A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum brings the 1962 stage musical to the screen in the 1966 feature directed by Richard Lester.
I spent last night watching the classic musical comedy in honor of Richard Lester’s 90th birthday today. After all, we should pay tribute to them while they are alive instead of waiting until they pass away. I’ve watched a number of Dick Lester’s films recently: A Hard Day’s Night, Help!, and thanks to the Criterion release this week, The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film. To my regret, I did not watch this last November following the passing of Stephen Sondheim. The Broadway legend composed the music and lyrics while Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart pen the book. Their script is adapted for the screen by Melvin Frank and Michael Pertwee.
Roman playwright Plautus’s farces inspires this musical. The main focus is on a slave, Pseudolus (Zero Mostel), and the attempts to win his freedom. He does this by helping Hero (Michael Crawford) get the girl next door, Philia (Annette Andre). Marcus Lycus (Phil Silvers) is set to sell her in marriage to Captain Miles Gloriosus (Leon Greene). Things get comical when we learn that Erronius (Buster Keaton) is really the father of both Philia and Miles. Too funny! There is always a twist. This is the kind of comedy that manages to write itself.
The joys of adapting stage to screen is that a number of songs will always get cut. This is unfortunate but it’s just the way it works. For the songs that do make it, “Comedy Tonight” is my personal favorite. “Something familiar, something peculiar, something for everyone, a comedy tonight!” This is such a hummable song! Case in point: it is a song that I find myself humming even if it is a few years between viewings. Ken Thorne even earned an Oscar by adapting Sondheim’s work for the screen. The music sometimes takes a back seat to the comedy action itself. When you look at stage-to-screen adaptations, films running just over an hour and a half are awfully short. It works for a comedy movie even if the film takes out a number of songs.
What I can tell you is that this film has three solid screen stars in Zero Mostel, Phil Silvers, and Buster Keaton. Comedy legends! Mostel and Jack Gilford reprise their stage roles for the screen. When the stage musical was being cast, they originally wanted Silvers but he was afraid of performing without his glasses. The role went to Mostel. Because of Mostel, Lester directs the film. Other potential directors included Charles Chaplin, Orson Welles, and Mike Nichols. I’m sorry but I have a hard time seeing any of these three directing the film. It would, of course, be interesting to see Chaplin directing Keaton!
Whether it is intentional or not, Lester makes sure that Buster Keaton is the last actor we see on the screen. It’s a fitting tribute to the legendary silent comedian because he passed away in February 1966. Keaton does one of his own pratfalls in the film where he runs into the tree. There are others, of course. However, Mick Dillon stands in for the dying legend when the character is running.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is still a funny classic over 55 years later.
DIRECTOR: Richard Lester
SCREENWRITER: Melvn Frank and Michael Pertwee
CAST: Zero Mostel, Phil Silvers, Buster Keaton, Michael Crawford, Jack Gilford, Annette Andre, Michael Horderne, Leon Greene, and Roy Kinnear
United Artists released A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in theaters on October 16, 1966.
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