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Friday Film Review: A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to...

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966)
Genre: musical, slapstick comedy
Grade: B-

“Forum,” yet another old favorite of mine, hasn’t weathered the years quite as well as others but is still good for some laughs once it gets going. It’s based on a Broadway production of the same name and is definitely a product of its times. It’s slightly bawdy and 60s sexist, runs towards slapstick and physical comedy and features a grubby Rome that presages the recent HBO series.

I’m going to give the short, uncomplicated version of the plot and base my version on that of John Vogel at IMDB who has summed up the major parts:

Pseudolus (Zero Mostel) is the laziest slave in Rome and has but one wish, to purchase his freedom. When his master and mistress (Michael Hordern and Patricia Jessel) leave for the day he finds out that the young master, Hero, (Michael Crawford) has fallen in love with a virgin (Annette Andre) in the house of Lycus (Phil Silvers), a slave dealer specializing in beautiful women. Pseudolus concocts a deal in which he will be freed if he can procure the girl for young Hero. Of course, it can’t be that simple as everything begins to go wrong. The virgin Philia has already been sold to a Roman captain Miles Gloriosus (Leon Greene) who threatens death and destruction if she’s not delivered, virgo intacta, on time and Hysterium (Jack Gilford), a fellow slave to Pseudolus gets dragged into the mix as the action spirals out of control. Meanwhile Erronius (Buster Keaton) continues his years long search for this two children who were stolen in infancy by pirates.

Having never seen the Broadway production, I don’t miss all the dialogue and Sondheim songs which were cut for the film. I didn’t realize until recently that Richard Lester directed this but as I love his version of “The Three Musketeers” and “The Four Musketeers” it’s easy to see the similarities. The same frenetic directing style and “lived in” city are present as well as the visual jokes and a culmination scene that brings together most of the cast to tie things up.

I do enjoy watching Mostel’s wide open portrayal of Pseudolus. It’s a role meant to be overplayed and he does it wonderfully. Hordern’s henpecked Senex, Gilford’s hysterical Hysterium and Greene’s “full of himself” Gloriosus are treats as well. Silvers does a nice version of an effusive panderer while Jessel is a Roman Matron battle-ax who would put fear into the heart of Jupiter. Watch for Buster Keaton who steals whatever scenes he’s in and who I wish had a larger role. Hero as played by Crawford is basically a Roman version of an upperclass English twit and Andre lives up to her song “Lovely, all I am is lovely. It’s the one thing I can do.” I’m not sure if this is intentional or just those two actors. A bit part to look for is Roy Kinnear, one of Lester’s friends, as a gladiatorial trainer trying to get his student to master the art of the mace.

The portrayal of the courtesans will either make you laugh or piss you off – or maybe both. They’re mainly body parts in push up bras with vivid blue eye shadow and back-combed beehive hairstyles. The dances they do as they’re presented to Pseudolus and Hero remind me of nothing so much as swinging 60s club dancers. All they really need to complete the look would be go-go boots.

Though a lot of the songs from the stage production have been cut some great ones remain including the opening “Comedy Tonight,” the cheeky “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid,” and Miles Gloriosus’s tribute to his greatness, “My Bride.” The frantic chariot sequence is funny even if it might carry on just a bit too long. If you like the opening animation from HBO’s “Rome” wait for the closing credits here. They’re fabulous.

My recent viewing of this film is a less successful trip down memory lane yet still enjoyable enough to review here for those who have seen it and liked it or those who might enjoy the style of Lester’s directing. I think it’s a film to watch for what’s good and skim over what doesn’t work so well. It’s also a tribute to the power of mare sweat. Like a reviewer at IMDB all I’ll say is you have to see the film to appreciate that.

~Jayne

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.

14 Comments

  1. Jill
    Sep 16, 2011 @ 05:03:14

    Jayne,
    I grew up watching this movie a lot with my mom (it’s her favorite movie) and at the time I would roll my eyes at how silly it was, but I have to say as I get older I appreciate it more. I think adult life has given me a whole new appreciation for silliness. All I have to do is think of the chariot scene and I start laughing. A lot of the lines have become part of family slang, but especially – “I shall be back in a nonce, at the most two nonces.”
    You’re right, a lot of it IS sexist, but I think since I’ve been watching it my whole life, I’m good at skimming over the irritating parts. I also think of it as a farce and with farce I tend to give a lot a pass. :-)

  2. Jayne
    Sep 16, 2011 @ 06:33:27

    @Jill: I love seeing which movie lines are part of people’s family slang! Perhaps watching it with a glass or two of wine would loosen up my silly bone again.

  3. Isabel C.
    Sep 16, 2011 @ 06:38:34

    Love this movie!

    Found it hard to care much about Hero and Philia, but everyone else was fantastic.

  4. Jayne
    Sep 16, 2011 @ 06:46:15

    @Isabel C.: Crawford’s gawky act gets tiring though it is funny watching him chase after mares.

  5. Lynne Connolly
    Sep 16, 2011 @ 11:11:40

    This is well in the “Carry On” tradition, if a bit more intellectual. Phil Silvers was in the UK filming “Carry on Follow that Camel” which was an evisceration of “Beau Geste.”
    The film led to a hugely successful TV series starring Frankie Howerd, who was one of the people who played the slave on the stage. They called the Slave Lurcius and set the series in Pompeii, so it became “Up Pompeii.” It ran for years.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pAtzYD9VW_g&feature=related

    Not sure Frankie Howerd travels very well, but I loved his standups.

  6. Marguerite Kaye
    Sep 16, 2011 @ 12:36:17

    Lynne Connolly, you stole all my lines. I loved Frankie Howard, though he was about as un-pc as you can get, and the Carry On films, same thing – I used to go to the Saturday matinee and watch them all – back in the days when they had B movies too.

  7. MaryK
    Sep 16, 2011 @ 12:37:36

    This movie is hilarious!

    I think of it as a satire of romantic musicals with all the usual plot elements turned topsy-turvy and backwards. Nothing is how it “should” be. The hero and heroine are actually the dumbest and least interesting characters, the heroine has a bizarrely overdramatic backstory, the narrator wants to be free and have a woman of his own and perversely doesn’t want the fellow slave who wants him, etc.

    My local little theatre group is going to perform it this season, and I’m really looking forward to it. I didn’t know there were differences between the movie and the play but of course there usually are.

  8. Lynne Connolly
    Sep 16, 2011 @ 13:43:15

    I would love to see you review “Carry on Up The Khyber.” The last scene is just fantastic. Do not expect subtlety or pc-ness.

    And “Carry On Cleopatra,” With Julius Caesar’s famous last words (played by the amazing Kenneth Williams). They used the sets left over from the Burton/Taylor film and had much more fun.

  9. Bev Stephans
    Sep 16, 2011 @ 13:49:41

    I used to watch this with my youngest son. He appreciated all the silliness as I did.

  10. Angelia Sparrow
    Sep 16, 2011 @ 13:54:01

    I love this musical. The movie is a little dated, but I saw it as a stage production first, first at a local community theater group and then at the Thespian festival in Muncie.

    Fave lines around our place:

    “Never fall in love during a total eclipses.” (My oldest has a bad habit of picking terrible boyfriends, this gets more use than one would think.)

    “The Mind boggles!”

    When we were trying to induce labor on one of the more stubborn children, we would go walk through Wal-Mart. My husband referred to this as “Seven times around the seven hills of Rome.”

    “A small god, but a very hard worker.”

    Also, Jon Pertwee, one of the Doctors Who is in this as Crassus.
    /geek

  11. Jayne
    Sep 16, 2011 @ 18:25:59

    @Lynne Connolly: There don’t seem to be a great many of the “Carry On” films available at Netflix but I have added one to my streaming queue to get a taste of them. We’ll see…

  12. Marguerite Kaye
    Sep 17, 2011 @ 11:36:51

    Infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in for me!

    I was once told that I had a laugh like Sid James. I still think it was a complement.

    And I stole the opening scene of Carry on Cleopatra when my heroine was rolled out of a carptet in The Sheikh’s Impetuous Love Slave.

    I LOVE the Carry On films.

  13. Klio
    Sep 17, 2011 @ 15:58:32

    I loved discovering that whole plot lines and characters were lifted from Roman plays, some of which had in turn been lifted from Greek plays. Dunno where the Greeks stole them from.

    /mega-geek

    In reward for cat-sitting, a past boss got me a ticket to see Nathan Lane on Broadway in the play. It was pretty amazing to see him channel Zero Mostel then go beyond it. On stage in a new production, it can reflect the humour and tropes of a more modern time as well as wink at the 60s. So, the hairdos and go-go dancing in the film may be dated, and, ok, so maybe my entire Latin class fell asleep on it when the teacher showed it, but I still love the movie for its heart. And for the mare sweat.

  14. Susanna Ives
    Sep 19, 2011 @ 20:02:25

    I loved Zero Mostel in this movie. His comic timing was just brilliant. The dialogue and plot is both zany and clever — a hard combination to pull off. I think the stage version doesn’t have the pacing and setting problems of the film (although the 60s look kinda adds a nice cheesiness factor). Great farce has such energy that it’s fun to watch live.

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