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Olive Films' new Blu-ray of The Magic Christian comes ten years after a so-so disc from an older company called Artisan. Besides being in HD, the transfer is far better, in the correct aspect ratio, and will please the film's fans.
More than just a misfire, The Magic Christian did a disservice for the mini-genre of hip, upscale black comedies, a trend which began just a few years earlier with the wonderfully baroque The Loved One. With a lack of wit that makes Candy seem like Some Like it Hot, gonzo writer Terry Southern's absurd tale is decorated with a passel of top British names and behind-the-screen talent. But, despite the fact that some find this show absolutely hilarious, it all just sits there, daring us to pick about for whatever scraps of inspiration can be found in the wreckage. Director Joseph McGrath seems to have no control. By comparison, his out-of-control sequences in Casino Royale are inspired: at least that dumb spoof knew how to be amusingly grandiose.
The story ambles from one satirical skit to the next, restating the same theme of class privilege and greed. Millionaire Guy Grand (Peter Sellers) lives in luxury on the Thames while mismanaging his many obsolete companies. One day, he adopts a bum in the park (Ringo Starr) whom he dubs Youngman Grand, Esquire. Together they go on a grouse hunt, take a business train ride, etc., while Guy indulges his extreme tastes and penchant for excess. Finally, with a sampling of decadent stars and trendy society types, they book passage on the maiden voyage of The Magic Christian, a lavish luxury liner that nobody has seen.
It's likely not an apt comparison, but one is tempted to relate The Magic Christian to the collapse of the British film industry. The film must have turned audiences out feeling alienated and cheated. With its pedigree of talent, one would think there'd be a movie there, but what we get are is a series of blackout skits that look to have been improvised on the set. Terry Southern has a strong reputation as a conceptual satirist, but this time it looks like his input has been squandered, or betrayed. If he had anything relevant to say about the decadence of society, it's not here.
The Magic Christian is less than plot-less. Peter Sellers can be sublime, but when he just pulls faces and tries on accents as he does here, he's a bore. Just one scene into the film, we see that Guy Grand as a class-A Ass. Fom that point forward there is no development of character or theme whatsoever, only reiterations of the proposition that the rich are corrupt, that business is corrupt, that England and the world in general are decadent and valueless.
Guy and Youngman ruin a grouse shoot by calling in anti-aircraft cannons to blast down the luckless birds, outraging the stuffy shotgun-toting rural landholders. The skit seems a repeat of a gag from Casino Royale.
A board meeting held in Guy's train starts with a pep talk and ends with everyone, including a perfectly phlegmatic but wasted Dennis Price (Kind Hearts and Coronets) being summarily fired. But not before a new business idea is presented, a gigantic luxury car with a back seat designed for a dozen huge-breasted women. The sequence gets an audio-visual assist from the great animation director Richard Williams. Guy is initially enthusiastic on the car, but then dumps the idea.
Guy and Youngman bribe the Oxford rowing team with the collusion of their coach (star-billed Richard Attenborough, on-screen for maybe five shots). In the middle of the race, the students ram the opposing boat and sink it.
Everything is for Sale, The Magic Christian Keeps Saying. Many gags see Guy bribing people to do outrageous things, an idea that immediately runs dry. The apparent point is that modern consumer society is corrupt, and that the public gets what it deserves. The filmmakers point their fingers at the audience in one unfunny scene after another, telling us that that we're greedy jerks. We instead arrive at the conclusion that the spoiled filmmakers are collecting huge salaries while sneering at a public foolish enough to spend money to see their work. At the end, Guy induces a bunch of bowler-hatted gentlemen to leap into an enormous vat of blood, urine and animal manure, by throwing a fortune in pound notes into the mix. The soundtrack dutifully plays Paul McCartney's Come and Get It by Badfinger. What sport.
Perhaps true satire has long since been absorbed and co-opted by society. Many sophomoric barbs from the old Mad Magazine now read like the wisdom of a lost civilization. Most every stand-up comedian is more profane than Lenny Bruce, but few approach his sincerity and truthfulness. There are plenty of comedies about, both cynically marginalized pieces and commercial fluff, which nevertheless have a point to make. The Magic Christian is a pretender that thinks it's the Real McCoy.
The show can be seen as bridging the original Goon Squad and the upcoming Monty Python tomfoolery. Spike Milligan appears in a small role; a young John Cleese and Graham Chapman also appear in addition to providing some re-writes. But the Goons and Pythons were first and foremost undeniably funny, with an infectious faith in silliness for its own sake. The Magic Christian is too commercial to stand alongside a genuine Theater of the Absurd offering, like Richard Lester's superior The Bed-Sitting Room, made the same year. It attracted a certain admiration even as it played to empty houses. The Magic Christian has about it the smell of total sellout.
I have heard individuals refer to both Candy and The Magic Christian as the funniest movie they ever saw. It must have been a good date, or perhaps the viewer was immature, as was Savant when he was a teenager and thought things like The Road to Hong Kong, Sergeants Three, and Laugh-In were fall-down funny. A typical gag has Sellers buying a hot dog from a vendor through the window of his private train, just as it is leaving the station. Sellers can't make change, so they're shouting back and forth. This Goon Show-type situation doesn't go anywhere -- Sellers switches between hysteria and unconcern, while we wonder why there's no physical payoff to the. Once again, the satire is invisible. The train passengers are upper class twits several patronizing levels removed from humanity. Their train is capable of going anywhere: "We're in the United States now." The thoughtlessness of the scene is best expressed in the fact that Ringo Starr, who accompanies Sellers everywhere, just sits and does nothing, as if using the film to make a lazy self-referential statement: "They're gonna put me in the movies."
The main set piece supposedly collects every important personage in Britain for a luxury cruise in a giant futuristic boat. The ship is clearly meant to represent the future of the country. Naturally the whole thing is a fraud, and the foolish passengers are being hoodwinked for thousands of pounds apiece. Just as in Casino Royale, the big-time cameos are trotted out for one last thrill before the show collapses under its own weight. Christopher Lee wanders in as 'the ship's vampire', a gag repeated three times for no purpose. An impressive shot of Lee stalking a corridor has some design value, but his makeup is inadequate. He doesn't seem to be very intense as he bites a passenger. Is Lee's appearance a flaky echo of the Frankenstein Monster that shows up at the end of Casino Royale?
There isn't much shock value here, only a mild crudity that only makes the film seem less imaginative. The upper class villains use racial slurs, and Leonard Frey plays a character called 'Laurence Faggot'. Lawrence Harvey does a Shakespearean striptease that shows effort but falls flat for lack of a larger point to make. Even Mel Brooks had an underlying sense of despair for the devaluation of entertainment, in his bad-taste musical number Springtime for Hitler.
The most-oft published photo from The Magic Christian shows beautiful Raquel Welch in ornate Conan-like fantasy garb as the Priestess of the Whip, an S&M slave driver who flogs an entire gallery of topless oarswomen. From a production point of view, it's the only truly eye-catching 30 seconds in the film, but like the Dracula gag, it's frustratingly pointless. Did they set up the scene and then just tell Raquel to do something funny? Did she reject a scripted concept? The fleeting glimpses of topless models will just frustrate viewers that saw provocative pictures in Playboy. As a stand-alone gag, a minute's worth of footage at the ship's bar is much better. A silent Roman Polanski is serenaded by an eerily familiar female impersonator, who turns out to be… Yul Brynner. Brynner's voice is dubbed for the song (I hope) but the brief scene is truly jolting. The curiosity value of this bit of film may provide a reason to see The Magic Christian at least once.
In parting, it needs to be stressed that it must be remembered that Terry Southern is still the credited writer of the superlative Doctor Strangelove, the most successful black comedy of them all. And it's not like we're certain that Southern had any control over this show - I'd assume that Peter Sellers probably threw his weight around on the set. If you want to see Southern cut loose in a really daring black comedy, try the genuinely disturbing The End of the Road.
Olive Films' Blu-ray of The Magic Christian is a good HD transfer of this picture, with decent color. The blue and green lights in the Polanski-Brynner scene are pretty startling. Some parts of the show look a little worn, with tiny emulsion scratches, barely noticeable. The mono soundtrack is in great shape, and packed with songs, mainly from Badfinger.
The properly formatted 1:78 wide screen image appears to be a good compromise for aspect ratio. If the viewer is a nostalgic fan of Sellers, Starr, or the good group Badfinger, Olive FIlms' The Magic Christian will certainly appeal.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Magic Christian Blu-ray rates:
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