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:

She Was Never Lovelier: Rita Hayworth in COVER GIRL (Columbia 1944)

Bright, bold, and bouncy, COVER GIRL was a breakthrough film for both Rita Hayworth and Gene Kelly. Sultry, redheaded Rita had been kicking around Hollywood for ten years before Columbia Pictures gave her this star-making vehicle, while Kelly, on loan from MGM, was given free rein to create the memorable dance sequences. Throw in the comedic talents of Phil Silvers   and Eve Arden , plus a bevy of beauties and songs by Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin, and you have what very well may be the quintessential 40’s musical.

Rusty Parker (Rita) is a hoofer at Danny McGuire’s (Kelly) joint in Brooklyn (where else?). She enters a contest sponsored by Vanity Magazine to find a new cover girl for their 50th anniversary issue. Editor John Coudair ( Otto Kruger ) spots her and is reminded of the girl he once loved and lost (who turns out to have been Rusty’s grandmother, as flashbacks tell us), and immediately signs her up, despite protests from his Gal Friday “Stonewall” Jackson (Arden). Romantic complications ensue when Broadway impresario Noah Wheaton ( Lee Bowman ) falls for her and wants to take her away from Danny. After speaking with Coudair, Danny doesn’t want to stand in her way, and concocts a rift between them so Rusty will quit his nightclub. Wheaton is about to marry Rusty, but Danny’s loyal pal Genius (Silvers) finds a means to put a stop to it. Rusty realizes she belongs with Danny, and our two lovers are reunited.

Yes, it’s your standard “boy meets girl/boy loses girl/boy regains girl” plotline, used as a framework to hang the musical numbers on, but done with buckets full of style and glamour. At long last, Rita Hayworth became a superstar after being groomed in films like THE STRAWBERRY BLONDE, BLOOD & SAND, and two with Fred Astaire (YOU’LL NEVER GET RICH, YOU WERE NEVER LOVELIER) that showcased her dancing skills. Her beauty and charms were put front and center in COVER GIRL (though her singing voice was dubbed by Martha Mears), in numbers like “Put Me to the Test”, an energetic, athletic tap duet with Kelly; “Long Ago (and Far Away)”, the Oscar-nominated song featuring a romantic dance by the duo; and the showstopping “Cover Girl”, with a host of cover girls from famous mags from the 40’s (Cosmo, McCall’s, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Glamour, Redbook, Liberty, Look, et al) followed by gorgeous Rita outshining them all, dancing with a male chorus up a winding staircase as glitter rains down on them all. It’s sheer 40’s movie magic!

Gene Kelly had only made three pictures prior to COVER GIRL, but he was already an established Broadway star. Columbia promised him a free hand in the film’s choreography, and Kelly didn’t disappoint. He, Rita, and Silvers have a habit (in the movie) of going to Joe’s Place every Friday and ordering plates of oysters (or “ersters” as proprietor Ed Brophy calls them, laying on the Brooklynese thick), looking for an elusive pearl that will symbolize a big breaks a’comin’. The trio then break into “Make Way for Tomorrow”, a happy number that has them dancing their way down the streets of Brooklyn, until meeting up with a questioning cop (foreshadowing Kelly’s signature SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN dance). The song is reprised by Kelly and Silvers as a jazzy comic number, but Kelly has a big solo spot in the “Alter-Ego Dance”, a trick-photography enhanced production that finds Kelly, beside himself over Rita, dancing with his superimposed self! It was this athletic dance that made his home studio MGM sit up and take notice, leading to Kelly doing all the choreography in his films, beginning with ANCHORS AWEIGH .

If Rita Hayworth was never lovelier here, then Eve Arden was never funnier as the sarcastic, wisecracking Jackson. Her reactions to Rita’s first “animated” audition are priceless, as are her later responses backstage at Danny’s. Phil Silvers is given plenty of comic material as Genius, including a satirical solo song “Who’s Complaining”, spoofing wartime rationing. Phil’s manic comedy brightens the film, and he gets to show off his song-and-dance skills too, with more than a little help from Kelly and Hayworth.

The stylish and terribly underrated director Charles Vidor directs a witty script  (laced with some sly sexual innuendos) by Virginia Van Upp. Vidor would later go on to direct Rita in two of her best, GILDA and THE LOVES OF CARMEN. And you want Familiar Faces, COVER GIRL has ’em by the score! Besides those already mentioned, you’ve got Jess Barker (as the young Kruger during the flashback scenes), Billy Benedict Curt Bois , Leslie Brooks, Stanley Clements, Anita Colby , Jinx Falkenburg (as herself), Thurston Hall , Milton Kibbee, perennial drunk Jack Norton Barbara Pepper , Jack Rice, John Tyrrell, a very young Shelley Winters , and Constance Worth.

COVER GIRL exudes the kind of  Hollywood glitz and glamour you rarely find anymore, made stars out of Rita Hayworth and Gene Kelly, and is one of the best musicals made in the Fabulous 40’s. Loaded with talent at every position, it’s a must-see for lovers of classic movies.

Something Funny Going On: IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD (United Artists 1963)

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If I was forced to make a list of Top Ten favorite movies, IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD would definitely make the cut. Featuring a veritable Who’s Who of comedy, this film (like The Dirty Dozen) has been often imitated, but never duplicated. TCM ran it in prime time last night, and after watching the horrors unfolding in Paris on the news channels, I figured I could use a good laugh. IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD never fails to disappoint in that department!

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The plot is simple: a car goes flying off the road and crashes. Four parties get out of their vehicles to inspect the scene. The dying driver, Smiler Grogan (Jimmy Durante) tells them about $350,000 in cash buried in Santa Rosita Park “under the Big W”, then kicks the bucket (literally). The four parties decide to find the dough and split it, but greed gets the best of them and the race is on! Unbeknownst to them all is they’re being watched by Captain Culpepper (Spencer Tracy), who has reasons of his own to find the hidden loot. From there, we go to a series of comedic incidents as each seperate party gets caught in slapstick situations on their way to claim the money for themselves:

Title: IT'S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD ¥ Pers: ADAMS, EDIE / CAESAR, SID / ADAMS, EDIE / CAESAR, SID ¥ Year: 1963 ¥ Dir: KRAMER, STANLEY ¥ Ref: ITS003BP ¥ Credit: [ UNITED ARTISTS / THE KOBAL COLLECTION ]
Title: IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD ¥ Pers: ADAMS, EDIE / CAESAR, SID / ADAMS, EDIE / CAESAR, SID ¥ Year: 1963 ¥ Dir: KRAMER, STANLEY ¥ Ref: ITS003BP ¥ Credit: [ UNITED ARTISTS / THE KOBAL COLLECTION ]
Dentist Melville Crump and wife Monica (Sid Caesar, Edie Adams) take a harrowing ride on a dilapidated bi-plane to get ahead of the game. They get themselves locked in a hardware store basement while trying to get picks and shovels, and wind up having to blast their way out with “a little” dynamite.

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Buddies Benji and Dingy (Buddy Hackett, Mickey Rooney), having been beaten to the plane rental by the Crumps, make their way to an airport and rent a ride from a drunken millionaire (Jim Backus) who promptly passes out, causing the pair to learn to pilot the plane on the fly, with help from tower control veteran Colonel Wilberforce (Paul Ford).

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J. Russel Finch (Milton Berle), travelling with his wife Emmaline (Dorothy Provine) and shrewish mother-in-law Mrs. Marcus (Ethel Merman), after their car is totalled by trucker Pike (Jonathan Winters), hook up with Englishman Algernon Hawthorne (Terry-Thomas). After the loudmouthed Mrs. Marcus is “assaulted” and stranded by Finch and Hawthorne, she calls in her son, dimwitted surfer and all around mama’s boy Sylvester (Dick Shawn).

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Pike is forced to ride down the highway on “a girl’s bike”, until he comes across Otto Meyer (Phil Silvers).  Meyer leaves the hulking Pike stranded after learning about the treasure, and when Pike catches up to him at a gas station, Meyer tells the attendants (Arnold Stang, Marvin Kaplan) Pike’s an escaped lunatic. The proprietors attempt to restrain Pike, who angrily demolishes their gas station!

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Meanwhile, Meyer gets stuck in a ravine after giving an Indian a lift. His car destroyed, he flags down a driver (Don Knotts) and tells the man he’s a spy on the run, stealing his car in the process.

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Everyone makes it to the park and search for the Big W, including a couple of cab drivers (Peter Falk, Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson). Pike chases after the conniving Meyer, and spots the Big W (a cluster of four curved palm trees). The group digs, digs, digs, finally hitting upon Smiler’s stolen money. Culpepper shows up and tells the group he’s confiscating the cash, urging them all to turn themselves in. They agree, but when Culpepper takes a turn off the route to the police station, they realize he’s grabbing the ill-gotten gains for himself, and the chase is on again!

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Spencer Tracy mugs it up with the best of the comics as Culpepper. All of these seasoned pros are on their game, but for me Ethel Merman steals the show as the obnoxious Mrs. Marcus. Producer/Director Stanley Kramer pulled out all the stops for this zany epic, and hired the best of Hollywood’s funnymen in small roles and cameos. (I’ll list a few at the end of this post). IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD is just what the doctor ordered to take away a case of the blues, for three hours anyway. As for me, I’m off to a stage performance of DRACULA tonight, but will return tomorrow to look at a darker cinematic gem: 1947’s NIGHTMARE ALLEY.

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PARTIAL LIST OF COSTARS:

CLEANING OUT THE DVR Pt 2: Five Films From Five Decades

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Well, it’s time once again to get rid of some movies on my DVR so I can make room for more movies! Last night I had myself a mini-movie marathon watching four in a row (the fifth I’d already screened and jotted down some notes on it). So here, for your education and edification, are five films from five decades:

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THE RETURN OF DR. X (Warner Brothers 1939; director Vincent Sherman)

Despite the title, this is not a sequel to 1932’s DOCTOR X starring Lionel Atwill. This one’s all about a reporter (Wayne Morris) and a doctor (Dennis Morgan) investigating a string of murders where the bodies have been drained of blood. Humphrey Bogart plays Dr. Quesne, alias the mad Dr. X, in pasty white make-up and a streak of white in his hair. Seems he’s been brought back from the dead by Dr. Flegg (John Litel) after being electrocuted and now needs human blood to survive. It’s no wonder Bogie hated this film, playing a role more suitable for Bela Lugosi in his Monogram days. Fun Fact: Dead End Kid/Bowery Boy Huntz Hall plays newsroom boy Pinky in a rare solo appearance.

Continue reading “CLEANING OUT THE DVR Pt 2: Five Films From Five Decades”

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