Man, this is one weird-assed film. I saw it once, twenty-five or more years ago, late, late, late at night, and I was never entirely sure I was remembering it right. Perhaps a decade after that, I was talking to my shrink at the time, and he said, “Hey, you know a lot about weird old movies. Let me ask you this: there was a movie I once saw that had Jonathan Winters in it playing two charac…”
“Was it ‘The Loved One’ or ‘The Loved Ones’ or something like that?”
“YES! Wow! I saw the movie twenty years ago, and I’ve been asking people about it all this time, but you’re the first person who’s ever heard of it. It’s the strangest movie I ever saw.”
Well, it’s nowhere *near* the strangest film I ever saw, but I stumbled by a little of it on AMC five or ten years ago, and I was still pretty impressed by how weird it was. Only watched about 20 minutes, though. Came in the middle, y’know. Irritating.
I decided to actually rent it, just to see if it really was as odd as I remembered, and you know what? It really kinda’ was.
PLAY BY PLAY
Try to keep up: British Dennis Barlowe (played by Robert Morse, an American who’s given full voice-over dubbing that never quite works) wins a ticket to the US because he happens to be seeing his (ex) girlfriend off at the airport, and she’s the 10 millionth person to leave. They give him his choice of a free ticket to Bangladesh, or LA, and he figures “What the hell” and goes for LA. One there, he immediately runs afoul of a customs agent (James Coburn). Dennis explains that his only source of income is spankin’ it for sperm banks, and Coburn is perfectly cool with that, but he views him with shame and derision and distrust when Dennis says that what he really wants to be is a poet.
Dennis goes to see his uncle (John Gielgud), who has a somewhat unclear job at a movie studio. He used to be an actor, he *appears* to be a set designer/voice coach at the moment, though it‘s not entirely clear what his job is. He seems to have only ever wanted to be a painter. Also, the character is pretty clearly gay. Nobody seems to care. Gielgud and Henry Glenworthy (Jonathan Winters) are attempting to pitch a totally halfassed idea to the studio boss, J.D. Jr (Roddy McDowell): Basically they want to take the studio’s biggest cowboy star, Dusty Acres (Played by Robert Easton doing a particularly doped-up Pat Boone impression), and rehabilitate him as a “Humanized” knockoff of James Bond.
JD: “Do you think you could do the [British] accent?”
Dusty: “I reckon I could if’n I snuck up on it real quiet-like from behind.”
(A quick aside: Dusty’s line is perhaps the funniest thing I’ve ever heard in a movie with the inexplicably hilarious exception of the ‘Blazing Saddles’ bit about ‘I’m payin’ you boys to get a little track laid, not to be jumpin’ around like a buncha’ Kansas City F____ots.” Seriously: EVERYONE I know - even some gay folks - find that probably the funniest line ever committed to film, and no one can really explain why. Dusty’s line is a close second, and I’ve been quoting it for a quarter century now. It never fails to get a laugh. It is, alas, not in the movie. I don’t know where I got it from, I assume it was the product of seeing the movie only once at 3AM, while stressed out and sleep deprived from finals week or something. In any event, the actual line is something like ‘I reckon I could if I snuck up on it,” which, as delivered in the film, is still pretty funny, but my misremembered line is way better.)
This is an amazingly stupid idea all around, but the studio boss loves it. Dennis moves in with his once-upon-a-time rich uncle who has, alas, fallen on hard times. He lives in what was a sort of Hollywood Fantasyland version of an English cottage that is now, alas, 30 years past its prime and going to seed. (Can’t even keep the swimming pool filled). Dennis takes odd jobs, while the Bond Knockoff picture is ankled, and Gielgud is fired.
Gielgud: “There seems to have been some kind of a mistake. I went to my office and there was somebody else in there. His name seemed to be ‘Lorenzo Medici’”
J.D. Jr: “Yeah, but he pronounces it ‘Medi-see.’ When you say it, it makes him sound like a WOP.”
Cast aside after 36 years with the studio, Gielgud hangs himself from his diving board. Now, thirty minutes into the film, the story actually starts.
Firstly, Henry calls his brother Wilbur (Also Jonathan Winters) and begs him for a job, since he’s basically dead to the studio. Wilbur agrees, “But if you breathe one word about my connection with that place, I’ll kill you.”
Secondly, Dennis gets stuck with the job of making funeral arrangements for his uncle. Someone recomends “Whispering Acres,” a huge funeral place in town, where he interrupts Tab Hunter giving a tour (“See those letters? [on the statue] Solid gold. They cost nearly thirty dollars a piece!”) and eventually ends up stupidly agreeing to the most expensive funeral possible so as to impress the woman who’s guiding him around the facility. The woman - Aimee (Anjanette Comer) - just smiles and nods and keeps him totally on the hook while Liberace (Really!) sells the poor sap coffins and suits and whatnot. Dennis ends up having to sell everything his uncle owned to pay for it, and Aimee won’t even tell her his name. Seems that Whispering Glenn is somewhere between a funeral home and a religious cult, with everyone having a near-fanatical devotion to “The Blessed Reverend Wilbur Glenworthy,” and his rambling, incoherent visions of the afterlife and funerary practices (“And I looked and I beheld dozens of baby ducks, and a voice told me ‘Go forth and realize your vision’ and so I went forth and realized….”). Dennis composes a wildly-inappropriate poem for the funeral (“They say that you were hung/with protruding eyeballs and swollen tongue“ and “Painted pink like a whore“), and happens to impress Aimee. She thinks poets are neat, but has no apparent exposure to them. She doesn’t realize, for instance, that the Xanadu Falls portion of the graveyard is named after Coleridge’s poem.
In fact, Aimee is a complete and total innocent, devoted only to her job, The Blessed Reverend, and the head enbalmer, a guy named “Mister Joyboy” (Rod Steiger), and a Newspaper Advice Columnist named “Guru Brahman.” (Played by “Max” from “Heart-to-Heart”) She’s obsessed with death, but in an odd way, mostly because of the permanence it affords. She’s obsessed with the eternal. She’s an odd duck, and Dennis immediately puts the moves on her. This confuses her and her life considerably, since she’s maintained a chaste crush on Mr. Joyboy for years, and he’s clearly enamored of her as well, but both of them are just too weird to really do anything about it.
Dennis, meanwhile, ends up hired by Henry to work at a pet cemetery/funeral parlor which is more-or-less a parody of “Whispering Glens,” and is owned by the Blessed Reverend, though he keeps this secret as it’s beneath his dignity to have the association known.
The rest of the movie is a somewhat belabored, but increasingly weird romantic triangle between Dennis, Aimee, and Joyboy. Highlights include Aimee living in an abandoned house hanging over a cliff in a landslide zone, playing on a swingset that hangs out over nothing. There’s also Dennis attempting to woo her with plagiarize poems (She totally falls for it). Then there’s also a flatly disturbing dinner-date at Joyboy’s house, where we find he lives with his morbidly-obese bed-ridden mother (Ayllene Gibbons, who weighed about 300 lbs at the time), who does nothing but eat.
Meanwhile, Dennis has to keep his job secret from Aimee, as she finds the pet cemetery to be ’disgusting.’ In the most traditionally funny - and self-contained - sequence in the entire film, he goes out to Milton Berle’s house to pick up a dead dog. I tell you, I was nearly crying, I was laughing so hard. It totally doesn’t fit, it’s like a scene from a completely different movie, but it’s hysterical. I can’t do it justice. Just watch it yourself:
Phew. Gimmie a minute.
Anyway: one day a rocket crashes into the funeral parlor, having been built by Gunther, the genius 12-year-old who lives next door. (Played by Paul Williams. Yeah, that’s right, this guy:
Joyboy’s bird dies, and he comes to the pet cemetery to have it buried and recognizes Dennis. On a lark (No pun intended) Dennis decides to use one of Gunther’s rockets to send the dead bird into space (at a special rate) just to see if it’ll work. Of course Aimee attends the funeral, which blows Dennis’ chances, and things spiral out of control.
Meanwhile, The Blessed Reverend realizes that once he’s used up all the land in Whispering Glenn, the funeral business won’t be profitable anymore. He wants to convert it to a huge retirement center (“1200% more profitable, since the turnover in retired people is obviously pretty quick”). The problem is how do they sell people on allowing him to dis-inter their loved ones? “How do we get the stiffs out of the ground.” Since Henry’s rocket nearly killed Wilbur, the Rev hits on the idea of hiring Gunther and blasting the dead into ’eternal orbits’ about the earth. He bribes the military into letting him do this with (live) hookers in coffins, and Lee Liberace (Also alive) in a coffin just in case any of the military guys swing that way.
They decide the first person they should launch should be important, and settle on a dead American astronaut named “Condor” Blodgett. Of course in order to pull this off, they need to get his widow to agree. Mrs. Blodget is a rather saggy-looking stripper (Barbara Nichols) who agrees provided Dennis has sex with her. He takes one for the team, but is clearly not too thrilled about it. She’s pushing 40. It turns out that her husband actually died falling off a barstool at the very place she works. “And then they tried to blame it on me!”
Things fall apart quickly: Joyboy is a wreck of a human being, totally subject to his creepy mother (Who keeps eating when a refrigerator falls on her at one point), and Aimee can’t pretend to love him. She refuses to have anything to do with Dennis, so he blabs that the Blessed Reverend is just a businessman who’s gonna’ dig up all the dead and shoot ‘em into space. In terror, she physically tracks down the Guru Brahman, who turns out not to be a wise Indian mystic, but just a very drunk Max from Heart to Heart. He’s sick of her continual letters to the column asking for advice, and suggests she kill herself. He’s pretty drunk and joking, but it’s still mean. She heads back to Whispering Glenn and meets The Blessed Reverend who not only confirms what Dennis said, but reveals that the statues in his office are actually pornographic audioanimatrons, and attempts to rape her. Betrayed by everything in her life, Aimee goes into the morgue and embalms herself to death.
Joyboy finds her body, and is terrified. He calls Dennis and suggests they just chuck her in the furnace at the pet cemetery. Dennis offers to clean it all up, but only in exchange for a substantial bribe amounting to all the money Joyboy has in the world (Including the money he’d been saving up to get Mama “A really big bathtub” so he doesn’t have to sponge bathe her anymore). Reluctantly, Joyboy agrees. Dennis swaps out the body of “Condor” Blodgett in the coffin for Aimee’s body.
As the news covers the launch of America’s first corpse into space, Dennis gets on an airliner bound back for Britain.
Firstly: Is this movie Science Fiction? Well, only accidentally. It deals with people doing stuff in space that didn’t really happen, and wouldn’t really happen, but is at least theoretically plausible. (Set the story 100 years in the future, change nothing else, and nobody would think twice about it) That’s definitely not their goal, they’re just taking swipes at ‘60s stuff, but it’s what they ended up with.
For those who don’t have a lot of exposure to such things, this is what’s called a “Black Comedy.” That means it’s not particularly funny-ha-ha, but it is pretty funny in concept, and it’s in a generally grim humor throughout, and generally making fun of something that people don‘t like to talk about. “Doctor Strangelove” is probably the best black comedy ever.
This is a gorgeous movie to watch. As you saw in the Milton Berle clip above, it’s just beautiful black and white, with really solid, deep blacks, nice shot composition, nice flow, nice use of mostly-practical sets. It’s a bit Kubricky in some places. Haskel Wexler did the cinematography, and it’s just a beautiful film to watch. This is made more remarkable by the fact that most of it is obviously shot on Ariflex cameras. They were hand-held 35mm dealies that weren’t particularly stable, and had no sound. If you wondered why most of this movie feels a bit like an Italian film, it’s because nearly every bit of dialog had to be dubbed in later. It doesn’t matter, though: watch it with the sound turned down, it’s just beautiful to watch. But the camera is just so free, and there are so many open tracking shots, it’s hard not to go ‘wow!’ compared to movies of the period. Wexler is still working, by the way. He’s got a movie coming out this year.
I think it falls down a bit in the editing. Several scenes are rather choppy, particularly ones early on that take place in the movie studio Gielgud works at. It’s better later on in the movie when it’s mostly following Dennis, Joyboy, and Aimee around, but in the cameo and Jonathan Winters scenes, it’s a bit slapdash, and sometimes distractingly so. Here’s what I take that to mean:
The movie has a HUGE dream cast, but it obviously had a very low budget, and the ‘name’ actors clearly were only on hand for a day or so. Their individual scenes were obviously shot in a block, and edited in later. Roddy McDowell, for instance, has several scenes (All of ‘em good. Did Roddy *ever* turn in a bad performance?), but all of ‘em take place in one office. Liberace has an extended sequence, and another appearance later in the film (Again, surprisingly good. He’s not a great actor, but he had a sadly-unexplored creep factor onscreen), both obviously filmed on the same day. (Same suit, same set, etc) The Milton Berle sequence above is utterly disconnected from the rest of the film. I take this to mean these actors weren’t available for retakes, and they either had to go with what they got on the shooting day, or they were screwed.
Even Jonathan Winters isn’t in all that much of the film, surprisingly. And, yes, his scenes do feel a bit disconnected from the rest of it, even though he *does* interact with most of the main characters, and several of the ‘name’ ones. An unsung gag in the film is that though the Brothers Glennworthy are identical twins, (A) no one ever comments on this and (B) The Blessed Reverend is at least ten years older than his twin, Henry. No, I don’t get it either, but it is funny. Again: not ha-ha funny, but funny just the same.
Most of the sets in the film are practical, again suggesting a very low budget. I’ve seen Gielgud’s cottage home elsewhere, but it’s obviously a real home from the 1930s built for some eccentric. Some of the Whispering Glenn sequences were filmed at Forrest Lawn, and various other LA parks. Aimee’s home is obviously a *real* construction site overlooking the city. The Berle house is a real house, obviously, and I assume they didn’t even bother to change the decoration for the clip above. It has that spare, googie-segueing-into-mod ritzy feel. I don’t know where the Whispering Glenn building sequences were filmed, but probably some huge mansion somewhere. Again, the Ariflex cameras and the great cinematography make beautiful use of this.
Alas, at two hours and one minute, this film is about 31 minutes too long. Many scenes could use a trim, and the love triangle isn’t what you’d call compelling. We get much too much of that, and it begins to feel padded out in the second half. When we finally get to plot points, like the Blessed Reverend’s business plans, you’ve kind of forgotten Winters is in the film, and it feels tacked on. It’s not, it’s central to the plot, but, y’see, with all that arteriosclerotic lovey-dovey stuff gumming up the narrative…well.
Another problem is that we’re thirty minutes into the film before we actually hit the real subject matter, *but* the most traditionally funny, most entertaining aspects of the film take place at the studio in the first half hour, which makes it feel disconnected from the second half (Indeed, the first act is pretty much self-contained, and only barely intersects with the next 90 minutes, and *then* only trough one character - Henry). Again, this is a problem of trying to work in all the extended cameos.
Anjanette Comer plays Aimee in a style that can best be described as ‘anticipating Julie Haggerty.’ She handles it in a naïve, somewhat-but-not-quite blessed out kind of way, and a somewhat flat affect. It should be annoying, but it’s not. She’s very pretty, but they hide that for most of the film. Interestingly, the less reserved and clerical she becomes, the more *human* she becomes, the less stable she is. The implication is that her devotion to her job, boss, swami, and whatnot, are all that keep her stable. Dennis injecting himself unwanted in her life with his overtly sexual intentions is basically what kills her in the end. He does feel some guilt about this, but I don’t think he fully understands it.
Besides the above, there’s some odd sexual stuff going on in this film. There’s a lot of gay folks on the cast - Gielgud, Liberace, Roddy McDowell, Tab Hunter, etc, - not to mention guys who’s comedic career involved a lot of cross-dressing - Berle, Winters - and were hence gay icons despite being straight. Even he-man straight arrow Rod Steiger is uncomfortably gayed up as a fat, presumably compulsively-masturbating middle-aged mama’s boy/virgin who *may* be in love with Aimee, but may simply feel getting a wife is an obligation to his mama. Let’s put it this way: Mr. Joyboy is likely confused. Certainly at the end he seems more upset for what Aimee’s death will do to his job and his boss than he is over the loss of the love of his life.
In any event, I don’t know what to make of all this gay stuff, particularly since (Unlike just about any other mid-60s film you can name), Gielgud and Liberace are pretty clearly playing characters who are intended to be gay. Is there a theme to this? Is it a commentary on the funeral industry? Or was everyone just hanging out at a party at McDowells house when someone walked in and told them about this film. “Hey, that’d be fun! Let’s do it!” Gielgud’s performance, by the way, isn’t one of his strongest, but it’s very good, and he conveys a lot with very little effort. His heartbreak is palpable, despite him not really doing anything to telegraph it, and the painting subplot is bittersweet. When he kills himself, the movie loses a wheel, and never quite recovers. Beyond the gay stuff, there’s the Blessed Reverend’s secretly pornographic office and Mother Joyboy apparently orgasming when thinking of food. It’s just icky.
Still and all: an interesting film and well worth a watch, assuming you’re fairly thick skinned, and a fan of 60s stuff. It’s extra interesting if you like cinematography.
Though he appears 12 or so, Paul Williams is actually 25 in this movie!
WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS FILM?
Oh, gosh no! It was billed at the time as “The Movie with Something to Offend Everyone.” I don’t think it’s really got that, but it *is* pretty offensive.