A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM marks a specific point in my cinematic awakening. It was on TV and my young self tuned in partway through. I couldn’t quite work out what I was looking at, because it had Peter Butterworth in it, who seemed to be only in Carry On films, and it had Phil Silvers in it, who was in one Carry On film, and it was a historical farce like CARRY ON CLEO. but it had production values! And energy!
I also realized, from all the swish pans at the climax, that it was a sixties film, and I realized suddenly that I could identify films quite precisely by period based on their stylistic tropes alone. I had become a film nerd.
FORUM is also Buster Keaton’s last feature, though THE SCRIBE, an industrial short, may have been shot later. Richard Lester, the director, insisted on building a day into the schedule for a picnic, so he could talk to Buster about his craft. If it yielded an idea or two for the movie, great. Apparently it did.
On the one hand, Lester was lucky – unbelievably lucky – to be able to work with his one hero. On the other hand, it was just a little late. Buster was dying, though he didn’t know it. Any sequences involving physical exertion had to be carefully planned, divided into short shots, and sometimes used a double. Lester was very conscious of the horrible irony — he was working with an actor who was celebrated for accomplishing the greatest things physically of any star, and he was doubling his movements with a stuntman. And what was left? Dialogue.
(In a way, the last Buster Keaton film is SPITE MARRIAGE, since it’s the last silent and the last one he exerted any control over. His last directorial credit is a musical short, STREAMLINED SWING, which is quite nice, but not recognizably Keatonesque.)
But there’s a lot to enjoy in Buster’s performance. The disparate cast which confused me as a kid, relies heavily on old stagers like Zero Mostel, Silvers, and Jack Gilford, and Buster fits right in. The cancer that was killing him makes him short of breath, which affects his speech, but Buster even makes that work for comedy. Imagine.
Buster plays Senex, a terribly near-sighted and befuddled old man perennially searching for his children, stolen in infancy by pirates (don’t worry, there’s a happy ending: it’s a comedy, tonight). His tunic and toga and hat are all dyed one strong hue, as is true of the rest of the cast (there’s an unusual blend of pure theatricality and an attempt by Lester at a kind of comic version of historical accuracy, which he would develop further in the seventies). Buster’s hat is an ancient Roman adaptation of his trademark flat porkpie, and his sandals have been extended to give them the quality of his vaudeville flap shoes.
He does one pratfall, a thing of beauty. I don’t know if it’s undercranked but he plays it as if undercranked, and stops you feeling any of the discomfort that a frail old man walking into a tree and falling on his ass should evoke.
I got to ask Lester if there was any Keaton material that didn’t make the final cut — during the running battle with the film’s producer, Melvin Frank, a bunch of footage apparently got locked in a safe to prevent Lester using it. Lester said he didn’t think there was anything significant missing of Buster, though. But there are a couple of moments — in the opening credits, there’s a tiny shot of Buster descending a tiny step with a huge amount of drama, and there are the tiny cutaways of Senex “abroad, in search of his children, stolen in infancy by pirates.” in these, Buster scans the horizon with one hand held up horizontally to shade his eyes, a familiar pose (eg THE GENERAL) given added comedy/pathos by his character being blind as a bat. In one shot he walks into the edge of his own hand and is confused by it. These latter shots might have been filmed on picnic day. The step seems like a fragment of something, but we’ll never know what.
The film’s final gag reprised a classic Keaton trope — the Perpetual Motion Machine. Buster starts running again, but strays onto a rotating platform, there to continue his jogging in perpetuity, too blind to realize he isn’t moving. And as he puffs away, his body dissolves away and is replaced by paint, as Richard Williams’ typically elaborate end titles transform him into part of a vast fresco. The Great Stone Face.