A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum (1966)
Written by Melvin Frank & Michael Pertwee
Based on the musical by Burt Shevelove, Larry Gelbart, and Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Richard Lester
Pseudolus (Zero Mostel) is a slave in ancient Rome who enjoys gambling and disobeying his masters of the House of Senex. His son of his masters, Hero (Michael Crawford) is in love with a woman he has spied only from his bedroom window at the brothel next door. Pseudolus sees this as an opportunity to gain his freedom and makes this the reward if he is able to get Hero’s dream girl for him. What follows is a farce of class and society filtered through the lens of the satires of Roman playwright Plautus and the vaudeville schtick of Jewish comedians. The whole production is directed by English filmmaker Richard Lester who was hot off of The Beatles’ Help! and British sex farce The Knack…and How to Get It. All of this makes for some very wild cinema.
Richard Lester is known, unofficially, as the father of the music video thanks to his work with The Beatles. He brings that sensibility to this Broadway adaptation in a way that makes it still feel fresh visually. The jokes are definitely of the corny old-school variety, yet still very charming and still very funny. However, the look of the film was much more in line with cultural changes of the 1960s. This is helped by cinematographer Nicolas Roeg. Australian filmmaker Roeg would spend the 1970s producing some amazing works: Walkabout, Don’t Look Now, and The Man Who Fell to Earth to name only a few. His touch is not apparent at first but there are some moments in the middle of the film, where the music video nature of the story takes over, and we see shot compositions that are doing some interesting and playful things.
Lester’s entire career seemed to be built around eschewing the traditional and even here with a standard three-act structure musical he is poking fun. While Forum is a farce, it also clings to theatrical tradition, shoehorning in a love story that ultimately has nothing interesting to say but is expected to be there because…well comedies always have one. Lester manages to poke much fun at this by presenting the love ballad with much earnestness in the first act. Then in the third act, he subverts it by having in drag, pursued by Pseudolus in a shot by shot mocking of the original love ballad.
Against this cultural shift in filmmaking, the sort of swinging 60s vibe, we have old-school Jewish comedians. It’s a contrast that could come off as dissonant, but everything flows together. Backing up Mostel, we have Phil Silvers and Jack Gilford, both coming out of the Yiddish theater tradition with a very particular style of humor. Then there are the classical English actors, just as funny, and not relegated to playing it straight. They serve as a contrast to the type of comedy Mostel and company are serving up. The film is filled with gags and jokes from start to finish and never attempts to be more than what it is: a funny, entertaining spectacle. If you enjoy a sort of bawdy burlesque tone to your comedy, then Forum will do just that.