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