Tuesday, 27 October 2015

No.84. Peter Sellers - THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN (1969)


After their fractious relationship during the making of CASINO ROYALE (1967), Peter Sellers and director Joseph McGrath teamed up again with another friend of Sellers, writer Terry Southern, to bring to the screen an adaption of Southern’s novel THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN – with additional dialogue by John Cleese and Graham Chapman whose appearing scenes were all that was left of their own draft . It’s a mad, slightly psychedelic curio with some amusing cameos, albeit essentially a string of episodic sketches.

Sellers plays Sir Guy Grand, a stupendously wealthy man with a strong streak of mischief. He meets Ringo Starr, a young homeless man in the park, and immediately fills a gap in both their lives by making him his son, renaming him Youngman Grand and beginning his ‘education’. They then play out a series of crazy ideas on society that illustrate Sir Guy’s theory that people will do anything for money. However, rather than become cynical or smugly moralising, the film is at times playful fun if you accept its loose structure and the kind of illogical plot jumps that you experience in a dream. (The first thing they do is enjoy a night out at a theatre performance of HAMLET where Laurence Harvey as the Dane inexplicably begins a strip-tease during ‘To be or not to be…’ accompanied by stripper music). The film also contains many British actor cameos as well as fleeting TV personality appearances from the time such as Michael Aspel, Harry Carpenter, Alan Whicker.

Grand’s schemes are wheezes and practical jokes rather than lectures. On board a train, he shows Youngman some fun at the expense of a man he claims profits ‘from man’s inhumanity to man’ by staging a hugely elaborate prank involving a fellow Japanese compartment traveller being repeatedly substituted via a revolving wall. As the intended victim grows more confused, he is dragged back through a sliding wall into the hallucinogenic experience of being photographed by Sellers as a cackling nun complete with wimple. This leaves the man a gibbering mind-altered wreck.

Not all the japes succeed as harmless fun though. One Grand stunt involving a news report of a jungle cat being passed off as a ‘Congo Black Dog’ at the Crufts show starts out as madcap tasteless fun but then McGrath suddenly jump-cuts to the infamous real ‘snuff’ footage of the South Vietnamese General shooting a suspected communist through the head in the Vietnam war. Using this moment of grisly reality is a terrible error of judgement in a comedy film, inexcusable whether or not he was aiming for some kind of Bunuel-style shock juxtaposition. It takes a while to recover from that ruinous tonal shift. Later, there is a strangely fizzled-out pay-off to a promising sequence where Grand, the celebrated gourmet, is strapped into a harness in his favourite restaurant, “une chaise gastronomique” almost pre-figuring Python’s Mr Creosote, but after comically smearing his face with sturgeon, the scene seems abruptly curtailed without a big finish

There are more amusing vignettes perpetrated by Grand and his son as THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN goes on. We witness a gloriously lunatic duck hunt where tank barrages are brought into play to wage full-scale air battle upon the flying ducks – simply because they can. A much-anticipated title fight in the boxing ring turns into a snog-fest between the two pugilists. Sellers’ old friend Spike Milligan makes a welcome cameo as an irascible traffic warden, clearly ‘corpsing’ at the start, who is bribed with £500 to eat his issued parking ticket. He does so, and here is one of the few plot points where Grand actually states a purpose to his mischief-making: “I just wanted to see if you had your price. Most of us do”. This stunt like one or two others in the movie at least offers the type of vicarious wish-fulfillment that money could buy if you had enough of it.

One of the best scenes is where the Grands attend an art exhibition to cause mayhem (surely a deserving target) and get the better of a snob expert, John Cleese, who instead of being driven to his trademark wonderful apoplexy is shell-shocked into a pleasing against-type submission by the offer of £30,000 from Grand for an unauthorised Rembrandt. “Shit…” he meekly swallows. Sellers thus takes out a pair of scissors and to Cleese’s shock, cuts out a nose from the canvas as this is all he wants from the work. He then attends the bidding with Youngman, for me the funniest sequence in the film, as he tries to distract the auctioneer with increasingly frantic props such as an Aldis lamp, semaphore flags, a parping klaxon horn and an Inspector Gadget-style extendable hand.

Cleese’s comedy writing partner and fellow Python Graham Chapman also appears in a short scene spoofing the Oxford/Cambridge Boat Race, where Grand bribes the Oxford crew (managed by Richard Attenborough, no less) into ramming their opponents’ vessel. Chapman is amused by the offer, and it’s nice to see him under-playing in a straight part as Cleese does.

Eventually, we understand the title of the film when the Grands board the luxury cruise liner that the movie title is taken from. Here, the action descends into incomprehensible but amusing nonsense – how could it do otherwise with Wilfred Hyde-White as the ship’s Captain? Raquel Welch makes a fetching scantily-clad Priestess of the Whip in charge of rowing galley slaves. Fans of Christopher Lee’s Dracula sequels, still going strong at the time of filming, get a bonus one essentially as he morphs from a chilling waiter frightening an imperious passenger into the full splendid flowering of fangs and cape – for no reason. Roman Polanski is serenaded by an oddly familiar, masculine ‘lady’ who I suddenly guessed as Yul Brynner just before he de-wigs. (For a laugh, show this bit to a friend and see how long it takes them to recognise him).  A gorilla runs amok and the journey concludes.
Towards the end, Grand hammers home the point about greed over-riding all other motives by creating a pool filled with human filth and bank-notes and advertising it as free money. Sure enough, bowler-hatted city gents are only too happy to wade in at the chance of free lucre – a metaphorical foreshadowing of today’s distaste at such avarice still going on?

In an epilogue, Grand and son take to the park where the father met his adopted son. Grand suggests this may be a more direct way to influence the people. He ends the movie proving this once more by bribing the park-keeper with a bundle of cash to leave them alone.

THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN only works sporadically for a few of its comic scenes, which are worth the wait. It does suffer though from an incoherent self-indulgent through-line, a manifesto that’s never clearly sustained and, I might add, a waste of Ringo Starr. Whilst Sellers seems to enjoy wafting through in a cut-glass accent as a twinkly Lord of Misrule, Starr never develops as a character, which is a missed opportunity. He has a natural offbeat charm on-screen, which is cannily why the Beatles always gave him central roles in their films, but here he merely agrees with his dad, existentially echoing or commenting as they go along.

This film isn’t magic, but check your brain at the door and enjoy the illusions that work…

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