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.

John Wayne in a Woman’s Picture?

 DATELINE: Duke Takes on Shane’s Girlfriend

not a chance Witless Comedy.

Well, at least John Wayne is not yet in women’s lingerie in 1943. A Lady Takes a Chance is not exactly High Noon. We hate to say it, but don’t leave this film to chance. Just leave it alone.

Jean Arthur was a big star, and John Wayne wanted to be a big star. Despite his accolades and sensational performance in Stagecoach, Duke Wayne needed to cross-over to become super big. So, he even drives a car.

Someone at the studio figured that he needed to widen his audience to include adult women who admired working-class heroine Jean Arthur, the everyday spunky girl of America.

How would John Wayne do with spunky women? You have an early answer here. He treats them like horses. If we recall our Hollywood history: they shoot horses, don’t they?

Among the pallid jokes is to have Duke don an apron, or to watch Jean Arthur try to sleep uncomfortably under the prairie stars.

Yes, this was a time when you went west on a bus. Jean Arthur must ultimately choose between bookish Hans Conreid, paunchy Grady Sutton, or virile John Wayne! Some choice.

Someone failed to plug this movie. Pull the plug, please.

This early misuse of John Wayne is absolutely fascinating as a studio-system miscalculation. Or was it? Then again, we like disaster movies too. We wanted to see Phil Silvers (Sergeant Bilko) with the classic military cowboy.

The only other time we saw John Wayne in a woman’s comedy, he did a guest star role in the 1970s on Maude with the high-shootin’ Bea Arthur. It was a real showdown. Yeah, he outdrew that Golden Girl of cynical womanhood.

Jean Arthur is the queen bee/big star here, hypocritical with her multiple boyfriends in New York, but indignant that Duke Wayne has a few girlfriends from the rodeo circuit. She treated Alan Ladd just as badly in her next Western, Shane, as Brandon de Wilde’s mother.

If producers were aiming for frothy, as in beer suds, most of it stuck to Jean Arthur’s upper lip. Literally.

Bilko Meets Lawrence of Arabia?

DATELINE: Movie Mashup

Bilko

 

Call us astonished when we discovered that there is a movie wherein Sergeant Ernest T. Bilko meets Beau Geste and lands us in an oasis of British comedy about the French Foreign Legion.

Well, it’s something akin to that. It seems when Phil Silvers had his famous Bilko TV series cancelled, he went off to merry old England and made a movie with the Carry On… gang. It was called Follow That Camel and was made in 1967.

In beautiful Technicolor, Silvers shines with his usual schtick. He plays Sgt. Nocker of the French Foreign Legion in 1906. For all purposes, he is Bilko, barking orders the same way he did in his hit show You’ll Never Get Rich.

Oh, his commandant is a German right out of Stalag 17, and there are more belly dancers than you could possibly imagine for Silvers to leer at in the Zig Zag Cafe.

If there was a big difference between the Bilko show and the movie version, it was simply that sexual innuendo was given a free hand. Of course, by today’s standards, Mae West is safe for children. So is Phil Silvers as he sticks his nose into bosoms.

When you dig down deep, there is nothing much to this film except the fun of seeing Phil Silvers continue his personification of a wheeling and dealing con man. He is obsequious to superiors and a shark to others, all hilariously done.

Since Follow That Camel never had a wide distribution to American theaters, we had to find it by accident on Amazon Instant for a nominal fee. Yes, we did feel Bilko had fleeced us by the end of the 90 minutes, but we loved every penny spent.