Wednesday 17 June 2009

The Loved One (1965)

Director: Tony Richardson
Stars: Robert Morse, Jonathan Winters and Anjanette Comer

I've generally seen most of the films on the cult lists but I hadn't even heard of this 1965 comedy from Tony Richardson and I'm not sure why. It's based on a novel by Evelyn Waugh, it's studded with stars and it subtly blisters as a satire not just on the funeral industry but on America too. We follow a young English poet there after he wins some sort of free ticket and decides to visit his uncle, Sir Francis Hinsley, who works at a movie studio as an artist and in bizarre odd jobs like teaching thick accented cowboy actors how to sound like James Bond. Then again he's played by Sir John Gielgud and if anyone could manage it, he could.

The poet is Dennis Barlow and in the hands of Robert Morse, he's an enthusiastic but inept young man who hasn't worked out what he wants to do in life yet. At least the land of opportunity ought to offer plenty of ideas on the front, but nothing quite works out for him. And then after his uncle gets fired from the studio, as a sort of afterthought after 31 years of service, and promptly hangs himself over his dilapidated swimming pool, young Barlow finds himself at Whispering Glades, a lunatic asylum of a funeral home and wedding parlour.

I should point out that the lunacy is utterly and blissfully dry, even when the casket salesman is played by Liberace, and that's what makes this genius stuff. Whispering Glades is apparently a dream, conjured out of the ether by the Blessed Reverend Dr Wilbur Glenworthy, and the people who work there treat it almost like a holy mission. They don't let the Jews in for a start, and they have a strong ethical code. However this is California, so nothing is remotely what it seems, and I don't just mean the fact that the Eternal Flame comes in both 'standard eternal' and 'perpetual eternal'.

Glenworthy propagates eternity throughout Whispering Glades, to the degree that it's guaranteed to last through fire, earthquake and nuclear fission, but it's all a front. He reports to the board of Glenworthy Enterprises that there's only enough room for another seven years, so then then they need to tear the whole thing down and make a 1200% profit by turning it into a retirement home with a swift turnover of clientele. If only he can find a way to disinter the bodies without, well, disintering them.

Glenworthy also secretly runs the Happy Hunting Grounds, a much seedier equivalent of Whispering Glades for pets. This is where he puts his twin brother to work after he gets fired from the same studio as Sir Francis, and this is where young Barlow finally finds a place that he can stay in a job. Unfortunately for him he falls for Aimee Thanatogenous, one of the cosmeticians at Whispering Glades, who can't even stand the thought of the Happy Hunting Grounds. However she's addicted to his poetry and doesn't have a clue about any of it. When he quotes, 'Shall I compare thee to a summer's day,' she replies, 'Did you just write that?'

He isn't just up against Aimee's adherence to the Blessed Reverend's concept of ethics and the fact that she hates the place at which he works, he has a rival for her affections. And in the most genius casting of this genius film, this rival is Rod Steiger, as an embalmer called Mr Joyboy. We first meet him in a joyous scene where he poses John Gielgud's facial features and I have no clue how many takes they must have taken before they managed it without splitting their sides. Mr Joyboy is certainly into girls but he appears to be a flagrant queen, wringing his hands and shivering at people.

And while this film is hardly a standard comedy in any sense, when Mr Joyboy finally takes Aimee home for dinner with his mother, we truly find ourselves in David Lynch territory a year before he made his first short film. Mr Joyboy's mother is stunningly obese and addicted to food commercials. She even knows precisely when to tune in to the King Chicken commercials and all the rest. And Mr Joyboy tells Aimee about his dream of food and mother that turns into a nightmare when the lobsters he's cooked for her come to life and attack her instead.

Now I realise why this is a cult film. It's totally out there, well beyond the point that mainstream audiences would probably want to go, but those who live beyond that point can't fail to love this. It's truly insane in all the best ways. There's Margaret Leighton as a rich woman traumatised by the death of her dog to the degree that she wants to kill her husband Milton Berle and herself. There's Lionel Stander as the Guru Brahmin, the agony aunt to whom Aimee entrusts all her most personal questions. There's even Paul Williams in his film debut as an egghead kid who pioneers sending corpses into space.

The biting satire is mostly aimed at Americans, well represented here by names like Dana Andrews as a general, James Coburn as an immigration official and Roddy McDowall as a Hollywood exec, but there's some reserved for the English too. Robert Morley has a blast as the ultra-English Sir Ambrose Ambercrombie. After all, the tagline for the film was: 'the motion picture with something to offend everyone!' Most amazingly, director Tony Richardson, along with writers Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood, manages to keep this from turning into a madcap farce. It stays deliciously dry and appropriately paced all the way to the finish. What a stunning piece of work!


Barry said...

I'm watching this movie right now on TCM and it's amazing. The beautiful black & white shots, the surreal "Wispering Gardens" and crew, and Liberace selling caskets! I had to google the phrase "shrimp pink incorruptible" and a few clicks later found your page. Funny, I was trying to work the phrase "Apocalypse Later" into a song earlier tonight. I am loving "The Loved One," thanks for telling me the title. Come check my blog sometime,

Hal C. F. Astell said...

The Loved One knocked me out, not least because I'd never even heard of it. I knew most of the people involved but I had't heard of the film itself, making it a real discovery.

I plan on watching it again in a year or two to see how well it stands up on a second viewing, but I have a feeling it's going to become a strong personal favourite.