Flyblown

What you see here is my ticket to A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM at the Regent Street Cinema, Britain’s oldest picture house, and the cup of coffee I got FREE with said ticket, a deal which now establishes this venue in the firmament of my favourite cinemas.

The 35mm print of Richard Lester’s film was practically pristine — you could see MORE FLIES than ever before — Lester had the Spanish set stuffed with real food which rotted and attracted swarms of the little buzzing background artistes. Film projections of musicals are always risky because bad splices can ruin a song like nothing else. This was smooth as my Americano.

The fly in the ointment was the projection, which cut off the top and/or bottom of the frame, giving an unwanted Sergio Leone effect in the closeups, sometimes reducing the image to Jack Gilford’s panicked eyes, or removing important bits of action during the visual gags. But projections of Lester films are rare, and I’d never seen this big, so on the whole I’m still delighted at having the opportunity and I bet the technical problems had been fixed by the second show. You could see the poor projectionist trying to figure out which bit of the frame to crop (correct answer: none).

This evening I tried to see Costa-Gavras Z, a perfect film for this particular historical moment, but it was sold out, annoying because I could trace the exact wrong turn that resulted in me being ten seconds too late for the last seat in the Lumiere. grr.

But still — Lester, Roeg, Sondheim, Mostel, Gilford, Silvers, Hordern…

15 Responses to “Flyblown”

  1. Sheldon Hall Says:

    I know the framing problems with this 35mm print because we have screened it at my university (I doubt there’s more than the one print in the UK). In theory it ought to be correctly framed at 1.85:1, which is how we projected the first reel and I’m guessing how the Regent showed it. The problem is that it is not an original theatrical print but a TV print, cropped at the sides and with just a sliver of black hard matte at top and bottom of the frame. I doubt that it would play well even framed at 1.66:1. The only way to project it without significant loss of picture information would be to use a 1.37:1 Academy aperture plate, which is how it would have been shown on pre-widescreen television. You might want to pass this advice on to the Regent. When you do, ask their projectionist to check to see if the 1980s BBC paperwork is still in one of the cans, as it was when we had it.

  2. charles W. Callahan Says:

    More flies? Now you’re talking.

    I’m fond of this film. My only gripe is 6 good songs were cut.

    Buster Keaton, of course was slipping away. Sad.

  3. There’s a heartbreaking moment where he has to take a deep breath midsentence because his lungs aren’t up to the dialogue. And I blinked back a manly tear as his final feature film credit appeared in the late Richard Williams’ beautiful end creds sequence.

    Thanks, Sheldon, that makes total sense. So we were missing picture at all four edges, no wonder everything seemed so close! The poor projectionist, trying to fit it into the “correct” ratio.

  4. David Ehrenstein Says:

    I can’t say I care for this film much and all. Lester and Sondheim are a bad fit. The show is vaudeville /burlesque requiring a proscenium that Lester always works to explode. The cast is excellent but Lester’s style keeps getting in their way. Sondheim has had bad luck in movies outside of “Stavisky” and “Dick Tracy” His own shows don’t translate well. Richard Linklater is planning to film “Merrily We Roll Along.” Here’s hoping. As for “Forum” here’san eample o what the movie lacks.

  5. A month after seeing this in 1967, I met my lifelong closest friend when he joined me singing “Miles Gloriosus” while going down our dorm stairway.

  6. bensondonald Says:

    I’m biased towards the stage version, having played both Senex and Erronius in community theater. My most creative contribution as Erronius was to jog through the theater parking lot in character during intermission, perhaps amusing the few dozen people who stood in front of the building smoking.

    The movie is fun if you don’t know the play and therefore don’t miss the songs and tight, witty book. A sudden epiphany: “Forum” is what the 60s beach movies aspired to be. It doubles down on old pros, delivers funnier and smuttier gags, meets cheesecake requirements, and nails the “wacky” vibe the AIP films stumblingly attempted. And it gives Keaton better material. If only somebody had thought to toss in a scene with Harvey Lembeck leading a tiny Mongol hoard.

    In the Keaton documentary “A Hard Act to Follow” (is that available anywhere?), they revealed that a stunt man ran for Keaton in long shots. Also that Keaton unnerved cast and crew by really banging his head against a tree branch for that gag in the chase. He shrugged it off as the right way to do it.

  7. I was just about the youngest person in the house, and the Regent’s generous OAP rate meant I’d probably paid more than the rest of the audience combined. But they enjoyed it — every joke got a laugh.

    And I enjoyed the Regent’s organist, and the free coffee, and the intro. I recommend the place to all Londoners.

    Lester speaks quite smartly about the challenges of filming farce, with the implication being that his cutty style wasn’t best suited to it. The film seems to really catch fire, performance-wise, when we get to see actors interacting in a single shot.

  8. Keaton’s tree collision was staged with just a little piece of foam inside his hat, then he walked straight into the branch, taking care to turn as he did so, to avoid flinching — a trick he learned from Arbuckle on his very first film.

  9. David Ehrenstein Says:

    “A Funny Thing’ was Sondheim’s first produced show for which he’d written both music and lyrics. Years and years before he’d written a show called “Saturday Night”‘ an adaptation of “Front Porch In Brooklyn” by the Epstein brothers. Unfortunately the producer died so it never went on until skeenteen years later briefly off-broadway. it contains his first great song

  10. David Ehrenstein Says:

    “Funny Thing” was a giant hit but as it was slapstick/burlesque comedy Sondheim’s songs were pretty much ignored, except by the great Frank Loesser who told him just how hard it was to write for a comedy show and just how well he had done with “Funny Thing”

  11. bensondonald Says:

    Sondheim’s score was almost explicitly tasked with providing relief from the comedy — even though most of the songs, taken in themselves, are hilarious in their own right. They also carry what little emotional weight is needed. They don’t really “advance the plot” as proper musical theater numbers are supposed to do.

    Don’t remember if “Free” is in the movie. It’s what they now call the “I want” song. Pseudolus wants his freedom, because “you’re a vegetable unless you’re free”. He sees himself a lover, a poet, a reformer. It gets laughs for the lyric jokes and the actor’s raptures over that “little word”, but it also tells you his freedom is the most important thing in the show. Everything he does is in the service of that goal; everybody else is ultimately a billiard ball on his table.

    Other songs sell lies, strip love down to simple and sincere physical attraction, and express character traits. “Bring Me My Bride”, that magnificent hymn of egotism, actually replaced another song — the much more satiric “There’s Something About a War”, which lists the petty inconveniences one endures for such pleasures as decapitating farmers. It was cut for being too pointed, and for being too wry and aware for blinded-by-his-own-greatness Miles.

    The opening number was added in previews. The original opening song was the clever “Love is in the Air”, which could have heralded a cute romantic comedy. Jerome Robbins was called in; he decreed a number that would spell out (and illustrate) more exactly where the evening was going.

  12. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Jerry Robbins was right/ “Love is in the Air” doesn’t set the scene for the show. “Comedy Tonight” does so perfectly. Waste Not/ Want Not as “Love is in the Air” was used in “The Bird Cage” many years later

  13. “Free” is cut — Zero’s motivation is still perfectly clear even if its emotion is muted a little. More Zero is always a good thing in my book, so I wish it existed. Lester evidently had no desire to make a three hour roadshow picture at this point, though he attempted it later with The Three/Four Musketeers, eventually divided into two releases.

  14. bensondonald Says:

    Recall an interview with Christopher Lee in which he seemed to believe it was always the Salkinds’ plan to pay the talent for one movie and release it as two. Superman was definitely planned as two movies, although circumstances led to Lester replacing Donner and a lot of completed footage for the sequel.

    Finally caught up with “Return of the Musketeers”. It’s an odd mess, but not in the expected ways.

    Fraser’s script is essentially faithful to the Dumas original, which centers on an attempt to save Charles I (guess how that turns out) and foiling Milady De Winter’s vengeful son. It’s an interesting read, but a letdown after the iconic original adventure. The book opens by frankly admitting the new cardinal is vastly less interesting and powerful than Richelieu; Dumas even has Queen Anne musing on the point. In the film, that and many other of the book’s weaknesses remain.

    There’s some sardonic entertainment in watching D’Artagnan try to get the band back together to serve an ungrateful Queen Anne: His career as an officer fizzled out; the rest are happy where they are (Porthos is wealthy, Athos can afford to be drunk in his ancestral home, and Aramis’s church vows don’t impede his sex life). Milady’s unpleasant son becomes a dashing girl with a sword, a definite improvement. Fraser even figures out how to bring back Christopher Lee’s character. But there’s a reason — several reasons — other adapters skipped Dumas’s first sequel. From Fairbanks on, they inflate the later incidents of “Man in the Iron Mask” to a big swashbuckler worthy of the musketeers.

    Also: There’s a certain kind of movie that somehow shouts This Is Not Quite an A Picture. Beautiful locations that nonetheless feel a bit short on period decoration and crowds; television-scaled moments; visible misfires like a way-too-small hot air balloon.

  15. Roy Kinnear’s fatal accident occurred midway through the shoot, and the various cover-up techniques used to complete his scenes are painfully apparent if you’re in on that fact.

    But Lester agrees that the budget wasn’t there – the scenes on the ship at night are basically shot against black cloth – and he and McDonald Fraser agreed some time later that they both ought to have done better. The Royal Flash / Prisoner of Zenda inconclusive ending with Kim Cattrall (thigh-slappingly good) escaping adds to the inconclusive feel. But I guess they couldn’t repeat Four Musketeers’ ending with her.

    I felt we were in trouble from the start, with the two voice-overs (omniscient narrator reading the text crawl, D’Artagnan stepping in to fill in backstory) which seemed like a violation of the earlier films’ style of storytelling, but there are great bits, like the trapdoor house operaqted by concealed dwarfs.

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