Legend Films, partnering up with Paramount this time to dredge their vaults of questionable library titles, has released producer/director William Castle's woeful 1967 mob/macabre comedy, The Busy Body, starring Sid Caesar, Robert Ryan, Anne Baxter, and a host of comedic supporting players. If you grew up in the early seventies, you may remember The Busy Body as one of those marginal-to-dreadful studio films that seemed to pop up constantly on "Late, Late Shows" and afternoon "Dialing for Dollars" movie programs - titles that usually were too iffy for primetime network showings, but that were perfect fodder for syndication packages for local TV channels. Always smelling strongly of being a Jerry Lewis cast-off project (as a kid, if I saw the film listed, I would invariably forget he wasn't in it, and tune out immediately when Sid Caesar showed up), The Busy Body commits the First and Only Deadly Sin of Movie Comedy: it ain't funny. Not for one...single...moment.
Caesar plays George Norton, a persnickety gopher for mob boss Charley Barker (Robert Ryan). Alone among his "associates" in exuding the "class" that Barker constantly screams is necessary for his gang to adopt in order to avoid stereotyping and thus arrest by the cops, George is quickly promoted to Barker's "Board of Directors." In other words, he's now going to pull jobs, and Barker takes him under his wing to show him the ropes of being a hood. That is, if George can get away from the phone, where his mother, Ma Norton (Kay Medford), calls constantly to kvetch and fret over George's eating habits and his job status - interruptions that Barker puts up with surprisingly well because he admires, again, George's "class."
However, events begin to spiral dangerously out of control for George when one of Barker's men, Archie Brody (Bill Dana), is blown sky high when he attempts to barbecue for Barker and George when they visit for a quiet mid-morning brunch. Responsible for picking out the suit that Archie will wear at his funeral, George makes the tasteful mistake of selecting Archie's blue suit - which is sartorially correct for the occasion, but which is dead wrong for George's own well-being when it's discovered by Barker that George chose the suit that Archie normally hid a million dollars in when transporting illegal funds over the border. George's first task as a hood is to dig up Archie and get the dough out of the suit, but of course, the body is missing from the grave, setting into motion a series of comedic encounters with various hoods, grieving (yet surprisingly oversexed) widows, and an increasingly nervous detective, Lieutenant Whittaker (Richard Pryor), who keeps wondering why people are dying everytime George comes calling.
I've always been a die-hard Castle fan, not so much for his celebrated promotional gimmicks that so many people comment on, but for what I think are his genuine strengths as a filmmaker (strengths that rarely get mentioned - or that are actively denigrated - amid all the hype about "Emergo" and "Percepto" and "Illusion-O"). There are moments in films like The Night Walker, House on Haunted Hill, and Homicidal that display a remarkable, indefinable "oddness," an unsettling ability to pick a perfectly creepy shot or edit that genuinely alarms the audience (his I Saw What You Did is a rather startling exercise in this unerring ability to discomfort the audience). Unfortunately, I see none of that skill on display for the miserable The Busy Body. While many of his "straight" horror films have moments of delightfully perverse humor, this "straight" comedy of his has almost none. Castle, working in color (he's obviously better in black and white) and widescreen Techniscope, locks down the camera at mid-range and just grinds on, hoping to catch something, anything of interest here, while his cast flounders with a remarkably unfunny script.
Written by Ben Starr (Our Man Flint, How to Commit Marriage), and based on the novel by famed crime writer Donald E. Westlake, The Busy Body's choppy, disjointed script is nothing more than a collection of unfunny scenes where Caesar endlessly goes from interior set to interior set (this deadly film plays like it's three hours long), interacting with the various supporting players in the hopes that the comedy will set fire. The central premise itself is awkwardly laid out (we never really believe that George has "class" - supposedly the only reason that Barker tolerates him - when Caesar enacts George not as a smoothie, but as if he's zonked out on pills), with very little in the way of an actual plot to anchor the various individual scenes. Lame stereotypical humor like George's constantly whining Jewish mother (Medford went to the well one too many times with this kind of role) or various jokes about hairdressers or resoundingly flat double entendres (after Caesar and Baxter apparently have sex, Caesar tells Baxter, "Thanks for the ride...Anytime you're near my apartment, just drop in and use my swizzle stick.") give the actors nothing to bounce off of, leading to pointless scenes that play out far past any inherent interest in them. There's zero comedic lift here; no zaniness. What few gags there are, are telegraphed a mile off (did Castle really mean for those obvious mannequins to be thought of as human corpses? If so, it didn't work. Spectacularly). And quite frequently, the tone is embarrassingly off-key (Caesar's whimpering in a coffin, the mortifying tippy-toe running around chase in the cemetery).
Worse still is our lead performer. Anyone who has seen episodes from Your Show of Shows or Caesar's Hour knows that Sid Caesar was certainly one of the funniest, most inventive comedic performers of the mid-20th century. But his skills as a performer were best seen live in front of an audience, where his incredible timing and ad-lids found full flower in front of an interactive partner: the audience. On film, however, Caesar frequently went flat and insular, his comedy deflated by chopped-up editing. He's alarmingly off-center here in The Busy Body, looking pasty and thin, with his self-consciously "styled" comb-over glued distractingly on his forehead. Low-key to the point of comatose, we keep waiting for Caesar to eventually blow his stack and start taking charge (like he did so well in his best film performance in Stanley Kramer's It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World), but it never happens here. His George Norton is a whimpering, quivering mess, willingly letting himself be bullied by Barker, and he stays that way - and we therefore have no real reason to root for him.
Robert Ryan (not exactly the first guy you think of when you need someone funny) is unexpectedly funny...for about the first two minutes, but then quickly slides into a pinched, quarrelsome turn that indicates he knew the script stunk, too. Anne Baxter, a long, long way from The Ten Commandments and The Razor's Edge, may still be sexy (she seems rather into her make-out scene with Caesar), but her role is ridiculously underwritten, and she eventually goes for broad, when pulling back might have worked better. The rest of the cast members have their moments, with Dom DeLuise probably having the funniest scene (if you can even call it really funny) where he puts away his groceries (he even gets to have the one, true "Castle Moment" in the film, where he stands there quivering with a meat cleaver in his back, momentarily throwing off the audience). But fans of Richard Pryor looking to see signs of early genius in his first substantial film role will need to go elsewhere (he's tentative and not at all amusing - or amused). Typical of The Busy Body's dulling effect is the sweet, hot Arlene Golonka, who looks great in a bikini with feathers, but who is then made to perform a soul-deadening "dance," over and over again, until the viewer wants to scream, "Enough!" Actually, that moment for viewers might come far sooner in The Busy Body. Say, about ten minutes in.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.