The studio dubbed it "The motion picture with something to offend everyone!"
It's hard to say why some films succeed and others don't. There was no reason on earth why MGM's 1965 release "The Loved One" shouldn't have been a smash hit instead of leaving critics divided and a good many viewers indifferent.
The movie was a dark satire following on the heels of Stanley Kubrick's hit "Dr. Strangelove" of the year before. Terry Southern ("Dr. Strangelove," "Easy Rider," "Candy," "The Magic Christian") and Christopher Isherwood ("Berlin Stories"/"Cabaret") wrote the screenplay from a best-selling novel by Evelyn Waugh ("Brideshead Revisited"). Tony Richardson ("A Taste of Honey," "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner"), having just won an Oscar for "Tom Jones" in 1963, directed. Noted British composer John Addison ("Tom Jones," "Torn Curtain," "Sleuth," "The Seven Per Cent Solution") penned and conducted the music. And the cast followed the pattern set by "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World," loaded to the gills with top-name entertainers in major and minor roles: Robert Morse, Jonathan Winters (in dual roles), Anjanette Comer, Dana Andrews, Milton Berle, James Coburn, John Gielgud, Tab Hunter, Margaret Leighton, Liberace, Roddy McDowall, Robert Morley, Barbara Nichols, Lionel Stander, Rod Steiger, and Paul Williams, among others.
Yet critics could be brutal. Stanley Kaufman wrote that the film was "a spineless farrago of collegiate gags." The "New Yorker" said it was "a sinking ship that makes it to port because everyone on board is too giddy to panic." And Pauline Kael said reluctantly that "even a chaotic satire like this is cleansing, and it's embarrassing to pan even a bad movie that comes out against God, mother and country." But is it really bad? Certainly not; some critics and audiences found at least parts of it hysterically funny. It's just not another "Strangelove," which is perhaps an unfair comparison in the first place. The problem I've always had with "The Loved One" is that it tries to cover too much ground with too much material that is simply too obvious and too unfunny.
"There's got to be a way to get those stiffs off my property!" --Jonathan Winters
For the most part, "The Loved One" pokes fun at the overcommercialization of the funeral business in America, something novelist Evelyn Waugh found deplorable when he visited the country in the late 1940s. However, the movie takes a while to get there, and once it does it dilutes the funeral satire with send-ups of too many other things as well: the British movie colony in Hollywood at the time; the movie industry itself; snobbishness; athletic clubs; suicide; racism; pet cemeteries; shallow poets; phony gurus; retirement communities; TV commercials; gluttony; motherhood; the military; and authority in general among a host of other things. It's as though the storytellers were never convinced they could keep an audience interested in any one area for a full two hours, so they had to pull in a ton of peripheral subjects to lampoon as well.
The two top-billed stars are Robert Morse, still fresh from "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," and Jonathan Winters, still fresh from his comedy albums, stand-up act, and "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World." But Hollywood never seemed to know what to do with these two brilliantly talented fellows. The actors worked best with broad physical humor, vocal characterizations, and improvisation, and the film does, indeed, have an improvisational feel to it. But the improvisational tone seems more careless than inspired, and both lead actors are still too hemmed in, despite Winters being given multiple roles to perform (as Peter Sellers had done in "Strangelove"). By this I mean that Morse plays a young, naive English poet, Dennis Barlow, just come to America because he won a ticket on an airlines, who seems no more English than I do, his British accent coming and going in the wind; and Winters, as the boring Henry Glenworthy and as his own brother, the lecherous and at least slightly more animated Blessed Reverend Dr. Wilbur Glenworthy, finds almost nothing to sink his teeth into.
Dennis arrives penniless in America and takes up lodging with his uncle, Sir Francis Hinsley (John Gielgud), who soon hangs himself. Dennis has to make funeral arrangements, and he becomes involved with the two Glenworthys and Whispering Glades cemetery.
The movie's plot is so slender it's like Morse's accent, coming and going at will. Mostly, the film is a series of odd sights, caricatures, and gags, most of them happening for no particular reason, like Dennis falling asleep head first in his potatoes at a posh British luncheon.
The two most noteworthy players in the cast are Liberace, well cast as Mr. Starker, a slick casket salesman; and Rod Steiger as Mr. Joyboy, a prissy head embalmer who loves his work perhaps too much and lives with his obscenely obese mother. Mr. Joyboy is surely the most bizarre person in the film and among the most memorable, but Steiger plays him so seriously that instead of the character being as funny as he should be , he seems more creepy and not a little scary.
Satire is not as easy to pull off as the best satirists make it look. The actors and filmmakers must play it straight but not, as in the example of Steiger, so straight that they lose the humor of the situation. Most of "The Loved One" has its heart in the right place but comes off awkward and clumsy, the actors and director not quite knowing how to approach the subject matter.
Then, too, the film gets bogged down in a doomed love affair involving Dennis with a funeral cosmetician named Aimee Thanatogenous (Anjanette Comer), who is in love with death. Plus, there are peripheral characters who have no more than a brief scene each, like James Coburn as an immigration officer; Milton Berle as a man whose wife's dog has just died; Roddy McDowall as the head of movie studio; Dana Andrews as an army general; Robert Morley as a snobby British movie actor; Paul Williams as a precocious teen rocket scientist (Williams in his first film role was about twenty-five at the time); and Tab Hunter as a cemetery tour guide.
I must say, though, that for all its bland bad taste, irreverence, and naughtiness, the thing I liked best about the picture was...the picture. That is, I loved the work of cinematographer Haskell Wexler (who was also one of the film's producers). There are some wonderful shots of the statuary in Whispering Glades practically coming to life as the camera circles slowly around them. Then there's a scene where Rod Steiger is putting various faces on the corpse of John Gielgud that is priceless. And it's hard to forget the image of Mr. Joyboy's gluttonous mother lying at the foot of an overturned refrigerator, covered in food and avariciously clinging to a roasted turkey. So, for me, "The Loved One" is a small series of lasting visual memories rather than any fond recollections of its wayward humor.
Warner Bros. obtained a good print of this MGM film, one largely unblemished, and they transferred the picture to disc at a ratio closely approximating its original 1.85:1 theatrical dimensions. However, the image quality is still not as good as it might have been forty years ago. The black-and-white contrasts are sometimes quite vivid and other times a bit soft and faded. The object delineations can vary from sharp and clean to somewhat fuzzy. And film grain can be almost totally absent from some scenes and readily apparent in others. You get a little something to delight and offend everyone here, too, just as in the movie.
Even odder than the picture quality is the sound quality, rendered via Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural reproduction. In its favor, it is very quiet, with no background noise to interfere with our listening. But it is limited in frequency and dynamic range, and, worse, the actors' voices seem to have been recorded separately from the action and in a completely different acoustic environment. On the accompanying featurette Robert Morse admits that his voice was entirely looped. I can't help thinking the studio did this for all, or most, of the actors as well.
Among the few extras on the disc, the new, fifteen-minute featurette "Trying to Offend Everyone" is of most importance. Haskell Wexler, whom I've mentioned was one of the film's two producers and its cinematographer, plus three of the film's stars--Robert Morse, Anjanette Comer, and Paul Williams--and assorted others reflect on the production's significance. In addition, there is a widescreen theatrical trailer; thirty-one scene selections (but no chapter insert); English as the only spoken language; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Today, "The Loved One" has attained a kind of cult status, its admirers flocking to its defense. I have no doubt it was controversial, innovative, even groundbreaking in its time, and as a historical piece of filmmaking, it surely has a place. Moreover, it contains any number of memorable bits and pieces. But the diverse parts never coalesce into an effective whole, and as satire and black comedy the film continues to leave me as unmoved today as it did when I first saw it over four decades ago.
"Resurrection now!" --Jonathan Winters