Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s – Part 3
Death has often been used to comic effect in films, but an all out assault on what Jessica Mitford termed “the American way of death” is another thing entirely. Loosely based on Evelyn Waugh’s acerbic novel of the same name on life, death, and the attendant collapse of civilization in Hollywood, Tony Richardson’s The Loved One (1965) was a stand alone film even in a decade devoted to dark humor; indeed, it was boldly advertised as “the motion picture with something to offend everyone,” and largely lived up to its billing. Though hampered by Haskell Wexler’s uncharacteristically stolid camerawork (Richardson hired Wexler because of his signature handheld “newsreel” style, but was appalled when Wexler categorically refused to utilize it on the film – more on this later) and an uneven screenplay by Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood, the film still succeeds on a number of counts. America was becoming death obsessed in the mid 1960s, with the costs of funerals and memorials rising dramatically.
The Loved One centers on the Whispering Glades cemetery – a stand in for Hollywood’s Forest Lawn Memorial Park – where the corrupt Reverend Wilbur Glenworthy (Jonathan Winters) presides over a kingdom of death. His key aide is Mr. Joyboy (a suitably effete Rod Steiger), who is the chief embalmer, assisted by Aimee Thanatogenous (Anjanette Comer), who helps to “make up” the corpses that pass through Whispering Glades for their final public appearance. Into this complicated scenario comes Dennis Barlow (a very young Robert Morse), as a clueless Briton trying to ingratiate himself with the “British Colony” in Hollywood, with the help of his uncle, Sir Francis Hinsley (John Gielgud). Dennis falls madly in love with Aimee, but Joyboy is also attracted to her, and a love match ensues.
Meanwhile, the “Blessed Reverend” is becoming worried that Whispering Glades is no longer a money spawning operation. The graveyard is filling up, and he’s running out of room; at first, Glenworthy tries to increase profits by holding back-to-back weddings and funerals in the same chapel, each performed in a matter of minutes, with canned music cues (both presided over by the unctuous actor Ed Reimers in an unbilled cameo; in real life, Reimers shilled for both Crest Toothpaste and Allstate Insurance). But it’s not enough; something has to give. Suddenly, Reverend Glenworthy is seized with an inspiration. Instead of a cemetery, Whispering Glades can be turned into a retirement complex, assuring continual turnover and a constant stream of revenue. There’s only one problem; what to do with all those pesky bodies buried at Whispering Glades? “There’s got to be a way to get those stiffs off my property!” Glenworthy barks to one of his subordinates, and indeed, there is.
Glenworthy’s brother, Henry (also played by Winters) runs a pet cemetery, and has hit upon a scheme to shoot the bodies of the dead pets he must dispose of into space, using the assistance of the boyish scientific whiz kid Gunther Fry (the always appalling Paul Williams). Reverend Glenworthy decides to do the same with the remains of the bodies interred at Whispering Glades, causing Aimee to panic – for her, Whispering Glades is something sacred, and eternal. Discovering that the Reverend’s plan is indeed “Resurrection Now” (as he christens his “space disposal” plan for public consumption), Aimee embalms herself with Joyboy’s equipment, while Reverend Glenworthy hosts an orgy in the establishment’s funeral parlor for the Air Force, to obtain surplus rockets to carry out his plan. In the film’s mordant conclusion, Aimee’s body is jettisoned into space as the Reverend’s plan takes hold, and Dennis, disgusted with his entire experience in Tinsletown, returns to England.
The Loved One seldom misses a chance to offend, but at the same time, skirts close to the edge of bad taste without really venturing into truly forbidden territory. Even with the casting of Tab Hunter as a Whispering Glades tour guide, and Liberace (in one of the film’s most effective bits) as an unctuous coffin salesman (“Oh” he says to a prospective client without a hint of irony, “you’ll be the death of me, sir”), not to mention the grossly overweight Ayllene Gibbons as Joyboy’s mother (“call me anything you want, but don’t call me late to dinner” she remarked on the set), the film ultimately seems less than the sum of its parts. Wexler’s insistently flat camera work – mostly static lock-offs with little camera movement – is one of the chief problems with the film, but sadly Richardson, a white hot property after the smashing success of Tom Jones (1963), could do nothing about it. Wexler, surprisingly, was also a producer on the film, along with studio veteran John Calley, and overruled Richardson’s pleas for a more flexible visual style. Tired of being typecast in the industry as a “hand held” cinematographer, Wexler saw a chance to bring solidity, to say nothing of stolidity, to the project, and insistently did so to the detriment of film.
Hal Ashby, later a director of considerable note in his own right, especially with Being There (1979), a dark comedy in which the imbecilic Chauncey Gardiner (Peter Sellers) rises to the heights of US politics by simply parroting lines from the television shows he obsessively watches, edited The Loved One with a firm hand, but faced with Wexler’s monolithic camera setups, didn’t have much latitude in the final cut. As a result, The Loved One ultimately seems flat, overly long and distant, removed from its source material – an ambitious failure, but a failure nonetheless. Viewing a rough cut of the film, John Gielgud thought that both he and Liberace came off best, but that the film as a whole didn’t jell (Morley 2002: 350). Critic Donald W. McCaffrey agreed, arguing that Richardson used “a rather heavy hand” in creating the film, with little allowance for nuance (1983: 86). He continued,
“As a movie The Loved One is a flawed work. Even as a novel it might be considered a narrow, carping attack by [source novelist Evelyn Waugh] who had his novel, Brideshead Revisited, rejected by Hollywood. Nevertheless, in both media it remains in the rare world of satire – a world that does not have the popular appeal of light, inoffensive comedy.” (McCaffrey 1983: 87)
As the 1960s progressed, dark comedy became almost a mainstream genre in itself, as evidenced by such films as George Axelrod’s acidic satire Lord Love A Duck(1966), in which high school student Alan Musgrave (Roddy McDowall, at this point certainly a bit old for the part) plots the rise to stardom of the insipid Barbara Ann Greene (played to perfection by Tuesday Weld). Alan is obsessed with Barbara Ann, but she only has eyes for Bob Bernard (Martin West), a straight arrow churchgoer whom she decides to marry. Desiring only Barbara Ann’s happiness, Alan facilitates the match by keeping Barbara Ann’s disapproving mother, Stella (Ruth Gordon) in a perpetual drunken stupor. Then, suddenly and capriciously, Barbara Ann decides that what she really wants to be is a movie star, after a chance meeting with producer T. Harrison Belmont (Martin Gabel). But Bob disapproves, so Alan decides to kill him. The balance of the film – with side trips to various equally outrageous subplots – consists of Alan’s repeated attempts to kill Bob before they all graduate from high school.
By the time the graduation ceremony rolls around, Bob is still alive, though in a wheelchair, but Alan decides he’s fooled around long enough. Commandeering a bulldozer from a construction site, Alan runs down practically everyone at the ceremony, finally killing Bob, but also a host of other innocent bystanders. Barbara Ann fulfills her dream, starring in Bikini Widow, and is feted at the film’s gala premiere. Alan, in prison, dictates all of this into a tape recorder as a flashback – indeed, we first see Alan in prison at the start of the film, but have no idea how he got there. Now, all becomes clear. Alan, who goes by the nickname “Mollymawk” – after the real life bird the Mollymawk, a member of the albatross family – has gotten his wish. Barbara Ann is a star, if only for the moment. In a dash of Alain Resnais-style memory editing, Alan “sees” Barbara Ann in handheld newsreel footage at the premiere of her movie, as he concludes his tale. “Oh, you poor bunny” he murmurs, knowing that Barbara Ann’s celebrity can’t possibly last.
Lord Love A Duck is an odd film in many respects. George Axelrod was better known as a screenwriter than a director, with the Broadway comedies The Seven Year Itch (1952) and Will Success Spoil Rock Hudson? (1955) as perhaps his most famous credits, both of which were made into highly successful films, and both of which had a sharply satiric edge in their construction, taking on the temptations of infidelity in Itch, and the perils of instant fame in Rock Hunter. But Lord Love A Duck was his directorial debut, and given the chance to say what he wanted about American society with a relative lack of censorship, Axelrod pulled out all the stops. Barbara Ann is the perfect mindless consumer, who writhes with orgasmic ecstasy at the thought of an expensive cashmere sweater, oozes sex but professes to have no inkling of her kittenish ways, and is as devoid of thought as a hot air balloon. Her mother, Stella, is a mean tempered drunk; her husband is a dedicated follower of conformity in all its aspects. The high school that Barbara Ann, Alan and Bob attend is utterly lacking in culture or guidance, and the largely absent teachers (heard, for the most part, as voices over the school’s PA system) are dedicated to preserving the status quo, and nothing more.
The height of cinematic expression that Barbara Ann aspires to is starring in “beach party” films, and mall shopping is the highest form of cultural expression. It’s Southern California in the 1960s to a “T”: empty, slick, attractive, and utterly disposable. As with Al Hine’s 1961 source novel of the same name, Lord Love A Duck is an act of outrage against an empty culture based on rampant consumerism, giving us nothing for something. “This motion picture is an act of pure aggression,” the film’s poster proudly declared, and for once, the result was truth in advertising. Or, as the Godardian intertitles admonished the audience during the film’s opening sequence, “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Go to School. Get a little knowledge. Live dangerously.”
Karel Reisz’s Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966) has a similarly bleak view of humanity, though tinged with a large dose of surrealism and gallows humor. In one of his finest performances, David Warner plays the impractical, day dreaming Marxist Morgan Delt, who is divorced from his wife Leonie (Vanessa Redgrave), but cannot give her up, and particularly resents the idea of her remarrying the upper crust and conventional Charles Napier (Robert Stephens), and “creating a whole bunch of little Napiers” in the process. Morgan’s only real friend and confidant is his mother, played by Irene Handl, an old-line Communist who shares Morgan’s disdain for the “ruling class.” Morgan also has a fetish for gorillas, and likes to dress up in a gorilla suit, as well as thumping on his chest as a gorilla would whenever he feels in the mood to bed Leonie, who still retains a large degree of affection for him.
But when Leonie and Charles decide to tie the knot, it pushes Morgan over the edge. Dressing up in his gorilla suit, he crashes the wedding, and kidnaps Leonie, taking her to an isolated lake in the country where, despite his actions, Leonie succumbs to his advances once again. However, this time, Morgan has stepped too far over the edge, and the authorities intervene. Leonie is restored to Charles, while Morgan is committed to a rather bucolic insane asylum, where he happily tends a large flowerbed he has created in the shape of a hammer and sickle. Leonie comes to visit Morgan one last time in the asylum, visibly pregnant, and whispers to Morgan that the child is his, not Napier’s. Morgan quietly smiles with triumphant satisfaction, and returns to his gardening.
Reisz’s film is many things; a telling critique of the inequities of the British class system, an absurdist comedy (complete with clips from King Kong  to spice up the proceedings, when Morgan fantasizes about his beloved gorillas), a political allegory, and a mirror of London at the time, in which the bohemian and upper crust classes comfortably mixed together in an uneasy but generally peaceful truce. In the end of the film, no one really holds anything against Morgan, and the “fascist state” that he has railed against for most of Morgan will take care of him now, even as a marginal member of society. As outré as David Mercer’s screenplay for Morgan is, the film sends out an unmistakable message of tolerance and inclusion for all, making it the gentlest of the dark comedies discussed here, and also one of the most hauntingly romantic.
I’ll Never Forget What’s ‘is Name (1967), directed by the notoriously uneven Michael Winner, is another matter altogether. Oliver Reed plays Quint, a moody, dissatisfied advertising man who hates what he does for a living, and goes so far as to bury an ax in his boss’s desk (while his boss is sitting at the desk) to make manifest his seething hatred of the advertising profession. In this case, his boss, Jonathan Lute, is played by none other than Orson Welles, strolling through the role of a powerful media baron with studied nonchalance, as if none of Quint’s escapades bother him in the slightest, which is more or less true. Resigning from the agency, and his life, Quint seeks refuge in the world of Swinging London, only to find it as false as the “straight” world he abhors. Quint hopes to chuck the ad game and set up a “serious” literary magazine, an endeavor that is mercilessly lampooned throughout the film, but can’t keep his mind on his work long enough to get anything done; he’s too busy seducing every available woman in his life, despite the fact that he is already married to his long suffering wife Louise (Wendy Craig), though the two have long been separated. Quint’s main obsession is the waiflike Georgina (Carol White), who can’t decide whether to sleep with Quint or not.
But the literary life proves just as corrupt as the ad game, as personified in particular by the personage of his friend Nicholas (Norman Rodway), who talks a good game, but eventually sells out to the “establishment” for a large check. Defeated, Quint returns to work at Lute’s ad agency, where he creates a savage commercial for a new Super 8mm movie camera, which recapitulates many of the ideas he’s tried to reject, and centers on Lute’s bleak assertion that “the number one product of all human endeavor is waste – waste.” The resultant ad is the talk of the industry, but Quint wants none of it. Feted by his colleagues, Quint wins an advertising award for his efforts, but throws the trophy into the Thames. Life is pointless, and both the avant-garde and the business world are equally bankrupt, morally, artistically and spiritually. As critic Ian Jarvie noted when the film first appeared:
“I’ll Never Forget What’s ‘is Name … locates the swinging world firmly among the ad-men . . . Winner shows the influence of Richard Lester and pop art even more than television [and focuses on] the hero’s search for integrity in a world of false values . . . Andrew Quint seems to have everything in the way of material and sexual success. But editing a literary magazine is what he really wants to do. He finally knuckles under again to Lute, making us wonder if this is not a case of his world of integrity being more fantasy than the tiresome swinging world he wants to escape. The tables are turned. For the ad-men, the outside world is a comforting fantasy, swingingness is real. They hate their real world…”(Jarvie 1969: 16)
But, as Quint knows, and Michael Winner certainly found out later in his career, when he went on to direct the increasingly dreary series of Death Wish films, the world is always with us. Capitulation is the only course ultimately open to most of us, buckling under to a variety of social and business pressures.
The real world is certainly always present in the life of Dr. Sidney Schaefer (James Coburn), the central figure of Theodore J. Flicker’s The President’s Analyst (1967). Again, the premise of the film is simple, yet absurd. The President of the United States, never seen but continually referenced throughout the film, is becoming dangerously neurotic, unhinged by the vast responsibilities of state. Enter Dr. Schaefer, assigned by worried White House staff members to ease the chief executive’s worried mind. But as the president spews forth his accumulated fears and concerns, Dr. Schaefer himself starts to crumble under the weight of the President’s confidences. As a condition of his employment, Dr. Schaefer’s job has to remain secret, and he can tell no one – not even his girlfriend Nan (Joan Delaney) – the president’s secrets. Soon, Dr. Schaefer becomes hopelessly paranoid, convinced that everyone is spying on him, to determine whether or not he has become a security risk. And, of course, he’s correct in this assumption; everyone is spying on him, even Nan, so Dr. Schaefer drops out into the countercultural underground, where he meets a group of hedonistic hippies led by pop singer Barry McGuire as “Old Wrangler” (McGuire’s biggest hit as a performer, ironically, was the top 10 single Eve of Destruction).
But the film’s central narrative soon expands into a much more complex conspiracy plot, involving the CEA, or Central Enquiries Agency (standing in for the CIA), the FBR, or Federal Bureau of Regulation (the FBI), and even the KGB, as Schaefer’s flight from the frontlines of politics becomes an international incident. But in a final twist, the real villains of the piece are not the CEA, the FBR, or even the KGB, but rather TPC – The Phone Company, modeled after the then monopolistic Bell Telephone System, which plans to brainwash the American public, and gradually take over the government. In an interview with Alex Simon in 2008, shortly before the actor’s death, James Coburn discussed the genesis of this decidedly unusual project.
“Ted Flicker I met while we were shooting [Stanley Donen’s] Charade  in Paris. He’d come over to meet with his friend Peter Stone, who’d written the picture. So Ted was sitting in the background with his big black shades, watching us shoot. So Peter introduced us [and then] George Peppard and Elizabeth Ashley were having a Christmas party a few years later. Ted was there. He said ‘I’ve just finished a script called The President’s Analyst.’ I said ‘That’s an intriguing title. Do you have a deal on it?’ He said ‘No.’ So I took it home, read it, and wanted to do it. Ted said he wanted to direct it, so I said ‘Let me talk to Paramount.’ I had just done Waterhole No. 3 [William Graham, 1967] over there. Robert Evans had just taken over, he loved it. Peter Bart read it, loved it. They said ‘Can he direct?’ I said ‘I dunno, let’s find out.’ So they put the whole deal together in five days! It was Evans’ first film at Paramount. There are some great scenes in there. It was named one of the finest political films of the decade by the Sunday Times in London, [but] Ted Flicker never did another movie. He moved out to New Mexico, [after he] did one hit TV show [Barney Miller], and sculpts, paints.”
While The President’s Analyst was a commercial failure when it was first released – and indeed, it almost didn’t get made, since the FBI strongly objected to the film’s storyline, to say nothing of the CIA’s misgivings, all of which were ultimately ignored – the film has long since become an off-the-wall classic, one of those films that captures not only an era, but a feeling (in this case, rampant paranoia crossed with drug-induced ecstasy) that dominated the political landscape of the 1960s. As critic Patricia Moir notes,
“Flicker’s genius lies in his ability to see all sides of the issues facing the American public. He is aware that “dropping out” is no more a solution than “buying in,” that violence is not only a threat but also a necessary means of defense. His protagonists are finally able to achieve an uneasy equilibrium by taking a warily subversive position within the establishment, but they must remain constantly on guard, using the security and surveillance skills of their enemies even as they are monitored by those in higher positions. Flicker’s world is one in which paranoia is not a delusion but an entirely appropriate and healthy response to reality.” (Moir 1997: 52)
This is the third article in a 4-part series. You can read Part 1 here, Part 2 here and Part 4 here.
Wheeler Winston Dixon is the Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and Editor in Chief, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, of the Quarterly Review of Film and Video. His newest books are Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access (University Press of Kentucky, 2013); Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood (Rutgers University Press, 2012); 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster; Rutgers University Press, 2011); A History of Horror (Rutgers University Press, 2010), Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (Edinburgh University Press/Rutgers University Press, 2009), and A Short History of Film (co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster; Rutgers University Press, 2008; revised 2nd edition published 2013). His blog, Frame by Frame, can be found here and a series of videos by Dixon on film history, theory and criticism, also titled Frame by Frame, can be found here.
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The author wishes to sincerely thank Richard Graham of the University of Nebraska, Lincoln’s Love Library for his invaluable assistance in the research for this article.