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
|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|
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
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.
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).
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."|
THE STUFF OF FANTASY
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 listen...to use one of my favorite Magic Christian
quotes: "It'll tighten your wig."
THE STUFF OF DREAMS
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