For some strange reason, like Christopher, I hadn’t seen the original “Arthur” until this week. Not that I’ve seen a lot of early ‘80s comedies, probably because by the time I was watching too much cable they’d fallen out of the rotation a bit. But still, I’m a big fan of both Dudley Moore and Liza Minnelli, which you’d think would have been enough to drive me to watch it by now. Anyway, I’ve finally gotten to it, and I enjoyed it quite more than Christopher (whose original post you can read over here).
First off, I think it’s really funny. I wouldn’t rank it amongst the best ‘80s laugh riots as far as total number of guffaws, but it also has more heart than joke-movies of the “Airplane” variety so I’m willing to cut it some slack. I also think it works structurally. The rushed formula of the rich man/poor girl romantic comedy, the prior engagement and the subsequent climactic wedding sequence can seem cliché and entirely too quickly resolved, but that’s because Arthur isn’t actually an adult. He falls in love in the way that a kid falls in love, and in a weird sort of way this is a movie in which the archetypal storyline works just fine. Arthur makes it work.
This of course brings me to Dudley Moore’s performance, the central chaos that keeps everything going. The ensemble of actors is not particularly effective, I’ll admit. Jill Eikenberry (Susan), Geraldine Fitzgerald (Martha, the grandmother) and Ted Ross (Bitterman) have quite a few weak moments, but it doesn’t really matter because of the fantastic way in which Moore plays off of them. The best example of this is the opening sequence with the hooker; you almost wonder if the actress (Anne de Salvo) is even trying, but after a certain point you’re too focused on Arthur’s drunken bad jokes to care. I’m not going to go so far as to say that the mediocre performances of the supporting cast is some sort of intentional concept on the part of writer/director Steve Gordon, but Moore more than compensates for the rest of the cast.
Moreover, he doesn’t have to compensate for the two most important supporting roles in the film. John Gielgud is wonderful and hilarious as the butler, and he brings an unconventional humor to the kind of part that over and over again is played in exactly the same way. The watchful, prim and prude guardian over the young playboy is something we’ve seen in everything from screwball comedies to superhero flicks, but Gielgud is different. He’s prissy and loquacious, this is true, but at the same time he’s picked up some of Arthur’s rambunctious lewdness in a way that deepens both characters. The relationship between butler and man-child actually shows the kind of mutual growth that happens when two people live together for years upon years, and raises it beyond the pitfalls of character archetypes.
As for Liza, I do think that she’s a couple steps from brilliant here. You almost need context as a viewer to really enjoy and understand her character, which would come from following her career and being familiar with the iconic roles that made her famous. Thankfully, I’ve seen “Cabaret” upwards of 15 times, and can fill in the dots. There most certainly is real chemistry between Moore and Minnelli, but it’s a lot easier to see if you know the star personas of the two characters. I know that doesn’t necessarily stand up as a particularly effective defense of the film today, but I think just a passing familiarity with Liza’s Sally Bowles will really help. Also, remember that “Arthur” came out in 1981 and the fade in Liza’s popularity and pop culture relevance had yet to start.
And again, the real effectiveness of every relationship in this film is based around how much we enjoy watching people react to the ridiculous things Arthur says and does. Even his perpetual drunkenness seems like a virtue by the end, as while it tears apart the practical details of his life it also allows him to freely make everyone around him look entirely stiff and absurd. He may always be sloshed, but he’s got an extraordinary talent for witty repartee when drunk, which is more than anyone else of his upper-class New York City community will ever bother to attempt while sober. The result is this quite funny morally ambiguous film, in which no one really grows and yet you end up rooting for them anyway. It’s kind of despicable, but that’s what makes it hilarious.
I’d like to rest a bit more on that note, actually. Christopher made a really interesting comparison to the work of Frank Capra, which offers quite a bit of food for thought. In the 1930s Capra was making his films with a positive morality, and when things end well in one of his pictures it’s the triumph of legitimate but also unambiguous principles. There is certainly subtlety, brilliance and ingenuity in his work, but it almost never concludes with a note of real ethical haziness. It’s the same thing today, and since the ‘80s I would argue that we’ve experienced a long period of romantic comedies that end up siding with a pretty uninteresting and traditional idea of both love and upstanding citizenship.
Arthur, on the other hand, is different. He does eventually renounce the alcoholism and the prostitutes, but they are always presented as vices rather than flaws (and I don’t know if we really believe him when he promises to quit). Imagine if a contemporary protagonist in a romantic comedy spent that much of the film wasted, or picked up a hooker. It would simply be too morally compromising for Hollywood, and the writers would have a torturous time coming up with a convincing way to redeem the guy. With Arthur, we honestly just don’t care. He’s one of the last in a line of exaggeratedly amoral characters that go back to films like 1965’s “What’s New Pussycat?” before the ’80s came along and re-imposed traditional morality on popular culture. And that’s why I love him, booze and all.
Except the song. I hate it, it’s as if the synth is a harbinger of the creeping reaction that would be the rest of the decade. Dreadful stuff.