The great B’way musical-comedy from George Abbott, Stephen Sondheim, Burt Shevelove & Larry Gelbart, the one about a wily Roman slave working multiple cons to win his freedom, was considered something of a miss in its film adaptation. The Sondheim contingent missed all the cut songs while everyone else found director Richard Lester’s choppy, interventionist editing style (so effective on The Beatles’ HARD DAY’S NIGHT/’64 and HELP/’65) counter productive to baggy-pants comedy. (A natural showstopper like ‘Everybody Ought To Have A Maid’ loses comic point diced into stylized music video.) True, but what the naysayers failed to notice is just how much gets thru. The farce still gets plenty of laughs and the stranglehold story construction is cleanly parsed & fun to follow. And if stage holdovers Zero Mostel & Jack Gilford as the house-slaves sometimes seem over-rehearsed*, Phil Silvers, as the next-door courtesan dealer, & Michael Hordern, as the horny, hen-pecked husband, are consistently inspired; Buster Keaton, sweetly comic in a late career victory lap; and moments where gawky, lovesick Michael Crawford channels a bit of Stan Laurel pixie dust. The biggest surprise in the film is just how gorgeous it is, and how believable this ancient Rome feels. Miles ahead of ‘serious’ Hollywood spectacle like QUO VADIS or CLEOPATRA in visual sophistication. (Not the dancing girls, though! They’re pure ‘Mod-‘60s floorshow.) Those ochre-colored costumes and dazzling muraled interiors are by production designer Tony Walton, captured by lenser Nicolas Roeg before he turned indifferent helmer. So if the film isn’t all it might have been, and barely survives an over-extended chariot chase before its quick wrap up, you can fix the problems in your head while mentally recasting a remake with new-generation comedians. (Bill Hader for any role he wants!)
ATTENTION MUST BE PAID/DOUBLE-BILL: Be sure to hang on for the stunning end-credits from ill-lucked animator Richard Williams. A legend for ROGER RABBIT and those PINK PANTHER credit sequences, he lost his dream project after missing a completion date, only to see it twice mangled by others, first as THE PRINCESS AND COBBLER then as ARABIAN KNIGHT. Now, thru a remarkable ‘fan edit,’ you can watch it on youtube in something near its original form as THE THIEF AND THE COBBLER. (Set your streaming resolution for HD. -- Grrr: Currently, only Parts 1, 2, 6 & 7 are up and running.)
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Pauline Kael once described Zero Mostel as an on screen visual obstacle course. So it’s telling that he was best captured on film in THE PRODUCERS/’67 by a director with no technique to speak of, Mel Brooks.