Wednesday, May 16, 2018

THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN: A Splendid Time is Guaranteed for All

"For the love of money is the root of all evil. . . " I Timothy 6:10a (KJV)

"Ladies and Gentlemen, this is what is commonly known as money. It comes in all sizes, colors, and denominations. Like people. We'll be using quite a bit of it in the next two hours; luckily, I have enough for all of us." Sir Guy Grand, opening narration

A “comfort movie” is like “comfort food,” sought out like an old friend sure to lift sagging spirits and make one feel good. And The Magic Christian is indeed ”guaranteed to raise a smile” and a help you “forget about life for awhile.”   
The film boasts Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr, a bevy of Britain's top talent, and the music of Badfinger. It was filmed in the spring of 1969, and we get Ringo Starr circa Abbey Road just as the Beatles were winding down, and Graham Chapman and John Cleese the year Monty Python pitched its flying circus tent and were ramping up.

Chapman and Cleese helped write the screenplay and each enjoys a small scene. The screenplay needed additional material because the original 1959 Terry Southern novel is a spare affair,  a series of loosely connected vignettes, but set in America and wholly lacking the character of Youngman. The one scene I recall that hewed close to the book was Grand’s “big, get acquainted sale,” one of the film’s weakest episodes, but which true to the book features only Sellers. The Magic Christian is a rare instance where the film is better than the book.
I admire the big name stars who showed up willing to forsake reputation and dignity for filthy lucre. Bollocks to the Bard! Laurence Harvey lets it all hang out and oh, yes! Yul Brynner lets down his hair.  Wilfrid Hyde-White, a few years out from My Fair Lady, plays a proper British ship's captain. Hammer fans will get a kick out of seeing Christopher Lee playing—what else?—Ship’s Vampire.

This is a veddy British film, opening with “God Save the Queen” playing over a ten-pound note. Fans of 1960’s British television series such as  The Avengers will recognize among the cast familiar faces in Terence Alexander, Peter Bayliss, and Patrick Cargill. And fans of the beloved Britcom Are You Being Served will enjoy seeing both series co-creator Jeremy Lloyd and star Frank Thornton in small scenes. Interestingly, Lloyd attempts an American accent in his scene, and by the time of the film's release in December 1969 he was appearing on American TV screens as a regular player on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In.  
The music of Badfinger is practically a character unto itself and is integral to the film. The Paul McCartney-written “Come and Get It” was the film’s famous hit, and it recurs regularly throughout the movie. But my favorite song is “Carry On Till Tomorrow,” a Badfinger original written by Pete Ham and Tom Evans. The song plays over contrasting scenes of Sir Guy Grand and Youngman beginning this fateful day in each of their lives. Guy begins his in grand style, a sumptuous feast and a violinist accompanying him to his car, while a bedraggled Youngman, dressed in a peacoat and faded jeans, is bullied and badgered by the world. In my favorite scene of the film, their paths intersect on a bridge in a park, where Youngman is leaning over the railing casting his bread upon the water. Strolling past in a commanding gait is Guy, who slows a bit for a glance as he passes, but who continues on, walking off screen a few seconds before returning to approach Youngman. I love how, at this pivotal first meeting, the music shifts to a celebratory blare and the credits appear in Grand’s wake, crawling across the screen in time with him. A deceptively simple scene that was carefully choreographed, bringing together the three elements of action, music, and text.

A selection of clips, including the opening titles. Enjoy!
In short order Guy Grand adopts Youngman as his son and he is warmly welcomed by Grand’s dowager sisters Agnes and Esther, played by Isabel Jeans and Caroline Blakiston. From here the two men embark on a series of episodes designed to upend convention and to prove every man has his price.

“You’re certainly putting everyone on today, Dad,”
“Well, you know, Youngman, sometimes it’s not enough merely to teach. One has to punish as well.”

And punish they do, from hapless hot dog vendor Victor Maddern to “pompous toff” Peter Bayliss to the very model of a “mad major” Terence Alexander.
Some episodes are more successful than others. Laurence Harvey’s Hamlet is a highlight, as is the directors meeting aboard the train, which gives Dennis Price and Jeremy Lloyd moments to shine. There’s also an animated sequence here promoting Grand’s “new, great British Zeus” (pronounced Zee-us), a super-sized car Grand hopes will show up the “American big boys.” A traditional British pheasant hunt is then upended by the boys bringing in heavy artillery to ensure a "quick, clean kill."

Less successful is Grand’s gastronomic feast in the restaurant, which was recycled for the even more awful “Autumn Years” sketch in Monty Python and the Meaning of Life. There’s a heavy-handed harp-playing and war games scene that aspires like Icarus to social commentary with similar results. And the film’s final major scene with the vat of excrement is an overreach and proves anticlimactic. Thunderclap Newman’s apt “Something in the Air” makes it bearable, however. The closing tag is a winner, which like a great novel brings us back to the beginning in the park.
It being 1969 there is a revolutionary air and theme of the “old values are crumblin’,” as Ringo puts it. There's pot puffing and an interracial couple of homosexuals in speedos who unnerve the social set. 

If you see the film, resist the urge to skip the closing credits because they offer a never-heard-elsewhere version of “Come and Get It” that shifts from Badfinger’s into a lush orchestral version. 
So just what is The Magic Christian? This film features neither magic nor Christians, unless one counts a fleeting few seconds of Sellers dressed in a nun's habit. It’s not a spoiler to say it’s the name of a cruise ship, and the social event of the season is to be aboard her maiden voyage. The shipboard portion of the film is packed with many of the film’s most memorable moments and guest stars, with Christopher Lee, Roman Polanski, and Raquel Welch as the Priestess of the Whip (whose mere minute of screen time overwhelmingly dominates the publicity and  memories of those who have enjoyed the movie). 
I first saw and VCR-recorded The Magic Christian off television in the mid-1980s. And it was your proverbial love at first sight—cinematic, of course (to paraphrase a line from the move)! The version I saw was edited for television and cut in its entirety the vat of excrement episode and dubbed over John Cleese’s profanity with a belch!  After that first viewing I knew it would forever be one of my favorite films, and lo over thirty years later it still is. 

Extra Credit Assignment: Double the fun and pair The Magic Christian with its perfect complement, Candy (1968). Both movies have their origins in the madcap imagination of Terry Southern and feature Ringo Starr along with all-star casts in hilarious episodic romps. 
This post is my contribution to the Classic Comfort Movie Blogathon, hosted by Rick at The Classic Film & TV Cafe. Click HERE to check out other films that have brightened the blue days of our fellow film buffs. 


  1. I have not seen this movie. Over my head at the time it was released and we just have not crossed paths. My lack of knowledge was no hindrance to the pleasure I received from reading your review and recollections. Thanks.

    1. Thank you for your kind words! I enjoy your reviews and comments whenever I come across them, which is frequently since we visit many of the same sites. I was actually thinking of your mentioning your daughter is an animator when I discussed the cartoon sequence.

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  3. Oh my - have you brought back memories. I am old enough to say I remember the swinging sixties in real time and how hip and fun it all seemed. The cast is magnificent and now you are making me want to see this film again, get out my go-go boots and grab my Yardley slicker lip gloss!

    1. I envy your having been there! I am confident you will not regret investing 90 minutes into watching this movie--great fun. Thanks for the comment!

  4. This one sounds like a hoot, but I admit to not having heard of it. The little film work I've seen of Ringo Starr's has impressed upon me his great charisma. And Sellers is usually a slam-dunk, so I will definitely put this on my list. v

    1. Yes, Jocelyn, the movie is indeed a hoot--perfect word. This was Ringo's second solo/non-Beatles film, following CANDY in '68, and this one really gave him a chance to shine. Sellers and Starr enjoyed a real chemistry and remained friends afterwards.

  5. I'm another one who hasn't heard of this film, and I get the feeling I'm missing out. ;) I'm thinking a book-to-film comparison might be an interesting project in this case, because it's not very often someone says the film was better than the book...

    1. You are certainly not alone in never having heard of this film. It's surprisingly little known despite its big-name cast, music, and Beatles and Monty Python connections. I highly recommend it as a sure-to-raise-a-smile movie.

      Hmm, I like your idea for a book-to-film comparison! It's been nigh unto thirty years since I read the book, long since sold, but would be worth revisiting. Sellers loved Southern's novel, and this film was a labor of love for him.

      On a related note, I am weighing a book-to-film comparison of Elliott Gould's 1970 film GETTING STRAIGHT with the original 1967 Ken Kolb novel. What a great book! But what an awful movie! That's a situation where I kinda liked the movie until I read the book and saw what a travesty of it ended up on screen.

      Thanks for the comment!

  6. Wow, I haven't seen THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN in decades! I remember it being one of those irreverent British films of the late 1960s--with great music and some broad social satire. I also enjoy these films--other examples being MORGAN and I'LL NEVER FORGET WHAT 'IS NAME.