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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Movies you’ve never heard of 1: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Welcome to the inaugural (my third inaugural post on this blog! Let’s hear it for defining terms down!) edition of what I hope to become a series about obscure movies that I have in my DVD library.

Today’s movie has roots on Broadway and ancient Rome, and a title that will take you more than a breath to say. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, starring Zero Mostel, Phil Silvers and Michael Crawford.

The main character, played by Zero Mostel, is Sudelous (Latin for “false face”), a slave in a less fashionable suburb of Rome. He spends all of his time dodging his slavely duties and conniving to scam enough money together to buy his freedom.

His owner is Hero, played by Michael Crawford’s stunning teeth. Hero is the son of Sennex (Latin for Old Man), a good natured if clueless man who is hopelessly whipped by his domineering wife. Hero also happens to be the character around which the plot revolves.

Neighbor to Sennex and his family is Marcus Likus, a “simple tradesman” who trades in female slaves and is played by Phil Silvers.

There are other characters, who I’ll introduce as we come to them, but these are the main players.

As I mentioned, the story revolves around Hero. Cooped up in his home with his tutor, Hero has fallen desperately in love with a woman he’s seen through his bedroom window in the house of Marcus Likus. To now, Hero has been kept panting on a short leash by his mother. However, today his mother and father are traveling to see his maternal grandmother on the occasion of her 106th birthday. His mother leaves him in the charge of Hysterium, the chief slave of the house of Sennex. Hero is to be kept far from the house of Likus, on pain of death for poor Hysterium.

Naturally, Hero immediately disregards his parents’ wishes and enlists the help of Sudelous to help him secure the woman of his dreams. Sudelous crafts a cunning plan: He will pose as a recently freed man, purchase the courtesan that has captured his owner’s heart, and deliver her to his arms. In return, Hero promises to free Sudelous for real.

And if you think it’s going to be that easy, you’ve never seen a farce before.

Rather than spoil the rest of the plot for you, I’ll just note that in the course of the movie there will be fights with gladiators, a high speed chariot chase, waterskiing, a fake funeral and Buster Keaton. That’s right; Buster Keaton brings his trademarked death-defying deadpan to the table as an old, legally blind man returned after years of searching for his children who were stolen in infancy by pirates. Is he important to the plot? Perhaps. My lips are sealed on that particular spoiler.

Why should you care? Well, if you weren’t already intrigued by the gladiators and chariot chases, it’s got Zero Mostel. Pretty much anything featuring him is worth watching. The songs are catchy, if a bit un-PC for modern ears, but when the main thrust of the plot is a love story between a slaveowner and a courtesan, a song like “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid” rates pretty low on the well-I-never-meter.

There’s a lot of good humor in the movie, but you have to be able to appreciate a good farce. I’m a person who eats a good farce up, and you can be sure that other farces will be forthcoming in the Movies You’ve Never Heard Of section. (It is an election year, after all.)

In the end, I think the best explanation of why you should rent, buy or borrow this movie is summed up in the opening song:

Something familiar, something peculiar, something for everyone! A comedy tonight!
Something appealing, something appalling, something for everyone! A comedy tonight!
Nothing with kings, nothing with crowns!
Bring on the lovers, liars and clowns!
Old situations, new complications.
Nothing portentous or polite.
Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight!

Every word of that is completely true. Do check it out.