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Tuesday, 5 October 2010

The Busy Body (1967)

Director: William Castle
Stars: Sid Caesar, Robert Ryan, Anne Baxter, Kay Medford, Jan Murray, Richard Pryor, Arlene Golonka and Charles McGraw

The William Castle movies I keep finding continue to surprise, but not always in good ways. This one is another comedy, appearing after a string of five of his sixties horror movies, but I use the word lightly because this can't raise laughs on the level of 13 Frightened Girls, let alone Zotz! It plays out like a TV movie, so much so that it's surprising when it really sinks in that there are no commercial breaks. The cast are TV actors, with a few classic movie stars added in to boost the credits. The TV names are mostly at the beginning of their careers, in the case of Richard Pryor actually debuting on film, but the movie folks are close to the end of theirs. The sets are TV sets, complete with walls that move when characters climb out of windows, which happens a lot. Most of all, the tone is a TV tone, mildly risqué in the way that only New York Jewish comedians writing for network TV could be. It kept my attention but it did precisely nothing else. It was just there.

The story is the usual one of an average Joe caught up in wild circumstances. Here that's George Norton, who is notable because he has class. Given that he's the guy who brings the boss lunch and he's played by Sid Caesar, you can imagine how much class that really amounts to, but the boss thinks he's great and the boss is a really important boss. Officially this unnamed company sells wax fruit but really it's The Mob and Charley Barker runs it in the able form of Robert Ryan, slumming it in between The Professionals and The Dirty Dozen. Perhaps because the hoods who sit on the board wouldn't know class if it slapped them in the face, Barker is fond of George who brings him mustard on the side, dresses in sharkskin suits and opens the door for him. So this everyday schmuck gets a seat on the board too, making his scarily stereotypical Jewish mother proud. She rings him in the boardroom to congratulate him and to check his underwear.

Yes, that's the level of humour we're at here. Barker's entreatment to his men to improve their appearance is a great example: 'You guys have got to learn class or I'll kick your teeth in!' Sid Caesar is the constant but he doesn't try in the slightest to elevate the material, however much class he's supposed to have. George is that bizarre combination of inept comic hero who does everything wrong, capable comic hero who escapes every awkward situation only to find himself in another one, and somehow endearing enough ladies' man for widows to throw themselves at him. One even explains it to him: 'You have that kind of adorable lost look that women adore.' He needs it, given that he screws up immediately. When board member Archie Brody blows himself up in a barbecue accident, George selects the man's blue suit for him to be buried in. Unfortunately, unbenownst to him, it contains a million bucks in cash sewn into the seams.

What follows is a set of madcap adventures in which George tries to recover the money before Charley Barker gets upset to the degree that mob bosses tend to get at the drop of a hat. We've all seen Joe Pesci, right? Well, Robert Ryan is more than capable of matching that, or at least the 1967 network TV equivalent, but he restrains himself and lets George look for the money. The story comes from a novel by Donald E Westlake, who was far better represented on film by the next take on his work, John Boorman's Point Blank, but it was adapted by Ben Starr, a TV writer who would make his name with Diff'rent Strokes, Silver Spoons and The Facts of Life. Westlake could be as funny as he could be serious and there are good moments that come from a mix of the two, as Caesar plays the whole thing straight, but those good moments aren't too plentiful. More come from the plot twists but they go overboard to make the story needlessly convoluted.

In the end what we stay watching for are actors we recognise put into wacky situations and they don't tend to pan out too well, even though most of them were comedians before they were ever actors. Richard Pryor's debut performance on film is as a cop at a cop's funeral in which George finds himself stuck among the pallbearers. Officer Muldoon was crushed to death in a stampede at a movie premiere. 'We're sure going to miss Muldoon,' Pryor says, and his career could only go uphill from there. I should mention that by 'actors we recognise', I mean 'actors that American TV audiences recognise' because I don't know many of them but my wife could name them all. Jan Murray gets to stand behind curtains a lot in purple suede shoes. Ben Blue faints whenever he's nervous, which is pretty much all the time, including four instances in a single scene. Arlene Golonka gets to put on a boom boom dance for George. All these are American TV regulars.
Dom DeLuise gets the best of the supporting roles as Kurt Brock, a hairdresser turned assistant mortician who gets fired the day before his boss is murdered. In a film where the entire storyline revolves around a missing corpse, it's DeLuise who gets perhaps the only real William Castle moment, as Brock gets upset at George's questions in his apartment and threatens him with a knife to prompt him to leave. He returns just as quickly because he can't believe he ran from a hairdresser, only to find Brock with a cleaver in his back. While The Busy Body is capably shot from beginning to end, there's nothing that stands out at all except perhaps a few moments of this scene. I'd have expected William Castle to have fun with all the corpses, but if anything they're the worst thing in the movie. They crop up a lot but they're obviously store mannequins that nobody seems able to recognise as such. Women talk to them. Men take them for rides.

Perhaps being forced to act alongside mannequins without ever letting on does something to an actor's integrity, especially in a comedy. Something must explain why the acting is as capable but insignificant as the camerawork. There are some major names here. Robert Ryan was always solid and the late sixties were good to him. Anne Baxter may have truly believed she only gave one great performance, in The Razor's Edge, as she's been quoted as saying, but better odds say she was just being modest. She overplays Margo Foster Kane with abandon, throwing herself into the role so much that we can't believe a single word she says but, like George, we have to keep on listening, despite her lies continually being exposed. Kay Medford, Oscar nominated for Funny Girl, was always known as a scene stealer and by the time she played George's mum she had perfected it. At the funeral of Archie Brody, she asks his wife if she'll ever barbecue again.

All these actors were closing in on the end of their careers. Robert Ryan, who had the most films left in him, is already looking old. He was a late starter, not making his first picture until he was 31 years of age, but that was in 1940. He'd be dead in six years. Anne Baxter still looks lovely, especially given that she was close to retirement. She was only 44, but she didn't make another movie for four years and only had four more to go. Kay Medford had five more but her greatest role hadn't arrived yet: Funny Girl was the next film she made after this. Yet the youngsters they play alongside were all just starting out. This was Richard Pryor's first film, Dom DeLuise's fourth and even Sid Caesar's fourth, though it came no less than 21 years after the first. He just wasn't known as a film actor, his comedy style somehow not translating well to the big screen, though to be fair he being given roles better than Jerry Lewis knockoffs like this may have helped.

One scene in particular may really demonstrate whether this film is for you or not. George is at the funeral home when he's caught with a murdered mortician. He tries to escape but everyone else there seems to be a cop, given that Officer Muldoon's funeral has just finished, so he hides inside a coffin, about the only place guaranteed to not have a cop in it. Well, in this film it has a cop in it. Wacky hijinx ensue. If the thought of that scene makes you split your sides, you'll get a kick out of The Busy Body and the more attention you pay the more you'll enjoy, but if it sounds awful to you, this film will be awful to you. Maybe it's best described as a stand up sketch acted out by veteran comedians. Maybe it's an hour and a half sitcom without a laughtrack but with some decent sitcom dialogue. 'Archie's gone!' cries George to his widow, who replies, 'Isn't that why we buried him?' It could easily be seen as a pilot for a bad TV show that never happened.

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