Jun 27, 2017
On Blu-ray: Robert Morse and a Crazy Cast of Cameos in The Loved One (1965)
The Loved One takes a look at the superficial rot in society and gleefully flashes a pair of fangs. This satire of Hollywood, the funeral industry and grand gestures hiding devious acts jabs at corruption and greed. It's full of cameos, some performed by actors who for the most part have glossy, uncomplicated personas, and all seem to relish getting a chance to show a little edge. Now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, this is an unusual, rebellious film.
Robert Morse stars as Dennis Barlow, a young, plagiarist poet who travels from the UK to Hollywood and takes up residence with his Uncle Francis (John Gielgud). When his elderly relative hangs himself after losing his longtime job at a move studio, the leader of the local British colony (Robert Morley) insists that their compatriot have a grand funeral.
Barlow goes to the luxurious Whispering Glades cemetery and mortuary, where movie star glamorous ladies in veils and low-cut dresses wear elegant smiles, but attend to their customers with vicious efficiency. They quietly turn away Jews and gently shame acceptable applicants into choosing the most luxurious and expensive accommodations for their loved ones.
Obsessed with the tragically naïve cosmetician Aimée Thanatogenos (Anjanette Comer), Dennis begins to spend a lot of time at Whispering Glades, where he meets the corrupt owner, the Reverend Wilbur Glenworthy (Jonathan Winters) and the unhinged, but professional head embalmer Mr. Joyboy (Rod Steiger), who also lusts after Aimée, imagining her as an addition to his bizarre life with his gluttonous bedridden mother.
Left with little inheritance, Dennis goes to work at the local pet cemetery, owned by Reverend Glenworthy's twin brother Henry (Winters), where he also meets the genius teen rocket builder Gunther Fry (a remarkable early performance by 23-year-old Paul Williams). While Joyboy and Dennis pressure Aimée for marriage, the Reverend plots to improve his profits by any means necessary. It is not a healthy atmosphere for anyone with a hint of morals.
The Loved One seems to have irritated many upon its release. Source novel author Evelyn Waugh didn't want to be associated with the film, but was days from his death upon its release. Several offended studio executives marched out of an early screening, which delighted director Tony Richardson who seems to have felt the arrow hit the right spot. While the sensual and cynical elements of this dark comedy do not have the same power to offend that they did upon the film's release, it is easy to see how the executive types could have been annoyed and the moral types clutching their pearls. You could apply the monsters here to any time; the message is evergreen.
Perhaps it is the actors who came out best here, simply because they seem to be enjoying their roles so much. In the leads Morse, Comer and Winters commit in a way that is palpable, you feel their belief in their characters. It was also fun to see the way Liberace, Tab Hunter and Milton Berle snagged the opportunity to play against type in a trio of bitter cameos. Other standout bit roles include Lionel Stander, Roddy McDowell and Barbara Nichols, all thoroughly understanding the spirit of the project. And then there is Steiger, clearly having the time of his life in a creepy, kooky and outrageous performance that was reportedly his favorite.
For a film about corruption, deception and losing faith, The Loved One is a lot of fun. Perverse in a way the times call for.
The picture looks amazing, mostly due to the work of producer and cinematographer Haskell Wexler, though the disc quality is also good.
Special features on the Blu-ray include a theatrical trailer and the featurette Trying to Offend Everyone, which features interesting interviews with Comer, Morse and Williams. I always like to hear Williams speak in particular; he's got a great sense of humor.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.