Sunday, 1 March 2015


A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum (1966)
Dir. Richard Lester
Starring: Zero Mostel, Phil Silvers, Michael Crawford, Buster Keaton,
Jack Gilford, Michael Hordern, Leon Greene, Roy Kinnear, Peter Butterworth,
Bill Kerr, Jon Pertwee, Annette Andre, Patricia Jessel, Inga Neilsen, Ingrid Pitt

Review By Greg Klymkiw

So what happens when the Borscht Belt comes to ancient Rome? You get one of the funniest, naughtiest and most delightfully low-brow musical-comedies you're going to see in some time. What's especially wonderful about the 1966 all-star film adaptation of the hit Broadway play A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum is that it jettisons a huge whack of Stephen Sondheim's songs in favour of only the very best stuff, rearranges and sharpens the plot via screenwriters Melvin Frank and Michael Pertwee (originally written for the stage by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart), tosses gags in your face that are so non-stop that the picture makes the Zucker-Abrams-Zucker (Airplane) comedies seem restrained and best of all, the whole thing bubbles with the styling of the wonderful director Richard Lester who brings his manic British New Wave approach that he popularized in A Hard Day's Night, Help! and The Knack.

All this contributes greatly to keeping the movie from being the hoariest knee-slapper imaginable. But don't worry, the picture is plenty hoary, in all the right ways. It's also (forgive me) whore-y, given the seemingly endless parade of scantily clad courtesans romping about.

Our leading man Pseudolus (Zero Mostel) is a slave in the home of the not-so-happily married couple Senex (Michael Hordern) and his ball-busting wife Domina (Patricia Jessel), low-level members of the Roman gentry who just happen to live next door to one of Rome's more infamous brothels. Luckily for us, the gentleman's sporting house is run by the irrepressibly anything-for-a-buck pimpus-erectus Marcus Lycus (Phil Silvers). Who in their right mind would dare resist Sgt. Bilko peddling flesh?

When Hero (Michael Crawford), the young, unmarried only-begotten son of Senex and Domina falls madly in love with Philia (Annette Andre), a virgin whore next door who's been auctioned to the highest bidder, the conqueror of Crete, Captain Miles Gloriosus (Leon Greene), Pseudolus comes up with a mad plan to win his freedom in exchange for hooking up our juvenile leads.

This, however, is easier said than done. After all, even well-laid plans go awry and Pseudolus has essentially been making his plan up as he goes along anyway. This is good news for the audience since the farce quotient escalates to deliciously ludicrous heights.

Shevelove, Gelbart and Sondheim's musical was deeply rooted in adapting ancient farces by the Roman playwright Plautus (251-183 B.C.). That these works were written BEFORE Christ and work, not only in the context of when the film was made, strangely working even better in a contemporary context, is a testament to both the film's screenwriters and Lester'd direction.

And the lines! Oh the magnificent lines, quips, throwaways and double-entendres! When Pseudolus first learns of Hero's love for "a common courtesan in the house of Lycus", Hero naively asks, "Is that bad?" and Pseudolus, with Zero Mostel's impeccable timing responds, "There's no way to make it sound like an achievement!" Then as Philia's considerable virtues are revealed, Pseudolus further quips, "An honest virgin! What a terrible combination!"

Upon learning that she can't be betrothed to Hero because she's been sold to the brutal Gloriosus, Philia identifies the mad Roman Captain as "the brute who raped my country, Thrace!" "He raped Thrace?" asks Psuedolus. "Oh woe!" she laments, "And then he came and did it again! And then again!" Pseudolus scratches his noggin, then cracks, "He raped Thrace, thrice?"

Oh, and it doesn't let up!

As the shenanigans get nuttier and ever-convoluted, the bon mots spew forth with even greater persistence. As the mad plan to put the juvenile leads together keeps getting scuttled, Hero whines, "For us there will never be happiness." To wit, Philia assuages he lover with, "We must learn to be happy without it."

And for this fella, I always bruise my knees from slapping them too hard as I howl madly at Captain Gloriosus approaching the brothel and ordering, "Arrange food, drink, entertainment, and a sit-down orgy for fourteen."

My God! It's the Catskills with Roman Columns!

I recall Pauline Kael complaining that Lester's style of rapid-fire cutting and occasionally skewed shots worked against the fixed proscenium of this sort of vaudeville-like humour. I'd normally agree with her (as I do in most things), but when she wrote the review, she had no idea how awful contemporary editing/filmmaking would become in terms of the old herky-jerky-wham-bam-thank-you-mam approach to mise-en-scene. Lester's approach is restrained compared to this. Also, given the clever rewrites of the material by the screenwriters, coupled with Lester's trademark style, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum actually feels far ahead of its time.

Viewed today, the picture lives and breathes like a cool, almost-post-modern approach to proscenium-rooted musical comedy. Besides, when he needs to, Lester does indeed affix his camera to let the glorious dialogue play out in contrast to the more manic approach.

This is one fun and funny movie that's ripe for rediscovery.

THE FILM CORNER RATING: ***½ 3-and-a-half Stars

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum is available on a gorgeous looking Blu-Ray via Kino-Lorber. It's extra-feature-free, which is a shame, since a nice commentary trek focusing up the historical roots of the production and how they work in the context of the film would have been a valuable accompaniment to the whole package.