A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: Why it’s a funnier phrase than a film. Buster Keaton’s last Hurrah!

At 33 minutes in, my notes say quite simply, “This is HORRIBLE!” I suppose that just about sums up my disappointment with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the ForumHad I not already committed myself to writing this review, than I may not have seen it all way through. It quite nearly made the VERY short list of films I could not finish, which includes Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Romance and Cigarettes. It absolutely makes the list of the films I wish I hadn’t finished; Happy-Go-Lucky, The Squid and the Whale, Blue, Kiss Me Kate, Burn After Reading, etc.

Things I found more entertaining than giving this film my full attention:

  • Words with Friends
  • Sudoku
  • Looking up photos for this blog entry
  • Making a bowl of ice cream (almond slivers make a surprisingly great topping)
  • Contemplating my next film choice
  • Doodling
  • Watching the cat sleep

There’s something for everyone on comedy tonight, except for me, I suppose. But, the blog must go on.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum stars Zero Mostel as Pseudolus. He also played this role in the Broadway version of the film, winning a Tony for his efforts. Set in ancient Rome, Pseudolus (borrowed from a Roman play by the same name) is the slave of the Roman senator, Senex (Michael Hordern) and his wife Domina (Patricia Jessel). Pseudolus is known for his witty, lying, cheating, and all-around sneaky antics. Senex and Domina leave their grown son, Hero (Michael Crawford), alone and in the care of their trusted slave Hysterium (Jack Gilford). However, in an effort to win his own freedom, Pseudolus decides to help Hero buy the “girl next door” (whom he adores) from the “dealer of flesh,” Marcus Lycus (Phil Silvers). Meanwhile, Lycus has already promised her to the evil Captain Miles Gloriosus (Leon Greene), who is on the rampage when he cannot find his bride. Then there is the old, half-blind man Erronius (Buster Keaton) who has just returned home after a long and fruitless search for his lost children, who were kidnapped by pirates when they were young. Of course, amidst the cluster, Hero’s parents return home (separately) adding to the comedic cover-up of Hero’s love for the slave girl. If this doesn’t sound like chaos, I’m not sure what chaos is. Who knew ancient Rome could be so ridiculous. If the sexual objectification of women and the dumbification of society is your cup of tea, then this is the film for you. Oh? Did I actually just type that?

Pseudolus: I don’t want to spoil your day
Hysterium: How can you spoil a disaster?

Alright, alright, so even though I hated this movie I’m going to give it at least a few props. First off, the character names are hilarious. Some of them are obvious like Hero, Hysterium, and Erronius (latin for wrong). Then there are the names Senex (old man or senile), Domina (mistress), and Gloriosus (braggart). One can’t help but chuckle at these names, even if that’s where the laughter stops. True, the chariot chase at the end was probably a slapstick-lovers delight, but I was so bored by the time the chariots started tearing across the screen that I was barely watching anymore. So what is it about this play, turned film, that had audiences laughing through it’s original 964 Broadway performances, additional runs, and a movie? I pulled a few old reviews to find out, because obviously I’ve missed something.

According to the New York Times Review from 1966, Vincent Canby states simply at the end of his first paragraph, “Here, at last, is a motion-picture spectacle for old men of all ages.” He goes on with mixed feelings about the film’s execution by Director Richard Lester (who directed two Beatles films, and went on to direct Superman II and III).

It is hard to decide whether Mr. Lester has gone too far, or not far enough, in translating into film terms the carefully calculated nonsense originally conceived for the theater. He’s done a lot of tricky things — with his penchant for quick cutting and juxtaposition of absurd images — but there are times when this style seems oddly at variance with the basic material, which is roughly 2,000 years older than the motion-picture camera.

I’m gathering from Canby’s review that he had mixed emotions towards the film. It sounded as if he wanted to enjoy it based on the theatrical success of the play, but the film fell short of his hopes.

Of the play itself, an article in the Winnipeg Free Press (of all papers)  from July 13, 1963 by Christopher Dafoe describes the spectacle.

 A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum asks no more of the beholder (or the reader) than a broad mind, an easy nature and the sort of deep, rolling laughter that comes from the belly…The play is like a beloved old scrapbook containing the remembered jokes and pratfalls of a thousand drunken years of theatre. All the old favorites are here: the dirty old men, the sleeping potion that turns out to be a love philtre…the long lost children, the case of mistaken identity in which an old man attempts to have a last fling with a young virgin who turns out to be a man in disguise…The play, of course, has its wild chase and the stage is full of nearly naked courtesans, puffing soldiers and giggling eunuchs. Nothing, as you can imagine, has been left to the imagination. Nobody asks you to think. You just sit there like Gargantua (the giant not the ape) and laugh. And there’s nothing wrong with that, is there?

It seems, then, that the appeal of the play, according to Dafoe, was not to think. Here, I believe we’ve reached my problem with this type of comedy. I enjoy thinking. Comedy that makes me think is much funnier to me, than comedy that doesn’t. Okay, okay, there’s always room for slapstick, but slapstick with heart. The type of slapstick farcetastic foolery presented in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is merely as the New York Times reviewer so lightly put, “A motion-picture spectacle for old men of all ages.”

 Even today, though, 74% of people on Rotten Tomatoes liked it, with reviews ranging from, “This is freakin’ hilarious,” to “Humorous to an extent, but lacking the bang you might expect from a big screen musical.” I say, decide for yourself. Your sense of humor might differ from mine. In fact, it probably does. Though if you’ve latched on to my particular type of reviews, maybe it doesn’t, and we will glide happily through the same pages of film interests and disinterests. It’s really hard to say.

Pseudolus/Soothsayer: How many geese in a gaggle?
Erronius: At least seven
Pseudolus/Soothsayer: Seven! Before I say this sooth again, you must run seven times around the seven hills of Rome.

Regardless of what other reviewers may have said, I still didn’t enjoy this movie. The only discernible haha moment for me was the arrival of the late great Buster Keaton on set as Erronius. This was Keaton’s last appearance on film. As I understand it, he was already quite ill with the same lung cancer that ultimately took his life. Because of this, he had a stunt double that did most of the running scenes for him in the film. Keaton, the slapstick star of the silent era, wrote, directed, and starred in some of the most fun, imaginative, and well-crafted films of the silent age. His expressiveness, fantastical stunts, and all-around likeability on film has left an incredible mark on the history of the craft. It was both remarkable, and saddening to see him romp about in his final role. As the New York Times Reviewer states:

A funny but inevitably sad note is struck by the appearance of the late Buster Keaton, as a myopic old man searching for his children, stolen years ago by pirates. He literally runs through the film as a sight gag. “A Funny Thing,” however, is a fitting vehicle for the departure of a fine old clown.

Why did it have to be this film, though? The way he acted out this role reminded me of Barney Fife from The Andy Griffith Show for some reason. Perhaps, there was just something about his voice that made me think of Don Knotts. Come to think of it, though, I’ve never heard him talk before. The only other time I’ve seen Keaton out of the silent era was in an episode of The Twilight Zone, but even then the part I saw was silent. In any case, Keaton lives up to the high standards of comedy that he’d long ago set. I love when he’s running about during the chariot chase at the end, and accidentally crashes into a tree. There’s word that it might actually have been an unintentional act of comedic genius on Keaton’s part — one final nod, if you will, to the pure, calculated, and honest humor that he brought with him through decades of stage and film history. Though the rest of the cast must’ve pulled off their roles in an equally amusing manner to win over audiences that aren’t me, in my opinion his was the only character of interest. But then, maybe it was just the fact that he was searching for infants stolen by pirates…in ancient Rome!  You can enjoy the longest of the Buster Keaton scenes, and perhaps the best scene from the entire film, here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QPds0-hZ1tM

Who’s to blame/thank for the film’s greatness or lack there of?
I will arguably agree that there was some fine acting in the film, and Zero Mostel has all of the makings of a great comedian. The other actors and actresses in the film also performed their roles quite well, and I don’t fault any of them for this movie being a stinker.  I think I just hated the all-around script, concept, and type of humor. It didn’t appeal to me; pure and simple. There are all types of humor, and this wasn’t my type. I blame the type of humor for my dislike; nothing more.

Is it re-watchable?
I won’t be re-watching it; no. If you happen to find it amusing, however, I can see why you’d want to watch it again. Amusing things are always worth watching over and over to the viewer who finds them to be humorous. If you like it, who am I to tell you not to re-watch it? If you don’t like it, throw it in the junker list like me.

Why I watched this film in the first place?
I’d seen this film title in my grandpa’s collection many, many years ago, and the amusing title stuck with me. Often, I find myself wanting to say things like, “A funny thing happened on the way to the fall,” or “A funny thing happened on the way to the freeway,” but I never used it out loud. It didn’t seem right without having seen the film or the play. That said, I suppose I watched it based on it’s funny title alone. The good news is that in my research I discovered that the play’s title was not the origin of the phrase. A funny thing happned on the way to the theatre, was a common phrase used by vaudville actors. I suppose that means I can go ahead and use the phrase now if I’d like.

If you liked this, you might also like:
I have no idea what you’d like if you liked this, because I don’t like anything like this. I suppose I would put the fast-paced, slapstick, period-set type of comedy to battle with any number of Mel Brooks‘ films. You might also like Monty Python films. Those are my best comparisons, though, most of these films are actually funny — at least those I’ve seen. You could also try one of my favorite slapstick comedy jaunts, The Great Race. I don’t know if you’d like The Great Race if you liked this, but I know you’ll like The Great Race if you didn’t like this.

Final verdict – in claps
You may clap, but I did not. Thank goodness that I don’t have to waste money on the play EVER.

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