Monday, February 02, 2009

Revisit: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

An MGM release 1966

Directed by Richard Lester

Written by Melvin Frank & Michael Pertwee
Based on the musical play by Burt Shevelove & Larry Gelbart
With lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

It's a shame Buster Keaton spends his last screen credit hiding in the shadows of Zero Mostel -- not that Mr. Mostel wasn't a terrifically talented performer, but this aborted fetus of a musical-comedy doesn't do either of them justice.

Released at the low-point of musical-comedy's popularity, this Forum is a stripped down version of the stage play, substituting most of Sondheim's trademark bouncy show tunes with sight gags, puns & wordplay.

I watched this because I was in the stage version in high school and wanted to see how it translated to film. I got my answer: it doesn't. Without the songs, there simply isn't much to go on; stripping to the show to it's essence you sort of realize slavery, prostitutes and Greek tragedy aren't that funny. Add in tons of jokes that are more stale that Roman fresco and you've got yourself one cornball comedy. Likewise, the directorial 'flashes', including jump cuts and the kind of dance sequences Mel Brooks liked to spoof, don't add much flavor.

The cast is terrific -- Phil Silvers, Zero Mostel, Jack Gilford and Mr. Keaton all working hard to elevate the material. They are a pleasure to watch. But it's just not enough. This is a story meant for the stage -- where you can feel the energy -- not the screen.

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