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FRIDAY FILM REVIEW: Harold and Maude (1971)

Maili, an old friend of the blog (and truly a vanguard of romance reader bloggers) has extensive film knowledge and offered to write a review of a romantic film every Friday.   I was delighted to accept.   Henceforth, every Friday, we will feature a film review so that if you aren’t sure what to do on the weekend, this might provide you with an idea.   We will be moving First Sale stories to Monday to accommodate our new addition to Dear Author. – Jane

Grade: A
Genre: Black comedy / Romantic comedy (US)

Dear Hal Ashby,

You and scriptwriter Colin Higgins passed away in the same year almost twenty one years ago, but your cinematic legacy still lives on. Especially your second directorial effort, Harold and Maude, which I’d describe as one of the best love stories in the history of cinema.

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I wondered sometimes how the studio people reacted when you and Colin Higgins decided to film a love story about a suicidal rich-kid teenager and a 79-year-old feisty woman. Not to mention having this smart-dressed teenager Harold (Bud Cort) to hang himself in the living room during the film’s opening scene.

But as we quickly discover, it’s a fake suicide attempt to attract his socialite mother’s elusive attention. It clearly doesn’t work-‘and it’s happened before. As soon as Harold’s mother (Vivian Pickles) sees the noose around his neck, she says, “I suppose you think that’s very funny, Harold.” It becomes apparent that it might be a black comedy and it is.

Partaking in one of his bizarre hobbies, Harold attends a stranger’s funeral. There, he notices Maude (Ruth Gordon), an elderly lady with sharp wits and a tongue to match. To his shock, she nicks a car outside a funeral home. He’s intrigued. Could there be someone who’s weirder than himself? He meets her again at another stranger’s funeral. This time, Maude approaches him and discover they both like attending random strangers’ funerals, which delights her. Harold’s once again bemused when she impulsively steals a car after a funeral. Only this time, it’s his own car. An unlikely friendship is born.

Meanwhile, Harold’s exasperated mother forces him to visit a psychologist to deal with his emotional issues. She’s applying increasing pressure on him to join the Army to make him like the pride and joy of their family: Harold’s uncle, a decorated war veteran with a missing arm. His mother’s also busy with setting up blind dates for Harold to meet with potential brides. His mother’s planning his future without his say so. This increases Harold’s sense of alienation, which sees a rising number of his fake suicide attempts.

As he struggles against his mother’s strong will, his friendship with Maude grows when she introduces him to a new way of looking at life by dragging him into a number of gentle but madcap-filled adventures and holding thought-provoking conversations. Just like Harold, we slowly fall in love with this amazing larger-than-life pint-sized woman.

It’s not all witty quips and morbid funny scenes. There are poignant moments, such as a significant glimpse of the real reason why Maude has such a zeal for life, and the gradual romantic development of Harold and Maude’s relationship. I know many would gasp in horror at the idea of an elderly woman and a teenager in love, but you managed to coax excellent performances out of Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort to make us believe and root for Maude and Harold so strongly. You have also successfully married the permissive outlook of the doomed youth with the seemingly eternal optimism of those who have witnessed the darkest side of life.

This is why Harold and Maude still has a strong cult following today, and why it has a place in the American Film Institute’s Top 10 Romantic Comedy films last year. I honestly can’t find a flaw with this film. If there was one, I forget because the film’s strengths strongly overshadow its weaknesses.

You left us some memorable films, such as The Last Detail, Being There, and Coming Home, but Harold and Maude is the best gift you and Colin Higgins could possibly give. It’s such an uplifting story, which makes it a must-see. Especially for those who love feel-good films.

Be good, be bad & be safe,
Harold and Maude trailer:
Widely available on VHS and DVD.


  1. MB (Leah)
    Mar 27, 2009 @ 11:08:51

    Loved, loved Harold and Maud. Ruth Gordon was a hoot! I just love the dynamics between these two characters, very human and real. I love it when an author, director, can take me into areas that might normally be uncomfortable or not socially acceptable and make them feel perfectly normal.

    Being There was was a great flick as well.

  2. Maya M.
    Mar 27, 2009 @ 11:09:26

    I loved this movie! One of the original ‘quirky’ movies I’d ever seen. Completely unpredictable, poignant, and naturally acted. What a great, great film to initiate the Friday cinema feature1

  3. Sarah Frantz
    Mar 27, 2009 @ 11:22:49

    Added to Netflix list! Thanks!

  4. vanessa jaye
    Mar 27, 2009 @ 11:37:54

    I’ve seen bits of this movie of the years, but never the whole thing. I’ll have to hunt it down because I’ve only heard good things about it.

    And Welcome back Maili!!!

  5. Maili
    Mar 27, 2009 @ 11:49:17

    @ Leah
    Perfectly put. It’s likely the reason why I love Harold and Maude (and similar films).

    @ Maya
    Precisely! It’s certainly a great unpredictable and quirky yet poignant film.

    @ Sarah
    Yay! I hope it lives up to your expectations. I’ll be happy if it does.

    @ Vanessa
    Thanks for the welcome! A lot of people saw bits of it through various programmes about films, but only the few made the effort to watch it in its entirety. That’s why I’m pimping it like there’s no tomorrow. :D

  6. Lori
    Mar 27, 2009 @ 11:50:38

    I’d forgotten this movie and now I’m reminded of one of the best films that ever touched me. It was the blackest of black comedies with a true love of life.

    Time to watch it again. Thank you!

  7. Lizzy
    Mar 27, 2009 @ 12:51:39

    I love the bit with the Jag/hearse.

  8. joanne
    Mar 27, 2009 @ 12:57:14

    Thank you for this reminder of another great performance by Ruth Gordon. If I can find the jeans I wore to see this movie they’re probably worth something on ebay *sigh*.

    I remember thinking not about the funny bits so much as how very sad it was that it took a stranger to help Harold. So many things were pretty sad in those days and if someone found love we were all over it and this was a hit with a lot of people.

    Thank you again for this review and I look forward to many more.

    Some of my favorite off-kilter, tear-jerker romance movies are Now, Voyager & Dark Victory.

  9. Chicklet
    Mar 27, 2009 @ 13:19:37

    Love this movie! It’s one of the original cult movies; I think it played at one of our Minneapolis theatres for well over a year.

  10. SonomaLass
    Mar 27, 2009 @ 13:30:11

    One of my favorite movies ever, of all time; even the music (Cat Stevens before thoe change) is wonderful. Last time I watched it was when Ruth Gordon died; I need to watch it again. Unfortunately it’s one of those movies I own on VHS and not DVD; perhaps I will remedy that this weekend.

    Thanks for the reminder that this is a great film, and that there are other people out there old and smart enough to remember that!

    I’m excited about this new feature, Jane. Thanks “Jaili”!

  11. Anthea Lawson
    Mar 27, 2009 @ 13:39:26

    Aww, earworm alert! “If you want to sing out, sing out. And if you want to be free, be free…”

    Fabulous movie. Thanks for the review~

  12. Karen Templeton
    Mar 27, 2009 @ 14:27:15

    Ohmigosh — saw HAROLD AND MAUDE originally, when I was around 20, adored it. Saw it again a few years ago (hubby had never seen it) and was delighted at how incredibly well it had held up.

    Brilliant film.

  13. Hydecat
    Mar 27, 2009 @ 14:36:48

    Oh, this is one of my favorite movies. The soundtrack is brilliant, too. The song “Trouble” makes me tear up each time I hear it.

    I like this new feature. I love happy movies the same way I love HEA books, and I’m always interested in finding out about good ones to watch.

  14. wendy
    Mar 27, 2009 @ 14:38:04

    Loved the film.
    So happy to see Maili hanging around.

  15. Karen Scott
    Mar 27, 2009 @ 15:04:25

    I didn’t feel the same way about the film, but I had to take the opportunity to say hi to a long lost blogger.

    Nice to ‘see’ you again Maili.

  16. Julia
    Mar 27, 2009 @ 15:15:40

    I HATE Harold and Maude. It’s possibly because my mother loved it and forced us to watch it repeatedly as a child, but it just leaves such a bad taste in my mouth.

  17. Evangeline
    Mar 27, 2009 @ 15:43:12

    What are the general dates for the movies you’ll recommend? Sticking close to the 21st century, or are you planning to pull from the wide range of Hollywood romantic movies (from 1920s to 2000s)?

  18. K. Z. Snow
    Mar 27, 2009 @ 16:04:55

    Ruth Gordon definitely redefines the term cougar in that movie. I’ve loved it for years. And the Cat Stevens soundtrack is wonderful.

  19. Marg
    Mar 27, 2009 @ 16:17:06

    Nice to see something from you Maili!

  20. Throwmearope
    Mar 27, 2009 @ 17:20:44

    I’ve seen Harold and Maude at least a dozen times, but I was nice enough not to force it on my children.

    Hey, Maili, (er, Jaili) what about Roi de Coeurs? (King of Hearts, Alan Bates in a kilt?) Whaddya think?

  21. Monica Kaye
    Mar 27, 2009 @ 17:37:21

    I’ve only seen this movie once, but I remember that there was something inside of me that refused to let me see the poignancy of a relationship between a teenager and an elderly woman. I wasn’t impressed with the film. It creeped me out. But judging from all of your enthusiastic responses, I feel compelled to watch it again to make sure that I didn’t miss something the first time around.

  22. SandyW
    Mar 27, 2009 @ 18:15:09

    So, I guess we'll be hearing a lot less about e-book piracy downloading at Dear Author now.

  23. Camilla
    Mar 27, 2009 @ 19:31:22

    This is my favorite movie of all time! The Prytania theater in New Orleans used to show it on Thanksgiving and Christmas, and I always went. I do think it is one of the most romantic films ever.

  24. LindaR (likari)
    Mar 27, 2009 @ 20:17:13

    I love this movie. Saw it when it came out, and I’ve got the DVD. I always thought it was cool that Bud Cort played one of the iterations of God in Kevin Smith’s Dogma.

    Harold & Maude has a fragile and liberating sweetness. I must watch it again this weekend!

  25. Jennie
    Mar 27, 2009 @ 22:16:09

    I should see this again. I’m pretty sure I saw it originally in theaters, but since IMDB says it came out in 1971, it must have been a re-release, since I was only 2 then. I was quite young, in the tradition of my laid-back 70s parents taking their kids to startingly age-inappropriate movies (hello, Pretty Baby at age 9!). I think I did like it, but of course I don’t remember it too well. I mostly remember thinking it was strange and kind of morbid (though I probably didn’t know that word then), but it definitely is a classic. Thanks for the review!

  26. Rosario
    Mar 28, 2009 @ 02:37:11

    Maili! *waves*

    Why haven’t I heard of this movie before? I love black humour.

  27. (Jān)
    Mar 28, 2009 @ 04:30:50

    I always loved this movie. I first saw it as a teenager, and its lesson about being true to your heart no matter what anyone else thinks always stuck with me after that. Heh, and I married a younger guy despite the flack I got about it.

  28. Maili
    Mar 28, 2009 @ 08:05:41

    Eep. Didn’t expect so many responses but I should have known better with this film. I hope everyone doesn’t mind if I respond to those with questions and group together some responses with similar topics.

    @ everyone on the Welcome wagon
    Thank you so much for remembering me and for the welcome. It’s great to see you all.

    @ everyone about the soundtrack
    I’m still mortified I didn’t mention the H&M soundtrack in the review. A bit like forgetting there was a rhino in my room, having a cuppa. My favourite is the Free song.

    I never heard of Roi de Coeurs! I’ll certainly check it out, even if it has Alan Bates in a kilt. :D Thanks for the suggestion.

    @ SandyW
    You have a choice: let’s continue the discussion on that site or wherever you like, or accept that I’m the scum and move on. Thanks.

    I don’t have a fixed plan, but I have three broad objectives and one strict rule.
    A) focus on lesser known titles, b) should be available on DVD in major countries, and c) the list would not be restricted to Hollywood films only.
    The only strict rule: it has to have a strong romantic element.
    For now, a selection will be made from the period between 1920s and the present as long as it’s in accordance with b), and from ranges of different genres and countries.

    @everyone who didn’t like the film
    Some friends and my husband didn’t like the film either. One side thought it was slow paced and the other side didn’t like the May to December part. I didn’t think I’d like the film because I tend to avoid films and romance novels with the May to December storyline. I enjoyed Harold & Maude because it’s about a love for life, rather than about the romance itself.
    I don’t see anything wrong with not liking this film. Either it works or it doesn’t. I didn’t appreciate getting hammered for not liking Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, which is why I’m always fine with all kinds of reactions to films I like or didn’t like. Thanks for speaking up. :D

    For the record I welcome suggestions and recommendations. I also welcome – encourage, even – corrections, disagreements or criticisms. Thanks.

  29. LindaR (likari)
    Mar 28, 2009 @ 09:16:51

    I am looking forward to this feature. Since you’re taking suggestions, I would love to see a review of Making Mr. Right from 1987.

    I’m always surprised by how many people never saw this movie, and it’s such a crack-up.

    And I think it’s so great that you started with Harold and Maude.

  30. SandyW
    Mar 28, 2009 @ 10:25:13

    I don’t intend to get into a big discussion. I have no desire to call you names or try and convince you of the rightness of my opinions. I just wanted to mention the subject once. That’s all.

  31. Maili
    Mar 28, 2009 @ 11:11:57

    I remember that film, but it was years ago. I’ll have to hit for a copy. Thanks for suggesting Making It Right!

    That’s fine by me. Thanks for explaining. I hope you’ll still join DA’s future film discussions because it’s always good to see a wide range of opinions. :) Thanks.

  32. Throwmearope
    Mar 28, 2009 @ 14:01:00

    May I clarify, a young Alan Bates in a kilt.

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