VIDEO ARCHIVES NOTES: This movie was discussed on the December 20, 2022 episode of the Video Archives podcast and can be found on their site here.
Based on The Loved One: An Anglo-American Tragedy — a novella, as Quentin Tarantino would remind us — by Evelyn Waugh and The American Way of Death by Jessica Mitford, this was directed by Tony Richardson from a script by Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood.
Richardson was coming off Tom Jones, Southern Dr. Strangelove and Isherwood had just written one of his best-regarded novels, A Single Man.
This is the point of success where creatives can do anything they want.
What they made is “The motion picture with something to offend everyone!”
Dennis Barlow (Robert Morse) wins an airline ticket from England to America and decides to visit his uncle, Hollywood production staffer Sir Francis Hinsley (John Gielgud). After thirty years of service, he’s fired by his boss D.J. Jr. (Roddy McDowall) and hangs himself.
This is a comedy.
Dennis spends the inheritance his uncle left him on a fancy funeral at Whispering Glades cemetery, a place where he meets and falls in love with Aimee Thanatogenos (Anjanette Comer, The Baby), a cosmetic mortuary worker who was named for radio revivalist Aimee Semple McPherson and who is also the object of affection from the embalmer known as Mr. Joyboy (Rod Steiger).
Whispering Glades is overwhelming, the kind of place where Tab Hunter and Liberace are your tour guides, taking you through the gravestones. It’s owned by Reverend Wilbur Glenworthy (Jonathan Winters), who puts on a holy act but is really just a man who knows how to make money.
Meanwhile, Dennis works for Happier Hunting Grounds, which is owned by Wilbur’s brother Henry (also Winters). He wants to win over Aimee, but all he knows are stolen poems and he works a job at a place she finds sacrilegious. She also lives in a house in near-constant danger of falling off a cliff.
There’s also boy genius Gunther Fry (Paul Williams), who is sending the corpses of pets into space as his first astronauts. This kind of plan is something the Reverend wants to get in on, as he dreams of making more money running a retirement home and needs to get rid of all the bodies in the ground.
By the end, everything that Aimee believed in is a lie. She hooks herself up to an embalming machine as a result. Not even Dennis, her beloved boss, her guru (Lionel Stander) or Mr. Joyboy give her the solace or the advice that she is looking for. Her body is sent into space as Dennis flies home first class.
Waugh’s book came up when he visited Hollywood in 1947. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer offered him a six-figure deal for Brideshead Revisited, but he wanted control that the studio wouldn’t give him. While there, he became fascinated by the American funeral industry, which led to him writing an article about Forest Lawn cemetery — where this was filmed — and its founder Dr. Hubert Eaton. Then, he wrote The Loved One.
By all accounts, he hated that this movie was being made. He definitely died before he saw it, as he unexpectedly died three days after its premiere in London, which he did not attend. When this was shown for studio execs, many were so offended that they walked out in the middle.
That was what Richardson wanted.
However, he did not want to offend Waugh.
In his memoirs, Richardson claimed to be a great admirer of the writer and had been upset by how much he hated the movie. He said it was all over a misunderstanding, as he had been quoted as saying the novel was “thin and dated.” He further upset the author by hiring his literary rival Isherwood to work on the script.
I forgot so many more people in this, like Dana Andrews, Milton Berle, James Coburn, Barbara Nichols, Bernie Kopell, Joy Harmon and Jamie Farr. It’s just people upon people, kind of like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Sadly, Ruth Gordon and Jayne Mansfield’s parts ended up cut from the film.
And I didn’t even mention Mr. Joyboy’s mother.