Friday, June 20, 2014

1967 in Film Blogathon: Bedazzled

The following essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to the 1967 in Film Blogathon, currently underway from June 20-22 and sponsored by The Rosebud Cinema and Silver Screenings. For a full list of participants and the topics covered/films discussed, click here.  (Note: I give away the ending to the movie in this review…but if you’re familiar with the original source material this shouldn’t be too much of a surprise.)

Short-order cook Stanley Moon (Dudley Moore) longs for the loving touch of fellow employee Margaret Spencer (Eleanor Bron)—but he’s so lacking in self-confidence that he can’t even muster up the intestinal fortitude to simply talk to her.  The hapless Stanley, having returned to his humble flat, decides to end his miserable existence by hanging himself…and he can’t even manage that correctly.  Perhaps it’s just as well: as his suicide attempt goes south, he receives a visit from a tall, glasses-wearing individual (Peter Cook) who answers to “George Spiggot.”

“Spiggot” is just one of the stranger’s many aliases: he also answers to “Satan,” “Beelzebub,” “The Horned One,” “Lucifer,” “The Devil” and “Mephistopheles,” if you’re not into the whole brevity thing.  After proving to Moon that he is who he says he is, Spiggot has a proposition for Stanley: he’ll grant him seven wishes—any of which he can use to win Margaret’s affections—and all it will cost him is his immortal soul.  “You see, a soul's rather like your appendix: totally expendable,” George explains.  The deal is completed at The Rendezvous Club, a cabaret owned by George and staffed by The Seven Deadly Sins: Anger (Robert Russell), Sloth (Howard Goorney), etc.

Stanley soon learns to his dismay that each wish he asks to be granted is doomed to failure because George is just too clever for him; in one request, he’s a multi-millionaire who’s able to give “very physical” wife Margaret anything her heart desires…the problem is, the “very physical” Margaret wants anybody (including George) but Stanley.  Another request finds Stanley and Margaret madly in love with each other…but Margaret is wracked with guilt because she’s married to a model husband (also George) and she refuses to continue the affair.

Convinced that he’s concocted a foolproof wish, Stanley asks George to make him and Margaret in love with each other, living a pious life of peace and quiet in total isolation.  BAM!  Stanley has been transformed into a novice nun (the silly duffer forgot to specify what gender) with The Leaping Nuns of the Order of St. Beryl; what’s worse, he mistakenly believes that he still has one other wish (he’s been able to terminate previous wishes by blowing a raspberry) but George has charged him as Wish Number Seven a pre-damnation offer request for an ice cream.  To his credit, George has a change of heart where Stanley is concerned, and decides to let him off the hook by giving him back the contract for his soul.

You see, George doesn’t need Stanley’s damnation; he’s collected the magic number of one hundred billion souls, and will use that as his ticket back to Heaven.  But after a chat with the Almighty, George learns that God has no intention of reinstating him as his Number Two, preferring to keep him around as Mankind’s “necessary evil”…particularly since George returned Stanley’s soul for selfish reasons.  George returns to Earth to try and talk Stanley into letting him have his soul back so he can be more altruistic about its return…but Stanley has become a considerably wiser man since his encounter with The Prince of Darkness.

When we think of the term “The British Invasion,” musical influences (The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, etc.) mostly come to mind—but our friends on the other side of the pond also brought us innovations in film and comedy…and film comedy.  Peter Cook and Dudley Moore were comedians best known as one-half (the other two being Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller) of Beyond the Fringe, a highly successful stage revue that enjoyed healthy runs both in London (West End) and New York (Broadway).  Fringe ushered in a new era of satirical comedy, and paved the way for such entertainment milestones as That Was the Week That Was and Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

As a comedy duo, Cook and Moore enjoyed success both in TV (their series Not Only…But Also was a certified smash…though much of it is now missing due to the BBC’s asinine “wiping” policy) and movies (they play scheming brothers in the 1966 cult classic The Wrong Box); Bedazzled is a vehicle written especially for their talents (Pete and Dud wrote the story; Cook the screenplay) and allows them the freedom to perform in satirical sketches (presented in the form of Stanley’s “wishes”) while still maintaining a fairly coherent plot.  It’s the legend of Faust, essentially, updated for the Swinging Sixties…though the outcome for its protagonist (Stanley) is a bit rosier compared to what happens to Dr. F in the original material.

Bedazzled is a bit dated, sure, but what has made the movie a cult favorite all these years is its irreverent treatment of the taboo subject of religion.  There’s “Sympathy for the Devil” in this film; God comes off as sort of the villain of the piece, an omnipresent being who apparently can’t be bothered with the mortals he took the time to create, which is why The Devil (George) seemingly has free reign among individuals on Earth.  George is a prankster and has sort of a warped sense of humor—but you sort of have to expect that…he is the devil, after all.  (Stanley: “He's not so bad once you get to know his problems.”)  One of the scenes that still makes you both laugh and think is a sequence where George explains to Stanley how he was ousted from Heaven; he demonstrates by sitting on top of a postal box pretending to be the Almighty while Stanley (as The Devil) tap dances around him, continually singing his praises.  “Here—I’m getting a bit bored with this,” remarks Stanley after a few minutes of flattering “God.”  “Can’t we change places?”

“That’s exactly how I felt,” George returns as he hops off his “throne.”  Later he explains: “I only wanted to be like him and have a few angels adoring me…he didn’t see it like that.”  In his must-read essay on Bedazzled in Cult Movies 2, film historian Danny Peary marvels at how the film’s material escaped the notice of the pitchforks-and-torches crowd: “Considering that Bedazzled came out not long after John Lennon was forced to publicly retract his 'The Beatles are more popular than Jesus' remark in order to stop a boycott of Beatles records on many U.S. radio stations, as well as organized Nazi-like burnings of Beatles records and magazines, it's amazing Moore and Cook attempted and got away with using material I'm sure many people considered blasphemous.”

There’s an oft-told anecdote regarding the reaction of director Frank Capra after seeing filmed footage of comedian Harry Langdon’s stage act: “Only God could help that twerp.”  The veracity of this has rightly come under scrutiny, but I think the reverse could be said of Bedazzled protagonist Stanley Moon—only Satan could help that twerp.  A nebbish with a dead-end job, no money, no prospects and no luck with the ladies, Stanley nevertheless finds a friend in The Devil, even though Old Nick tricks him at every turn and delights in such childish shenanigans as ripping pages out of Agatha Christie novels and ruining record albums.  His encounter with Old Scratch ends up being a positive one; at the end of the movie he timidly approaches Margaret with the offer of taking her out to dinner—Margaret replies that she’s busy that evening, but perhaps they could make it another time.  (Hey…it’s a start.)

I’ve not made any secret of my fondness for actress Eleanor Bron; she worked with Peter Cook on a number of projects (in fact, Cook’s last feature film also featured Eleanor, 1994’s Black Beauty) and not only is she a treat for the eyes she’s every bit the equal of the starring duo when it comes to the comedy (the first wish, in which Stanley wants to be an “intellectual,” is immeasurably helped by her funny performance).  Peter was also very good friends with actor-performer Barry Humphries (best remembered as Dame Edna Everage), who has some wonderful scenes in the movie as Envy.  There are additionally fine contributions from a number of British veterans including Michael Trubshawe, Evelyn Moore, Charles Lloyd Pack (the father of the late Roger Lloyd “Trigger” Pack and granddad of Emily Lloyd) and Michael Bates—a familiar Britcom face from Last of the Summer Wine and It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum.

Bedazzled also showcases Raquel Welch—as Lillian Lust, “the babe with the bust”—in a small role that, understandably, was considerably played up in the advertisements and trailer for the film.  Before Bedazzled had an actual title, Peter Cook had suggested that the film actually be called Raquel Welch…with the knowledge that theater marquees would advertise the production as “Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in Raquel Welch.”  Instead, Bedazzled originates from the dirge-like musical number sung by George in one of Stanley’s wishes; Stanley has requested to become a pop music star to win Margaret’s love but he’s outshone by George’s Dremble Wedge—who was New Wave before it was fashionable to be so (“I don’t care/I don’t want you/I don’t love you/Leave me alone”).  (The pop music parody is one of the movie’s many highlights in my opinion, particularly Cook’s declaration “You fill me with inertia.”)

Bedazzled was an unusual directorial choice for Stanley Donen, but he proved up to the challenge—though you could also argue Stanley watched too many Richard Lester films before tackling the film.  (The movie features innovative and first-rate cinematography by Austin Dempster.)  I’m still quite a fan of the film; I admire its satiric brilliance (its daringly biting pokes at religion, plus much of the dialogue is hysterical—“You realize that suicide's a criminal offense…in less enlightened times they'd have hung you for it”) and marvel at the talents of Pete and Dud, here at the peak of their powers.  I will warn you—it’s not for everyone’s tastes, but if you have a sense of the warped I think you’ll enjoy it.  And don’t forget the magic words—“Julie Andrews!”


Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed your write-up, Ivan. I'm not sure that this is my cup of tea, but your review was most entertaining. And this little nugget is hilarious: Before Bedazzled had an actual title, Peter Cook had suggested that the film actually be called Raquel Welch . . ."

Rosie said...

This film sounds like a lot of fun, I'll have to take a look at it and get back to you once I've seen it! Thanks for sharing this gem with us!

Silver Screenings said...

This is one I've not seen – or even heard of. Dudley Moore and Peter Cook sound like too much fun!

Thanks for including this in the blogathon. :)

James Vance said...

I've loved this one 40 years. Excellent choice, Ivan.

Anonymous said...

I have heard of Bedazzled but not seen it. Thanks for a great write up about this movie. Now I need to find out if it's on Netflix streaming.

Caftan Woman said...

I'm a "Bedazzled" fan, but only in bits and pieces. My husband knows enough to call me in at different spots while he's watching it.

Anonymous said...

Total guilty pleasure (although lets not mention the Liz Hurley version!) My dad was a massive Dudley Moore fan, and I have memories of watching this as kid. Quite sure I didn't get all the references ;)