A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (dir. Richard Lester, 1966)

Many thanks to Caroline Lawrence for giving me the DVD of this one!

Funny Thing is a classic musical film with songs by Sondheim, based on Plautine comedy (and, I think, an even better stage show). It's not adapted from any single play by Plautus, but uses elements that crop up a lot in Plautus' plays and combines into one new story. There are sequences added to the show for the the film, including chase sequences in small and fragile chariot-things and lots of physical comedy from Micheal Crawford - I was getting flashbacks to Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em through the whole thing. The performances are all great here, especially Phil Silvers and Zero Mostel. I love the section where Hysterium (dressed as a woman) and Pseudolus re-enact Hero and Philia's love scene from earlier in the film. The horse in the baths, brought in by Hero trying to collect it's sweat, is very funny too.

I also really love the opening (and closing) song, 'Comedy Tonight'. I remember (very dimly) going to see the play as a child, years ago, and that song was so lively and so much fun, it stuck with us for years and I can still sing the chorus. I'm not sure the opening sequence as a whole works quite so well on film. The film breaks the fourth wall all over the place, just like the play, but it pairs that with scenes filmed in a 'realistic' sort of way. During the opening sequence, the director focuses on little moments showing poor Roman citizens doing various things that mark them out as both historical and lower class. It's intended to draw the audience in a reinforce the fact that this is not about grand events, as the song lyrics explain. But the trouble is, it makes Pseudolus' address to the audience direct to camera look a little odd. It's also, of course, just not as infectious when the actor isn't standing in front of you in the same room.

Both ancient comedy and 1960s comedy have something in common - much of humour focuses on the objectification of women. Female characters are pretty girls lusted over by half the cast or old harridans everyone is trying to get away from. I'm sure no one would have batted an eyelid at the time, but it means the film hasn't aged so well as it could have, at least for the grown-ups in the audience. I remember one of my favourite films when I was little was Carry On Follow That Camel, but now, although I still enjoy the film, I always feel distinctly uncomfortable during the numerous jokes based on a woman being coerced into having sex without being asked, and eventually being drugged and dragged off to a man's hareem (though that one is at least viewed as a bad thing). Similarly, there are elements of Funny Thing that just don't quite play anymore, particularly the sequence in which four men sing and dance about how great it is to have a maid who's quiet around the house and fun in the bedroom.

(There's an excellent article on women in Plautine comedy at vroma.org by the way).

A similar issue comes up with the treatment of slaves. In Roman comedy, many jokes are made around the physical abuse (sexual, but perhaps even more often other forms of corporal punishment) of slaves. This humour is brought into the stage play and then the film, but the idea of a man being beaten or even killed for a minor offence is just not funny to me. Normally, I'm all in favour of a realistic portrayal of ancient master-slave relationships, which this certainly is, but I think it works better in a drama, like Spartacus, than in a broad comedy. In a way, I can take it better in actual Plautus plays because I understand the cultural context, but seeing these jokes made in the 1960s is rather more strange and perhaps a little disturbing.

There have been some changes made to placate a modern audience. Pseudolus, a slave, wants his freedom and the film ends with him being freed. In Plautine comedy, slaves show little interest in winning their freedom, and it only usually happens when a virgin-prostitute is proved to be a free-born girl kidnapped as a child, as Philia is in the film. Plautus' slaves, despite the beatings, are reasonably happy - for a twentieth-century audience however, the only truly happy ending for a story about a slave is to see them freed (though Hysterium is still a slave of course). It's good to see some allowance made for modern sensibilities, and since a number of Roman slaves were freed, it's perfectly historically plausible as well.

There are some less plausible elements. One character insists that it's against Roman law to take one's own life, which is clearly not true - one of the things the Romans were most famous for is their attitude towards suicide and the necessity of suicide in the face of shame or execution (though they might have disapproved of the idea of killing yourself because you can't marry a slave girl from next door). Even more ludicrously, at one point it's claimed that there's a human sacrifice scheduled at the temple of the Vestal Virgins. I'm not sure whether this or Carry On Cleo's depiction of a Vestals as reminiscent of a sex-less harem wins the prize for most ridiculous interpretation of the Vestal Virgins ever, but it's pretty close. The weird dancing and singing at the funeral is pretty strange as well - somehow it looks more like it belongs in a film by Pasolini or Fellini than a comedy.

Buster Keaton is in it too! That's pretty cool.

Despite a few problems, Funny Thing is an enjoyable film. It has catchy tunes and likeable characters. It's also probably the closest you'll ever get to experiencing an ancient form of drama the way the ancients did (since we rarely - though not never - see Greek tragedy complete with masks and the Chorus hardly ever sing). Funny Thing may not represent the plot of a specific play, but just about all the elements of Plautine comedy are here, so if you want to experience a genuine bit of Roman entertainment, you can't do much better than this without hiring some actual gladiators. And that title song is just brilliant!

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  1. Not just Buster Keaton, but his last ever film appearance.

    It's interesting how those themes lasted all the way from Attic New Comedy to Hellenistic novels to Plautus and Terence to Sixties sex comedies. Old Comedy was a little less objectifying. You do get the occasional slave girl joke, but generally the women tend to be free. Of course, we have an awfully small sample size.

  2. It's been ages since I've seen this film, and I only remember little vignettes -- the shots of Buster Keaton racing around the city, the 'Wonderful and Winsome' song, Phil Silvers in the brothel, and, of course, the whole bit with the mare sweat, which I thought was hilarious. I do recall being quite smitten with Philia.

    For some reason, I seem to put this film in the same mental cubicle as _It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World_, which I thought was utterly brilliant and fairly subversive for an all-star Hollywood comedy cast. But it doesn't have much to do with the Classics, unfortunately! (Rent it anyway.)

  3. I'll keep an eye out for it :)

  4. I've never seen this one, but have heard it mentioned a couple of times. Quite a few comedies from the 60s haven't aged well... I think comedy has to be one of the hardest genres to translate to future audiences since so much of it depends on a cultural context...


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