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Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s — Part 3

I have a new article out today; part three of my essay on “Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s,” in the journal Film International.

Here’s the opening paragraphs: “Death has often been used to comic effect in films, but an all out assault on what Jessica Mitford termed “the American way of death” is another thing entirely. Loosely based on Evelyn Waugh’s acerbic novel of the same name on life, death, and the attendant collapse of civilization in Hollywood, Tony Richardson’s The Loved One (1965) was a stand alone film even in a decade devoted to dark humor; indeed, it was boldly advertised as ‘the motion picture with something to offend everyone,’ and largely lived up to its billing. Though hampered by Haskell Wexler’s uncharacteristically stolid camerawork (Richardson hired Wexler because of his signature handheld ‘newsreel’ style, but was appalled when Wexler categorically refused to utilize it on the film – more on this later) and an uneven screenplay by Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood, the film still succeeds on a number of counts. America was becoming death obsessed in the mid 1960s, with the costs of funerals and memorials rising dramatically.

The Loved One centers on the Whispering Glades cemetery – a stand in for Hollywood’s Forest Lawn Memorial Park – where the corrupt Reverend Wilbur Glenworthy (Jonathan Winters) presides over a kingdom of death. His key aide is Mr. Joyboy (a suitably effete Rod Steiger), who is the chief embalmer, assisted by Aimee Thanatogenous (Anjanette Comer), who helps to ‘make up’ the corpses that pass through Whispering Glades for their final public appearance. Into this complicated scenario comes Dennis Barlow (a very young Robert Morse), as a clueless Briton trying to ingratiate himself with the ‘British Colony’ in Hollywood, with the help of his uncle, Sir Francis Hinsley (John Gielgud). Dennis falls madly in love with Aimee, but Joyboy is also attracted to her, and a love match ensues.

Meanwhile, the ‘Blessed Reverend’ is becoming worried that Whispering Glades is no longer a money spawning operation. The graveyard is filling up, and he’s running out of room; at first, Glenworthy tries to increase profits by holding back-to-back weddings and funerals in the same chapel, each performed in a matter of minutes, with canned music cues (both presided over by the unctuous actor Ed Reimers in an unbilled cameo; in real life, Reimers shilled for both Crest Toothpaste and Allstate Insurance). But it’s not enough; something has to give. Suddenly, Reverend Glenworthy is seized with an inspiration. Instead of a cemetery, Whispering Glades can be turned into a retirement complex, assuring continual turnover and a constant stream of revenue. There’s only one problem; what to do with all those pesky bodies buried at Whispering Glades? ‘There’s got to be a way to get those stiffs off my property!’ Glenworthy barks to one of his subordinates, and indeed, there is.”

You can read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image at the top of this post.

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About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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