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A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum (1966)

  • Review: ** (out of ****)
  • Starring: Zero Mostel, Phil Silvers, Buster Keaton, Michael Crawford, Jack Gilford, Annette Andre, Michael Hordern, Leon Greene
  • Director: Richard Lester
  • Screenplay: Melvin Frank, Michael Pertwee (Musical: Stephen Sondheim, Book: Burt Shevelove, Larry Gelbart)
  • Length: 99 min.
  • MPAA Rating: Approved

When a stage musical makes it’s big screen debut, you often expect something on the grandiosity level of a Sound of Music or The King and I. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is not the glorious spectacle you would expect after seeing those films, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing and it’s certainly not the only film like that.

Based on Stephen Sondheim’s first solo composition to be performed on Broadway, the Tony Award-winning musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum follows the plot of a Roman slave as he attempts to earn his freedom any way he can. When Hero (Michael Crawford), his master’s son falls in love with a beautiful courtesand next door, Pseudolus (Zero Mostel) hatches the wild scheme to help him get the young Philia (Annette Andre) to run away with and marry Hero.

The problem, as there always is one in the Roman comedies on which the production is based, is that Philia has already been sold to boastful soldier Miles Gloriosus (Leon Greene). To make matters worse, he must do this all covertly as his master Senex’s (Michael Hordern) wife Domina (Patricia Jessel) vows to have Pseudolus killed if he continues to cause more problems. There are more plot twists and turns in the play, but to explain all the various details would be overly time consuming and ruin some of the fun of the show.

Zero Mostel is one of those egomaniacal actors whose talent is often pushed aside by his inability to be humble. He reminds me a great deal of Mandy Patinkin, who worked prominently on the ‘80s, except that when I see Mandy on the screen, I don’t immediately want to roll my eyes at his antics. Mostel is like the hyper child at your annual family picnic that wants more attention than he deserves, but still manages to please a wide portion of the attendees.

His character in Fiddler on the Roof was a more apt fit for the actor, but the performance is invariably the same. Most of his vocal delivery and physical comedy are terrific, but after an hour, his personality starts to grate on your nerves.

The best performances in the film come from those with the most experience, three ex-Vaudeville actors who all enjoyed immense success as physical comedians throughout their careers. Phil Silvers, Buster Keaton and Jack Gilford are the only real reasons to watch this film. Silvers plays the frantic neighbor, Marcus Lycus, whose courtesan is at the heart of the play; Keaton plays Erronius, Senex’s other neighbor, an aging Roman whose two children were kidnapped by pirates when they were babies; and Gilford appears as the Senex household’s head slave Hysterium whose name is fiercely fitting.

As for the film’s central romantic duo, neither Crawford nor Andre are exceptionally memorable. Crawford has a decent voice, but his overall performance is too wide-eyed and worry-free to really be believable. He gives nearly the same performance three years later in Hello, Dolly!, so I have trouble believing that it was solely because the character in this film was written that way.

One of the biggest issues with the film is probably that none of the original stage musical’s authors contributed to the screenplay. The film still feels stage-bound despite being set deep in the heart of ancient Rome with all the physical trappings of the period. The set is minimal and fitting for the era, but it wouldn’t be unusual to expect something larger and more richly detailed. After all, the film musical was an object of passion and excess that gave the audience a vibrant world to explore visually and aurally. Not only does Forum not give the eyes something more exceptional to behold, but even the music seems too placid to be exciting.

And that is the hazard of bringing any work to the big screen. With the larger platform and the ability to expand the scope of the setting, audiences expect something more filling and more bombastic. Of course, that’s not the musical we’re dealing with. Most of Sondheim’s solo work is not the grand exposition that accompanies the work of composers like Rogers & Hammerstein or Lerner & Lowe. His are frequently more intimate, smaller scale productions. Forum takes a little of both worlds and blends them together. The production itself is smart and sophisticated as evinced by the choice of character names using Latin words to symbolize character personalities Yet, the bawdy humor, the physical sight gags, the reliance on farce and puns help broaden the appeal of his show.

You wouldn’t exactly say that something like A Little Night Music would appeal to the Sound of Music kind of crowd. Forum doesn’t exactly fit with that kind of audience either, but it’s more accessible than much of his other work. Yet, there’s something distant and unexceptional about the film.

Director Richard Lester worked on two of the Beatles’ early films, A Hard Days Night and Help!, both acclaimed films in their own right, so why then does Forum feel so bland and uninspired. The cast is solid as is the source material. I don’t love the music, but some of it is rather interesting, yet the entire film plays unevenly, unfolding at a slower pace than you would prefer and relying too heavily on stagnant camera work. And although the premise is intact, many of the songs that were cut in the transfer to film were better than the ones included.

But, that’s exactly how Sondheim seems to be treated in the motion picture industry. The second of the three films of his adapted to the screen, A Little Night Music, also had a number of quality songs expunged from the production and a similar stage-bound feel pervades that film as well. The film version of Sweeney Todd stepped all over that production, excising several wonderful and character developing songs. It’s like no one seems to have the reverence or wherewithal to give Sondheim’s work the quality craftsmanship it deserves.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is the best of the three stage-to-screen adatpations of Sondheim’s musicals, but it’s still not the wonderful, joyous and richly crafted work that we want out of a Sondheim adaptation. It’s a lazy, haphazard and unrewarding farce, but not in the way the play intended.