Evelyn Waugh was a great satirist of the English upper class in the first half of the 20th Century. Most Americans know him from the TV adaptation of his masterpiece, “Brideshead Revisited,” that played on PBS. In the 1980’s there was a big screen adaptation of one of his early novels, A Handful Of Dust. But well before both of these a movie was made of his 1948 novel, “The Loved One,” which germinated from a trip Waugh took to California where he attended a funeral. He was so disgusted by the over-the-top burial that he wrote the book to lampoon that industry as well as the ex-patriot English community in L.A. In 1965 it became the base of a black humor movie with the tag line, “The motion picture with something to offend everyone!”
The Loved One was an early production by John Calley, who would become a legendary movie executive. Calley had literally started in the mail room at NBC in the early ‘50s and within seven years was the network’s director of night-time programing. He then moved to Hollywood where he worked for the production company Filmways. During his time there he produced movies such as The Americanization of Emily and The Cincinnati Kid, as well as The Loved One. When Filmways merged with Warner Brothers, Calley became the vice-president for worldwide production and later the president and vice-chairman of the board. He oversaw Warner Brothers’ hits like Superman, All the President’s Men, The Exorcist, and Chariots of Fire. In the 1980s, after his marriage failed, Calley burned out and left Hollywood for ten years. He came back to produce The Remains of the Day, and then took charge of MGM/UA. Later he left to run Sony Pictures, which became the third studio whose fortunes he turned around. In 2009 he won the Irving Thalberg award, where he was acknowledged as the most trusted executive in Hollywood. He passed away in 2011.
Calley’s co-producer was the film’s cinematographer, Haskell Wexler, who also shot Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, and the original Thomas Crown Affair. The film’s editor went on to become a legendary director in the 1970s – Hal Ashby, who did Harold and Maude, Shampoo, Bound For Glory, Coming Home, and Being There. To direct The Loved One, Calley and Wexler got Tony Richardson, who had just done the highly-successful Tom Jones. At that time Richardson was married to Vanessa Redgrave, and their daughter Natasha Richardson was 2 years old.
Waugh’s novel was adapted by an interesting pair of writers. Terry Southern was an absurdist satirical novelist in the 1960s, having written books like “Candy” and “The Magic Christian” (both of which he later adapted for filming). He also wrote the great cheese fest, Barbarella, and the seminal movie of the 60’s, Easy Rider. Working with him was Christopher Isherwood, whose collected “Berlin Stories” were the basis for Cabaret.
The movie begins with Dennis Barlow (Robert Morse) flying into Los Angeles on a ticket he won. Barlow is a self-style poet with few skills and less prospects. He lands in the lap of his uncle Sir Frances Hinsley (John Gielgud), who had been a promising artist when younger but ended up working in the Hollywood film industry for thirty years. Dennis’s call announcing his arrival interrupts a meeting Hinsley is having with studio exec D.J. Jr. (Roddy McDowell), producer Henry Glenworthy (Jonathan Winters), and cowboy star Dusty Acres (Robert Easton). Glenworthy is pitching having Acres – whose Texas accent is so thick you can taste the dust – play a new “human” version of James Bond, and wants Hinsley to work with Acres on a British accent.
Strangely enough, this plot device mirrors what actually happened in the movie. Robert Morse was born in Newton, Massachusetts, trained under Lee Strasberg, and was a well-known Broadway star, having originated the role of Barnaby in “The Matchmaker,” (which later became the musical “Hello, Dolly”). He won a Tony for playing the lead in “How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying,” a role he reprised in the film version. But one thing Morse couldn’t do was a consistent British accent. His lines were so bad on the original soundtrack that he had to go back and redub his entire role in postproduction.
Hinsley lets Dennis stay with him in his rundown cottage and introduces his nephew to the British expatriate community, whose leader is Sir Ambrose Abercrombie (Robert Morley). Dennis hustles to find work and ends up assisting at a gym and wrangling pack animals for hikers. While he’s away on a hiking trip, Glenworthy’s project is scuttled by D.J. Jr., and Hinsley is let go by the studio. When Dennis returns home, he finds his uncle hanging from the diving board over the empty pool.
The expats decide the only fitting place for Hinsley to be buried is Whispering Glades, an upper class version of Forest Lawn run by the Blessed Reverend, Wilbur Glenworthy (also played by Winters). When Dennis comes to make arrangements, he’s faced with an intimidating staff of black-clad female funeral hostesses. The business is also shown to be racist and anti-semetic in one quick scene. Then Dennis meets Aimee Thanatogenous (Anjanette Comer), a cosmetician who’ll be working on his uncle, and he immediately falls head-over-heels in lust.
Comer’s star was rising at that time, having appeared in roles on Dr. Kildare, Bonanza, and Gunsmoke. She’d done one movie, the comedy Quick Before It Melts, where she’d also worked with Morris. After The Loved One, she did The Appaloosa opposite Marlon Brando, Banning with Robert Wagner, and Guns for San Sebastian with Anthony Quinn, but after that movie roles. She’s kept working since then, mostly in small television roles.
Aimee is a naïve innocent who totally believes in the Blessed Reverend’s vision for Whispering Glades. She’s also the object of affection for Mr. Joyboy (Rod Steiger), the head embalmer at Whispering Glades. For help deciding between the two men in her life, Aimee turns to advice from a newspaper columnist, the Guru Brahmin, who she believes is an esthetic yogi but who’s actually a grizzled, half-drunk reporter (played by veteran character actor Lionel Stander). His assistant is a very young Bernie Kopell, who a dozen year’s later set sail on “The Love Boat.”
Tony Richardson had filmed a classic scene in Tom Jones where a meal turned into foreplay. In The Loved One he echoed that scene though with a completely different effect. Mr. Joyboy has Aimee over for supper and to meet his mother, a grossly overweight woman whose favorite entertainment is food commercials on TV. Joyboy cooks a full suckling pig for supper that his mother tears into in a scene that would be more at home in a John Waters film.
The Blessed Reverend is quickly revealed as a hard-edged businessman who’s planning on turning Whispering Glades into a retirement community when they reach their burial capacity in seven years. When his career as a producer ends, Henry Glenworthy turns to his brother for help and is put in charge of a pet cemetery the Blessed Reverend owns under the table. Henry brings Dennis into the business, first as a salesman and then as a minister at the pet funerals. It gives Dennis work, but also a problem – Aimee is totally disgusted by the pet cemetery business, thinking it a horrible farce of the work she does at Whispering Glades.
The movie has an all-star cast in supporting roles, including James Colburn, Dana Andrews, Milton Berle,Tab Hunter, Alan Napier, and Liberace in his final screen appearance. It was also Liberace’s only movie role where he doesn’t play the piano. The announcer during the rocket blast off at the movie’s climax is Chick Hearn, the voice of the Lakers for 40 years. (You’ll also see a very young Jamie Farr as a waiter at the English Club.) One larger role near the end of the movie is an adolescent genius who’s a rocket scientist. The role was played by actor and musician Paul Williams, who at the time of filming was 25 years old.
This is very much a movie of the 1960’s. Although it’s wide-screen, it’s still filmed in glorious black and white. Some of the satire is forced and obvious, but overall it still holds up as a commentary on human foibles when it comes to death. In that sense, the movie lives on.