Saturday, 26 May 2018

Can’t Buy You Love… The Magic Christian (1969)

Released just at the last gasp of the Sixties, this adaptation of Terry Southern’s 1959 novel fares a little better than the earlier adaptation of Candy (written in 1958 and filmed in 1968). If Candy was broadly about sex (and respect) then The Magic Christian is all about money and the idea that every man has his price.

Produced by Denis O’Dell (who gets name-checked as Denis O’Bell in eccentric Beatles B-side “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)”) and directed by Joseph McGrath, the film stars Ringo Starr and features Come and Get It as a theme tune written by old mucker Paul McCartney, performed by protégés Badfinger. As that tune plays over the opening credits you feel that perhaps the film will be better than you remember but, in truth, whilst it is, a little, overall, it’s not quite the sum of it’s talented parts. As with Candy and others of the period, it’s almost as if making the political/philosophical point, is all that really matters and so it is repeated without ever being progressed with no solution offered.

Ringo and Peter
What’s the thing that money can’t buy, Beatles fans…? The answer was given in 1964. But with this film, in 1969, it was Money (That’s What I Want) this time without the irony.

But I’m being too hard because this film has dozens of period faces, a couple of Pythons, Harry Carpenter commentating. Laurence Harvey stripping along to Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy, Yul Brynner as a surprisingly convincing cross-dressed cabaret singer, Christopher Lee, Richard Attenborough and Raquel Welch in leather bikini and a whip. The narrative may lack purpose, but you can’t say it’s without incident!

Peter Sellers, getting down with the kids, plays Sir Guy Grand KG, KC, CBE a man with money and sense who decides to adopt a down and out, Youngman (Ringo Starr) after finding him sleeping rough. To the consternation of his advisors, he had Youngman declared as his son and inheritor and proceeds to show him how the World works. Youngman keeps on calling him “Dad” and it’s all very arch.

Isabel Jeans, Peter Sellars and Caroline Blakiston
Youngman joins his new Dad at the theatre along with other members of his new family, Dame Agnes Grand (played by Isabel Jeans who had begun acting in the silent era) and the Hon. Esther Grand (Caroline Blakiston). They’re astonished watching Laurence Harvey as mid-soliloquy he starts to strip… the first of many jokes enabled by Grand’s wallet. Fair to play to Lauro though it is funny!

Next a grocer’s shop full of classic sixties brand names all of which are sold off at ridiculous prices… “Ha-ha Mr Wilson, Ha-ha, Mr Heath…” Then we’re in a boardroom on a train where Guy introduces his new son and a new concept car, The Zeus which is a gigantic wealth-expressing car that will crush all others. The promotional film is very like a Terry Gilliam spoof mixed with Yellow Submarine.

The pace is relentless as others on the train – Hattie Jacques and a businessman – are pranked and a hot dog vendor (Victor Maddern) is left holding far too much change as the train pulls away – one of Grand’s favourite tricks in the book. At least the vendor was trying to give the billionaire his money back!

Onto a hunting party using tanks and big guns rather than shotguns and why not? There’s a parade of soldiers and a banner declaring it’s Grand to be Grand as the inedible hunted by the distasteful is presented by the finest chefs.

Back to Westminster and meeting the servants at Grand’s pied a Terre then, as the family reads and plays the cello, there’s actual news footage showing marches and distress across the world none of it impinging on the Grand living room; or does it?

John Le Mesurier , Ringo Starr and Peter Sellars at the Boat Race
They watch as a wrestling bout turns into a love match – all courtesy of Grand’s grands – and then go out for expensive Kellogg’s’ Corn Flakes as Guy makes like Mr Creosote in Monty Python’s later Meaning of Life (or indeed, the earlier mountain of beans feast in Magical Mystery Tour) and has an entire restaurant humiliate itself.

The film climaxes with the sailing of the Magic Christian cruise ship which features a wealthy clientele terrorised by Christopher Lee as the ship’s vampire, Raquel Welch in sadistic charge of the engine room – dozens of naked women rowing – homo-erotic cabaret disturbing some of the straight-laced audience (chiefly Terrance Alexander), Yul chatting up Roman Polanski in his blonde wig and Wilfred Hyde White as the sloshed skipper. All descends into anarchy… before the secret is revealed.

Raquel Welch
Then, a last coda with hundreds of city workers diving into a vat of steaming sewage on the Southbank in order to fish out the money thrown in by Sir Guy… Thunderclap Newman’s "Something in the Air" plays as his point is proven despite the smell. It feels like a pop video and it feels heavy-handed but nowadays we have found new depths to plumb and maybe we take it too much for granted.

The film falters partly because of this dissonance but also because it is perpetually cynical, as Candy was, although the central character there was innocent. Here it feels more like Sir Guy and Youngman are just being cruel and we could have done with at least one person to stand up and say no thanks or one scenario that doesn’t rely on the assumption that all of us are in it for the money.

Dusty verdict: Worth watching for the style and the music as well as spotting a host of character actors and the pre-Pythons. Don’t expect to be uplifted or even converted… now, more than ever, we’re greedy bastards.

There are some genuinely funny parts – strip Hamlet and Spike’s parking ticket munching – and it does work when there are targets in genuine need of being taken down. Another imperfect psychedelic production; perhaps too over-ground to hang onto it’s arguments… undermined by the money men, man.

Peter Sellars and Spike Milligan
The Magic Christian is available on DVD and even Blu-ray – perfect for the Raquel fans who want to see the all-female slave scene in clearer detail. Slavery as sexual exploitation is surely not cool.

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