Fun on the Way to the Forum

DATELINE: Musical Farce

 Mythic Comic Competition: Zero & Phil Silvers

 Notable composer and writer Stephen Sondheim has always been of two worlds: his high-falutin’ musicals, and his low-brow musicals.  He started out writingTopperfor TV about ghosts in a sit-com—and he wound up as one of the most celebrated of American Broadway composers of A Little Night Music and Sunday in the Park with George.

We prefer low-brow this time.

We took a look again, years later, of his 1966 low-brow story: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Those who saw it on Broadway are a dying breed, thank heavens, because they always complained the stage version was longer, contained better songs, and was a work of genius.


The movie was directed by Richard Lester in a style that won converts after A Hard Day’s Night.His frenetic pace and visual burlesque moments are right out of slapstick in ancient Rome.

However, the film is monumental because Zero Mostel recreated his stage performance. Well, it is not exactly a performance. Mostel chews up scenery and  mugs in such a way that defies anything resembling acting. This is a happening. It is beyond, way beyond, perhaps the Twilight Zone goes to the Forum. He is matched by Sgt. Bilko, Phil Silvers in an equally stunning screen travesty.

They are marvelous and will certainly dismiss anyone thinking this could have occurred on Broadway. Throw in Jack Gilford and Patricia Jessel as the shrew harridan of all-time, and Michael Herndon’s seminal browbeat husband grows all the more impressive.

The four stars dance along the aqueduct. Buster Keaton only shows up for cameos and the surprise ending.


The leering sexuality is of another age, but that is burlesque, friends.

If ever Broadway musicals were to be staged with perfect segues between action and music, this film accomplishes it.

We recalled it was a show and a half, but it has lost nothing and gained mythic proportions. If you have never seen it, you must stream it now. A comedy tonight indeed.

Bronson’s Land

DATELINE: Death Wish Out West

By 1971, Charles Bronson began to make the revenge picture his personal genre.

It’s also the year he met Michael Winner who became his John Ford, shaping a series of films, hardly great but full of fury and impact.

The first was a Western done in Spain called Chato’s Land. You might think it’s a spaghetti Western, but it is something far more American: a metaphor for pointless commitment to deathly war and racist attitudes.

It’s not a classic by any means, but it borrows from American classics and thus becomes part of the derivation formula. It seems to take its cue from The Ox Bow Incidnt, made thirty years earlier: a dour Henry Fonda picture about a lynch mob that hangs anyone it can put its hands on. It was led by a fool in a Confederate uniform of past glory.

This time it’s Jack Palance donning the Confederate officer garb—and leading an all-star gang of terrible Western settlers who want to hang a “half-breed” who has killed the town sheriff.

The cast will bowl you over: there’ Ralph Waite as the worst of the worst before he became Daddy Walton.

There’s Simon Oakland and Richard Jordan as his brothers. You will also be treated to James Whitmore and Richard Basehart as older men who should know better.

Charles Bronson turns the tables. And when he goes into full loincloth mode, his body puts body builders to shame. He was pushing sixty, said some, when he did this film. He claimed to be fifty.

There is a death wish pick off, one by one, of rapists and mayhem’s henchmen. Michael Winner wallows in rape and cruelty—and it would become worse over the next decade. Yet, this film is sharply in focus, however cruel, and it started the revenge movie in the urban jungle, starting in the American West.




Sondheim Can Name That Tune in One Note

DATELINE: Musical Knowledge


You cannot have a portrait of Stephen Sondheim, the legendary Broadway fixture, unless it is clever to match his razor wit and verbal acuity. Six by Sondheim is a treat. He is far more knowledgeable than the Ol’ Professor of Swing Kay Kyser ever was.

The man’s like his musical plays—but this is no intimate picture of the man over his 50-year career. Personal details are lost in his art and verbal acrobatics, like his lyrics. If we wanted to know how and why he wrote the Topper television series in the mid-1950s, there is no answer here.

Instead, the film takes six key Sondheim songs from his vast oeuvre—and it culls dozens of interviews as comments on how and why he did it. Oh, yes, we learn that he was the protégé of Oscar Hammerstein as a boy—which certainly opened doors. He started his musical career at the top—writing lyrics for Leonard Bernstein and West Side Story.

Sondheim flashes his brilliance with rapid cadence and demolishing polish when some interviewer asks him if he is a poet. No, in a nutshell, and he proceeds to explain why writing song lyrics is both harder and more complex, though less dense in message. His works include standard classics like Follies, A Little Night Music, Assassins, Company, and all distinctive, original, and intelligent.

We do learn that actors love Sondheim because his lyrics come from the character—and need to be acted, more than sung. Taking “Send in the Clowns,” his most famous song, as an example. There can be no doubt that Sondheim knows what he is doing and how to do it.

He’s worked with some of the greats of theater—as an equal, if not a superior. If you want to know how fulfilling being an artist can be, this is your film. If you want to know about the coy lyricist, you may have to start mining his seldom autobiographical words and music.

James Lapine directed this important documentary about a key literary figure in America in the latter half of the 20th century—and that is no exaggeration.