Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Loved One: The Motion Picture With Something to Offend Everyone

I have often regarded the Sixties as a Golden Age for broad, satirical, and very often irreverent comedies. It was the decade of such films as One, Two, Three (1961), Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964),  What's New, Pussycat? (1965), Morgan – A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966), and The President's Analyst (1967).  These films shared several characteristics among themselves, including a fast pace (the jokes often came fast, furious, and non-stop), very broad comedy (there was sometimes very little subtlety to them), and often very dark humour. What is more, in many of these films it seemed as if no topic was off limits as far as being lampooned.  Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb dealt with nuclear holocaust. The President's Analyst attacked everything from politics to psychoanalysis to the telephone company. Last night Turner Classic Movies showed one of the best of these satires from the Sixties on their series Second Looks: Tony Richardson's The Loved One (1965).

The Loved One was very loosely based on Evelyn Waugh's 1948 satirical novel of the same name.  The Loved One actually owes its existence to another one of Mr. Waugh's novels, Brideshead Revisited. It was in February and March of 1947 that MGM brought Evelyn Waugh and his wife to Hollywood for negotiations for the film rights to Brideshead Revisited. MGM and Evelyn Waugh never came to an agreement over Bridehead Revisited, and it would not be adapted as a feature film until 2008. Mr. Waugh's time in Hollywood would not be entirely wasted, however, as while there he toured Hollywood's famous cemetery, Forest Lawn Memorial Park.  This tour, combined with his other experiences in California, provided the basis for The Loved One, a short novel that lampooned both the American funeral industry and the American film industry. The book not only proved very successful in the United Kingdom, but, much to Evelyn Waugh's chagrin, the United States as well.

With such success it was perhaps natural that The Loved One would eventually be adapted as a feature film. In fact, the novel was very nearly adapted by Luis Buñuel in the Fifties, who even wrote a screenplay with blacklisted writer Hugo Butler (who used the pen name Philip A. Roll for the script).  Nothing ever came of Luis Buñuel's plans for an adaptation of The Loved One,  and eventually the film rights were bought by cinematographer Haskell Wexler and producer John Calley.

In many ways it was perhaps just as well as Luis Buñuel never succeeded in bringing The Loved One to the big screen, as the time seemed to be right in the mid-Sixties for a comedy lampooning the American funeral industry. After all, it was only two years before the release of the film adaptation of The Loved One that Jessica Mitford's controversial exposé on American funeral homes, The American Way of Death, had been published. Miss Mitford's book sent shock waves throughout the American funeral industry and stirred up a good deal of controversy as a result. It ultimately resulted in significant reforms in the American funeral industry. At the same time dark and irreverent comedies had become the fashion on both sides of the Atlantic. After all, it was only in 1961 that Billy Wilder had sent up both the Cold War and Coca-Cola  with One, Two, Three, and only in 1964 that Stanley Kubrick had made light of the atomic bomb with Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. A black comedy about funerals was then very much a part of the Zeitgeist.

To direct their adaptation of The Loved One, producers Haskell Wexler and John Calley brought in Tony Richardson. Tony Richardson was one of Britain's hottest directors at the time, having already directed Look Back in Anger (1959), A Taste of Honey (1961), and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) . His latest film, Tom Jones (1963), was both a financial and critical success. It swept the Oscars, taking awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Writing--Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, and Best Music, Score --Substantially Original. It was largely due to the success of Tom Jones that Tony Richardson was given complete creative control over The Loved One. Tony Richardson's goal in adapting The Loved One was to imbue it with the latest, cutting edge, and often barbed humour while retaining the essential Englishness of Evelyn Waugh's original novel. To provide the Englishness  Mr. Richardson hired English novelist Christopher Isherwood (author of such novels as Goodbye to Berlin and Prater Violet). To provide the biting satire Mr. Richardson hired Terry Southern (author of the novels Candy and The Magic Christian, and the screenwriter of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb).

As might be expected The Loved One drew not only upon Evelyn Waugh's novel, but also upon Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death, while taking its style of black comedy largely from Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. And while much of the plot of the original novel remains, Messrs. Isherwood and Southern added several new subplots not found in the novel. At the same time the satire of the screenplay grew even more outrageous than that of Mr. Waugh's novel. According to Jessica Mitford in her essay "Something to Offend Everyone (the essay is available in Miss Mitford's collection Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Muckraking), the film seemed as if it was offending a number of people before it was even finished. Chief among these was Evelyn Waugh himself, who even went so far as to have his agent draft a letter calling for Tony Richardson to be replaced as the film's director. This request went ignored by MGM and Filmways. Not only was Evelyn Waugh offended, but so apparently was the City of Los Angeles. One of its officials asked that the name "Los Angeles" never be mentioned in the film. The Interment Association of California, still stinging from the publication of The American Way of Death, was understandably nervous about the film.

What in the beginning was an adaptation of a short novel eventually grew into a black comedy film of nearly epic proportions. Christopher Isherwood and Terry Southern expanded considerably upon Evelyn Waugh's novels with several subplots that never appeared in the book. What is more, several cameos would be added that would not only increase the film's running time, but also its budget. Indeed, The Loved One may well have more cameos than any film short of It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963). Appearing in various roles throughout the film are James Coburn, Tab Hunter, Liberace, Robert Morley, Barbara Nichols, Chick Hearn, Bernie Kopell, Lionel Strander, Alan Napier, Reta Shaw, Milton Berle, and even Filmways executive Martin Ransohoff. Surprisingly not every cameo made it into the finished product--both Jayne Mansfield and Ruth Gordon's scenes were cut.

The Loved One was promoted in its posters and its trailers as "The Motion Picture With Something to Offend Everyone.," and at the time it seemed as if had very well succeeded. Reportedly, several MGM executives walked out of the first studio screening of The Loved One in disgust. For the most part critics did not seem to be as offended by The Loved One as some of the top brass at MGM were, but many were not exactly amiable to the film either. Robert Hatch, writing in The Nation, charged that Christopher Isherwood and Terry Southern had "...turned Evelyn Waugh's brief, witty, tough attack upon American mores, as exemplified in the country's funeral rites, into a loose lipped, leering, cute-boys-together campground." The critic for The Hollywood Reporter said of The Loved One that "...its sick, sick message may only be taken to heart and purse by younger audiences." In Variety it was said that The Loved One was " way out--frequently beyond all bounds of propriety in an attempt at brilliance--that its appeal probably will be restricted to circles which like their entertainment weird." Not all critics disliked The Loved One. Pauline Kael wrote of The Loved One, " Although the picture has lost its centre (the poet-played by Robert Morse-has become as quirky and crazy as everybody else), some of the fragments are good and jagged. This botched picture is a triumphant disaster-a sinking ship that makes it to port because everybody on board is too giddy to panic." Arthur Knight of The Saturday Review was even more generous, writing, "The Loved One is gallows humour, which may not be up to everyone's taste. But it is certainly the longest and boldest step up from conventional film fare ever to come from a major American studio." The reaction of audiences at the time to The Loved One may have been far worse than that of any MGM executives or film critics. They stayed away from the film in droves. It came away from the box office with a meagre $2 million.

While critics in 1965 sometimes reviled The Loved One and audiences at the time ignored it, over the years its reputation has improved considerably. Indeed, on paper it seems as if it is a film that should not work. The Loved One is a black comedy based on a work by Evelyn Waugh that adds several more sub-plots to that of the original novel, includes more cameos than any film except perhaps It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, and moves at a clip that would put a Wabash freight train to shame. Yet I think most people who watch the film (at the very least those who love Sixties black comedies) will agree that it does indeed work. Much of this is due to Christopher Isherwood and Terry Southern's script, whose humour hits many more times than it misses. True to the advertisements that The Loved One was "The Motion Picture With Something to Offend Everyone," Messrs. Isherwood and Southern leave very few stones unturned. Not only does The Loved One attack the funeral industry and Hollywood (much as Evelyn Waugh's original novel did), but also religion, Oedipal complexes, overeating, the rich, the military, the space programme, and television among many other things. Even when The Loved One does go off track (which it does from time to time), it remains a very funny and very enjoyable film.

Of course, it is not simply its script that makes The Loved One so enjoyable, but also its sterling cast. Jonathan Winters gives what may be his best performances ever, in the dual roles of the sinister Reverend Wilbur Glenworthy (the owner of  gigantic cemetery and mortuary service Whispering Glades) and his jealous brother Henry (who runs the Happier Hunting Ground, a much less prestigious pet cemetery). Anjanette Comer does a sublime job as the ethereal Aimee Thanatogenous, actually making a girl fascinated by death seem somehow oddly appealing. Besides Jonathan Winters it is perhaps Rod Steiger who gives the film's best performance as Mr. Joyboy. Cast against type as an effete mama's boy and mortician, Mr. Steiger excels in the role. There are those many who think that Robert Morse was miscast as English protagonist Dennis Barlow, but I have to disagree. While his English accent tends to come and go in the film, he plays the role with such sincerity that he is convincing nonetheless.

The Loved One also benefits from Tony Richardson's direction as well as Haskell Wexler's stark black and white cinematography. Watching the film it is rather hard to believe that the two men actually fought for much of the production. While both agreed that they wanted the film shot in high contrast black and white (as it ultimately was), they constantly disagreed on how to go about it. Regardless, it remains one of the best shot monochrome films of the Sixties.

Of course, the obvious question is perhaps whether The Loved One still possesses the same power to shock and offend that it had in 1965. After the number of black comedies that were released in the wake of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and ever since, I rather suspect modern audiences would not find The Loved One nearly as shocking and certainly not as offensive as audiences had in 1965. That having been said, one should not let the fact that The Loved One was released in 1965 fool one into thinking it is a mild walk through the park. The Loved One still packs a punch and in many instances can shock even the most hardened black comedy fan, even those with 21st Century sensibilities. As to being offensive, while I didn't find The Loved One offensive, I have to wonder that many might not still find it so today. After all, the film tips over some cows that are still considered very sacred today.

Rebuked in its day (even by Evelyn Waugh, author of the original novel) and ignored by audiences, The Loved One has become something of a cult film. It is also one that should be regarded as something of a classic. The Loved One holds up quite well when compared to many of the other black comedies of the Sixties and perhaps better than most of them. It is certainly far funnier than much of what passes as comedy today and it is certainly far stronger stuff than much of what is released today. It may no longer be "the Motion Picture With Something to Offend Everyone," but it is still one that will make many people laugh non-stop.

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