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The Originals: “Arthur” Wasn’t Even Good the First Time

The Originals: "Arthur" Wasn't Even Good the First Time

How did I never see “Arthur” as a kid? Was it never in HBO’s regular rotation in the early 80s? Somehow I watched “Mickey + Maude,” “Like Father Like Son,” “Crazy People” and even “Santa Claus: The Movie” multiple times each growing up, yet Dudley Moore‘s most well-known and possibly most popular film eluded my young eyes. I might have loved it back then. I might be defending it now. But seeing it for the first time over the weekend, I really couldn’t find much to like about it.

Okay, that’s not true. I’ll admit I’ve been a fan of the Oscar-winning theme song, performed by Christopher Cross, for years now, so the opening credits were pleasant, at least (and the end credits I enjoyed for two reasons). I honestly probably wouldn’t have been into it 30 years ago, though, which is almost ironic (as a kid, I considered Cross music for old people). After that, it’s all Moore’s excruciating slurring shtick through 95 minutes of classic (familiar) rich man/poor girl romance narrative.

The new remake starring Russell Brand may look pretty awful, but I can’t say it was working with much quality to begin with.

The original “Arthur” begins with a sequence straight out of Frank Capra’s “You Can’t Take It With You,” only instead of Jean Arthur with an embarrassing sign on her back, it’s Anne De Salvo as a prostitute who’s the out-of-place date in the fancy restaurant. And it’s Moore instead of James Stewart who has a thing for lower-class ladies. De Salvo doesn’t wind up the love interest (she comes a little bit closer to that role in “Taking Care of Business”); that would be Liza Minnelli, who enters the film soon enough in an outfit I’d describe as rodeo Ronald McDonald.

As a take on a Capra type story, “Arthur” is to “You Can’t Take It With You” (from the Kirby perspective more than the Vanderhof/Sycamore side) what the Adam Sandler version of “Mr. Deeds” is to the original “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.” It is more relevant, though, I guess, as it kind of ushers in that Capra-by-way-of-Reagonomics thing happening in movies during the 80s, which continued with such films as the umpteenth adaptation of “Brewster’s Millions” and “Coming to America.”

Combining the basic plots of both those later films, Arthur (Moore) is expected to marry a society-accepted woman (Jill Eikenberry) or forfeit his trust/inheritance of $750 million. But he falls for a diner waitress (Minnelli), who apparently doesn’t mind a spoiled man-child who’s drunk all the time (she must seriously be in it for the money). The pair has absolutely no chemistry, nobody in the film goes through any sort of real change (save for maybe Geraldine Fitzgerald as Arthur’s grandmother), and while John Gielgud fulfills his place as the wise and guiding servant (kicking off a common character throughout 80s film and television, though often the butler/nanny/etc. was simply lovable if not mentoring), but I would only say his performance is deserving of the Oscar when put into the perspective that Moore was nominated for Best Actor for this, as well.

For a movie that seems to channel so much great screwball and societal comedy of the early 20th century, I expected more. Perhaps a twist on “Pygmalion” in which the poor girl truly trains the rich man to be lower class, or a more clear-cut take on the ending of “The Philadelphia Story” (though the spark to imagine John Howard’s father trying to stab Katherine Hepburn isn’t without gratitude). But most of all I wish that I had laughed once. And been more interested in anything other than the fact that Lawrence Tierney has a nice little bit as an extra in the diner at the end, playing a guy I’d like to assume is Joe from “Reservoir Dogs” 10 years earlier.

All “Arthur” is is a “Richie Rich” fantasy film selling the millionaire lifestyle to hopeful Americans with ads asking “don’t you wish you were Arthur?” Well, no, not if he’s never been happy (his claim to this seems to include his times with Minnelli, I swear) and go through life so intoxicated you don’t appreciate all the wealth. And what is the final message: that Arthur wants a low-class girl who can take the place of his servant when he dies, a girl who can make him a tuna fish sandwich and likely take care of him in other ways, too (not that I can believe Minnelli as a maternal or domestic sort — though I can see her treating Moore the way her character in “Arrested Development” treats Tony Hale’s Buster).

Anyway, I’m no more interested in the remake than I was before. But I would love to know what people love about the original, if there is indeed any genuine appreciation for it. If you haven’t seen it, now’s a good time since it’s on Netflix Instant. And the version I’m guessing used to be on YouTube has been scrapped except for Part 18, which I’ve included below for no reason at all (okay, it’s because of the random kid with the Binaca spray. I’d forgotten all about Binaca. Anyone still use it?):

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