Stanley Kubrick and Terry Southern's Dr. Strangelove was probably the first official "out there" black comedy of the 1960s. But for purity of form, Southern and Tony Richardson's The Loved One takes the cake, or perhaps better, the funeral bouquet. As the story goes, English author Evelyn Waugh spent a discouraging stint in Hollywood trying to adapt his Brideshead Revisited for the screen. No film resulted but his effort inspired him to write a book about the garish lifestyles he found in Southern California. For his scathing satire on Yankee materialism and cultural depravity, Isherwood focuses on the aggressive tastelessness of our Disneyland-like mortuary establishments. He uncovers a vision of America as one giant Death Wish.
MGM's film version, advertised as "The Motion Picture with Something to Offend Everyone!" is two hours of deliciously wicked lampooning of mortuaries and movie studios, dragging in some military types and effete English expatriates to serve as additional targets. Southern's co-screenwriter is Christopher Isherwood, the English author of the book source for Cabaret. That the film is equally willing to skewer stuffy Englishmen is a wise writing choice, so that Americans wouldn't think they were being unilaterally offended. The Loved One has enough acid to go around.
Things get morbid at Whispering Glades, where poor Uncle Hinsley's corpse is put through a demeaning process of embalming and beautification. Top embalmer Mr. Joyboy (Rod Steiger) has an infantile crush on beautician Aimee Thanatogenous (Anjanette Comer) but saves the bulk of his affection for his gluttonous, gross mother (Ayllene Gibbons). Dennis braves the insincere tour guides (among them, Tab Hunter) and is sold a ridiculously lavish casket by the unctuous Mr. Starker (Liberace). Dennis falls head over heels for Miss Thanatogenous but has to compete for her attentions with the jealous Mr. Joyboy, who is only too quick to point out his young rival's employment at the pet cemetery. Aimee gets no help from the newspaper advice columnist Guru Brahmin, especially when she finds out her Guru is an alcoholic cynic (Lionel Stander).
The depraved Rev. Glenworthy wants to ditch his funeral empire and remove the bodies from his valuable real estate, and his brother is the one to come up with the solution: Henry has hired adolescent rocket genius Gunther Fry (Paul H. Williams) to engineer funerals that launch dead pets into outer space. The Reverend seizes on this concept to rocket his entire inventory of corpses into orbit, starting with a deceased astronaut! All he needs is the consent of the astronaut's stripper wife (Barbara Nichols) and access to surplus Atlas missiles from General Buck Brinkman (Dana Andrews).
The rotten taste of the average American television show has so outpaced The Loved One that this pioneering black comedy is most likely to appeal to those few film fans possessing a sense of historical proportion. As a movie idea The Loved One definitely sprang from Dr. Strangelove but isn't quite as universal in its appeal: Most of its satirical targets are either too obvious or are sacred cows shielded by standards of good taste. The Loved One slams the money-grubbing mortuary industry and its blasphemous misappropriation of religious symbols, but the average 1965 viewer likely thought it a sick-minded attack on religion.
A writer like Terry Southern liked nothing better than to shock complacent moviegoers with irreverent comedy, and The Loved One is much more a conceptually based than the relatively forthright Strangelove. James Coburn's immigration officer suspects Dennis Barlow the moment he says he's an English poet, a clear expression of the notion that foreign intellectuals are enemies of The American Way. Dennis' Uncle Hinsley is clearly coded as a gay Brit veteran of the Hollywood studios, an aesthete incapable of dealing with unemployment. The film is strewn with exaggerations of American types, mostly gargoyles and weird-o's (that's a 60s expression) but all instantly recognizable: Desperate businessmen, corrupt Army officers, grossly disturbed husbands and wives. Poor Milton Berle just wants to get a dead dog out of the house but his wife Margaret Leighton is five levels into a maudlin denial of reality and threatens to shoot him. Mr. Joyboy worships his disgusting pig of a mother yet rhapsodizes over Aimee, the mortuary worker. Dennis freaks out when he finds Aimee living in a condemned cliff house that threatens to collapse at any moment. Aimee is in love with death and sees nothing wrong with swinging gaily over an abyss, while her house crumbles around her.
Confused by her dishonest suitors, Aimee doesn't know whom to turn to. Even the fake Guru betrays her. The crass Reverend has turned her beloved Whispering Glades into a depraved empire, and tries to draw her into his spider's lair with a display of pornographic stained glass windows. Aimee has put her faith in the Reverend and is crestfallen when he proposes merging his operation with The Space Race. "How do I get rid of all these Stiffs?" Glenworthy cries, and the heavens call. Nothing stands in the way of making a buck.
Most black comedies are limited in appeal or lose track of their bearings altogether. Lord Love a Duck and The President's Analyst are reasonably focused and funny, but neither equal the mordant sobriety of The Loved One. Its ultimate effect is to induce despair and dismay for a mad world where even the jokes go sour. Just the same, Richardson's film is both unique and wickedly on target.
Even dissenting critics are impressed by the film's near-perfect ensemble of bizarre star turns. Robert Morse is better here than anything except How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Milton Berle is a fine henpecked husband and Dana Andrews a suspiciously inebriated General. Robert Morley is hatefully selfish and Lionel Stander a viable condensation of everything in Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts. Jonathan Winters' twin roles are some of his best film work. And Rod Steiger's mincing, Mom-obsessed ghoul deserves special billing -- it's fascinatingly on-target.
The Loved One came out in 1965 when the Production Code was still in force. Comedies are usually given a little more censorship leeway, and Richardson and Southern's work seems nasty mostly for its ideas, and not what is shown on screen. Hal Ashby's editing makes the Kama Sutra silhouettes in the stained glass windows seem dirtier than they are. The scene with the girls popping out of coffins to entertain the boys in uniform gets away with Liberace rising from a casket like a smiley-faced Bela Lugosi, to the delight of one of the Generals. A lot is implied, and little actually shown.
The funniest moment is a wonderful comment on the working grind. Dennis Barlow has just gone through an ordeal to collect the body of Margaret Leighton's dog, which he assured her would be treated with great respect. Dennis drags himself in out of the heat of the San Fernando Valley and unceremoniously dumps the dead pooch in a freezer like it was a bundle of trash. Another dog, another dollar ... what's for lunch?
Warners' DVD of The Loved One is the first video presentation with a transfer that allows us to appreciate the care and craft of this B&W classic. Haskell Wexler's cinematography strikes a number of effective moods, especially in the manicured grounds of Whispering Glades (actually Graystone Manor in Beverly Hills) where Acacia shadows are painted on the lawn for a Last Year at Marienbad effect. The trailer doesn't know how to sell the movie except to billboard the stars and emphasize the film's weird nature.
Trying to Offend Everyone is a superior featurette that offers great interviews with Wexler, Robert Morse, Anjanette Comer and others. Morse remembers the irreverent tone and the fact that he had to re-dub every one of his lines to produce even a hint of a British accent. Comer still wonders at the "go with the flow" wildness of the film, and remarks that she didn't see anything disturbing about it at all. And she's the mortuary attendant in a tight-fitting dress and veil, gliding through the halls of Whispering Glades like one of the Brides of Dracula.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Loved One rates:
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