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A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM

                

For Hicksflicks.com, Sept. 5, 2014

Just released by Kino Lorber in a new Blu-ray edition that looks great, "A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum" (1966) is often knocked as too frenetic for its own good. And it's difficult to argue that point.

Director Richard Lester, a year after "Help!" and two years after "A Hard Day's Night," does indeed seem to be showing off a bit with his too-quick edits and hurried pacing.

Despite that, however, many of the gags (and comic songs) that made the original show a Broadway smash starring Zero Mostel and Jack Gilford are very funny here — and Mostel and Gilford reprise their stage roles wonderfully. (The songs were written by Stephen Sondheim, his first solo effort.)

         

Jack Gilford, left, Buster Keaton, Zero Mostel in 'A Funny Thing ... '

Set in Rome during the reign of Emperor Nero, the film focuses on the slave Pseudolus (Mostel), a scheming con artist trying to win his freedom. To do so he promises his master's not-too-bright son Hero (Michael Crawford) to help him win the love of a woman in the house next door, which just happens to be a "house of flesh."

But Hero's true love has been sold to a bombastic soldier, so Pseudolus enlists his fellow slave, the groveling Hysterium (Gilford), to help. Let the games begin.

The funniest conceit has Mostel convincing the soldier that the woman he has purchased has died talking Hysterium into impersonating the corpse. It builds to a hysterical reprise of an earlier song that had been sung straight, "You're Lovely." That alone is worth the ticket price.

Having said that, however, I recognize that many younger viewers may not sit as well with knockabout comedy these days, and this is very much a vaudeville show of sorts.

        

But the script is filled with witty one-liners and Mostel is very funny delivering most of them, although it must be said that you need to pay attention to catch all the rapid-fire banter (think "His Girl Friday" taken up a notch).

And Gilford, Phil Silvers (as the owner of the brothel) and others who come and go are also funny, including Buster Keaton in his last role, playing Erronius, a neighbor searching for his long lost children.

At age 70 and dying of cancer, Keaton may not have quite been up to the most demanding physical aspects of his role, but he's not frail by any means and he gets off some funny stuff. It's not the perfect farewell for the comic who gave us so many classic silent films, but it's not bad either.

"A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" may not be on anyone's top 10 list but it's a funny movie for those of us who appreciate frantic farce and clever quips.