Saturday, January 7, 2012

Day 38: The Magic Christian

"I've been fired before, but never in... Afghanistan."

Films like The Magic Christian are simply not being made anymore. This film is a ninety minute middle finger extended right at its audience and targets everyone imaginable. Mostly it's a damning commentary on the highest members of the upper class, but it shows us that pretty much anyone can be bought. My first thought immediately after it ended is, why don't the big stars of today do a film like this? And I suppose the reason is that the big stars of today are far too image conscious to bite the hand that feeds them. That seemed of little concern to this film's stars Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr, and the superstars of today could take a page out of their book if they weren't so terrified of losing their A-list status.

The Magic Christian is as odd a film as you're likely to ever see. It's the merging of some of the greatest comedic talent that ever lived; Based on a 1959 novel by Terry Southern (co-writer of Dr. Strangelove), its screenplay was written by Southern, Joseph McGrath (who also directed), Sellers, and John Cleese & Graham Chapman of Monty Python. Sellers plays Sir Guy Grand, the richest man in Great Britain, who one morning stumbles upon a homeless boy played by Starr. Sir Guy strikes up a conversation with him and immediately adopts him, renaming him Youngman Grand. The two set out on a series of adventures with the overarching theme of finding out whether or not everyone's got a price.

The film is essentially a series of vignettes with the Grands going from place to place, trying to buy everyone from a traffic warden (Spike Milligan, Sellers' old Goon Show partner) to a Sotheby's auctioneer (John Cleese). It's actually next to impossible to explain the film to someone who hasn't seen it. The more I sit here and try to write about the plot, the harder it's becoming for me to articulate what the film is about.

The film gets its title from a luxury cruise liner that will be making a trip to America on Easter Sunday, and only the most wealthy people in Britain will be able to buy a ticket for its maiden voyage, making it the social event of the year. Of course Guy & Youngman will be on board, along with Guy's two sisters. The cruise takes some pretty exciting turns, and when the captain is attacked by the ship's vampire (Christopher Lee, hamming it up wonderfully), things erupt into total chaos. The seeds for the ending of Monty Python and the Holy Grail were clearly sown here as when the passengers abandon ship, they find that they've been on a soundstage the entire time and haven't left London.

Without lingering long on this presumed denouement, the film suddenly cuts to Guy and Youngman standing in a big open courtyard offering free money to anyone who would like it. The catch is that it will be dropped into a large vat filled with blood, piss and shit. Literally. Of course, lots of gentlemen take them up on their offer and plunge in for the money, all of them upper class gentlemen. Guy remarks that they are watching a fairly literal metaphor unfold in front of them, and I couldn't help but have drawn that conclusion myself. The film then draws to an extremely satisfying close that mirrors the opening of the film.

Wow, I don't even know where to begin. I absolutely loved this movie. It's sloppy and slapdash and looks like it was both hastily shot and assembled, but the film's heart is in the exact right place. It's odd how prescient the film is and how much I couldn't help but think of the 99% movement occurring now while watching a film made some forty years ago. Things never change, that's for sure, and Guy Grand and his adopted son try to affect some real change, but things will just go back to the way they were, the ending seems to suggest. I wish Peter Sellers were still alive to continue making films like this, they simply are not made anymore.

The song "Come and Get It" was written by Paul McCartney and performed by BadFinger for this film, which I never knew before, as was "Something in the Air" by Pete Townshend, both of which are used to marvelous effect in the film. Come and Get It is infectious and is used several times throughout the film, and you never tire of it because it's so well placed.

I can't say enough about how much I loved this film and how much everyone needs to see and discover it for themselves. Fans of absurd comedy everywhere will find themselves enraptured by its unrelenting silliness and how much of a progenitor it was for the Python films to come. Find this film, seek it out. I promise you, you will not regret it.

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