❉ It doesn’t get much more 1969 than this!
Even if you have never heard of Terry Southern, chances are you have his photo in your house. For it is his impassive, shades-covered visage that faces out from the cover of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, framed by thirsty poet Dylan Thomas and former pop idol Dion.
His inclusion on this iconic album sleeve, which turns 50 this June, is a suitable motif for the mercurial Southern: lurking anonymously among this celebrated pop art montage of the great and good of pop culture, oozing implacable hipster cool. Never a household name, Southern nonetheless moved in highly influential circles, his literary career traversing through postwar avant garde Paris, the Beat Generation, New York’s fifth estate, the Californian counter culture and the genesis of New Hollywood. His druggy satires The Magic Christian, Candy and Blue Movie were every counterculture vulture’s hip must-have paperbacks, and as a script doctor he lent his cynical wit and offbeat humour to Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita and Dr. Strangelove (he also suggested that Kubrick film Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange) and was part of the loose collective of writers and actors who brought Easy Rider to life.
Easy Rider, of course, was the film that kicked the New Hollywood revolution into top gear, and was part of an explosion of movies reflecting the burgeoning counterculture, just as the old Hollywood studio system began to fall apart: The growth in popularity of television had loosened the studios’ monocultural grip in dictating audiences’ tastes, the relaxation of censorship in the face of the permissive society made Hollywood’s carefully constructed wholesome simulacrum of American society look quaint and archaic, and the fall of the mighty studio empires as its all-powerful figureheads – MGM’s Louis B. Mayer, 20th Century Fox’s Daryl F. Zanuck et al – retired or were deposed, saw these monolithic, iconic studios bought out by corporate empires such as Kinney Corporation (Warner Brothers) and Gulf & Western (Paramount). MGM, its public image once inseperable from that of its paternalistic emperor Louis B. Mayer, merged with United Artists before coming under the management of businessman Kirk Kirkorian and ultimately entrepreneur Ted Turner. Almost overnight, these kingmakers who invented and named their avatars – Cary Grant, Doris Day, Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland were the studio-manufactured, airbrushed public likenesses of Archibald Leach, Doris Kappelhoff, Norma Jean Baker and Frances Gumm, designed for mass appeal – found themselves out of step with the same public whose tastes and trends they had once moulded.
How Hollywood responded to the dramatic changes wrought by the ‘sixties, and particularly the counterculture becoming the new mainstream, happened in two ways, which utilised every last remaining ounce of commercially manipulative savvy the industry still possessed: By, on the one hand, co-opting directors unaffiliated with the studio system to jump on the counterculture bandwagon with mixed results – MGM had success with Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger), but Zabriskie Point (Michaelangelo Antonioni) was a widely lambasted turkey – or, more cynically, commissioning their own idea of what a ‘head’ movie looked like, by snapping up the rights to an out-there property, filling it up with as many A-list, “resting between jobs” movie veterans who snapped up these gigs to make a fast buck for their pension pots with the same alacrity they would sign on for blockbuster disaster movies a decade later.
1969’s The Magic Christian, loosely based upon Southern’s 1959 novel of the same name, was a hybrid of the above two approaches. Very much a ‘straight’ production company’s idea of what an anti-establishment hippy comedy looks like, on paper it looks like the epitome of a bandwagon-jumping, bums-on-seat late ‘60s confection, and had a pedigree that suggested a hot mess: It reunited Peter Sellers – forming part of a hippy midlife crisis trilogy with his earlier What’s New Pussycat and The Party – with director Joe McGrath, a combination that had yielded disastrous results in the form of Casino Royale; Sellers shared top billing with your actual Ringo “Peace and love! No autographs!” Starr, fresh from besmirching Southern’s texts in the monumentally messy Candy (1968) and returning to Twickenham Studios a mere two months after having spent an unhappy time on the same set taking part in what would become the Fabs’ memento mori, the Let It Be music-documentary.
McGrath packed the film with cameos for everyone from Hattie Jacques, Spike Milligan, Laurence Harvey, Fred Emney, John Le Mesurier, Clive Dunn and Wilfred Hyde-White to Yul Brynner, Christopher Lee, filmmakers Richard Attenborough and Roman Polanski, and Raquel Welch – the latter always up for sending-up her sex kitten persona in a bizarro movie (See also: Bedazzled, Myra Breckinridge). Meanwhile, on soundtrack duties was Apple Records’ golden goose, the Welsh rock band Badfinger, with the McCartney-penned theme song Come And Get It used effectively throughout the film, and its bathetic climactic scene was scored to Thunderclap Newman’s zeitgeisty hit Something In The Air.
With all those ingredients in the soup, it doesn’t get more 1969 than that – until you factor in the two up-and-coming young men Sellers drafted in as script doctors, John Cleese and Graham Chapman, already respected writers and performers due to the success of Golden Rose-winner The Frost Report and TV critics’ darling At Last the 1948 Show. At the time The Magic Christian went before the cameras at Twickenham in May 1969, Cleese and Chapman had begun meeting with fellow comedy writer-performers Eric Idle, Michael Palin and Terry Jones of Do Not Adjust Your Set to concoct a late-night comedy series for the BBC, at Barry Took’s instigation.
If you are not familiar with the film or its source material, The Magic Christian is essentially a “High concept” movie – it follows the exploits of an eccentric multimillionaire, Guy Grand (Peter Sellers), who takes a homeless young man (Ringo Starr) under his wing, and together the pair set about concocting a series of increasingly elaborate pranks and challenges in order to demonstrate that “everyone has their price”, having much fun at the expense of officious traffic wardens, arts snobs, privileged upper class twits, bigots, and the terminally trendy. Along the way, they use cash bribes to sabotage the Oxford-Cambridge boat race, that epitome of elitism and fair play, take a well-aimed shot at the world of advertising and boardroom yes-men, and we are presented with a memorable scene of the lovely Hattie Jacques discussing sex crimes and Nazi war atrocities, which I’m fairly sure never happened in Sykes.
Its’ mischief-making theme, with its frequent overturning of class and social sensibilities and surreal detours, has a lot in common with Cook and Moore’s Bedazzled (not least the pulchritudinous presence of La Welch) and feels more like a series of comedy sketches than a movie with a long-form narrative. Its sketchiness is no surprise when one takes into account the influence of its star, Peter Sellers, a man for whom the adjective ‘difficult’ may have been invented; it’s well-documented in Python biographies that the Python sketch ‘The Mouse Problem’ was originally written for this film, but rejected by Sellers because, according to popular anecdote, his milkman didn’t find it funny.
It was Sellers who brought in Cleese and Chapman to assist with scripting The Magic Christian, after his endless, impetuous tinkering had seen the film go through, in John Cleese’s words, “thirteen drafts by the time it got to us… Graham and I managed to put the script into shape in three or four weeks” before further interventions by McGrath (“A very nice man who had no idea about comedy structure”) saw the film “end up as a series of celebrity walk-ons.”
What we are left with is a picaresque, very silly, fragmented film that is, if nothing else, a real time capsule of London circa 1969. It remains, however, a very watchable and enjoyable way to pass ninety minutes, partly due to the aforementioned celebrity cameos, what appears to be some uncredited Terry Gilliam animation, and above all, the genuine rapport that Sellers and Starr share as the film’s lords of misrule. It’s clear from every scene they appear in that Sellers is really enjoying himself and that he got along famously with Ringo – Beatles fanatics will be familiar with the Let It Be outtake footage of Sellers dropping in on the Get Back sessions to enjoy some banter with Ringo and Lennon, casually joking about their drug use, and Ringo slipped Sellers a cassette tape of ‘white album’ rough mixes which infamously surfaced on the bootleg scene as ‘The Peter Sellers Tape’. For his part, Ringo Starr is basically playing the version of himself that had been honed in numerous TV interviews and newsreels, not to mention the two Beatles movies, as a laconic, dreamy layabout prone to droll asides and non-sequiturs. It’s the kind of unaffected performance you only get from non-actors with natural charisma who are at ease in front of the camera (his dumb-show when demonstrating facial exercises [“Silent scream… Tiny mouth”] before an increasingly apoplectic Spike Milligan is worth the entrance price alone).
If, like your humble reviewer, you are a Python-head, The Magic Christian is also noteworthy as a small stepping stone between their pre-Python TV work for BBC, Rediffusion and Thames, and the Flying Circus. Cleese and Chapman both appear in the two self-written scenes that survived Sellers and Southern’s interventions, the former as a Sotheby’s employee aghast as Ringo vandalises a Dutch master, the latter looking ruggedly handsome as an oarsman for the Oxford-Cambridge boat race, but the film is strewn throughout with the kind of scenarios that became recognisable tropes in Python’s first BBC1 series when it aired later in 1969, most of them retained from Southern’s original novel: Eccentric behaviour in restaurants and art galleries, an upper-class hunting outing that soon gets wildly out of hand, a boardroom meeting full of fawning toadies constantly on the backfoot as they attempt to make the right noises in response to a mogul’s flights of fancy, and a brace of gags playing on drag and homoeroticism (It’s worth bearing in mind that such gags may seem reactionary now, but were transgressive in 1969 – it’s called progress). Another proto-Python element is the casting of broadcasters (in this case, Michael Aspel, Alan Whicker, Harry Carpenter) appearing as themselves, in the same way Python would later employ Reginald Bosanquet, Richard Baker and David Hamilton. Keen-eyed connoseiurs of queer cinema will also appreciate a cameo from Leonard Frey, aka Harold from ground-breaking gay drama The Boys In The Band.
Fabulous Films’ DVD release of The Magic Christian is, to all intents and purposes, a clone of the decade-old Universal mid-price DVD (right down to the packaging and menu screen), and as such offers no tantalising extras, not even an original trailer. This is something of a missed opportunity as there exists a fascinating fifty-minute BBC documentary ‘Will the Real Peter Sellers Please Stand Up?’, which consist of behind-the-scenes interviews and footage from The Magic Christian. The documentary has never been repeated, but a timecoded copy can be found on YouTube. Regardless, on its own merits The Magic Christian is a real curio of its time, with enough celebrity cameos and ‘60s British Cinema, Beatles and Python connections to appeal to a cross-section of fandoms for cultural and historical interest alone. And it’s good fun: Daft, silly, flawed, patchy, but rarely dull, with Sellers and Starr carrying the film with their infectious personalities alone – for better or worse, a shining example of “They don’t make them like that any more” and “Drugs in the sixties must have been REALLY good!”
❉ ‘The Magic Christian’ was released on DVD by Fabulous Films, 1 May 2017, RRP £9.99.