Litter Louts


Richard Lester has said “Someone should teach a class on film openings,” pointing out that this is where the director is often most free to lay out the themes of the film without the pressure of narrative.

The making of A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM was a running battle between Lester and his producer, Melvin Frank, an old-school Hollywood type. Frank couldn’t comprehend the idea of Lester shooting a musical without a camera crane, refused to let him hire a screenwriter to rewrite the script (Lester eventually did it himself with Nic Roeg, his cinematographer), wrote a long memo explaining exactly why the film must and should contain a water ballet on the theme of “flags of all nations” (Lester framed this and hung it in his bathroom), and eventually locked some of the footage in a vault to prevent it being incorporated in the edit.


Reading all this in Neil Sinyard’s critical study of Lester, I surmised that the title sequence of the film, climaxing in a collision between two Roman litters, with the producer’s name superimposed over one and the director’s over another, was a sly comment on the fraught nature of their “collaboration.” The first time I met Lester I congratulated him on this.

“No. That wasn’t intentional.”

Chalk up another victory for the power of the unconscious mind.

Titles are by Richard Williams. Editing is by John Victor-Smith. Perhaps it was their idea. The sequence is rather remarkable for the way it shuffles Zero Mostel introducing the story direct to camera (with song), Zero Mostel conducting a crooked game of dice (the start of the story itself), cutaway portraits of the dramatis personae as they are introduced, documentary shots snatched of extras who Lester had actually living in the set, flashforwards of highlights to come (so that the movie contains its own preview of coming attractions), and deleted footage that doesn’t appear in the movie at all (perhaps rescued from Frank’s safe?). Lester told me there wasn’t any more footage of Buster Keaton than appears in the movie, but there are a couple of tiny, suggestive moments here…

8 Responses to “Litter Louts”

  1. Well here’ to the Forgotten Man in all of this — Stephen Sondheim. Forum was God’s (as he is known by his legion of acolytes) first produced full (music AND lyrics) score. His first Saturday Night was still-born as the producer died before it could be put on. Forum was a hit thanks to Zero Mostel and the nimble direction of his arch enemy Jerry Robbins. Zero’s was one of the names named y Jerry before HUAC — so fearful of he of being “outed” as the Big Ol’ Gay Homosexual he was. When he was brought on board Forum the producers consulted with Zero. “Do I have to have lunch with him?” he asked. They said no. So production went smoothing with Jerry directing the entire cast and Zero directing himself. They exchanged nary a word. The critics were over the moon about the show but had little to say about the score. But God got a boost from the great Frank Loesser who knew just how hard it is to write songs fro a comedy show. He predicted a bright future for Sondheim — and he was right. And here’s why.

  2. I was lucky enough to get to know Madeline Gilford, Jack Gilford’s widow. She essentially told me the same story. Apparently the HUAC told Robbins that they would tell his mother he was gay. But for FORUM apparently the show was in trouble and Robbins fixed it. Of course Mostel went on to be directed by Robbins again for FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. I love Lester but I have never warmed much to the film version of FORUM, even given that Keaton was in the cast.

  3. True. Lester has a number of ideas about slapstick that he wants to work out here, but Forum is the wrong vehicle for it. It’s proscenium show if there ever was one.

    Sondheim is inherently theatrical. None of the film adaptations of his shows has really worked, IMO. His best movie musical is. . .Stavisky. . ..

    In many was Dick Tracy counts as a musical. He wrote a whole mess of songs for it. Here’s the best of them.

  4. Forum is only half Lester’s — Melvin Frank’s fingerprints are all over it, and where he couldn’t impose his own personality, he was at least able to interfere with Lester imposing his. The result could be compared to something like Joe Dante’s Loony Toons: Back in Action — the director gets the blame because his personal stamp is all over it, but the reason it seems a bit too chaotic is the other clowns sticking their fingers in the pie.

  5. An analysis from Mark Evanier:

    In a nutshell, his problem with the movie is that Lester created timing and comedy in his editing, and here he had a bunch of legendary comic actors who could deliver the timing and comedy in camera.

    My own problem with the movie is the same problem I have with some other stage-to-screen adaptations. Good musical librettos tend to be lean, efficient and rock-solid; screenwriters often feel an urge to add clutter or arbitrary changes. The result is a lot of movies that are far more dated than the stage versions, many of which are still successfully performed with their old but robust books.

    Filming a play straight is rarely a great idea, but the best films manage the illusion of fidelity; utilizing film to manage transitions beyond stagecraft and building additions out of things that are mentioned or implied in the play (Oliver captured and taken to court; Eliza Doolittle forcibly cleaned up; Marian the Librarian unravelling Harold Hill’s lies).

  6. Lester was to some extent forced to manufacture the timing as Phil Silvers couldn’t remember his lines and Buster Keaton could no longer run more than a few steps. And then the rest of the film gets more cutty in order to match.

  7. My appreciation for Lester’s FORUM is personal– it released my senior year of high school, and a little later, a neighbor in my college dorm introduced himself after hearing me mangling “Miles Gloriosus” as I climbed the stairs– he had also liked the movie. He’s been my closest friend the intervening 48 years.

  8. Loving it may depend upon coming to it first, before the stage musical. And on certain quirks of personal taste. I rather love it.

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