If the Marx Brothers had made a politically conscious film in the late 1960s it might have looked something like 1969's The Magic Christian. You might call it a Marxist Marx Brothers movie, actually, the main point of focus through its chaotic narrative is the corrupting influence of money. Starring Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr as well as an endless parade of celebrity cameos, its screenplay is by Terry Southern (based on his book), Joseph McGrath, Peter Sellers, John Cleese, and Graham Chapman, some high comedy wattage that ensures at least some of the humour is going to be effective. A review quoted by Wikipedia calls the film "sub-Bunuelian", which is a bit like calling something "sub-Shakespearean" or "sub-Rembrandtian". It certainly falls below the genius of Bunuel but it is pretty clever at times.
Speaking of Rembrandt, John Cleese cameos in the film as an art dealer who watches in horror as the immensely wealthy Sir Guy Grand (Peter Sellers) destroys a Rembrandt he's just purchased for an absurdly vast sum of money. But Cleese is powerless to do anything because the god, money, has spoken.
This is a bit replayed in different forms throughout the film as Sir Guy demonstrates continually to his mostly silent new ward, Youngman (Ringo Starr), that people are willing to do anything for the right price, from the traffic cop (Spike Milligan) who literally eats a parking ticket to fixing by bribe a boat race where Richard Attenborough and Graham Chapman cameo.
As you might be able to tell from the names of Sellers' and Starr's characters, there's plenty of wordplay in the film's names. The name of the film itself, "The Magic Christian", at first presents the contradiction between the religion that condemns magic and a practitioner who embraces it. One naturally assumes the title refers to Sir Guy whose apart benevolence and wish to subvert the culture of greed would mark him as the idealised version of a Christian while his ability to casually effect extraordinary and weird changes to people and things would indicate he wields a magic of some kind. But in the last act of the film, we learn the Magic Christian is in fact a new cruise ship which we see being boarded by the rich and powerful--including two actors posing as John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Considering the film stars Ringo Starr and has an original song written by Paul McCartney, one can maybe infer this was a reflection of rifts in the group as the cruise ship proves to be the custom tailored Hell for powerful hypocrites.
The captain of the ship has a camera in the bridge at all times but the footage on the televisions bizarrely doesn't match up when the passengers go to investigate what appears to be hostile takeovers by vampires and gorillas suggesting a disconnect between complacent reality and distant violence, which is referred to earlier in the film when Guy and Youngman engage in childish war games in a mansion and the film randomly cuts to gruesome footage from Vietnam.
I'm not sure I think the film's statement was really strong enough to warrant the footage of people actually being killed but I admire the courage of the filmmakers in any case. There is a simultaneous sense of carefully calculated writing and throwing anything at the wall to see what sticks. Possibly this is a reflection of multiple writers, I can imagine reading Southern's source novel would be illuminating.
Here Yul Brynner rather fetchingly cross dresses in a cameo to serenade Roman Polanski. Brynner charms several patrons of the bar before they're horrified to recognise the star. Earlier another patron is horrified by an exhibition of two body builders because one of them is black. There is some minor schadenfreude in seeing bigots having the things they hate shoved in their faces despite the fact that it's not especially clever. Naturally, they're also menaced by Dracula himself, portrayed by Christopher Lee, who stalks through the ship corridors in a surprisingly effectively creepy shot.
Never quite as profound as it sets out to be, The Magic Christian is nonetheless a mostly delightful series of clever moments. I particularly enjoyed an earlier scene on a train where a hot dog vendor injures himself in the attempt to give Sir Guy proper change for a hot dog and a production of Hamlet where the "To be or not to be" soliloquy turns into a strip tease to the delight of the crowd, an insight, I think, into the reason people often stage and want to see Shakespeare in a experimental settings and costumes--because they don't really understand the text as is. I also liked the not exactly pertinent scene of Raquel Welch using a bullwhip to command a room full of topless women to row the cruise ship. What this has to do with capitalist corruption I'm not sure but I certainly wouldn't have advised cutting the scene.
Twitter Sonnet #771
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