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Pseudolus is the laziest slave in Rome and has but one wish, to purchase his freedom. When his master and mistress leave for the day he finds out that the young master has fallen in love with a virgin in the house of Lycus, a slave dealer specializing in beautiful women. Pseudolus concocts a deal in which he will be freed if he can procure the girl for young Hero. Of course, it can't be that simple as everything begins to go wrong. Written by
John Vogel <email@example.com>
When I was in High School I had a role in a production of this musical. The film actually stays pretty close to the plotting of the Broadway show, but the truth is that it's story lines are tried and true ancient Roman comic lines from the plays of Plautus and Terence. As such, A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM is a useful film - it is one of the few movies that are based on ancient drama. Of Greek tragedy only Sophocles OEDIPUS THE KING and Euripides THE TROJAN WOMEN made it onto the screen. None of Aristophanes' comedies did, although a "western" version of LYSISTRATA (heavily bowdlerized) called THE SECOND GREATEST SEX was produced. Menander has not popped up yet (with only THE GROUCH extant, there is little chance of that). But this Sondheim musical is the sole example of Roman Comedy - specifically the play MILES GLORIOUSUS ("THE BOASTFUL SOLDIER"). When Aristophanes created "Old Comedy" he created a phantasy comedy of kingdoms of birds or dead playwrites holding contests for supremacy. Political satire was also quite important. After the end of Athenian's Golden Age, even Aristophanes had to tone down his plays. Menander introduced a comedy of character and situation. THe Romans followed Menander's example. So A FUNNY THING HAPPENED is actually a comedy of daily regular life in Rome - it is not a realistic view of Roman society, but it is a type of distorted mirror of that society.
It is also important for another reason: Zero Mostel. There is no doubt that Mostel was one of the great Broadway performers of his generation, but his movie record on this is spotty. Mostel was best recalled for his Leopold Bloom in ULYSSES IN NIGHTTOWN, Pseudolus in A FUNNY THING HAPPENED, the lead role in RHINOCEROS (by Ionesco), and (most of all) the original Tevye the Dairy Man in FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. But only two of these performances got filmed - Pseudolus in this Richard Lester movie, and (in the 1970s)RHINOCEROS (with his co-star from THE PRODUCERS, Gene Wilder). The real loss for his fans was that Tevye was played by Topol in the Norman Jewison film version of FIDDLER. Topol was very good in the film (and was nominated for an Oscar for his performance), but one wishes Jewison could have used Mostel. It would have been an interesting film record of a major Broadway performance.
Mostel's filmography is an odd one. He first crops up in the early 1950s, most notably in two of Humphrey Bogart's last films, THE ENFORCER and SIROCCO. He (like his friend, and fellow FUNNY THING performer, Jack Gilford) was blacklisted in the McCarthy period, so that Mostel turned to working in nightclubs and developed his interest in painting (his painting always showed great promise). The slow resurrection of his carreer in the late 1950s led to some movie roles of interest, such as THE HOT ROCK, GREAT CATHERINE, THE ANGEL LEVINE, but the films were mostly flops. Only twice, when he starred in THE PRODUCERS and FUNNY THING HAPPENED did a glimmer of the manic power of the actor show up on celuloid, preserving an idea of what he was at his best. For that reason alone A FUNNY THING HAPPENED is worth watching and enjoying.
The supporting cast is great too, including Buster Keaton in one of his last roles as a befuddled old man, Gilford as Hysterium (Mostel's foil in the household where they are both slaves), Phil Silvers as Lycus the procurer (one of Silver's best performances on screen), and the two Michaels (Hordern and Crawford) as Senex and Hero - father and son (and rivals for the same girl). One particular added joy is the ill-fated Roy Kinnear, here playing a gladiatorial trainer who treats the use of a mace as though it were a golf club. A few numbers of the score are cut (FREE, IMPOSSIBLE) but they keep in COMEDY TONIGHT, EVERYBODY OUGHT TO HAVE A MAID, and one of Sondheim's few good love ballads, LOVELY. All this and a look at the power of mare sweat (don't ask - you have to be there). I found this film a great joy.
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