Monday, August 22, 2022


Spoiler Alert: Crucial plot points are revealed in the interest of critical analysis and discussion

“My Favorite American film.”  François Truffaut
“One of the purest movies I’ve ever seen.”  Michelangelo Antonioni
The Criterion Collection release #200 – DVD in 2003. Blu-ray in 2015.

I’m pleased The Honeymoon Killers has finally acquired the kind of mainstream critical acceptance and highbrow cineaste cachet it has always deserved. Precisely the kind of rep that should prevent the future unfamiliar and uninitiated from being scared away--as I was in 1970--by that Drive-In exploitation flick title. Sounding then to me like a movie that belonged on a double-bill with Werewolf in a Girl's Dormitory, I avoided The Honeymoon Killers for years, only finally getting around to seeing it when TCM aired it sometime in the early 2000s.

Originally to be titled either Dear Martha or The Lonely Hearts Killers when slated for 1969 release by low-budget independent distributor American International Pictures (of biker and Beach Party movie infamy). When that deal proved short-lived, the small film (lensed in 1968 for $200,000) acquired the grindhouse-friendly title of The Honeymoon Killers and was picked up for 1970 release by the somewhat more upscale Cinerama Releasing; an independent distributor specializing in handling high-profile niche-market films and arty genre movies (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, The Killing of Sister George). 
The Honeymoon Killers opened in Hollywood on Wednesday, March 11, 1970, at the Fox Theater on Hollywood Blvd. Actress Shirley Stoler was in attendance on opening night to judge a "Fat is Beautiful" contest. 

Released in many markets just before Valentine’s Day, The Honeymoon Killers, despite its "Creature Features" title and grisly ad campaign, was surprisingly well-received by critics at the time. But due perhaps to the limited marketing resources of Cinerama Releasing or the film’s overall grim subject matter, it proved to be only a modest success at the boxoffice and quickly disappeared. It did well overseas, and in 1992 was briefly rereleased to art and revival houses in the US where more- appreciative reappraisals still failed to result in a significantly higher profile. Well-regarded and ranked by both of its lead actors as their career favorite film, The Honeymoon Killers never achieved the kind of mainstream recognition its widespread critical acclaim augured, but over the years it has built a steady and devoted cult following, becoming a marquee mainstay at revival theaters and midnight screenings. Today, it’s hailed as a modern classic of gritty realism by first-time director/screenwriter Leonard Kastle, a one-hit wonder who never made another film. 
Shirley Stoler as Martha Beck
Tony Lo Bianco as Raymond Fernandez
Doris Roberts as Bunny

The Honeymoon Killers is based on one of those stranger-than-fiction true crime cases so bizarre that it has to be toned down just to register as even remotely credible on the screen. An unlikely pair—surly nurse Martha Beck and unctuous con-man Raymond Fernandez—meet through a Lonely Hearts Club, fall in love, and embark on a larcenous, ultimately murderous, partnership swindling lonely widows out of their savings…and doing away with the ones who give them trouble. 
The real-life duo, dubbed the Lonely Hearts Murderers by the press for their practice of finding their victims through meet-by-correspondence Friendship Societies and Lonely Hearts Clubs, embarked on what one journalist referred to as their “Career of lust and murder for profit” in 1947. They were finally arrested for their crimes in 1949, and both executed in 1951.
To be together as Ray carried out his seduce-and-abandon schemes, the pair posed as brother and sister. In real life, Martha more credibly pretended to be Ray's widowed sister-in-law  

The Honeymoon Killers is bookended by documenting title cards asserting its factual basis. Opening with a printed declaration of the truth of the events to follow, the film closes with a verifying coda citing March 8, 1951, as the date of Martha and Ray’s execution by electric chair in Sing Sing prison. Given all this, what fascinates me is that while the narrative details of the movie hew closely to the facts, absolutely nothing about the film’s appearance…from automobiles to clothing to hairstyles to décor…ever gives the impression of taking place during the years 1947 to 1951. The look is completely late-1960s. In fact, one scene has Martha using a Princess Telephone (invented 9 years after her execution), and another places her in the kitchen with a 1968 wall calendar in view. What fascinates me about all this is that it matters not a whit.
Martha's mother (played by actress Dortha Duckworth) plays DJ for visiting guest, Ray, the handsome "Latin from Manhattan" who traveled all the way to Alabama to meet (and wheedle money out of) Martha, his most recent Lonely Hearts pen-pal. The LPs lined up for the occasion are several era-specific favorites: The 1958 debut album by The Kingston Trio: Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass' ubiquitous 1965 album Whipped Cream & Other Delights, and epic novelist James A. Michener shares his Favorite Music of the South Sea Islands from 1965.

Who needs period detail when you have Oliver Wood’s exquisitely grimy, documentary-style B&W cinematography turning every frame into a gritty crime-scene snapshot straight out of a ‘60s issue of True Detective Magazine? I have a hunch that what was perhaps simply a consequence of the film’s prohibitively small budget wound up serendipitously granting The Honeymoon Killers the aura of an intentionally revisionist updating of the traditional ‘40s crime noir. Particularly the nihilistic, gritty, crime noirs like Detour (1945).

If it’s true (as historian Ryan Reft suggests in his 2017 essay When Film Noir Reflected an Uneasy America) that ‘40s film noir “…depicted a nation in which the American Dream was treated as a ‘bitter irony,’”; then it's therein that I find in The Honeymoon Killers' '60s look and cynical perspective, a seamless affinity. With its vivid merging of the stark, grainy look of documentary with the impressionistic lighting and stylized framing of film noir, the mood and atmosphere of The Honeymoon Killers resonate with me as reflective of American moral and spiritual ennui during the Vietnam era.

Hungry for Love
Although seen early in the film responding angrily to her mother referring to her as "My little girl," Martha is nonetheless frequently depicted in ways emphasizing her childishness. In scenes shared with Ray and his temporary wives, Martha behaves pretty much like an ill-tempered 200-lb toddler left in their charge. When not complaining, throwing a tantrum, or sulking petulantly, Martha's childlike inability to control her impulses extends to her sexual rapaciousness, her appetite for candy, and her homicidal possessiveness of Ray. A delusionally blinkered devotion fostered by the idealized depiction of adult relationships in her ever-present Romance magazines. 

The Honeymoon Killers’ unpleasant characters, blunt violence, and air of austere ugliness is the purposeful attempt on the part of producer Warren Steibel and director-screenwriter Leonard Kastle to rebuke and repudiate the embroidered approach of “based on real events” crime movies like In Cold Blood (1967), Bonnie & Clyde (1967), and  Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid (1969):
“I wanted to do (this film)…in a form that didn’t sentimentalize or romanticize murder. I’ve always thought that the way people like this are represented, in Hollywood especially, is terrible. They are either made too evil, so that they are no longer human, or they are made too sweet, or, sometimes even beautiful.”    Leonard Kastle -  The News and Observer June 4, 1970
The Honeymoon Killers has much to recommend it and is one of those films that feels like it's far more violent than it actually is because of its bleak tone and pervasive air of dread. With each new Lonely Hearts encounter, I found my jaw clenching tighter and tighter. The assured performances of Shirley Stoler and Tony Lo Bianco are compellingly raw in their total disinterest in coming across as sympathetic or likable. I can't say enough good things about the intensely evocative cinematography, and I love the ingenious use of the music of Gustav Mahler on the soundtrack (goosebump-inducing!). 

But had true crime exposé and sensationalism been the only things on the film’s mind, I’m not sure the movie would have held much appeal for me beyond morbid curiosity. But The Honeymoon Killers is anything but your typical crime film (a police presence is nowhere to be seen). A minor masterpiece of the macabre, it’s a contextually rich and narratively provocative film whose dire themes offer a trunkload of things to unpack.

In approaching a film like The Honeymoon Killers, I can’t say that I expected to see anything of myself reflected in the grubby saga of these notorious callous murderers. But I did hope that in its characterizations, I’d find traces of something, if not necessarily sympathetic, then perhaps recognizably human. Kastle's perceptive screenplay and the realized performances of the outstanding cast meet this daunting task with admirable sensitivity and an unexpected degree of psychological and social insight. 
Indeed, one of the more unanticipated twists of The Honeymoon Killers is that in its depiction of the nature and design of the duo’s criminality, a shadow portrait of contemporary American culture is painted, allowing the unsavory case of The Lonely Hearts Killers to assert itself as a uniquely American kind of nightmare. 
Ray refers to his practice of swindling gullible and lonely
old ladies out of their savings as his "business."

Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez, like the grotesques in Nathanael West’s The Day of The Locust, are embittered fantasists whose misdirected discontent with their lives fosters contempt for conventional society. An amoral resentment that fuels the compulsion to strike out at a world they perceive as having somehow shortchanged them.
Ray, in his picayune ambition and greed, is the American “success ethic” writ small. His so-called business being the heteronormatively “unmanly” occupation of trading on his looks and sexual desirability, Ray buttresses his masculine insecurity (linked also to his hatred of women) by adopting an absurd machismo: (To Martha’s suggestion of returning to nursing to pay their bills) “…no woman’s going to support me!”  Of course, that’s all women have ever done for him…granted, either unwittingly or posthumously. 
Nurse Wretched
For her part, Martha clings to the romantic banalities of the distaff side of the American Dream that profess a woman’s greatest happiness is found in marriage and family. But with no maternal instincts to speak of (we see her kicking a child’s wagon out of her way as she walks home) and only her emotionally manipulative mother for company, love’s lack has turned Martha into a clenched fist of bitterness. 
The obvious intimation that Martha’s obesity is the cause of her desperate loneliness is quashed about five minutes into the film when it’s confirmed that Martha’s biggest hurdle to intimacy is her astoundingly lousy personality. Surly, sullen, sneaky, and hostile (and let's not forget anti-Semitic), it’s a perverse irony that her only remotely humanizing traits—her love for Ray and the wish that they might be married and move into a house in the suburbs—are responsible for the unleashing of her darkest, most inhumane self. 

Spreading my The Day of the Locust analogy even thinner, in West’s novel, LA’s disillusioned are depicted as wholly ineffectual as individuals, yet a destructively violent mob when joined with the embittered like-minded. Separately, Martha Beck and Ray Fernandez were but miserable sociopaths living out their drab lives. 
But when they met (to paraphrase Max's famous intro to TV's Hart to Hart)... was murder.

The most fitting term I’ve heard coined to describe the look and feel of The Honeymoon Killers is American Gothic. Indeed, its low camera angles and deep shadows call to mind gothic horror as readily as film noir. But also, in Ray and Martha’s cynical exploitation of lonely women whose unfiltered, often foolish, belief in the “Happily Ever After” ideals of romantic myth leave them vulnerable to opportunists; The Honeymoon Killers offers mordant commentary on the foundational myths of American culture (marriage, morality, religion, patriotism). A harsh indictment and social critique consistent with late-‘60s zeitgeist cinema expressing disillusionment with the American Dream.

Nobody’s dreams are realized in The Honeymoon Killers.
Ann Harris as Doris Acker
The blushing bride is a New Jersey schoolteacher for whom Ray's disdain is displayed early on when he accidentally-on-purpose refers to her as a spinster. And most certainly later when he consummates the marriage with his "sister" instead of his wife. Robbed of $2000 and some jewelry, Doris escapes sadder but wiser, the biggest crime committed during that honeymoon being the atonal rendition of “America the Beautiful” she sings in the tub. 
Marilyn Chris as Myrtle Young
As cons go, Ray’s 2nd marriage is kinda on the up and up. To keep up appearances and stay in good with her wealthy family, Myrtle pays Ray $4000 to marry her so she can have a husband’s name on the birth certificate when she delivers her illegitimate child fathered by “…a certain married sonofabitch” back in Arkansas. Things only begin to go south for the Southern belle when she starts to show some “not in the contract” sexual interest in Ray.
Barbara Cason as Evelyn Long
A merciful misfire. A mix-up match-up brought about by Ray mistaking Evelyn's boarding house for a mansion, the union is doomed from the start due to the atypically youngish woman being intelligent, gentle-natured, and athletic. In short, everything Martha is not. In an ironic twist, Martha’s jealousy actually ends up saving Evelyn from harm and heist.
Mary Jane Higby as Janet Fay
The absolute jewel in the crown sequence of The Honeymoon Killers. Higby as Janet Fay--a pious, penny-pinching, amateur hat-maker with one of the most spot-on hilarious speech patterns--would walk away with this virtuoso vignette had not Stoler and Lo Bianco brought out the big guns and so seriously killed it (bad, ill-timed pun) with the drop-dead (sorry, folks) chilling intensity of their performances in this sequence. Walking a delicate tightrope between black comedy and darkly disturbing horror, the film turns a corner with this segment, and Mary Jane Higby gives one of my all-time favorite supporting role performances.  
Kip McArdle & Mary Breen as Delphine Downing and daughter Rainelle
Ray has plans to marry this pleasant military who irks Martha with her youth, avid patriotism (she throws birthday parties for ex-Presidents), and penchant for serving health foods. Things go wrong in a hurry and in a big way when Martha learns that her sweetheart...remember him, the professional liar?...has been (surprise!) lying to her.  
"You promised!"

“I always made sure I wasn’t a sight gag. I used my weight as an ominous instrument”  -  Shirley Stoler in a 1998 interview (she died in 1999) for Index Magazine.

Shirley Stoler (who would later appear in Lina Wertmüller's Seven Beauties and--most memorably for me---as Mrs. Steve in the first season of Pee Wee's Playhouse) is flawless as Martha Beck. When The Honeymoon Killers was made, a woman of plus-size was a familiar staple of comedy, but extremely rare in a dramatic context or as a character meant to be regarded seriously. Typical of both the era and the genre, when it came to marketing the film, Martha Beck's weight was a central focus of exploitation.  Posters for The Honeymoon Killers sought to shock with images of Stoler posed assertively or erotically (caressed and kissed by a shirtless Lo Bianco) in her underwear. 
In the film itself, Martha's weight is treated with far less sensationalism. In fact, the movie is cannily content to let viewers implicate themselves as to whether or not they find the romantic and sexually-charged pairing of these two reprehensible murderers more distasteful because of who they are or because of the disparity of their appearance.  
Bad Romance
Shirley Stoler's performance is so dynamic that Tony Lo Bianco's seductively sinister portrait of evil is often overlooked. Playing a manipulative sociopath who dons many masks (and a toupée) to get what he wants; Lo Bianco is assigned the difficult, hall of mirrors task of imbuing a shoddy, superficial loser with layers of depth that are both inaccessible and unrecognized to him, yet must be conveyed to the audience. Lo Bianco has two remarkable scenes (both involving heinous acts of violence) in which Ray's cracked facade reveals the weak, dependent man underneath. The pitiful beast behind the beauty.
A nightmare of psychosexual dysfunction
Cinema's conventional gender inequity of exposing the female form while keeping the male body clothed is reversed in The Honeymoon Killers. The camera trains a scopophilic eye on Ray, centralizing his body in various states of exposure and undress. Ray's body is presented to us in a manner not dissimilar to the way Ray uses his body in his profession...for purposeful display and deliberate enticement.

One factoid about The Honeymoon Killers that doesn’t get much traction (if any) is that it is a work of Queer Cinema. Not for content (although I suppose one could mount a critical theory around latency being behind Ray's narcissism, sexual self-objectification, and manifest hatred of women), but because the film is the collaborative creation of two gay men. 
Sex Sells
To better secure a distribution deal, small-budget independent filmmakers are encouraged to make sure their movies have enough "sex." This usually translates to frequently exposing the female form to the hetero male gaze. The Honeymoon Killers provocatively breaks with tradition in having Ray be the film's "sex" object, with the camera often adopting the hetero-female and/or queer male gaze.

Director/screenwriter Leonard Kastle (an opera composer and music professor at the State University of New York in Albany) and producer of The Honeymoon Killers Warren Steibel (Emmy Award-winning TV producer) were a couple who shared a life for 25 years in their home in New Lebanon, NY.  Their personal and professional relationship dissolved in 1980, several years after which Kastle sued Steibel for business fraud, a claim Steibel sought to have dismissed by the courts on the grounds that he believed the lawsuit was merely a bid for palimony. 
That Kastle & Steibel had to be closeted or discreet during their years together is understandable, as they must have met in the 1950s and Steibel produced the conservative TV news commentary program Firing Line hosted by William F. Buckley Jr. But since their deaths (Steibel in 2002,  2011 for Kastle) it's dismaying to read contemporary bios and articles referring to these two single, childless, middle-aged men as having been "roommates" for 25 years. 
Leonard Kastle 
Much is made of and considerable mystery surrounds the fact that Leonard Kastle, whose debut feature film was hailed by the likes of Truffaut and Antonioni, never made another movie. Shirley Stoler in the aforementioned Index Magazine interview and Tony Lo Bianco in a 2021 YouTube interview for the Albany Film Festival offer at least one possible answer. Both state that Kastle--who was never slated to direct the film to begin with--had "no experience" and was“no director,” and that the person who really did the lion's share of the directing and shaping of The Honeymoon Killers was the same man responsible for its distinctive and celebrated look...British cinematographer Oliver Wood (The Bourne Ultimatum, Fantastic FourSafe House). 
Looking at the magnificent composition in this low-angle shot: oppressive ceiling, packing boxes, Martha's soon-to-be-abandoned mother sitting despondently in the far distance with her exit doorway not far behind, the tacky TV trays, the dowdy housedresses whose similarity underscores Martha and Bunny's conspiratorial's hard to doubt or second guess Oliver Wood's influence and impact on the production.  

Assisting Wood with the directing chores was Tony Lo Bianco, at the time an experienced theatrical director and the creator of NY’s The Triangle Theater. He helped the first-time screenwriter Leonard whittle down the script before the film’s original director, young Martin Scorsese, took the helm. Scorsese was fired after two weeks for working too slowly (Lo Bianco cites the scenes at the lake and the railroad station as Scorsese’s work). Both stars relate that directing duties then fell briefly to a second individual, an unnamed ex-film editor described by Stoler as “...a kind of quasi-derelict.”  Oliver Wood then took over directing the film in an unofficial capacity and, according to Lo Bianco, Kastle only came onto the film as director during its final days, directing the film for “A week and a half or two weeks, tops" yet claiming sole onscreen credit as director.

The fictional and real Ray Fernandez and Martha Beck

The Honeymooners
The late actor Guy Sorel (who portrays Mr. Dranoff, the hospital administrator who fires Martha for the obscene letters he finds in her desk) and popular radio actress Mary Jane Higby (who plays the ill-fated Janet Fay) were a couple in real life. Married in 1945. Isn't that cute? 

Regina Orozco and Daniel Giminez Cacho in Deep Crimson (1996)
The Beck/Fernandez "Lonely Hearts Killers" case has served as the inspiration for at least three other films that I know of. To date, the only one I've seen is the superb Deep Crimson (Profundo Carmesí) -1996 by Mexican director Arturo Ripstein. In 2006 Todd Robinson directed Jared Leto and Selma Hayek(!) in a more police investigation-centric retelling of the story titled Lonely Hearts. And Alleluia (2015) is a French/Belgian adaptation directed by Fabrice Du Welz that updates the story to a contemporary setting. 

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2022

Sunday, July 10, 2022


If You Want It, Here It Is, Come and Get It. Mm...Mm...Mm...Mm

State of the World - 2022: The world’s richest men are eccentric billionaires who, proportionate to the degree to which their hoarded obscene wealth could ease human suffering, have fundamentally taken on the role of real-life supervillains.

State of Mind - 1969: Terry Southern’s anti-capitalism satire The Magic Christian – about an eccentric billionaire who spends his money orchestrating elaborate practical jokes exposing the avarice, bigotry, and hypocrisy of the over-privileged classes – is made into a major motion picture.
Peter Sellers as Sir Guy Grand
Ringo Starr as Youngman Grand

One of the nicer things I remember about the late-‘60s was its social and political idealism. From my pre-teen perspective, it felt like young adults all across the country were collectively waking up to the inequities and injustices of society and were serious in their commitment to the belief that change was possible. 
Capitalism, being what it is, was also doing some waking up at this time. In the form of noticing that the disposable income of this sizable demographic was being freely spent on goods and entertainments that reflected their values, supported and promoted their beliefs, and gave the appearance of being, if not exactly one of them, at least at one with them. 
Raquel Welch as Priestess of the Whip
Despite her prominence in the film's marketing, the striking Welch shows up ten minutes before the film is over for all of 30 seconds. Though marvelous-looking, she comes off much like she did in her cameo in the satiric Bedazzled (1967)...looking like she doesn't quite get the joke.    

As usual, Hollywood…sometimes the trendsetter, often a step behind, but only rarely ever in pace with the times…found itself in the position of playing “catch-up” in trying to develop projects that appealed to this newly-recognized audience. But the world was changing so fast that the crunch to meet the market demand for suitably “now” motion pictures only exposed Hollywood’s bloated, slow-moving studio system as ill-suited to compete with the immediacy (and, by extension, relevance) of inexpensively-made independent and underground films. 

Sheer law of averages accounted for the rare youth-market breakout success: e.g., The Graduate – 1967, Bonnie and Clyde -1967, Easy Rider – 1969, and Midnight Cowboy – 1970. But as the major studios were still a bunch of conservative white men well past the age of 30 trying to make a quick buck off of the liberal and diverse “Don’t trust anyone over 30” crowd; more often than not the haste to get “Where it’s at” movies into theaters before they became “Where it was” cultural artifacts, resulted in a glut of big-budget miscalculations like Skidoo (1968), Myra Breckinridge (1970), and Terry Southern's Candy (1968). 
Ewa Aulin & Ringo Starr in Candy (1967)
Counterculture icon Terry Southern (contributing screenwriter for Dr. Strangelove, Barbarella, Easy Rider, Casino Royale) wrote the sex satire Candy in 1958 with Mason Hoffenberg. Buck Henry adapted the script for the truly dire film version. 

Relying heavily on the most exploitable signifiers of youth-cult marketability—profanity, nudity, sex, & drugs—these blatantly pandering exercises in desperation were so arrogantly clueless in their lack of understanding of the very public whose dollars they so cynically courted that they came across as being almost hostile to young people. 
By all accounts, the film version of The Magic Christian started out as a sincere, well-intentioned ideological passion project spearheaded by Peter Sellers (who, in his 40s, had joined show business’ ever-growing ranks of over-age flower children and millionaire hippies). But the finished product wound up illustrating the Grand-ish point - “Nothing is so sacred that it can’t be corrupted by money” in ways not intended. 
Grand & Son
A man who has everything joins forces with a man who has nothing,
and together they set about to prove that "Everyone has their price."

Over the film’s opening credits, we’re introduced to Sir Guy Grand (Peter Sellers), the world’s richest man. Before the credits are over, the unmarried, childless billionaire meets and promptly adopts a homeless man (Ringo Starr), dubs him Youngman Grand, and makes the shaggy young derelict the heir to his fortune. Since the film begins mid-stride and hits the ground running, we never learn what prompts Grand’s impulsive want for offspring, nor what’s behind his mania for using his great wealth to take the piss out of the posh. But it’s certainly not out of the question for us to assume that he's perhaps insane, for it’s something of an anti-establishment movie tradition (a la, King of Hearts – 1966 and The Madwoman of Chaillot - 1969) to depict the lunatics and madmen in our world as the only sane people left. 
Laurence Harvey (in a bit originally intended for David Hemmings)
performs Hamlet's soliloquy as a striptease

The darkly comic “capitalism kills” satire of The Magic Christian was written by Texas-born Terry Southern in 1959, but the climate of counterculture rebellion that was America in the late-‘60s made his episodic evisceration of American excess feel more relevant than ever. At least in theory. 
Peter Sellers had expressed interest in making a movie of The Magic Christian as far back as 1964 while filming Dr. Strangelove (he’d hoped to get Stanley Kubrick to direct). Drawn to what he saw as the satire’s idealistic principles— "It illustrates to the public the truth about power, money, and corruption,” he intoned to a skeptical press— the recently spiritually and politically awakened actor acquired the rights, secured financing, and corralled a slew of celebrity friends to work for scale.
Richard Attenborough as the coach of the Oxford Rowing Team

But in taking four years and some 14 screenplay drafts to reach the screen, a movie idealistically espousing the hippie ethos (signaled by the film’s finale which finds Grand and Youngman choosing “A simpler way,” and opting for a life of vagrancy) felt as though it had arrived a bit late to the party. Close to the 1967 Summer of Love would have been great. During the global student protest year of 1968 perhaps better.
 But the out-and-out worst time for the release of a movie advocating the longhair generation as society’s saviors was in the wake of the two most defining moments signaling the end of the hippie era: the Manson Murders (August 1969) and the Altamont Festival killing (December 1969).
I can’t speak for the UK, but in post-Manson Family America, the notion of a put-on artist staging guerilla acts of protest against the rich to incite anarchy and chaos had lost a great deal of its subversive appeal.
Peter Sellers with friend and fellow Goon, Spike Milligan

Peter Sellers’ involvement assured The Magic Christian would be made, but it also turned Terry Southern’s very American satire into a very British one. Hiring friend and Casino Royale co-director Joseph McGrath to helm and Southern to adapt (with the too-many-cooks assist of Sellers, Magrath, and a pre-Monty Python John Cleese and Graham Chapman), The Magic Christian became (perhaps intentionally) a kind of filmed version of The Goon Show radio program that got Sellers his start in the ‘50s’.
British humor tends to be a little tough going for me anyway, especially when it's very male-centric and sophomoric (I was never a Monty Python fan). But my main complaint with the British setting is that from an American perspective, the targets of Guy's pranks are such obvious prigs and snobs that the satire feels toothless. 
Poking fun at a culture that appears (to us, anyway) to be more openly classist (Royalty, observance of historical traditions, accents denoting class distinctions) is quite different from poking fun at a country that pathologically waves the flag of its egalitarianism when in fact it's ragingly racist, wealth-worshipping, and classist as hell.
John Cleese as the Sotheby's director
Wilfred Hyde-White as Capt. Reginald K. Klaus

I was 12 years old when I saw The Magic Christian in 1970. Then, funny to me meant: Mad Magazine, The Three Stooges, Bugs Bunny, and Laugh-In. Countless trips to the theater to see Casino Royale (1967) and The Party (1968) had cemented Peter Sellers as my #1 favorite comic actor. And, thanks to several years of involuntary exposure to the music and movies of The Beatles (thanks, sis), I was also a bonafide Beatles fan myself. So, of course, I thoroughly loved The Magic Christian. I thought it was hilarious. And my finding it so made me feel oh-so-hip and oh-so-sophisticated.
Christopher Lee
For those still in the dark, The Magic Christian is the name of an elite luxury liner
with an interior straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Being at that awkward tween-age—socially invisible, politically powerless, desperate to assert individuality—my inner anarchist delighted in the Bugs Bunny/Marx Brothers-style of “comedy of disruption.” As one critic put it, The Magic Christian was all about "...deflating the pompous, punishing the greedy, and discomfiting the complacent." So, in the adolescent spirit of being attracted to anything you’re certain your parents will disapprove of, I reveled in The Magic Christian’s raciness (bodybuilders in skimpy bikinis!); bad taste (the hunting party with heavy artillery); and ham-fisted satire (the Oxford/Cambridge race). It was an issue of Mad Magazine come to life.
The audacious notion of tossing money into a vat filled with blood, urine, and manure and then getting people to wade through it for the free cash would have a lot more satirical bite today if it didn't sound like something the GOP would actually propose to replace Social Security. 

I also imagine that some of the appeal The Magic Christian held for me was that Sir Guy Grand was like an adolescent boy’s wish-fulfillment fantasy of adulthood. The asexual Guy Grand has no interest in either women or men (nudity and sex are things to be giggled at); never has to answer to anyone, and is saddled with none of the pain-in-the-ass responsibilities of being a grown-up. He just gets to spend all of his time hanging out with his best buddy (adoption adding a new twist to BFF) playing games and pulling wise-ass pranks on authority figures. 
Yul Brynner & Roman Polanski
There are times when you've just gotta let an image speak for itself

"Ah, but I was so much older then. I’m younger than that now."Bob Dylan

Revisiting The Magic Christian after a nearly 40-year gap was an experience by turns amusing, nostalgic, and bewildering. It was great seeing the movie looking so good on Blu-ray, and I especially got a kick out of the many cameo appearances and discovering what things about the film had stayed with me over the years. For example, it was gratifying to find that the pre-credits sequence (my favorite part of the film) was still as clever as I’d remembered it: a distinguished portrait of the Queen is revealed to be a British 10-pound note, after which the audience is encouraged to sing along to a follow-the-bouncing-ball stanza of the Paul McCarney composition (sung by Badfinger) “Come and Get It.” (How tragic is it that my favorite part of The Magic Christian takes place before the film proper even begins?)

Tangoing bodybuilders Lincoln Webb & Roy Scammell provoke and 
 tantalize the racist and homophobic passengers on The Magic Christian.

What bewildered me was just how unfunny the film now seems to me. I wasn’t bored, I enjoyed myself, and the film kept my interest, and I still champion the overall idea of the film. But the experience of watching it was entirely laugh-free. Granted, so much of the film’s humor is reliant on shock and the element of surprise, so it can be said that my reaction is at least in part due to my being so familiar with the material.
But that doesn’t account for the benumbing effect of the wash-rinse-repeat satire cycle of the screenplay or the loose-moorings structure of the film itself. It's weird watching an entire film that has no real human behavior in it. At the start of the film, there's a series of crosscuts between the morning rituals of Sellers and Starr that juxtapose and contrast the lives of the haves and the have-nots. There's a sweetness to it that sets the stage for an anticipated humane political polemic that never materializes.
Leonard Frey as Ship's Physician Laurence Faggot (pronounced, Fa-goh)
The Magic Christian -- a movie "The Celluloid Closet" author Vito Russo called "A viciously homophobic film" --never met a gay joke it didn't like. Funny then how it never once addresses the comic or homoerotic implications of a middle-aged man adopting a young man he just met in the park.

Not helping matters is the inconsistent nature of Guy's pranks. The point he's trying to prove to Youngman grows murky as his stunts veer from harmless (turning Shakespeare's Hamlet into a burlesque) to mean-spirited (grossly overpaying a hot dog vendor and insisting on his change from a moving train).

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
Bedazzled (1967)
I'm of the opinion that the truest screen interpretation of Terry Southern's Guy Grand is to be found in Gene Wilder's Willy Wonka (think about it...all he does is play tricks on the greedy and self-interested!). And for a good example of the kind of lively, in-the-spirit-of-mischief chemistry lacking in the pairing of Sellers and Starr, I really think Peter Cook and Dudley Moore hit paydirt in Bedazzled

I’m gonna lead off by saying that I truly love the look Peter Sellers devised for Sir Guy Grand. Simultaneously dashing and screwball, it’s said that Sellers sought to approximate the look of a young Albert Schweitzer while portraying Grand as a kind of British Groucho Marx. He’s considerably more successful in the former than the latter. I think Sellers is far too inspired a comic actor to ever be uninteresting, so I can’t say I don’t enjoy him in The Magic Christian. But the screenplay doesn’t provide a character for Sellers to play and he doesn’t appear particularly interested in supplying one on his own. So, outside of an accent and a whimsical swath of hair, his Guy Grand very nearly doesn’t exist.

But he's in good company with the charming but wholly superfluous Ringo Starr. In a role not in the book and written with him in mind (contrary to erroneous claims that John Lennon was first considered) I suspect the intention was to supply a little youth-identification for the audience while mining the silent, Chaplinesque quality Starr brought to his well-received solo bits in Help! and A Hard Day’s Night. And certainly, if you saw him in Candy, you know a Ringo Starr with no dialogue is the best possible course of action to take. But, like Sellers, he's not given a character to play and brings nothing to the part but a droopy mustache and Rita Tushingham eyes.
"Well, you know, Youngman, sometimes it's not enough merely to teach. One has to punish as well."

At least one aspect of The Magic Christian has not changed a bit for me over the years. The soundtrack to this movie is terrific. I love the infectious "Come & Get It"--particularly the soaring strings instrumental arrangement that accompanies the closing credits. It gave me goosebumps the first time I heard it blaring through the speakers at the movie theater. 
But the song that really stands out as the one I most associate with the film is Thunderclap Newman's youth rebellion anthem "Something in the Air." I think it's brilliant. I heard it for the first time in The Magic Christian theatrical trailer and instantly fell in love. And I'm still crazy about it. One of my all-time favorite '60s songs. In 1973 the singing group Labelle covered it in a version that combined it with Gil Scott Heron's poem "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised." You owe it to yourself to give it a use one of my favorite Magic Christian quotes: "It'll tighten your wig."

What keeps The Magic Christian among my list of "tarnished favorites" is that despite not feeling as strongly about it as I did when I was a kid, I tend to think of it as one of the last of the optimistic flower-children/hippie films. The Nixon era of disillusionment and cynicism was right on the horizon and the idealism at the heart of The Magic Christian had already started to be replaced by the snark and smirk of movies like M.A.S.H. (1970).
In the ensuing decades, capitalism has done its job so well that today, social media is full of individuals just managing to get by financially who nevertheless seize every opportunity to be the white knights and front-line defenders of the Jeff Bezos and Elon Musks of our culture whenever a legitimate criticism is voiced regarding the morality of being grotesquely rich in a civilized society that tolerates hunger.

In such an atmosphere it's impossible to completely dislike a movie that associates wallowing in money with wallowing in feces, blood, and urine.
A hippie at heart, Sir Guy Grand has the three-pointed star hood ornament
 of his Mercedes-Benz reconfigured as a peace symbol. 

Copyright © Ken Anderson   2009 - 2022