Sunday, May 28, 2017

THE LOVED ONE: Blu-ray (MGM/Filmways 1965) Warner Archive Collection

When it was released in the summer of 1965, director, Tony Richardson’s The Loved One was billed as ‘the motion picture with something to offend everyone’. Nauseate is more like it; the sight of some of Hollywood’s then biggest names, more than a handful appearing in cameo, turning to Evelyn Waugh’s bizarre – if astute – 1947 novel of the same name for inspiration. MGM had wanted to buy Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited for an undisclosed six-figure sum. But the author’s inability to relinquish nothing less than complete veto power over virtually all aspects of any pictorial attempt at his beloved chef-d'oeuvre caused this project to be scrapped.  In the meantime, Waugh became fascinated…dare we suggest, ‘obsessed’ with California’s interment industry; the business of deifying the dead in baroque and garish memorials, ultimately to flesh out the narrative of The Loved One; at least some of the situations very loosely based on Dr. Hubert Eaton, the founder of Los Angeles’ famed Forest Lawn Cemetery. I suppose any treatise on The Loved One should begin by placing the movie into context; released the same year as David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago, Robert Wise’s The Sound of Music, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, The Sons of Katie Elder and Von Ryan’s Express – to name but a handful of the ‘prestige pics’ on tap during this golden epoch. To misquote Monty Python, “…and now for something completely different!”  
According to critics of their day, (dis)pleasure to be derived from Richardson’s botched attempt at Waugh’s black humor centered on the cavalcade of headliners who float in and out its deliciously tasteless mélange - Roddy McDowell, James Coburn, Sir John Gielgud, Milton Berle and Liberace among them; an eclectic ensemble to be sure. Waugh based his book on recollections gleaned from his own trip to Los Angeles, not only how he found Southern California’s morbid intrigue with eternal resting, but also on his own personal dislike for Tinsel town’s uppity Brit colony; emigres, all of them prior to WWII, congregated at their clubs to condescendingly wax and frown upon an industry they helped to build and whose reputation they too had distinctly contributed. Waugh’s ribald humor may have been too chichi for screenwriters, Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood. Waugh was, in fact, highly critical of Americans in general, smugly suggesting, “I should not think six Americans will understand it” and was, frankly, baffled - even outraged - when Americans in droves proved him wrong; The Loved One becoming a publishing phenomenon on this side of the Atlantic. Forever after, Waugh would refer to The Loved One as “my humiliating success in the U.S.A.”  More’s the pity then the movie version utterly misses almost every highbrow cue from the novel to create a more abject revulsion in its picaresque vignettes; a few, specifically created to augment this decidedly tawdry fellowship of frauds.
Whether considering Rod Steiger’s pontificating funeral director/embalmer, Mr. Joyboy, with his effete shimmy as he sashays through the cavernous halls of the Whispering Glades mortuary, or the abysmally over the top dual performances from Jonathan Winters as ‘the blessed’ and thoroughly lecherous Reverend Wilbur Glenworthy (and his bumbler of a nimble-minded twin brother, Henry – host of ‘The Happier Hunting Grounds’; an even more bizarre pet cemetery where beloved dogs are either kept in the same freezer as the workmen’s lunches or incinerated in a crude oven out back); newcomer, Anjanette Comer, as the thoroughly ineffectual ‘innocent’ of the piece, Aimée Thanatogenos, or even our star, Robert Morse’s thoroughly defeated ‘turn’ – post synced to gruelingly bad effect as Dennis Barlow; the accidental Brit, who stumbles upon these denizens of the cremation and shovel sect, The Loved One fairly reeks of precisely the embalming fluid and formaldehyde long before we surmise the movie is, in fact, teetering on the brink of its own scandalous desecration of hokey-pokey-jokey religious cultism. This takes about the first 25 minutes to really get going.
The Loved One, funded by indie offshoot, Filmways and distributed by MGM, was shot by Haskell Wexler almost entirely in and around the lavishly appointed 55 room Doheny Mansion, situated on 429 acres of prime real estate in Beverly Hills; a Gatsby-esque derelict to rival William Randolph Hearst’s palatial San Simeon, but, left to rot ever since oil tycoon, Edward L. Doheny’s son, ‘Ned’ Jr. was discovered in a ‘murder/suicide’ flagrante delicto with his male secretary back in the late 1920’s. Under Wexler’s expertise, The Loved One in B&W at least appears to possess a mantel of quality: Greystone Manor, the irrefutable magnum opus, willed into prominence by Gordon Kaufmann, positively glistens. Kaufmann, a master builder whose creations included Hoover Dam and the Los Angeles Times Building, would have likely preferred his name not associated with the Doheny ‘scandal’. But since being acquired by the City of Beverly Hills in 1965, Greystone (as it is currently known) has been featured in numerous Hollywood films. For a time, the main house, built in the awe-inspiring elegance of typical English Tudor, served as the headquarters for the AFI. Today, it is fully restored and open to the public on occasion; mostly rented for those with very deep pockets; its grounds – a park-like setting, minus many of its ancillary structures and a few grounds keeping features either torn down or, in the case of several large cement reflecting pools, later bulldozed. What has survived (and a great deal has) is a potent reminder of those blessed years in America before the institutionalization of ‘personal income tax’ when virtually any architectural feat money could buy was, in fact, quite possible for those with very deep pockets. 
Too bad not even the splendor of Greystone is compensation enough for witnessing the perversities run wild in The Loved One. In hindsight, the picture can be viewed as an unmitigated lashing out by Tony Richardson who had arrived in Hollywood in 1961, with aspirations to make a film version of William Faulkner's Sanctuary, with assurances from 2oth Century-Fox he could have carte blanche on locations, casting and script. Ultimately, it was all just a ruse to get Richardson’s signature on the dotted line, and he departed the studio toting his wounded pride, adding, “It is impossible to make anything interesting or good under the conditions imposed by the major studios in America. It is a totally impossible creative setup.” If revenge is a dish best served cold, then The Loved One, with its memory of Aimée Thanatogenos – the one true innocent (the bloom of her naiveté shabbily rubbed off by the realization her faith in the ‘blessed reverend’ has been sorely misplaced – he is a money-grubbing womanizer; ditto for her blind-sided devotion to the ‘choke’ enlightened newspaper ramblings of Guru Brahmin, played with wicked aplomb by Lionel Stander as a booze hound with more gin than clairvoyance in his back pocket), committing suicide with a pair of embalming needles still lingers in my head: proof positive Richardson has indeed created an homage to the crass commercialism of death-obsessed mid-century modern America on the move and march toward the depths of degradation.  I have a pretty good idea what both he and Waugh would have to say about where America has ended up with their pop culture fetishism today.
The Loved One begins with the arrival of young, impressionable Englishman, Dennis Barlow (Robert Morse) to the City of the Angels. Barlow, a real drifter with no definite plans of any kind, has won his airline ticket in a contest and chosen to spend it on a trip to Los Angeles where his uncle, Sir Francis Hinsley (John Gielgud) resides. Hinsley is the last of a dying breed in Hollywood; the old home guard from its golden age, fast disappearing in the rear view of time. Together with the enterprising, but alas dim-witted Henry Glenworthy, Hinsley has become embroiled in a pitch for a truly idiotic high concept to studio mogul, D.J. Jr. (Roddy McDowall); to transform rural Southern hick, Dusty Acres (Robert Easton) into a James Bond knock-off…with a heart. D.J. gives Hinsley and Wilbur the green-light to at least try out their experiment, but then unceremoniously cans Hinsley who has invested virtually his entire life in the film business. Distraught, Hinsley quietly returns to his crumbling bungalow and hangs himself from the diving board nearest his drained out swimming pool; his dangling corpse discovered by Dennis upon returning home.
Dennis is encouraged by Sir Ambrose Abercrombie (Robert Morley) a pontificating member of the English expatriate community, to liquidate his uncle’s estate for a socially prestigious burial at the renowned Whispering Glades cemetery and mortuary. Alas, in perusing its curious and stately facilities, Dennis becomes besotted with Aimée Thanatogenos (Anjanette Comer), a serenely gullible cosmetician who claims to have been named after Aimee Semple McPherson. Despite Aimee’s thoroughly brainwashed innocence, Dennis attempts to woo her for his own. Their romp through these privileged grounds leads to two failed romantic rendezvous as the frantic and virginal Aimee cannot come to terms with carnal lust; even the occasional chaste peck on the cheek. It’s no good for Dennis. But it might translate to something more promising for Whispering Glade’s effete embalmer, Mr. Joyboy; a tubby fop, sporting a crop of blonde Roman-esque curls; slavishly devoted to his disgustingly obese mother (Ayllene Gibbons) who gorges herself in the confines of her boudoir, smearing grease and gravy all over her swollen cheeks as she face-plants into a side of pork roast; her fetishistic addiction to food of any kind generating a ‘queer’ sort of arousal for her son; much to Aimee’s chagrin and repulsion.
Dennis is navigated though the selection process for Hinsley’s burial by Whispering Glades’ ‘counselor’, Mr. Starker (Liberace). Truth be told, Dennis merely runs on the assumption Starker and the rest of the mortuary’s staff know what would best suit his uncle’s memory. Too enraptured with Aimee to care about the final result, Dennis attempts to garner the girl’s trust. His dalliances are badly conceived however, particularly since Aimee’s head is thoroughly racked in her idol worship for the Reverend Wilbur Glenworthy (Jonathan Winters); Whispering Glade’s all-seeing/all-knowing man of purity, canonized, at least in Aimee’s mind, for sainthood. Little does she suspect, Glenworthy’s solemnity and piety are a front for a ruthlessly calculating businessman, conspiring with developers to liquidate the cemetery once the plots are filled up, relocating the bodies and transforming the grounds into a privileged retirement community where, presumably, even more untapped revenues can be mined from the aged rich.
Dennis desperately wants to make Aimee his wife. Problem: he is penniless. So he begins his apprenticeship at The Happier Hunting Grounds, the equivalent of Glenworthy’s mortuary, run on a shoestring by the reverend’s screw-up of a brother, Henry (Jonathan Winters again). Dennis courts Aimée, seducing her with excerpts from famous poems she has never even heard of, much less read. Dennis is also acutely aware he must never let Aimee know the money he is earning, presumably to pay for her wedding band, is coming from the pet cemetery, which Aimee considers a grotesque sacrilegious of all the fine work being done at Whispering Glades. Increasingly turned off by Dennis' cynical and disrespectful attitude toward her boss, Aimee’s gullibility is further eroded when Dennis suggests they can wed on her salary after she receives a promotion as ‘the first female embalmer.’  Torn in her decision, Aimee writes to the Guru Brahmin (Lionel Stander); a newspaper staffer more in love with the bottle than achieving true spiritual enlightenment for his readership. The ‘Guru’ enjoys ping-ponging Aimee’s affections from Dennis to Mr. Joyboy, who has by now invited Aimee home to meet is mother; a filthy and cackling harridan, confined by her girth to bed where she feasts on whatever meal her son is currently preparing in the kitchen.
Confiding in the Guru again, Aimee briefly becomes engaged to Dennis. She invites him to her home, a partially finished but condemned property precariously perched on the edge of a cliff, prone to landslides. Alarmed by the occasional, if ominous tremor, and Aimée's complete lack of concern over her own safety, Dennis cuts out from this promising rendezvous before any romantic notions can take place. A few days later, he and Henry are preparing to cremate more dead dogs in their backyard furnace when a homemade rocket suddenly plummets through their metal roof. Gunther Fry (Paul Williams), a boy genius responsible for the crash, lets Henry’s mind whirl with a new gimmick to promote The Happier Hunting Grounds. What if they could offer tenants eternal orbit around the planet as their final rest.  The idea has considerable merit for the ‘Blessed Reverend’; already plotting to relocate the bodies at Whispering Glades so he can transform the property into a posh retirement community; presumably, because the money’s better catering to the elderly while they live. Meanwhile, Mr. Joyboy invites Aimee to a ceremony where his beloved mynah bird, now dead, will be blasted off into outer space. The rocket misfires, shrouding everyone in a thick cloud of heavy soot. Aimee is disgusted by the spectacle and takes off with Mr. Joyboy.  
Learning of the ‘test launch’ Reverend Glenworthy seeks to attain the same procedure for Whispering Glade; his first ‘beloved’ to go into outer space…what else?: an astronaut known as ‘The Condor’ who died in the arms of Miss Benson (Joy Harmon); a burlesque queen. To garner the surplus of rockets needed, Glenworthy hosts a bizarre orgy at Whispering Glades for top Air Force brass, including Gen. Buck Brinkman (Dana Andrews). After a few drinks and more than a few dalliances with the scantily clad escort emerging from one of Glenworthy’s showroom caskets, Brinkman is more than happy to sign off on the deal. Meanwhile, Dennis tries to expose the Reverend for the fraud that he is to Aimee. Alas, she will not hear of him as a charlatan unworthy of her devotion or life’s work and ambitions. Unwilling to believe Dennis, Aimee first attempts to find solace and guidance from the Guru whom she discovers is a fake; then Glenworthy, who exposes his ulterior motives, attempting a lascivious grand seduction in his throne room. With nowhere else to hide, and nobody to believe in anymore, her world completely shattered, Aimee prepares herself with embalmer’s make-up before taking her own life on one of the metal slabs in Mr. Joyboy’s office.
Joyboy’s discovery of Aimee’s remains is concealed to prevent a scandal. Joyboy convinces Dennis to partake in the cover-up; the pair electing to switch the body of The Condor, slated to go into orbit later this same afternoon, with Aimee’s; thus affording his beloved a burial far away from the gutter depravities she has endured here on earth. The Condor’s remains are taken to The Happier Hunting Grounds and incinerated. Having had quite enough of America’s morbid fascination with death, Dennis prepares for his departure. At the airport he catches a glimpse of The Condor’s televised memorial service; the casket with Aimee’s body inside, blasted off into outer space. Dennis, having blackmailed Joyboy to provide him with a first-class ticket to return home to England, now prepares to board for the flight; presumably quite contented to be rid of this lot of twisted freaks and weirdos for good.
The Loved One is perhaps as ambitious in its planning as it proves thoroughly misguided in its execution; Tony Richardson’s direction never rising beyond a distinct level of off-putting revelry for these thoroughly misshapen, warped and unfeelingly wicked characters. Caricature is one thing: but the characters that populate The Loved One are about as ‘unloved’ and ‘unlovable’ as movie cardboard cutouts get. There is nothing here to whet the appetite beyond farce. Yet, even the ribald guffaws in this is tinged with more than an element of the macabre; defeating whatever pessimistically fractured laughs and entertainment value the picture may have had. The irony of the piece is derailed by rank idiocy and the laughter via sheer lunacy for the cheapest, most base and debasing content yet created for a major motion picture by design.
A modicum of empathy might have sufficed or at least helped here; if not for the thoroughly witless and tit-less Aimee, then perhaps for our entrepreneurial fop, Dennis Barlow. Yet, even Dennis’ discovery of Hinsley’s dangling body is given short-shrift; transformed from a moment of wounded dismay and disbelief into a blurry B&W photo for the newspapers with a one-line summation to punctuate Hinsley’s passing. Indeed, John Gielgud’s careworn Brit, the last vestige of his dignity bludgeoned by a wholly cruel world intent on burying the past before its actual last breath: Hinsley is the only character who flashes momentarily across the screen as sincere in life, if never entirely tragic in death. In the end, Richardson’s trigger-happy verve to transform Evelyn Waugh’s novel into a diabolically pert and plucky parade of preening peacocks falls flat on the slab; far more mummified than any stiff under Joyboy’s care.
We really have zero complaints about the Warner Archive’s (WAC) recently released Blu-ray. Well, alright…just one. (More on this in a moment). The Loved One’s B&W 1080p transfer sparkles with sublime textures, a beautifully balanced grey scale, film grain looking indigenous to its source, and superb rendering of fine detail. Haskell Wexler’s cinematography is gorgeous. There is one minor oddity to quibble over. When Dennis first arrives at Whispering Glades to make funeral arrangements for Hinsley, he is taken to Glenworthy’s inner sanctum for the briefest of indulgences. The optical zoom that immediately introduces us to Glenworthy’s Janus-faced hypocrite suffers from some nasty looking edge effects. Personally, I have always been mildly confused as to why ‘optical zooms’ were employed, particularly in movies made throughout the 1960s; as opposed to laying some track down and doing zooms the old-fashioned way; in camera, on a dolly. Surely, it has to do with cost; the optical cheaper to achieve, but also a lot less accomplished to look at; amplifying levels of grain as the image is blown up, with built in distortions. We could forgive these ‘built-in’ anomalies inherent in the process, but herein it also appears as though the video-mastering is flawed; edge effects and an odd blurriness and/or line-doubling briefly occurring. The shot is barely 14 seconds in length. So, do we forgive it? Yes. We do not, however, forget it. It’s there and very distracting. The audio is mono DTS and adequate for this presentation. We get a vintage featurette with interviews from the surviving cast and crew; too brief to be of any genuine value. There’s also a theatrical trailer.
Bottom line: The Loved One was a real wet-noodle at my house. Nobody laughed. It has the trappings of a Teflon-coated comedy of errors, but falls apart – depending on one’s point of view – from either too much or far too little to sustain its meandering plot. Buried somewhere beneath the rubble of its doomed implosion is the message California folk are just plain weird when it comes to accepting the transitional process from life into death, or pontificating over the possibility of an eternal life neatly hidden somewhere beyond and after this one. I’ll bite; these nuttier than thou compatriots are off their Johnny Nutbars by a mile – easily! The movie goes too far off the Richter scale, however; its’ most grievous sin, it never allows the audience room for the hearty chuckle or more introspective contemplation. It’s strictly built for strained laughs; none good, most bad, and some – worst of all – tepidly indifferent. Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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