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Adapted from his own play, Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys is good sentimental fun. The general complaint about Simon adaptations is that his characters argue and collide with each other until an arbitrary point where they find out that their differences are superficial. The finish arrives in a fog of sentiment. The younger the characters, the more they act like old Jewish vaudeville comedians. In this play the characters just happen to be old Jewish vaudeville comedians. Everything works perfectly.
New York. Disgruntled Willie Clark (Walter Matthau) keeps trying out for TV commercials, even though he's so cantankerous and difficult that the likelihood of landing a job is almost nil. People keep telling his nephew-agent Ben (Richard Benjamin) that Willie is functionally senile, but he's mostly just agitated about his lost career. After decades working in vaudeville with his partner Al Lewis (George Burns), Willie is so permanently upset that he doesn't listen to people, won't take instructions or directions, and can't concentrate enough to figure out how his own door locks work. When an opportunity for Lewis and Clark to work together on a major TV program comes along, Willie can't handle it. He and Al never got along except on stage, and he never forgave Al for retiring. Willie is just one big bundle of resentment, with an impish obsession to get back at Al in any way possible. He desperately wants to work again, but something inside also wants to sabotage the whole business and blame it on his old partner. Ben makes the booking, but can he get the old men to work together again?
The Sunshine Boys flows quite nicely, with Matthau and Burns working together quite well, especially considering that Burns, a genuine vaudeville veteran, is a quarter-century older. Matthau's cantankerous act keeps thing going for the first act. He's just about worn out his welcome fiddling with door latches, asking people to repeat things and getting instructions wrong, when Burns comes along doing his natural unflappable schtick. His is the timing that can't be improved.
Although a big star on TV, Burns hadn't made a movie in 35 years, and The Sunshine Boys gave his feature career a Sunset Re-boot. The stories of how the film was cast, involve earlier possibilities Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, Groucho Marx and Phil Silvers. Jack Benny was going to do it but was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and had to drop out. He recommended Burns, who ended up a great match for Walter Matthau.
When Matthau died in 2000 we were surprised, as nobody wanted him or Jack Lemmon to get old, the way other performers do. Matthau visited the UCLA film department in 1973 -- I remember several students trying to get him to appear in their films -- and he looked great. As it turns out, his aged appearance in The Sunshine Boys is a remarkable makeup job by Dick Smith. Added saggy (saggier?) jowls and neck wattles look convincing for not being overstated. Matthau leaps about, swings his head around and throws tantrums, and the makeup hangs in there. When it's all over we'd hardly believe that the actor is only 55 years old.
At first The Sunshine Boys seems rather mechanical, but once the chemistry between the actors kicks in, it finds its own peculiar reality. Cranky old guys often hide the reasons why they're cranky, and they don't care if they're acting infantile about it. It's more than a simple Oscar Madison-Feliz Unger mismatch. Willie has been on Al's case for fifty years, and Al has been quietly waiting out Willie's tantrums for fifty years. Part of Willie's frustration is that Al can take his tantrums in stride, and it encourages Willie to act out even more. Willie focuses on silly things -- saying "enter" instead of "come in" -- and being unreasonably bossy. Al spits in Willie's face, knowing it will set his partner off like a powder keg. If that doesn't work, All will poke Willie in the lapels. Willie tells war stories, exaggerating the effect of these unforgivable outrages. Yes, these are superficial problems, and as in any other Simon play we all wait for the thaw, when the players acknowledge that they are fond of each other. Because these two guys are vaudevilians, the banter is casually insulting. Willie says he can't tell when they're on stage and when they're off.
Instead of some sappy finish that says the show can go on forever, The Sunshine Boys acknowledges that at a certain point the Old Actor's Home beckons to us all. Of course, Willie has the last laugh -- Al doesn't know that they're both destined for the same cozy institution.
George Burns is a natural. It's unlikely that anybody was expecting more than a curtain-call reaction, but the 79 year-old stayed out of retirement for a busy performing life for nineteen more years. All he had to do is maintain an even strain and invent a few new jokes about being too old to do this and too old to do that. His style changed little from his standup-like turns in comedies like 1933's International House -- if anything Burns' age allows him to hold his pauses longer, to show he's both serene and still in control.
Some complain that Matthau overacts, but the part definitely calls for an excess of arm waving and eye-rolling. When Willie has his little heart episode on the stairs, Matthau doesn't overdo it one bit. We're just grateful that the trickster isn't faking it. In an older play Simon might have had Willie make a silly play for sympathy, to get his way.
Well, later Willie does try to blame it all on Al. The funny thing is, that Al Lewis' little gestures of devotion to his pal make us mist up. How many lifelong performing colleages had Burns outlived at that point? The 'youth revolution' of a few years before had all but removed older people from the screen, and in 1975 the dignified, witty George Burns seemed to represent every dignified old person we admired or missed.
Simon's screenplay allows some scenes to play on the New York Streets. As it's 1975, the sidewalks around the Ed Sullivan Theater look much grungier than they do today, now that Time Square has been scrubbed and polished for the tourists. For the TV studio scenes, we get a flash of Steve Allen doing an intro for Lewis and Clark, and Phyllis Diller performing a bit for a rehearsal.
The only disappointment in The Sunshine Boys comes when the partners rehearse their 'famous' Doctor Vaudeville sketch. It comes off as a flat Burlesque skit, complete with a buxom nurse, funny wigs and spots of red makeup on their cheeks. The chemistry between these two actors doesn't extend to that ancient form of comedy. Matthau isn't all that charming as a Burlesque clown, and looks like your Uncle Morris making a fool of himself at a party in 1958. Burns' straight comeback lines seem underplayed in context, too quiet. I was almost happy that the characters blow up at each other, as the skit wasn't working. You need absolute nuts to bring this kind of nonsense to life, the kind of men who make one smile the moment we see them: Bert Lahr, Harpo Marx.
The show doesn't need much music. MGM found a cheap alternate to hiring a composer -- the title music sounds like outtakes or actual underscore from MGM's Singin' in the Rain.
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of The Sunshine Boys is a handsome HD scan of this popular favorite. Color and detail are excellent, which helps in the long scenes in Willie's sloppy apartment. "All tech values are fine."
Warners includes some cute extras. Costume and makeup tests show Jack Benny working with Walter Matthau, and Phil Silvers working on his own in Matthau's part. An old MGM featurette tries to make a big deal of a rather sad gathering of stars for the 1975 release schedule - Gene Kelly, Brian Keith, etc. The commentary by co-star Richard Benjamin is mostly personal comments without a lot of information about the film. Benjamin does offer some heartfelt observations about working in show biz with great personalities.
One evening in 1975 I was driving west on Wilshire through Westwood and was held up by traffic slowing in front of the Avco Embassy theater -- where they were holding the (a?) premiere for The Sunshine Boys. I looked out my car window and saw in the middle of a big crowd on the steps, speaking into a microphone and broadcasting all over the neighborhood, was Carol Channing, with her very recognizable voice. You could see her glittering smile from 60 feet away, like the grille of an old Cadillac. It was just another ordinary evening in Los Angeles, back in the day.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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T'was Ever Thus.