Richard Lester famously “ruined” the Superman films by camping up more than half of Superman II and turning Superman III into a ridiculous, slapstick vehicle for Richard Pryor much more than for the Man of Steel. This is, of course, exactly what producers wanted, if not what audiences wanted from a Superman movie. Then again, Lester was chosen because of his skill with comedy, not with superheroes and the director has his resume filled with reasons why he was one of the very best in the world at the ridiculous and over-the-top films that still managed to be very, very good and enjoyable.
Two very fine examples of this talent of Lester’s include the Beatles films A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965). A third excellent example hit screens the very next year in the form of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966).
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum began as a Broadway musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim (with inspiration from the ancient Roman playwright Plautus) and was an unquestionable hit, critically and commercially. Rather than jettison what made the play great, Lester and producer Melvin Frank (who co-wrote the screenplay with Michael Pertwee) kept many of the stage play’s stars, such as Zero Mostel, Phil Silvers and Jack Gilford and even brought in many of the behind-the-scenes professionals to make the movie feel more like the play.
This tactic works very well in this feature. Wisely, however, Lester also expands the confines of the action and much of the film feels like it has been shot on location in Ancient Rome. This is, of course, a hysterical farce, so inaccuracies and inconsistencies can be easily forgiven.
Mostel brings us our main character in the form of the hilariously named Pseudolus, a knave of a slave to a wealthy family who is constantly gambling and pulling schemes to win his freedom. He sees something of a light at the end of the tunnel when his master’s son Hero (played by a young, pre-Phantom Michael Crawford) falls in love with the virginal slave girl next door (Annette Andre) and Pseudolus agrees to help him win her if it will mean his freedom. The problem is that she has already been promised and sold to a bloodthirsty Roman Captain (played by Leon Greene) who is on his way to claim her.
What follows is a ridiculous, ribald, and risqué adventure filled with absolutely silly circumstances, cross-dressing, mistaken identity, surprising plot twists and near-death experiences. The chariot race alone is a must-see. At the same time, the events are taken about as seriously as the second half of Arsenic and Old Lace, so it is both all in good, harmless fun and easy to swallow at the same time.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum hits a few bumps in its well-crafted road when Lester gets a bit more into his self-indulgent side and deviates a bit too much from the source material for some prolonged outdoor scenes. These do work, sure, but theater purists may be justified in taking personal exception. To make up for this extra time, no less than seven songs from the original play were excised. That is a full half of the music from the play, cut from the film, leaving only seven songs (one of which is a reprise).
Luckily the film remains funny as hell, thanks to its skilled cast of actors. Mostel is excellent as the ham of the stage and comic lead who leads us through the screwball web he weaves. Phil Silvers is effectively funny as the silly slave trader Marcus Lycus and Jack Gilford is at his farcical best, living up to his character’s name as the slave Hysterium. Doctor Who fans should watch closely for a cameo by the screenwriter’s brother, one Jon Pertwee, who would later go on to portray the Third Doctor in the long-running BBC science-fiction saga.
The film is saved more than once by the talents of the 70 year old Buster Keaton in his final filmed performance. Terminally ill during filming, Keaton is as spry as ever as the myopic Erronius and provides a breath of fresh air every time the plot gets the slightest bit stale. Though his appearance is largely a deluxe cameo, Keaton is exactly what this film needs and he steals the show from his talented cast members at virtually every appearance.
While the 2014 Kino Lorber Blu Ray release does look and sound great in high definition, the feature itself is the only real “feature” we get here, aside from the welcome theatrical trailer. There are otherwise no bonuses to accompany this classic film.
However, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is a classic in its own right. The songs are fun and the story is unpredictable (even if it does occasionally meander for too long). Screwball tales like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), Around the World in 80 Days (1956) and Lester’s own Beatles films would look mighty fine (and arguably a bit more complete) on the old DVD rack with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum resting comfortably next to them.