Sunday, July 17, 2011


He did more than just think funny things

By Edward Copeland
Thirty years ago, we were visiting my aunt and uncle when one night my older cousin came home raving about a hysterical movie that he and his date had seen called Arthur and how good this Dudley Moore was in the title role. Why he didn't know who Moore was before that, I can't rationally explain. I certainly knew who he was. Not only from two years earlier in Blake Edwards' sex farce 10 but for his amusing supporting turn in 1978's Foul Play with Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase. Admittedly, I was unaware of his decades of British work with the satirical troupe Beyond the Fringe or his frequent comic pairings with Peter Cook. However, when Arthur opened on this date 30 years ago, it launched Moore into the stratosphere in the U.S. thanks to his brilliant comic turn, a great supporting cast led first and foremost by the incomparable Sir John Gielgud and a Grade A script by writer and first-time director Steve Gordon. Despite the best efforts to suppress the original gem for this year's remake which thankfully bombed, the real Arthur survives and perhaps finally will get the proper DVD release the movie always has been denied.

Arthur Bach (Moore) may look like an adult, but he's really a child trapped in a man's body and having one helluva time with it. He's a wealthy playboy devoted to fun and leisure and leaving many an empty bottle in his wake across Manhattan. In the film's very first scene, his chauffeur Bitterman stops the Rolls by two streetwalkers for his drunken boss who asks if "the more attractive" of the two would please step forward. Realizing that's not the best approach, even when you are paying, Arthur amends his query to ask the one who finds him more attractive to step forward. Dressed in red spandex pants, the hooker Gloria (very recognizable character actress Anne De Salvo) steps up to the car and asks Arthur what he wants. "VD. I'm really into penicillin," he laughs. She gets in any way as the inebriated heir continues to crack jokes and laugh. When she asks him what he does for a living, Arthur tells her, "I race cars, play tennis and fondle women, but I have weekends off and I AM my own boss." At one point, he just starts laughing for no apparent reason. Gloria asks what's so funny. "Sometimes I just think funny things," he responds. Arthur will say a lot of funny things as will the other members of the cast and we'll learn we're not just laughing at someone doing a drunk act — if it's been a while since you've seen the 1981 film, you might be surprised to see how relatively little time Arthur spends soused in the movie and when he's on a bender, something has usually set him off or he's inoculating himself ahead of time for an event he's dreading. There's a serious reason behind it that actually makes Arthur slightly deeper than your average comedy. I'll get to all that later, first I have to take a break to vent about unnecessary remakes and how they actually can be dangerous in this era.

I must get this rant off my chest about the Arthur remake that came out earlier this year with Russell Brand taking Moore's role and John Gielgud's Oscar-winning valet Hobson getting a sex change and becoming Arthur's nanny Hobson in the form of Oscar winner Helen Mirren. I did not see the remake. I live by the principle that if the original movie was really good or great, I will not see a remake of it. There's no point other than filmmakers bereft of original ideas looking to steal what worked in the past and, inevitably, doing a piss-poor job of it. When I first heard that they were remaking Arthur, I thought it sounded like a bad idea. Once commercials started appearing, it looked much worse than even I imagined. It didn't help that they had Brand going around semi-criticizing the original in a way that only proved he couldn't have seen it (or wasn't sober at that time if he did). Since the character of Arthur does drink to excess and Brand is a recovering addict in real life, he made a big point about changes in the remake as if the original were pro-alcoholism. “It was very important that we established a context where the alcohol was humbling,” Brand said in an interview. “In 2011, you also need to see a resolution to his vice. I was happy to see how it was rendered.” The only times Dudley Moore's Arthur Bach gets drunk is when he's miserable or frightened. Once he meets Linda (Liza Minnelli) and falls in love or when he worries about Hobson's health and becomes his caretaker for a change, his drinking ceases. His drinking wasn't a vice: It was an anesthetic to ease his pain about being forced into marriage with a woman he not only didn't love but didn't like much either with the cost of refusing to wed her being the loss of his fortune.

What's most despicable in this case is that it sort of proves my fears of why remakes are dangerous. With the constant development of new technologies, Hollywood won't keep transferring every film ever made to the latest format. They will stick to the most recent versions with the most recognizable stars. When I started plotting out tributes to do this year at the end of 2010, I knew that the 30th anniversary of Arthur would be one of them. Upon investigation, I was shocked to find that it was NEVER released on DVD in its proper aspect ratio. All versions were cropped instead of the 1.85:1 in which it was shot. (At the time of the remake's release, the original along with its horrid 1988 sequel Arthur 2: On the Rocks were released together on a single Blu-ray disc in widescreen without any special features which even the cropped DVDs had.) I also try to collect screenshots from the web ahead of time, so I know if there is anything I'll have to grab from the DVD. Surprisingly, very few shots from the actual 1981 movie are out there. Mostly, there are poster or publicity stills. Even more frightening, if you try to do an advanced search where you specifically omit the name "Russell Brand," you still end up getting more art related to the remake than the original anyway. Now someone tell me I have nothing to fear from Johnny Depp's ego thinking it needs to play Nick Charles in a remake of The Thin Man. If they start trying to pretend that a 1981 film doesn't exist, what do you think they'll do with one made in 1934? Think they released that no-frills Blu-ray where they handcuffed it to its terrible sequel by accident or so they can say, "Nobody bought it" and then let it die? It's more ridiculous when you realize what a gigantic hit the original Arthur was and what a colossal flop the remake turned out to be.

  • 1981 Arthur Cost: $7 million Gross: $95.5 million
  • 2011 Arthur Cost: $40 million Gross: $33 million

  • Back to the real Arthur. We'll pick up where we left off with Arthur on his "date" with Gloria. Part of the genius of Steve Gordon's screenplay was how deftly it intertwined plentiful laughs and exposition at the same time. Arthur takes Gloria to dinner at The Plaza. Needless to say, when she walks in first, the maitre'd (Dillon Evans) is ready to throw the hooker out — until he sees she's with "Mr. Bach" and then he's all manners. The other haughty patrons express shock, but few of them stand to inherit $750 million someday so the maitre'd isn't too concerned. On their way to Arthur's regular table, Arthur spots his Uncle Peter (Maurice Copeland, no relation) and Aunt Pearl (Justine Johnston). He goes on to introduce the hooker as "Princess Gloria," telling them she hails from a tiny country. "It's terribly small, tiny little country," he breathes on Aunt Pearl to her disgust. "Rhode Island could beat the crap out of it in a war. That's how small it is." Uncle Peter finally steps in saying what he does know is that Arthur is terribly drunk and perhaps they should see him when he's sober. "Grow up Arthur, you'll make a fine adult," his uncle tells him. "That's easy for you to say. You don't have 50 pair of short pants hanging in your closet," Arthur responds as Gloria leadx him to their table. Without being aware of what he just asked, Arthur prods Gloria to tell him about herself. "You mean why I'm a hooker?" she replies. She goes on to reveal that her mother died when she was 6 and her father raped her when she was 12. "So you had six relatively good years," Arthur slurs. "Sorry. My father screwed me too." That's how he introduces the film's main plot point and why Arthur drinks. His father and grandmother keep pressuring him to marry a young heiress named Susan Johnson, but Arthur wants no part of it. He holds on to the silly notion that he'll get married for love.

    The next morning, when Gloria wakes up with Arthur in his bedroom that looks more suited for a child, complete with an elaborate train set behind his bed, we meet the most important person in Arthur's life: his butler/manservant/valet Hobson (Gielgud, who most deservedly took home the Oscar for best supporting actor). We first see him as elevators door open to reveal him bearing a tray of breakfast sustenance. Having just awakened, Arthur's embracing Gloria and we hear Hobson intone, "Please stop that." He steps further into the room and informs Arthur, "I've taken the liberty of anticipating your condition. I have brought you orange juice, coffee, and aspirins. Or do you need to throw up?" Gloria registers surprise at the sudden appearance of this British gentleman who hands her a robe and asks her to put it on, adding that she has breakfast waiting for her on the patio. "Say goodbye to Gloria, Arthur," Hobson instructs him and Arthur does as he says. Later, Arthur sits in a chair reading part of the newspaper while Hobson stands next to him reading another. It's a scene that contains several classic moments and, thankfully, YouTube had the clip.

    Now Arthur's bathtub is much like his bedroom: Elaborate with an intercom system and a stereo (From the photo of the remake the bigger budget seems to have bought a smaller tub with fewer frills). Hobson reminds him that he must meet with his father in his office, so he gets prepped. Once they arrive and wait in the outer lobby, Arthur's jitters are on full display. He tells Hobson how he hates it there. "Of course you hate it. People work here," Hobson replies, before ordering Arthur to lean back in his chair and sit up straight. The receptionist announces that Arthur's father will see him now. He wants to take Hobson, but the receptionist says that his father said for Arthur to come in alone. After Arthur has left, an exec in the lobby (Paul Gleason) picks up the courtesy phone and says to Hobson, "He gets all that money. Pays his family back by being a stinkin' drunk. It's enough to make ya sick." Hobson smiles. "I really wouldn't know, sir. I'm just a servant. On the other hand, go screw yourself." In his father's office, Arthur makes a beeline for the bar. His father, Stanford Bach (Thomas Barbour), flips through newspaper clips, noting how his drunken playboy status has made great fodder for the tabloids. He calls his son weak. "I despise your weakness," his father tells him. Arthur reiterates what he says he's told his father "a thousand times." He's not going to marry Susan Johnson. His father tries to sell him on it, insisting that he wants it, his grandmother wants it and Burt Johnson wants it. "Burt Johnson — he's a criminal!" Arthur exclaims in reference to Susan's father. Stanford Bach says they all are criminals in their own way and he admires Arthur, in a way, for sticking to his principles, but from this moment on — he's cut off. "From you? From grandmother? The rest of the family?" Arthur gulps. His father shakes his head. "You mean from —" Arthur can't even say the word. "The money Arthur," his father says. Suddenly, Arthur has a change of heart about Susan, finding positive qualities about her. Stanford shakes his son's hand. "Congratulations Arthur. You're gonna be a very wealthy man for the rest of your life," he tells him. "It's all I've ever wanted to be."

    Most of the pieces for Gordon's simple yet great screenplay are in place but the final part comes into play after Arthur's meeting with his father when he and Hobson go shopping at Bergdorf Goodman. Arthur goes on a spiteful spending spree, ordering three dozen of a particular shirt then telling Hobson, "I hate my father." "Buy four dozen," Hobson advises and Arthur increases the order. Then Arthur spots her (Liza Minnelli). She's wearing a red hat and bright yellow slicker with a bag draped over her shoulder — and she steals a necktie and stuffs it in the bag. Arthur asks Hobson if he saw that. "It's the perfect crime — women don't wear ties. Some women do so it's not the perfect crime, but it's a good crime," Arthur comments. He then sees that the store's security guard has begun to follow her. Despite Hobson questioning why they should care, Arthur follows her out to the street where the guard confronts her, accusing her of stealing a tie. She gets confrontational, wanting to know the guard's name and asking the people in the crowd to get her a cop. Arthur steps in and says he thinks he can straighten this out. The guard of course knows who he is. He tells the guard he told her to pick out a tie and he'd put on his bill at the cashier. Arthur even asks to see it which the woman shows to him. Arthur says it's lovely and plants a big kiss on her lips. He tells the guard to have the cashier add the tie to his bill and he just keeps following the woman, whose name he learns is Linda. She can't figure out who the tall British gentleman stalking them is. When Arthur tells her he's not married, she gives him her phone number. "Thank you for a memorable afternoon," Hobson tells her. "Usually one must go to a bowling alley to meet a woman of your stature." Arthur lets Bitterman drive her home while he and Hobson continue shopping.

    Now the romance, albeit thwarted, at the center of Arthur may be between Arthur and Linda, but when you get right down to it, the film's most important relationship exists between Arthur and Hobson. The reason Arthur drinks has little to do with him being an overgrown kid out to have a good time but much to do with the lousy childhood he had. The movie never even alludes to what happened to Arthur's mother, but in one of the film's quieter and sweeter scenes, when he's showing Linda his favorite horse, she comments how great it must have been to be around the horses and the rest of the estate when he was growing up. Arthur admits he wasn't home a lot because he always was at a boarding school — and he got kicked out of 10 prep schools because he was a bad kid. "You weren't bad. You just wanted to come home," Linda tells him. She's right — and the main reason for that was Hobson, who treated Arthur more like a son than Stanford Bach did. Sure, Hobson and Arthur have a teasing relationship, but Hobson always has been Arthur's protector. While the rapport between Moore and Gielgud provides many of the movie's biggest laughs, it also supplies the film with much of its emotional underpinnings and heart. You can tell from looks that Gielgud gives early in the film (or the TV ads showing Mirren's Hobson in the remake) that Hobson isn't well and he's trying to prepare Arthur for life when he's no longer there.

    At first, Hobson isn't the wise oracle you might take him for, at least when it comes to Arthur's feelings toward Linda. When Arthur asks Bitterman where Hobson is and the driver says he's tired, Arthur notes that he's been tired a lot lately. Arthur goes to Hobson's room out of concern for his surrogate father and also to vent because he's feeling crappy, having just told Linda about his engagement to Susan. First, Hobson tries to allay Arthur's fears about his health by doing his usual hammy fake dying scene, but Arthur isn't in the mood. He tells Hobson about his admission to Linda and the old valet, assuming they still are playing their usual verbal games responds, "I don't know why. A little tart like that could save you a fortune in prostitutes." Arthur gets livid, yelling at Hobson never to speak about Linda in that way again and asking why he has to be such a snob before storming out. It actually causes Hobson to sit up in bed when Arthur returns to the room, saying that's the first time he's yelled at him in his life. "Perhaps you're growing up," Hobson suggests. Despite Arthur standing up for Linda as he did, it still isn't enough to convince Hobson yet that Arthur's feelings really represent love for Linda and not just resistance to marrying Susan. Arthur's mood does not change though. Hobson accompanies him to one of his favorite getaways — some high-speed spins around the racetrack — but Bach remains as morose as ever when he climbs out of his car, complaining to Hobson that, "I could love somebody. I never got to love anybody. I'm a failure in everything I do." Hobson asks Arthur to remove his racing helmet, then his goggles, and holds them both under one arm as he repeatedly slaps him on both cheeks with one hand.

    "You spoiled little bastard! You're a man who has everything, haven't you, but that's not enough. You feel unloved, Arthur, welcome to the world. Everyone is unloved. Now stop feeling sorry for yourself.
    And incidentally, I love you.
    (Hobson puts his arm around Arthur and they walk off together.) Marry Susan, Arthur. Poor drunks do not find love, Arthur. Poor drunks have very few teeth, they urinate outdoors,
    they freeze to death in summer. I can't bear to think of you that way."

    Hobson may have advised Arthur to marry Susan, but he has plans of his own. He soon shows up at Linda's apartment with a dress and the time and address for Arthur and Susan's engagement party. Linda can see that the old man is sick, but she realizes he's doing this because he cares for Arthur. He tells her he still recognizes when "a gentleman is in love." She does have to ask though if Arthur sent him. "Arthur would never be involved in something as devious as this," Hobson insists. Linda tells Hobson that Arthur has a really good friend in him. "You really look out for him, don't you?" she says. "It's a job I highly recommend," Hobson responds. He has another bad coughing spell as he's leaving and she asks if he's seen a doctor. "Yes — and he has seen me." Soon, Hobson does end up hospitalized and his role and Arthur's are reversed as Arthur sees to his care, completely re-doing his hospital room, bringing him catered meals against doctor's orders ("I'm not going to let his last meal be jello.") and moving in himself. He also brings him a plethora of gifts from basketballs and toy trains to a cowboy hat, which Hobson insists he remove if he should die suddenly. After Arthur stays up most of the night when Hobson has a bad one, Hobson tells him in the morning that he looks awful. "That's because you've never seen me sober," Arthur tells him. At one point as he grows weaker, Hobson confides to Arthur that he can do anything he wants. Arthur asks what he means. "Figure it out." The pairing of Gielgud and Moore was brilliant casting on someone's part and, as I wrote before, Gielgud deserved that Oscar win. Moore also deserved his nomination for best actor, but he faced a tougher field that consisted of Warren Beatty in Reds, sentimental favorite and winner Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond, Burt Lancaster in Atlantic City and Paul Newman in Absence of Malice.

    Watching it again, you have to commend whoever took a chance on Steve Gordon and let him make his directing debut on Arthur when it was only the second screenplay he'd written. The first, The One and Only starring Henry Winkler and directed by Carl Reiner, wasn't bad, but couldn't prepare anyone for how good Arthur would be. The remainder of Gordon's resume consisted of limited sitcom writing on shows such as Barney Miller and Chico and the Man and as creator/head writer of a short-lived 1976 comedy called The Practice starring Danny Thomas. Sadly, after the success of Arthur, including an Oscar nomination and a Writers Guild award for original screenplay, Gordon died in 1982 of heart failure at the age of 44.

    Arthur wouldn't feel that out of place if it had been made decades earlier than 1981 except for some language and sexual innuendo. Classic comic scene follows classic comic scene, great actors both of stature and solid character work fill most every role and it follows the tried-and-true rule of the best comedies by running around 90 minutes. (The remake and the original's own awful sequel both end up 10 minutes shy of the two hour mark.) The infectious, bouncy score by Burt Bacharach blends perfectly with the laughs and tugs on the heart when needed, though the instrumental music was overshadowed by the film's popular and award-winning theme song. The cinematography by Fred Schuler (who also filmed The King of Comedy) makes Manhattan look beautiful and glistening, something you didn't see too often in films of the late '70s and early '80s. I've praised the exquisite work of Moore and Gielgud, but some of the others deserve their due. Admittedly, I've always felt that Liza Minnelli was the weak link as Linda, but seeing it again, I enjoyed her performance more than I have in the past and it's probably the most likable she's been on screen. Of course, this was before her body was made mostly of plastic, rivets and wax. Even better is the late Barney Martin (probably best known now as Morty Seinfeld on Seinfeld) as Linda's unemployed father who gets more upset than she does at times when it looks as if she's lost her chance at love with a multimillionaire. Martin's far from the only familiar face that shows up.

    Jill Eikenberry, long before L.A. Law, gets the somewhat thankless task of playing Susan, Arthur's unwanted fiancée, who always denies the evidence of what's in front of her — namely that Arthur isn't attracted to her in the least. She's blind to the clue of his drunken playboy antics that perhaps she shouldn't be anxious for this marriage. She does come from her own fortune after all. The restaurant scene where Arthur forces himself to propose turns out to be another hilarious keeper as he shows up blotto — he couldn't go through with it otherwise — and tosses out a seemingly endless line of nonsequiturs. (My personal favorite: "Do you have any objection to naming a child Vladimir? Even a girl?") Susan never runs out of patience, insisting to Arthur that "a real woman could stop you from drinking" to which he replies, "It'd have to be a real BIG woman." While Susan may be a forgiving sort, the same cannot be said for her father Bert Johnson, a tough self-made millionaire who likes to intimidate and, though he wants Arthur to marry his daughter, he doesn't trust him or like his drinking. Played by another great character actor, Stephen Elliott, veteran of countless TV appearances as well as films such as The Hospital and Beverly Hills Cop as the police chief. Bert sets up a meeting with Arthur to make it clear that he won't put up with his nonsense. Arthur offers him a drink, though he's in Bert's house, but Bert informs him that no one in his family drinks. "I don't drink because drinking affects your decision-making," Bert tells Arthur. "You may be right. I can't decide," Arthur replies. On a feature on the DVD, which must have been made before anyone even dreamed of a laserdisc let alone a DVD, the late Gordon talks about how during the sequence, which takes place in Bert's study in front of the head of a moose he killed while hunting, Dudley Moore kept improvising so many funny things that he ended up with 12 takes where each one was just as funny as the last and he wished someday he could run all of them in a row. Bert makes a point of telling Arthur — with a smile no less — how he killed a man when he was 11 who was trying to steal food from his family. "Well, when you're 11 you probably don't even know there's a law against that," a drunken and nervous Arthur replies.

    Sir John Gielgud wasn't the only actor with "prestige" in Arthur. Also a delight is Geraldine Fitzgerald, the Irish-born actress whose film career dated back to the 1930s (She earned a supporting actress Oscar nomination for 1939's Wuthering Heights), though she moved to the U.S. early and became an American citizen during World War II to be in solidarity with her adopted country, and earned the title of a British Lady when she wed Sir Edward Lindsay-Hogg 4th Bt., which means he held an inherited title of baronetcy from one of the U.K.'s isles. Fitzgerald turns in a doozy of a performance as Arthur's grandmother, who he calls Martha, and who is keeper of the Bach family fortune. She can be naughty, as when she tells Arthur, "Every time you get an erection it makes the papers" or asks him, "Is it wonderful to be promiscuous?" However, she might seem old and dotty, but that doesn't mean she isn't ruthless as she insists that Arthur marry Susan, reminding him that he's too old to be poor. "You're a scary old broad, Martha," he tells his grandmother. She's also one of the few with the guts to stand up to Bert Johnson in the film's climax, slapping him and threatening him with the words, "Don't screw with me."

    I wanted to make sure to include a good shot of Ted Ross as the chauffeur Bitterman. He didn't get a lot to do, giving a performance that was mostly reacting to what was going on around him. He wasn't close to Arthur the way Hobson was, but he had a similar dynamic where he could be exasperated by his boss, but he wouldn't want to work for anyone else. Ross deserves some recognition not just for his performance because he also belongs to the sadly long list of people associated with Arthur who have died in the 30 years since it was released. I already discussed the early and untimely death of writer-director Steve Gordon, but of the performers in major roles in the film we have lost Dudley Moore, John Gielgud, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Stephen Elliott, Ted Ross, Barney Martin and Thomas Barbour. Even though they only had single brief scenes, even Paul Gleason, Lou Jacobi who plays a florist, Richard Hamilton who plays a drunk in a bar who listens to Arthur's story and Lawrence Tierney who plays a diner customer sitting next to Arthur when he proposes to Linda. Of the major characters and notable appearances, only Liza Minnelli, Jill Eikenberry and Anne De Salvo remain. Even Executive Producer Charles H. Joffe and Peter Allen, one of the four people who took home an Oscar for contributing to the song "Arthur's Theme (The Best That You Can Do") have passed on. (Allen only got any credit because on a completely separate occasion, he'd coined the phrase "caught between the moon and New York City" when his airplane was circling awaiting approval to land.)

    Three decades after it first seemed to spring out of nowhere, Arthur remains a well-crafted, well-acted piece of film entertainment. After the disastrous remake's huge flop and the original's years of neglect (probably partially due to its origination as an Orion release, making it another unfortunate orphan of that defunct studio), the movie deserves proper preservation and presentation for those who wish to see it again at home, either as a rental or as part of their home library. If they need another reason, do it as a record of what may be Dudley Moore's finest work. Sadly, he never made another film that came close to equaling Arthur in terms of quality or using his talent to great effect.

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    Had a thoroughly enjoyable viewing on NETFLIX instant. Far better than I remembered although Liza Minelli did not charm me at all.
    She always was my least favorite part but perhaps having not seen it in quite a few years made me feel more kindly toward her in the viewing for this piece. It helps that everyone around her is so good that they pick up the slack. Sort of the way it was with Costner early in his career. He was surrounded by so many talented actors and good scripts his lack of talent was easier to sneak by.
    Great post, Ed. It's been awhile since I last saw it, and now I want to tee it up once more. Thanks.
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