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…