THE DVD SHELF: Zero Mostel Shows Off "A Funny Thing" and the Razzle Dazzle of Fosse's "All That Jazz"

News   THE DVD SHELF: Zero Mostel Shows Off "A Funny Thing" and the Razzle Dazzle of Fosse's "All That Jazz" This month's column looks at Zero Mostel in Richard Lester's motion picture version of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum;" the classy film adaptation of Terrence Rattigan's Separate Tables; and Bob Fosse's remarkable "All That Jazz."

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The salient feature of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" [Kino Lorber], Richard Lester's 1966 adaptation of the 1962 Stephen Sondheim/Burt Shevelove/Larry Gelbart musical comedy hit, is the presence of Zero Mostel as Pseudolus, the Roman slave in search of freedom. Mostel, on stage, gave a raucous performance quite unlike any seen before (although presumably along the lines of the larger-than-life anarchism of folk like Bobby Clark, Bert Lahr and the Brothers Marx).

The movie version came at a critical professional juncture for Mostel. He started as a nightclub comic in the 1940s, working his way up to a respected plateau as an eccentric comedian. His career disintegrated, though, when he was named a Communist before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952. (For an illuminating view of Mostel's acting talent, one might profitably check out Elia Kazan's 1950 film "Panic in the Streets." As a low-level gangster, Mostel is riveting.) After years of blacklisting, he resurfaced in 1958 with an astonishing performance in an Off-Broadway production of the James Joyce-derived Ulysses in Nighttown. This was followed by a triumphant return to Broadway — complete with a Best Actor Tony Award — in 1961 in Eugene Ionesco's Rhinoceros.

Then came Forum, which earned Mostel his first of two Best Actor in a Musical nods; all told, he won three Tonys, in 1961, 1963 and 1965. That last came for the 1964 Fiddler on the Roof, the role for which Mostel is best known although he didn't last very long in the show. When his one-year contract was up, he was pointedly disinvited from continuing by producer Prince and the authors due to his insistence on hamming up Tevye. (In later years, he would head two revivals of the show and clean up, breaking box-office records along the way.)

So there he was in 1965, more or less kicked out of the starring role in what would become the longest-running musical ever, without a place to go. But the success of his Fiddler performance was enough to bring the formerly blacklisted actor the "Forum" offer. Watching the film, which has just been released on Blu-ray, we should keep in mind that this performance is post-Tevye. It wasn't until 1968, though, that Mostel's full comic persona blossomed onscreen, as Max Bialystock in "The Producers." Zero's Pseudolus is a natural for the screen. The character is written in the anything-for-a-laugh mode, which was so detrimental to Fiddler, and Mostel seems to have free reign over the film. Thus, we get the comic side of Zero without fetters, and he is quite something. He is joined by his Broadway sidekick Jack Gilford as Hysterium. (While Gilford was never a Zero-sized star, he was in 1966 more instantly recognizable to the American public thanks to a long-running series of TV commercials for Cracker Jack popcorn.) Gilford, too, is a perfect clown for the material, although his approach is far more controlled. Somewhat surprisingly, Gilford — who was seven years older than Mostel — is over 60 here. "Forum" was filmed just before Jack undertook his defining role, as Herr Shultz in the original Broadway production of Cabaret.

The other important Broadway holdover was set and costume designer Tony Walton. The film designs are far removed from the delicious ones used on Broadway, but Walton does an especially fine job of creating Roman-era interiors that seem to be whimsical imaginings based on what you'll find in the ruins on the Palatine Hill and in Pompeii.

But there the ties to the Broadway production cease. (George Martin, Jack Cole's assistant on the show, did the choreography with his wife Ethel — but to no great effect.) British director Richard Lester was placed in charge of the enterprise, a choice of Mostel's (presumably on the basis of the 1964 "A Hard Day's Night"). Lester had illustrated the Beatles' breakthrough film with a gag a minute, or usually two or three; the songs were accompanied by fast-paced comic action with plenty of slapstick. That approach was carried over to "Forum," which after all was contrived out of shtick. But it was American, burlesque shtick — and given the presence of Shevelove, Gelbart and director George Abbott, the shtick was carefully calculated for maximum effect. Lester's film piles sight gag upon sight gag, so much so that you cannot begin to absorb it all. This takes away from story and song. The end impression is of countless extras doing pratfalls, narrative be damned.

The screenplay was written by Melvin Frank and Michael Pertwee, although they seem to have carefully retained most of Burt and Larry's golden jokes. Faring less well is composer/lyricist Sondheim, in what was his first show as a composer (although he had already written the lyrics for two little items called West Side Story and Gypsy). Only five songs are retained: the two most popular items in the score, "Comedy Tonight" and "Lovely"; the friskiest and drollest song, "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid"; and the choral numbers "Bring Me My Bride" and the "Funeral Sequence," which I suppose are there only because they contain too much information to easily adapt into dialogue. The rest of the score vanished. The musical treatment, too, wanders far from the composer's intentions; "Lovely," in both the Hero/Philia and Pseudolus/Hysterium versions, misses the whole melodic point of the thing. Typically enough, musical director Ken Thorne won the movie's only Oscar for his efforts.

"Forum" partisans can find many things to complain about in the film, sure, but the movie is invaluable nevertheless for capturing Mostel's performance. The charms continue with Gilford and especially Phil Silvers, as the procurer Marcus Lycus. Silvers, more than anyone, knows how to play this material; not only because the show was written for him — he turned down the role of Pseudolus in 1961, not quite understanding it and finding it too old-fashioned — but because he seemed to inspire the authors. (Silvers later did the 1972 Broadway revival of the show, and it remains one of the funniest stage performances I have ever seen.) Also on hand is the great Buster Keaton, still sporting his "stone face," as the wandering Erronius. Keaton was 70 and dying of cancer at the time, but he still adds value to the film. Playing the juvenile is 24-year-old Michael Crawford, who gamely serves as the brunt of many of the jokes and has something of a hard time of it.

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Kino Lorber has also issued a Blu-ray edition of "Separate Tables", the 1958 screen adaptation of Terrence Rattigan's play of the same title. The film made significant changes in the stage version — which was actually two separate one-acts — so it is a somewhat different creature. Even so, the movie — produced by Burt Lancaster and his partners, Harold Hecht and James Hill — is an engrossing, literate drama of loneliness at a quiet seaside resort on the south coast of England. Deborah Kerr, Rita Hayworth (the then-Mrs. Hill) and Lancaster are equally excellent and moving, but the real treasure here is David Niven as a middle-aged Army major facing scandal. Niven won a deserved Best Actor Oscar, over Paul Newman for "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and Spencer Tracy for "The Old Man and the Sea;" featured actress Wendy Hiller, as the innkeeper, won as well. The performances help "Separate Tables" retain its viability, even a half century later. *

And then there's that fascinating movie musical about a chimney-smoking, booze-swilling, pill-gulping, serial womanizing, meglomaniacal Broadway director/choreographer who — in the midst of directing a new, cutting-edge musical while simultaneously editing a cutting-edge Hollywood movie — has a heart-attack and dies. That would be "All That Jazz" [Criterion], the 1979 movie musical from Bob Fosse, the chimney-smoking, booze-swilling, pill-gulping, serial womanizing, meglomaniacal director/choreographer who — in the midst of directing the 1975 musical Chicago while simultaneously editing "Lenny" — had a heart-attack and didn't die. Not until 12 years later, anyway.

This makes for fascinating watching, with Fosse offering a very public close-up of his apparently limitless flaws, faults and neuroses, forming them into what is more or less his own eulogy. Note that while the 1975 Fosse recovered and went back to finish Chicago, he ordains that his alter-ego Joe Gideon doesn't make it out of open-heart surgery. A very visible open-heart surgery at that, with songs.

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This is a darkly cynical movie, which was and remains embraced by some but not by others. I find it overly harsh and negative, on the one hand, while I can't quite pull my eyes from it. For here is backstage Broadway, precisely as it was in the 1970s; Fosse uses Broadway locations, including the stage and auditorium of the Palace Theatre (which is where he did Sweet Charity). Not only do we see the places, real Broadway people are there on camera — including a team of trusted colleagues from both Pippin and Chicago (conductor Stanley Lebowsky, lighting designer Jules Fisher, dance assistant Kathryn Doby, stage manager Phil Friedman). The film positively smells like Broadway, in all its anti-glamour.

Fosse himself isn't on screen, but he might as well be; Roy Scheider looks like he went to Fosse school to learn to be God. I mean, Fosse. (Even physically, he captures the essence of Fosse.) The director — who was surrounded in 1975 by loyal no-longer-wife Gwen Verdon, 12-year-old daughter Nicole and #1 girlfriend Ann Reinking — is here surrounded by Leland Palmer (of Pippin), a fine 12-year-old child actress named Erzsebet Foldi and #1 girlfriend Ann Reinking. All three are especially good; they get to sing and dance, too. Jessica Lange also stars as a Fellini-esque Angel of Death.

Two actors receive star-sized credit for "guest appearances." Cliff Gorman plays the standup comedian in the movie-within-the-movie; the same Gorman who won a Tony Award playing Lenny on Broadway but was passed over in favor of Dustin Hoffman when Fosse filmed it. Ben Vereen, who sprang to fame in Fosse's Pippin, plays a Sammy Davis Jr. type. Acting roles are played by William LeMassena as the producer Jonesy, Anthony Holland as a nervous songwriter, Michael Tollan as the heart specialist, and an impossibly young-looking John Lithgow as the hotshot director (read Michael Bennett) waiting to replace Fosse as soon as he dies. Standing out visually like a silver dollar in a pile of pennies, in a short scene in an invisible role, is Wallace Shawn as an insurance accountant.

The principal dancers include many faces (and bodies) familiar from 1970 Broadway, including Sandahl Bergman, Eileen Casey, Candace Tovar and Jennifer Nairn-Smith. (Deborah Geffner plays Victoria Porter, whose story is patterned on Fosse's relationship with dancer Nairn-Smith during Pippin.) The director also has fun with the acting company of the musical-within-the-movie. Sitting in on the read-through scene are Theresa Merritt, I.M. Hobson, Mary McCarty (who played Matron "Mama" Morton for Fosse in Chicago) and even veteran Sammy Smith (who created Wally Womper, Chairman of the Board, in Fosse's How to Succeed). Familiar faces like Joanna Merlin and Tiger Haynes can be spotted elsewhere; those with a keen eye can even pick out the "Palace Dance Hall" neon sign from Sweet Charity, on the wall of Scheider's apartment.

Musically, the film is a grab-bag — specifically not including Kander and Ebb's "All That Jazz" from Chicago. The big dance number, "Take Off with Us," was written by Lebowsky and his lyricist partner Fred Tobias, the pair responsible for the 1970 one-night-flop Gantry. The song section offers an extended Fosse-type dance number; the second part, "Airotica," is over-sexed and over-the-top. The film score is arranged and conducted by frequent Fosse-collaborator Ralph Burns, who picked up one of the movie's four Oscars (although it lost five in the more significant categories). Criterion provides its typical comprehensive bonus features in this dual-format release, which includes the Blu-ray plus two DVDs. (Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes," "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at ssuskin@aol.com.)

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