From Love to Decline: Giving Evelyn Waugh a Sixties Spin

The Loved One gives viewers that "sick kick", and Decline and Fall of a Bird Watcher perfectly captures Waugh's tone of cruel, facetious, and lunatic whimsies.

Above from The Loved One (1965)

The Loved One gives viewers that “sick kick”, and Decline and Fall of a Bird Watcher perfectly captures Waugh’s tone of cruel, facetious, and lunatic whimsies.

Love in Decline, While Decline Needs More Love

In the satirical farces of Evelyn Waugh, callow heroes wander through a world where the wicked prosper while lambs are slaughtered, not that the lambs are entirely blameless. Two major film adaptations from the swinging ’60s, The Loved One and Decline and Fall of a Bird Watcher, are now available on demand, and I’d like to take this occasion to defend the latter against the strange oblivion of its reputation.

Of these two pictures, the critically acclaimed effort is The Loved One, directed by a post-Tom Jones Tony Richardson and scripted by the illustrious (or at least infamous) Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood.

The story follows the fateful peregrinations of a useless and not very likable post-graduate Engish poet, Dennis Barlow (Robert Morse, not trying much of an English accent). He arrives in Los Angeles to visit his uncle (John Gielgud), who works for a movie studio. After a tragedy, Dennis lands a job in a pet cemetery and builds a problematic romance with the naive and delusional Miss Thanatogenos (Anjanette Comer), who is pursued by artistic embalmer Mr. Joyboy (Rod Steiger, skin-crawlingly creepy). The most grotesque scenes involve Mr. Joyboy’s voracious and enormous mother (Ayllene Gibbons).

The film feels like a tableau of comic turns: Jonathan Winters as twin funeral moguls, Robert Morley as spokesman of the British colony, Roddy McDowall as a cold and crass Hollywood exec (is that redundant?), Liberace as a funeral director (one of the film’s many “camp” alerts), Tab Hunter as a cemetery tour guide, Lionel Stander and Bernie Kopell as drunken advice columnists, Milton Berle as a frantic client, Dana Andrews as an army general, James Coburn as an unamused customs clerk, and perhaps most amazingly, a pre-stardom Paul Williams (in his 20s) as a child rocketry genius.

The scene of Miss Thanatogenos’ house being perched precariously on a cliff provides a sequence of surreal suspense that looks forward to a similar gag in Don’t Make Waves, another L.A. satire about the misadventures of a brazen interloper that came from a British director in Hollywood, Alexander Mackendrick. That was scripted by Ira Wallach from his 1959 novel Muscle Beach, and I’m curious to know if the novel has that scene or if the film version might have been influenced by Richardson’s movie. I do know that Wikipedia’s article on Southern claims (without detail or documentation) that Filmways producer John Calley hired him to work on the screenplay for Don’t Make Waves.

The basic incidents in the film of The Loved One are the same as in Waugh’s novel, with the greatest deviation involving some business about Air Force rocketry, for which I assume Southern is responsible. Also, Mr. Joyboy’s over-the-top effusions feel of a piece with Southern’s script for Dr. Strangelove, with special reference to the title character’s rants and the disquisition on “precious bodily fluids” from General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden).

In his long-lost-and-rediscovered Paris Review interview, Southern refers to Waugh’s novel (properly, I think) as “relatively limited”, and to the movie as having “great moments” (“I mean moments that hadn’t been done cinematically before”) but as a totality “pretty shaky and uneven and eccentric”. He makes no mention of Isherwood.

Isherwood was a very interesting choice. An England-to-California transplant of Waugh’s generation, he’s best known for creating Sally Bowles in stories that led to the film I Am a Camera and later Cabaret. Unlike Waugh, he found a successful life in California and settled there, writing several screenplays.

In 1945, Isherwood published the novel Prater Violet. That was a few years before Waugh wrote The Loved One, based on his own 1947 trip to Hollywood. Isherwood’s book is short, delightful and piercing. Plot: Isherwood (as “himself”) is hired or hijacked by a British studio in 1933 to script a piece of Viennese sausage directed by a brillliant refugee from Hitler, who is depicted as if Akim Tamiroff plays Orson Welles. Since it’s set in the English film industry, it doesn’t technically count as a Hollywood satire, but it’s the same difference.

It’s so brief and breezy, Prater Violet would take as long for you to read as for me to explain what’s good about it. However, I’ll digress long enough to let Diana Trilling tell you, from her book reviews for The Nation gathered in Reviewing the Forties (1978).

She hardly ever swooned over contemporary fiction, so it means something when she coughs up an unalloyed rave for Isherwood’s book, concluding with: “I for once urge a novel on the readers of this column. More than any book of the last three years, Prater Violet, small as it is, provides the kind of satisfaction which some few of us still ask from current fiction but which current fiction persistently refuses us.”

A bit earlier in that review of 17 November 1945, she writes: “In contradiction of the present-day order of literary things, it is a book written in the author’s own person but it is without ego. It is a novel about movie writers but it is also a novel about the life of every serious artist. It is a book without a political moral yet a profound moral-political statement. It is gay, witty, and sophisticated but it is wholly responsible… The simplicity of Mr. Isherwood’s style is a reflection neither of condescension nor assertion, it is the style of a free and generous intelligence most happily balanced between self-tolerance and tolerance of others.”

Wow. Waugh’s voice at his best is a happy balance between self-loathing and his loathing of others. By a telling coincidence, Trilling’s next column trashes Waugh’s new bestseller Brideshead Revisited entirely in terms of trying to take it seriously on its weakest yet most self-important point: the religious theme. For if Trilling’s modus operandi can be summarized, it’s that she’s less impressed by strengths or weaknesses of various qualities (though she notes them) than with a kind of meta- or macro-thematic analysis of what the writer ends up saying, whether they intended to or not.

She finds that Waugh traces the decline of the family to Mrs. Marchmain’s piety, “an amusing position to have worked himself into.” She sums it as “an effort to put God on the side of the dying upper classes” and wonders why he “should hope that faith will be able to restore a class that faith has not been able to hold together.” More viciously, she says she’s not of his coterie, having read only two previous satires that bored rather than enlightened her “perhaps because I am not very sensible of the virtues threatened by the objects of Mr. Waugh’s satire and because I cannot share Mr. Waugh’s sorrow for the fate of the prodigal sons of England’s stately homes.” So there!

I can’t help noting that on this and Prater Violet, that’s two novels in a row where she’s reviewing books that owe their longevity at least partly to interest in the semi-submerged queer content, which she never mentions.

Getting back to Richardson’s film: The canny boys in the publicity department advertised it with some acumen and prescience as “the motion picture with something of offend everyone” (as seen in the trailer and discussed in a brief making-of), which is really as good a way to plug it as any, and better than promising boundless laughs. I suppose many people were shocked, put off, or delighted by the darkness of it, and the films owes its cult reputation to the story’s most uncomfortable and grotesque elements.

Apart from that, the film shares with its novel the quality of being mildly amusing at best. A part of the problem is Robert Morse, who is often directed by Richardson and the script toward the impish and selfish instead of the blank and clueless. The latter would be more in line with Waugh and, more importantly, more consistent with the arc of the character’s behavior. Morse anticipates Roddy McDowall’s anti-hero in the following year’s Lord Love a Duck, another cult item that pleases some viewers for its anti-social tendencies to cruelty and tastelessness, which in retrospect make it “ahead of its time”.

I don’t understand why Decline and Fall of a Bird Watcher (based on Decline and Fall, Waugh’s first novel) has a much lower and obscurer reputation. Not only does it perfectly capture Waugh’s tone of cruel, facetious, and lunatic whimsies, it’s much funnier. Its felicities begin with the fact that Robin Phillips embodies Waugh’s typical protagonist much better than Morse.

As in the earlier film, a callow youth stumbles from one weird and darkly comic set of circumstances to another, providing opportunity for wacky turns by various actors. With its twists and coincidences, some deliciously predictable and some entirely gratuitous, it’s best understood as a parody of the Dickensian bildungsroman.

Robin Phillips plays bland young idiot Paul Pennyfeather (of lowest value, of lightest weight), who gets expelled from Oxford for being a victim of absurd circumstances. He’s told, “I expect you’ll be becoming a schoolmaster. That’s what most young gentlemen does, sir, what gets sent down for indecent behavior.” This is confirmed when he’s interviewed by a headmaster, Dr. Augustus Fagan (Donald Wolfit), who says, “I have been in the teaching profession long enough to know that no one enters it without some very good reason which he’s anxious to conceal.”

Producer Ivan Foxwell’s script (with additional scenes–but which?– by Hugh Whitemore and Alan Hackney) is full of such gems. Pennyfeather’s odyssey only begins at Fagan’s prep school, for soon he’ll get entangled with dazzling widow Margot Beste-Chetwynde (Genevieve Page) and become acquainted with other British institutions.

Those who turn up like badly feathered pennies along the way include Leo McKern, Colin Blakely, Robert Harris, Paul Rogers, Donald Sinden, Patience Collier, and Griffith Jones. There are cameos by Felix Aylmer as a judge and Patrick Magee as a maniac, though it’s difficult to tell them apart. Even the smallest roles are cast to give pleasure. Mention must be made of Roland Curram as blas√© modern architect Otto Silenus, merely because I love the name.

Perhaps irrationally, I love everything about this movie. I wonder if Robert Altman did as well, for the poster is prominently displayed in Brewster McCloud, or perhaps it merely fits that movie’s bird motif. Still, they might have used a poster for some other bird movie, and they didn’t. Also, both films are about gormless youths surrounded by eccentric characters, and both feature comic deaths and problematic romance. And both films kind of took a bath at the box office.

Decline and Fall of a Bird Watcher (1968)

It’s a close call, but the comic highlight of Decline and Fall of a Bird Watcher is a scene of covert communication by those attending a church service. Messages are passed by singing to the tune of the hymn; it gets my vote as one of the funniest musical numbers in cinema. Speaking of music, Ron Goodwin’s theme feels sardonic in retrospect. It’s a jaunty, lilting earworm introduced over the prismatically colored credits; just look at all the pretty lights!

Cinematographer Desmond Dickinson alternates earth tones with bright, rich colors, often contrasted against milky white for Mrs. Beste-Chetwynde’s extravagant milieu. He shoots many scenes, especially imposing interiors, with a wide-angle lens to create a subtly warped, claustrophobic effect. It gives much of the film a peepshow air.

Dickinson’s interesting and varied career reached its public highpoint when his lensing of Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet in 1948 led to an outstanding streak in British “quality cinema” under directors Anthony Pelissier (The History of Mr. Polly, The Rocking Horse Winner, Tonight at 8:30 ), Anthony Asquith (The Browning Version, The Importance of Being Earnest ), and Carol Reed (The Man Between ).

That’s far from a shabby list, and unless you’re a connoisseur of what some call trash (as am I, pleased to meet you), it must have seemed a comedown for him to move on to such engaging shockers as Horrors of the Black Museum; the very fine City of the Dead (a.k.a. Horror Hotel ); the 1960 English remake of The Hands of Orlac or Hands of the Strangler, most interesting for its odd photographic approach; three Agatha Christie mysteries plus the Sherlock Holmes/Jack the Ripper antics of A Study in Terror; and the garish Joan Crawford circus nonsense of Berserk.

He’d go on to shoot Crawford in Trog (okay, a bit of a comedown), Shelley Winters in Curtis Harrington’s melancholy Whoever Slew Auntie Roo, and the children’s spooker The Man from Nowhere, which I recall from a ’70s anthology series called Once Upon a Classic. The man understood atmosphere.

Dickinson’s warping peepshow effect in this film works in conjunction with the tension provided by director John Krish’s clean, classic, even static style. Krish went from a background in short documentaries to a cult sci-fi item I’d love to see, Unearthly Stranger (one reference book calls it chilling and unusually thoughtful) and three wild episodes of TV’s stylish The Avengers, including the one about ghosts and the one about time travel. Why he’s not done more, I wish I knew.

Perhaps the film’s greatest element is John Barry’s fabulous production design. Along with costumes by Anna Duse and Julie Harris, it provides continual delight to the eye and at times a surreal updating of the novel’s ’20s setting to the mod late ’60s. There are not one but two phone conversations in bathtubs, the latter of which provides a nice visual pun on the running gag of being “in the soup”. And what tubs! And what phones!

This John Barry isn’t the famous composer but the art director who’d soon move on to A Clockwork Orange, then Star Wars (winning an Oscar) and Superman: The Movie. This was his first credit in charge of the art direction, and he’d also design another cult masterpiece, Phase IV. This man was a major talent who’d be better known today if he hadn’t died while directing 2nd unit on The Empire Strikes Back.

Warner Archives’ on-demand disc of The Loved One (a straight reissue of the 2006 DVD) presents a clean copy of the slightly widescreen 1.85:1 film, shot in black and white by Haskell Wexler. Fox Cinema Archives’ disc of Decline and Fall of a Bird Watcher is presented in the standard Academy ratio of 4:3 (or 1.33:1) and looks perfectly balanced. I don’t know whether it was shown thus in theatres, or whether it was shot in 1.66:1 (the British standard at the time) or 1.85:1, or whether it’s a question of unmasking the full 35mm frame, but the image doesn’t seem compromised, and the colors are colorful.

Maybe there’s confusion over the movie’s proper title. The onscreen title includes an ellipsis, with “birdwatcher” a single word: Decline and Fall…of a Birdwatcher. That’s not how it’s packaged, so we’ll just have to get used to it.

By all means, enjoy the excess and eccentricity of The Loved One, which has continually been praised by those who enjoy their movies with a sick kick. Meanwhile, if I’ve done anything to encourage a few more people that Decline and Fall of a Bird Watcher also deserves to be seen, I shan’t have lived in vain.