Before Zac’s kind-of-musical feature, we picked out the most musical of shorts – the MST3K riffing of Conn’s creepy Mr. B. Natural! Watch the Mary Martinesque horror, if you dare!
The feature film was Richard Lester‘s adaptation of the stage play A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. The film is claimed to hold the distinction as the only movie based on extant Roman comedy (specifically, Plautus’ plays Pseudolus, Miles Gloriosus, and Mostellaria). It also has the distinction of being Buster Keaton’s final feature – he died after filming but before the movie was released.
The film stars Zero Mostel as Pseudolus, the laziest slave in Rome. Pseudolus spends most of his time trying to scheme ways of getting enough money to buy his freedom from his master Senex. Senex doesn’t really seem like such a bad guy, but hey! Freedom!
Living on one side of Pseudolus is Marcus Lycus, brothel owner and general trader in women of ill repute. For instance, he has recently procured the virgin Philia from Crete for Captain Miles Gloriosus – for whom he had recently procured a “defective” virgin, leaving him on a bit of thin ice with the famous soldier.
When Pseudolus learns that his master’s son Hero has fallen in love with Philia after viewing her through a window (the most insidious architectural feature known to the heart), the slave sets out to procure her in exchange for his freedom. Of course, it’s not that simple – Marcus Lycus naturally won’t part with the virgin promised to the captain. So Pseudolus concocts a story about a Cretan plague to frighten Lycus into quarantining the girl at his own house.
Philia, for her part, proclaims a mutual love for Hero, but she is so virtuous that she intends to go through with a marriage to the captain – he did buy her after all, and he’s coming this very day to pick her up.
Naturally, a Shakespearean comedy of errors breaks out – with Philia mistaking Senex for the captain, Senex mistaking Philia for some very good luck, Marcus Lycus asking Pseudolus to impersonate him because he’s afraid of the captain’s vengeance for a plague-ridden girl, Pseudolus happily accepting because it allows his plot to further. There are sleeping potions, passion potions, and a desperate search for mare’s sweat that ends up with Hero leading a horse into a sauna (sadly, no picture to be found).
Pseudolus’ ultimate plan is to pawn off another (male) servant to the captain as a “dead” Philia. What could go wrong – outside of the captain insisting on cremating her? The plot is uncovered, and Pseudolus’ situation looks pretty dire, at least until the anni ex machina are revealed.
I suppose calling the rings “ex machina” isn’t exactly a fair accusation. They didn’t come out of nowhere, I just haven’t mentioned them yet. You see, Pseudolus’ neighbor on the other side is Keaton’s Erronius, who has just returned from an odyssey taken in search of his two long-lost children – they are now grown, and the only way he has to identify them is by the family signet ring. (I’d really like to use the pun “cygnet ring”, but the ring features a gaggle of geese, not a bevy of swans. Too bad.)
As it stands, before anybody can get too executed over the whole thing, the rings reveal both the captain and Philia as the children of Erronius and everything ends happily ever after (well, perhaps – the most famous song from the film promises “tragedy tomorrow”). The captain gets a father instead of a bride, but it’s a relatively fair trade.
It’s a funny movie, no doubt, but not much of a musical. There are about three songs, maybe four, and one of those is running through the opening credits. I understand at least some music was cut, in reference to the stage play that directly inspired the film, but I do wonder how such a convoluted plot could really be pulled off in a full-musical format.