Your Leader”. Famed (at the time) columnist Earl Wilson plays himself, 1964’s Playmate of the Year Donna Michelle is one of the surfer girls, and Michael Nader (later Evans’ costar on DYNASTY) is Frankie’s pal Butch. BEACH BLANKET BINGO is perfect for a hot summer night when you’re looking for some mindless laughs, with a bevy of beauties, harmless musical interludes, and some fine comedy from Lynde, Rickles, and especially Buster Keaton. Kowabunga!

 

%d bloggers like this: