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.

Downton Abbey: the Movie!

DATELINE: Moving On Up!

The classic TV series returns with a feature film, and the King and Queen of England are coming to dinner. You too, even a commoner, are invited to be a fly on the wall, which is even lower than the downstairs staff.

If you feel like this was already done, you likely saw Upstairs/Downstairsin some rerun incarnation in which the King came to dinner—and sent the TV show into a tizzy. The Fellowes motion picture of Downton Abbeyis lusher and grander.

The original Downton cast is back and kicking up their idiosyncrasies in the upper and lower chambers.

The man cursed by King Tut, Lord Carnarvan, left his beautiful castle home to serve as a stand-in for noble living, which is still the real star playing the scandal-ridden abbey.

Hugh Bonneville is back—and so are his two rival daughters (Laura Carmichael and Michelle Dockery), but you will be swept back into the luxury by the marvelous suite music that is the theme. The music transports you to another era.

Julian Fellowes, creator, was never totally original, but he manages the materials from dozens of sources to produce an optimistic and pleasant diversion from anything resembling modern life.

All the characters pick right up on the spot: Maggie Smith’s acerbic dowager countess is known even to the Queen for her biting wit. There are polite family feuds brewing beneath the surface of the upper-crust, and sexual peccadilloes are sweating in the downstairs with Barrow (Robert James-Collier)  and his gay feelings for a footman. We see the inside of a 1927 gay bar,

If the entire mess is to be derailed by such shenanigans, it takes Carson the butler(Jim Carter) to come out of retirement to save the day.  The conflicts, as always at Downton, are small and personal. And, we learn in a class society how unimportant we truly are at Downton Abbey.

As expected in British repertory company, the cast is brilliant (even down to American Elizabeth McGovern), but the treat here is the sumptuous production—even grander and more movie-like than the small screen version.

 

 

Man in Orange: Cottage in Oil

DATELINE: Parallel Stories or Tag Teams?

cast that never appears together

Cast actually never appears together.

Not to be confused with dull plotting, Man in an Orange Shirt is a Masterpiece PBS drama.

The film is a complex examination of gay life across 60 years with a focus on two generations: the post-World War II veterans, and the modern 21st century.  If there is any relief here, it is that this is not your typical gay story about randy American teenagers, charging out of closets.

However, the angst spreads over the decades. The older generation keeps a stiff upper lip and sucks in their tears, whereas the contemporary gay men let it all out. The tale is about a gay banker and his artist lover, separated by social convention and a wife in the 1940s. His grandson is also in the closet with a different inability to be monogamous, and never knew about his grandfather.

The stories share Vanessa Redgrave as the difficult grandmother, a painting of the man in an orange shirt, and a remote love-nest cottage, shared by the two divergent generations.

Suffering seems to be hereditary in this tale. Vanessa Redgrave took the role because her father, Michael Redgrave, was gay. She understood the sturm und drang in the script.

The cast includes Redgrave, Julian Sands in the modern tale, with Laura Carmichael (of Downton Abbey), and James McArdle in the past. As always, you have the best actors in the field, unlike American gay casts of beauty pageant boys.

Since England has been about 50 years ahead of the United States on the subject of homosexuality, it seems to have smaller moments of fraught tension. Young men forced themselves into a bisexual mold, whether it fit or not, in the old days.

Today’s gay men must fight to be faithful, and open relationships appear to be compromises that make for overwrought drama.

This is not your teenage gay disco dolly gay movie. Thank heavens.