The Magic Christian
(SPOILERS) As with Candy, also from the pen of Terry Southern, you instinctively want to give these star-studded, satirical ’60s counter-culture forays a bit of credit. Alas, it’s very difficult when they’re as bad as The Magic Christian. More often than not, projects Peter Sellers turned his attention to around this period turned to ashes, but the major problem here – aside from the source material – is one common to many an overblown disaster. Joseph McGrath may have been a darling of Beatles shorts, but he was not a film director.
The Magic Christian’s path to screen came mostly at Sellers’ behest. Published in 1959, the novel proved a big hit with the actor/comedian (Southern: “Peter had bought a hundred copies of my novel to give out on birthdays and Christmas”). It was he who fatefully gave Kubrick a copy; Sellers thought that director might want to make a film of it, but instead he brought Southern aboard what became Dr. Strangelove. If you’re looking for Southern’s imprint on that film, start with the baser material and work upwards (I’m being a tad unfair, but Southern did like wallowing in his pits of blood, urine and faeces).
As Southern tells it, Sellers and McGrath became matey when the latter was working as Richard Lester’s assistant on the The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film. He went on to direct scenes with Sellers in the fraught Casino Royale bodge (a bodge due, to no small degree, to the star’s fragile temperament). Sellers then announced he wanted to make The Magic Christian next, with McGrath as his director. Perhaps he liked McGrath because McGrath would do as he was told? It’s certainly evident that his big screen career subsequently faltered, with Digby: The Biggest Dog in the World proving the highlight (he also reteamed Sellers and Milligan in The Great McGonagall, one of a rash – I don’t think there’s a more suitable word – of ’70s British sex romps I’m Not Feeling Myself Tonight, and the big screen Rising Damp.
Southern wasn’t overly impressed with the director, but he was probably getting used to that, having just witnessed Candy’s big screen decimation. He discovered the screenplay he wrote in tandem with McGrath had undergone various changes and put these down to Cleese and Chapman (they get an additional material credit) and Milligan. Southern blamed Sellers’ insecurity. It’s been said, in support of this – and lest we forget the stories of his terror of Orson Welles on Casino Royale – that Sellers kept taking Ringo’s dialogue and giving it to himself, fearful Starr would win all the laughs (this might go some way to explain why Ringo Starr’s Youngman is so nondescript). He was also said to have been intimidated by Cleese’s comedy wattage, ordering according reduction in his screen time (albeit, one wonders how much more screen time he couldhave had, since he was playing the limited part a Sotheby’s employee).
If one suspects Sellers gravitated towards McGrath because he felt the latter would give him his head of steam, Southern confirmed as much: “No, Joe McGrath didn't dissent… He had a more disciplined sense of comedy than Peter, if not Peter's flaring strokes of genius. McGrath didn't have that much control, and he was so in awe of Peter that he wasn't able to resist him”. That mightn’t have mattered so much if McGrath had a clear grasp of The Magic Christian’s form and content, but actual vision seems to have escaped him, even with the aid of stalwart cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth (recently having won a BAFTA for 2001) and a very nifty, energising number written by Paul or Faul or Theodor Adorno, Come and Get It, sung by Badfinger.
McCartney recorded the demo during the Abbey Road sessions, and it’s as good a song as anything The Beatles were doing at the time. So completely unlike the majority of the solo material that followed. Come and Get It actually does The Magic Christian much more credit than it deserves, informing the picture’s theme far more coherently than the screenplay and occasionally even furnishing the proceedings with much-needed momentum (one might say it’s overused, but I found its various variations quite welcome amidst what is too frequently one-note straining, trying to find the joke in a vacuum).
Many retrospectives have been on the markedly positive side, characterising The Magic Christian as a forgotten classic as its fiftieth anniversary came round. Culture Sonar called it an “experimental, joyfully rambunctious piece of cinema” with “a series of mischievous, rollicking comic vignettes”. Alas, it isn’t. It’s largely flat and lifeless, with little sense of comic timing, intent or trajectory. Not that far from The Bed Sitting Room in that respect. Many of the new brand of comics – Sellers may have been of an older generation, but he nevertheless found a new audience at the same time – struggled badly with the opportunities movies provided. There’s the occasional reasonably successful result (Bedazzled) but also a reason most of the Footlights-spawned comedians floundered while big screen versions of sitcoms thrived. Most of these vehicles, for all their star credentials, proved an undisciplined mess, and more unforgivably, short on laughs.
Culture Sonar further attested that while “much big-screen comedy is still alarmingly safe. Christian is anything but that”. And yet, in some respects, it’s VERY safe, since it’s adopting the same wilfully perverse approach as every “with-it” comedy of that era. That’s why so many floundered and so few have found a genuine afterlife. The predominant trait of these counter-culture comedies is to test the viewer’s patience through striving for a strangely smug inertia; all that comic energy drains from the screen in the face of a lack of control and direction. I can, to a degree, get behind the assessment that “It’s a movie which, rather than choose to follow any kind of linear story, or any kind of moral or message instead decides to throw everything at the camera to see what sticks”, but that’s in no way a compliment (and surely, Sir Guy’s intent is a moral or message, however inept the delivery?)
Sellers has located a look and a voice for Sir Guy Grand KG, KC, CBE, but there’s scant sign of anything beyond that. The character’s neither a schemer nor a scoffer, but rather a passive observer to jokes/japes that frequently seems broken backed; since there’s no set up, no rhythm, the punch line is lost. Further still, they’re mostly of the crudest action-reaction design, applying themselves to such obvious, unfiltered areas as class, race, sex and sexual orientation, with a lack of finesse and evident exultation that comes from unsophisticated attack on mores. Like much of Southern’s work, there’s instant gratification at hitting “worthy” targets, but once you review the impact area, you’re left wondering if he actually said very much, more so that any of it was very profound.
Certain of the novel’s sequences are dropped into the movie fairly intact: messing with a hotdog vendor (Victor Maddern) who is attempting to provide change as a train leaves the station; an incident of illegal parking in which the traffic warden (Spike Milligan) elects to eat the ticket in return for a substantial reward; a trip aboard the titular luxury liner that turns out to be a mock-up in a warehouse; and most famously, a vat full of urine, blood, faeces and bank notes that duly attracts willing participants (the original plan was to film this scene in America, entailing an expensive QE2 crossing for the main cast: “The crossing cost about twice as much as the shot. They didn't use the shot of the Statue of Liberty in the end”).
Such is McGrath’s loose grip, it’s frequently difficult to discern whether we’re seeing a humorous sketch or aside or some bit of chicanery on Sir Guy’s part. Laurence Harvey performing a striptease during “To be or not to be” is quite Python-esque, but it also feels random, rather than germane (Sir Guy bribed him). An anti-aircraft gun downing a duck is… well, incisive doesn’t come to mind. A big cat devours some of the Crufts contestants. The revolving seating of the Chinese businessman on the train? Later, on the boat, we have Christopher Lee as the ship’s steward/vampire, a guy in a gorilla suit, and Raquel Welch whipping topless oarsgirls. What’s the relevance of Yul Brunner in surprisingly immersive drag as a cabaret singer? Earlier on board, Terence Alexander being propositioned by a big black muscle man after expounding racial epithets is clear enough, but sums up how tiresomely facile many of the targets are; it’s little more than a variation on an early scene where a couple of boxers lock lips instead of gloves.
Some of the material works on paper, but the execution is off; Sir Guy firing his executive board (including Dennis Price and Jeremy Lloyd) and leaving them stranded in the middle of nowhere with baffling maps (“I’ve been fired before, but never in Afghanistan”). The boat race bribe is straightforward, but just not funny. Sir Guy eats like a pig in a restaurant, disturbing the rest of the clientele – he sports an unnerving pig mask, though any nightmarish Kubrickian intent is far from McGrath’s mind – but such etiquette was much more expertly parodied later by Python. There are decent lines sprinkled throughout – “Third act’s just started. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s just gone off somewhere” – but scenes tend to lead no place memorable.
There are a few that nevertheless translate with some of the intended zest. I mentioned the parking ticket, and the great strength here is the chemistry between Sellers and Milligan. The former may as well be talking to himself during most of the picture, but he’s clearly engaged by his old comrade in comedy here. Then there’s Brunner in drag; it isn’t a good scene for any reason relevant to The Magic Christian’s content, but it’s still quite mesmerising (the final reveal/removal of the wig is a mistake though, letting the air out of the balloon).
Then there’s the art gallery. It’s curious that this scene of wilful desecration stands out so strongly, while so much else shuffles by aimlessly. There seems to be an actual statement here, but Southern strongly objected to it (Cleese and Chapman wrote the scene, along with the boat race bribe; the former appears in the former, the latter in the latter). I felt it went to the heart of a statement about misplaced values. But Southern considered it “the antithesis of what Guy Grand would do”:
They were tasteless scenes. Guy Grand never hurt anyone. He just deflated some monstrous egos and pretensions, but he would never slash a Rembrandt... Guy Grand would never do that. It was gratuitous destruction; wanton, irresponsible bullshit which had nothing to do with the character or the statement. It was very annoying. They shot the auction scene and agreed to take it out for a time, but it stayed in the final cut. Peter did come around to seeing it was tasteless.
I’m not sure quite what Southern thinks is tasteful (he’s the guy who came up with vat of shit and piss and blood after all, and the general premise of Candy). But the art gallery scene is the only one in The Magic Christian that actually carries some weight, which must count for something. Thunderclap Newman’s Something in the Air also does a good job of selling the ironic counterweights of sound and vision during the vat sequence, although it’s hardly up there with Patrick McGoohan’s use of All We Need is Love a few years earlier in The Prisoner finale Fall Out.
Southern: I've forgotten who came up with the specific idea of having one of the Beatles as Guy Grand's son, Youngman Grand, but I was willing to try it.
If Sellers’ Sir Guy is a curiously detached presence, the addition of an adopted son in the form of Ringo feels like an outright non sequitur. In theory, it might have held some thematic resonance – perhaps along the lines of the bet in Trading Places – with Guy Grand’s overriding view that everyone has their price. Yet Guy doesn’t even seem inclined to test this with Youngman (because he is destitute and has nothing? But that’s no indication of character per se). Southern tells that “the producers wanted to get what they called some extra box-office appeal” and seems to have been quite happy to comply with the demand of an additional character. Maybe that’s because Youngman makes negligible difference to the proceedings, mostly standing next to Sir Guy, looking rather Beatle-ish (you know, because he is one) and occasionally offering a word of agreement or even a low-grade quip. Basically, Ringo’s a passenger in his own star vehicle.
If nothing else, there’s some fun to be had name spotting your way through The Magic Christian; Caroline Blakiston (The Avengers), Patrick Cargill, Wilfred Hyde-White, Roman Polanski, Hattie Jacques, John Le Mesurier, and even Michael Aspel and Alan Whicker cameo. Sellers really was calling in favours, unfortunately in vain as regards to boosting the overall quality. There’s also a piece of animation no one seems to have laid claim to, but I’m certainly not alone in instantly leaping to the “Gilliam!” conclusion. Time Out’s Phil Hardy rightly called The Magic Christian “a variety concert of a film in which most of the jokes/acts fall flat”. He also suggested it was evidence of “the impasse independent mainstream filmmaking found itself in when given its head by the industry in the ’60s”. Now, of course, such free rein – and negligible quality – is the domain of Netflix.