Great performances of silly stuff


Hollywood comedies from the 1960s pursued an uneasy mixture of anti-establishment satire, madcap slapstick and the inevitable swinging party scenes. Too often, the results were barely watchable quasi-hipster muck, but occasionally the era yielded memorable comedies, a couple of which have just been released to DVD.

Peter Sellers stars in I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! (1968), as a repressed Jewish lawyer who, after having a batch of pot brownies, chucks his job, his hectoring mother and his needy fiancée to live as a hippie. It’s a pretty silly and under-realized effort, but there are enough good scenes and intriguing ideas in Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker’s script to hint at loftier ambitions. One year later, Mazursky would make a far richer variation on the theme of middle-class dissatisfaction clashing with sexual-revolution freedom in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, his directorial debut. Toklas!, meanwhile, remains a fascinating time capsule of ’60s values, with strong work from Sellers and Jo Van Fleet.

Tony Richardson’s The Loved One (1965) boasts an impeccable pedigree—it’s based on an Evelyn Waugh novel, with a script by Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood, and was Richardson’s follow-up to the Oscar-winning Tom Jones. It tells the freely offensive story of a young English poet (played by a miscast Robert Morse) in Los Angeles who becomes entangled in a shady funeral business run by a self-declared religious prophet.

The Loved One was beautifully shot by Haskell Wexler, and it has an appealing weirdness, but the story is too scattershot to function as satire, and the characters are too archly drawn to care about. It works best as a thinking man’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, a succession of brilliant cameos by an all-star cast including John Gielgud, James Coburn, Liberace, Rod Steiger and Paul Williams.