DENNIS SCHWARTZ 
IS THERE ANY GOOD 
IN SAYING 
EVERYTHING ABOUT A MOVIE?

 
A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM (director: Richard Lester; screenwriters: Melvin Frank/Michael Pertwee/based on the play by Burt Shevelove & Larry Gelbart; cinematographer: Nicholas Roeg; editor: John Victor-Smith; music: Ken Thorne/Stephen Sondheim; cast: Zero Mostel (Pseudolus), Phil Silvers (Lycus), Michael Crawford (Hero), Jack Gilford (Hysterium), Buster Keaton (Erronius), Michael Hordern (Senex), Annette Andre (Philia), Inga Neilsen (Gymnasia), Leon Greene (Miles Gloriosus), Patricia Jessel (Domina), Inga Neilsen (Gymnasia), Roy Kinnear (Gladiator Instructor), Pamela Brown (High Priestess), Helen Funai (Tintinabula); Runtime: 99; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Melvin Frank; United Artists; 1966-UK/USA)

 
"The middling low-brow slapstick comedy overdoses on the brassy Zero Mostel hamming it up."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Zero Mostel repeats on film his successful stage role, replete with throwaway one liners, high-energy and his use of multi-rubber-faced expressions to vividly express his changing moods. Richard Lester ("The Bed Sitting Room"/"How I Won the War"/"Help!") directs the madcap bawdy farce with a Borscht Belt style of glib humor and at a breakneck pace. It's based on the 1962 Stephen Sondheim Broadway musical/comedy of the same name, with Lester favoring silliness and ribald humor over the music (most of Sondheim's stage songs were jettisoned, which anyway were not received that well by the Broadway critics) as he strings together a series of hit or miss frenzied running gags (for one thing, sadly leaving a ragged looking old stone face Buster Keaton, one of the silent's greatest comedians, with not much to do as he's used merely as a running sight gag throughout). 

The songs include the following: "Comedy Tonight" (Pseudolus & Company), "Free" (Pseudolus), "Lovely" (Hero & Philia; reprise: Pseudolus & Hysterium), "Everybody Ought To Have a Maid" (Pseudolus, Lycus, Hysterium & Senex), and "Bring Me My Bride" (Miles Gloriosus). They were adapted for the screen by Ken Thorne. With "Comedy Tonight" being the only memorable song.

The middling low-brow slapstick comedy overdoses on the brassy Zero Mostel hamming it up; but if you're a fan of the scene hogging portly one and can't get enough of him then you have no complaints here. The Samuel Bronston studio in Madrid, Spain stands in for the ancient Rome location. Bert Shevelove wrote the Broadway hit on which the film was based, adapting it from a trilogy of comedies by 3rd century BC Roman playwright Plautus.

It's set in "a less fashionable suburb of Rome," that features three houses next to each other which all play an important part of the story. The first house is occupied by the domineering Domina (Patricia Jessel) and her henpecked husband Senex (Michael Hordern) and their handsome but sheltered dim-witted son Hero (Michael Crawford). The house next door is a whorehouse run by the female flesh peddler Lycas (Phil Silvers). The third house is empty and is owned by Erronius (Buster Keaton), who has been traveling around the world searching for his two children who were kidnapped by pirates as youngsters.

The antsy dishonorable and scheming slave Pseudolus (Zero Mostel) seeks to buy his freedom from the tolerant Senex but is always stymied by meanie Domina. The opportunity comes when Senex and Domina are out of town visiting her mother and the naive Hero falls in love with the unreachable pretty but dim-witted virgin slave girl taken by force from Crete, Philia (Annette Andre), who dwells in the neighboring brothel owned by Lycus. Hero promises Pseudolus his freedom if he can deliver the girl and that he's willing to pay a big sum for her. But Philia has just been sold to the brutish ego-maniacal Roman captain, Miles Gloriosus (Leon Greene), who is set to claim her in an hour. So the fast-talking Pseudolus uses his street smarts to get the girl for Hero by blackmailing the more cowardly head slave of Senex's, Hysterium (Jack Gilford), his nemesis, into donning a blonde wig and white gown and impersonating the corpse of Philia, as Pseudolus tells the menacing Roman captain that Philia has died of the plague. In the confusion, culminating in a wild chariot chase that reminds one of the silent slapstick comedies of the Keystone Kops, the elderly Erronius turns up and discovers that the two children he has been searching for all these years are none other than Philia and Gloriosus. With that, Hero wins Philia and Pseudolus gains both his freedom and the mute buxom courtesan from Lycas.

REVIEWED ON 2/5/2009       GRADE: C-

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"

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