Act Naturally: The Films of the Solo Beatles (Part 2)

Terry Southern

In post-WWII France, an unlikely friendship developed between two American students studying at the Sorbonne on the G.I. Bill — one a sad-eyed Texan with a taste for the darkly absurd, the other a voluble New York dilettante who fancied himself a poet. The Sorbonne had no set schedule of classes, just the requirement to defend your thesis, and attendance-optional lectures from the likes of Sartre, Camus, and Cocteau. That left the two young men plenty of free time to linger in Parisian coffee shops, cinemas, and jazz clubs.

Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg were the original platonic ideal of the insufferably pretentious hipster — shamelessly appropriating jazz lingo (“dig this, man”), and passing sneering judgment on the bourgeois and “square” while actually doing or producing very little themselves. Southern finally broke free of this mold and became a writer of some repute (and became self-aware enough to satirize his own hipsterism in several of his stories). Hoffenberg, however, went on to do next to nothing, except a shitload of heroin. He managed to latch on the entourages of various rock stars in the ‘60s and ‘70s as a kind of amusing junkie mascot. I challenge you to find anyone with a Wikipedia entry who has done less to earn it. 

Mason Hoffenberg

By the mid-1950s, Southern was scratching out a living in Geneva, Switzerland as a writer of increasingly surreal short stories, while Hoffenberg remained in Paris, writing erotic fiction under a pseudonym for the notorious Olympia Press. Some of Southern’s writing also skirted the boundaries of what was then considered acceptable, such as his unpublished (and pretty much unpublishable) story about a beautiful, naive college student named Candy Christian who, according to Southern, is “compassion incarnate…so filled with universal love that she gave herself fully and joyfully…to a demented hunchback.” Southern circulated the grotesque sex tale among his associates. He fleshed it out a bit at Hoffenberg’s suggestion, and it eventually captured the attention of Maurice Girodias, head of Olympia Press, who thought it might be a suitable product for what was then still called the “dirty book” market. It became a collaboration between Southern and Hoffenberg, who would exchange character details and plot points via mail. Even those generously disposed towards Hoffenberg have to admit that the original correspondence (which has been preserved) shows that he contributed very little that made its way into the finished work, and that it was mostly Southern’s prose that ended up being published by Olympia Press. (In the final version, it seems Hoffenberg contributed one character arc and the novel’s ludicrous last few pages — a “climax” not used in the film version.)

Candy, original Olympia Press edition

Candy was published in 1958 under the name “Maxwell Kenton,” and was promptly banned in both the U.S. and France. The flimsy plot is a series of encounters between the titular (heh heh) Candy, who is encouraged by her respected philosophy professor go out and “give her love” freely, and a collection of degenerate authority figures bent on exploiting her attempts to do just that, including (but not limited to) that same professor (of course), her own uncle (who happens to be her father’s identical twin for an extra layer of perversity), and several doctors and therapists, including masturbation proponent Dr. Krankeit (Hoffenberg’s contribution.) The self-contained hunchback story that started the whole thing is now Chapter 10, and it’s the stand-out sequence of a tiresomely repetitive series of seductions/rapes, in both the extremity of its twistedness, and in that the psychotic hunchback does not desire Candy physically (at first), but merely wants to rob her. 

Putnam hardcover, 1964

Candy was finally published legitimately in the U.S. under Southern’s and Hoffenberg’s real names by Putnam in 1964. Southern had long since moved on with his life and career by then, and by his own admission, Candy was a one-joke premise that went on too long. Having read the thing myself (it’s a $3.99 Kindle if you look for it under the Kenton name), I couldn’t agree more. Candy is an incredibly tedious read. (As for it being a send-up of Volatire’s Candide? Probably hogwash. It seems someone decided on that interpretation after the fact, and Southern and Hoffenberg simply went along with it to give their project a whiff of intellectualism. “Yes, of course, it’s a send-up of Candide.”)

Then someone decided to turn it into a movie.

Maverick United Artists director/producer Frank Perry (David and Lisa) thought the book’s notoriety and popularity (it somehow reached number one on the bestseller list in America without anyone admitting to having bought a copy) gave it great potential as a film, even as it was making its way through lawsuit hell over various copyright and intellectual property issues between the authors, Olympia, and Putnam. (You can read about all that legal stuff in excruciating detail in Nile Southern’s The Candy Men.) How would the blatantly pornographic novel be translated into something that was showable on a pre-ratings, mid-’60s cinema screen? Well, that was a problem for the screenwriter.

Perry thought the logical solution was to hire Terry Southern himself (by then hot off co-scripting Dr. Strangelove) to write the screenplay, and he got through three drafts fueled by Scotch and amphetamines before the U.A. deal fell through. The copyright nightmare was unresolved, and Southern’s script was still far too outrageous.

Christian Marquand

Enter Christian Marquand. A French actor (And God Created Woman, The Flight of the Phoenix) and close friend of Marlon Brando (Brando named his ill-fated son after him), Marquand came sniffing around the property as a vehicle for him to fulfill his directorial ambitions. As soon as the legal situation was resolved in early 1967, Marquand pounced. His celebrity contacts would attract the necessary financial backing. Brando would certainly be in it, and Marquand said he had both Richard Burton and Peter Sellers on board. On that basis, a Libyan-born financier and studio owner named Robert Haggiag agreed to produce.

The Candy movie got the green light. Southern’s too-explicit script was dumped in favor of a tamer version by Buck Henry. Henry, co-creator of TV’s spy spoof Get Smart, was, like Southern, on a pretty hot screenwriting streak, having just finished writing The Graduate. Henry used the basic premise of the book and some of the characters, then tossed the rest with Marquand’s blessing. “We’re going to throw the book away, and dig in,” said Marquand proudly, eager to put his own auteur stamp on the material.

While Candy was in pre-production, the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which featured none other than Terry Southern among the crowd on its iconic cover.

Peter Sellers dropped out of the project in favor of an instantly-dated hippie flick, I Love You, Alice B. Toklas (if he had ever actually agreed to be in Candy to begin with), but Richard Burton dutifully made an appearance, and Brando’s presence was a given. A gaggle of other celebrities who thought it might be fun to goof around in an adaptation of one of the decade’s most notorious books eagerly signed on to play the story’s ensemble of grotesques. Everyone converged on the sound stages of Haggiag’s Dear Studios in Rome in December of 1967 for what was sure to be a wild time.

Joining them was Ringo Starr.

Ringo as Emmanuel

Ringo had fulfilled his Beatle duties for the year. Sgt. Pepper had been a triumph that summer. Their plotless, psychedelic 50-minute TV movie Magical Mystery Tour was in the can after a September/October shoot, ready for a poorly-received Boxing Day premiere. Their new single, “Hello Goodbye,” had been released on November 24 (it shot to #1 and stayed there for seven weeks), and the Magical Mystery Tour soundtrack would hit British shops on December 8. Ringo’s last official band work before jetting off to Rome was to shoot a promo film for “Hello Goodbye,” featuring the Beatles performing the song in their Sgt. Pepper uniforms, on November 10, and taping their annual Christmas message for their fan club on November 28.


Released: December 17, 1968 (U.S.)

Director: Christian Marquand

Producer: Robert Haggiag

Screenwriter: Buck Henry, based on a novel by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg

Studio: ABC Pictures, Corona Cinematografica, Dear Films, Selmur Productions, distributed by Cinerama Releasing Corp.

Cast: Ewa Aulin, John Astin, James Coburn, Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, Charles Aznavour, Elsa Martinelli, Walter Matthau, Ringo Starr, John Huston, Anita Pallenberg, Sugar Ray Robinson, Enrico Maria Salerno, Umberto Orsini, Joey Forman, Fabian Dean, Buck Henry

No one seems to remember how a role in Candy came to Ringo in the first place. It may have been through his friendship with Peter Sellers. Ringo recalled in an on-set interview that an unnamed “they” offered him the role of Emmanuel the gardener. “They didn’t offer me a choice [of parts]. They only asked me to play the lust-mad Mexican gardener.” Ringo seems to have taken the part to have a bit of a break from the Beatles (even with no touring, ‘67 was a busy year), it fit his schedule, and because someone simply asked him to be in it. Like almost everyone else on the planet, he had read the book. “I thought, ‘You’re joking. How can they make that into a film?’ ‘Randy’ isn’t the word for it. [Making the film] was the mind-blowing experience of my life. I was filming with Marlon Brando, Richard Burton…wow!” He then added he would really preferred to have played the hunchback.

Ewa Aulin and Ringo in Rome, December 1967

Ringo arrived in Rome on December 3, 1967. His chestnut hair was given a hasty black dye job, and it was decided that the mustache and soul patch he had been sporting all year suited the character quite well. He was in front of the cameras beginning December 7. He filmed for just over a week, wrapping his part on the 16th, and returning to London on the 17th. Some of his co-stars, like James Coburn, remember the Candy shoot — nostalgically — as an undisciplined, freewheeling parade of bad behavior very suited to the era and the material. Although he already had a reputation as something of a party animal, no one recalls Ringo participating in the bacchanalia of sex and drugs that permeated the shoot. He spent most of his after-hours time hanging out with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor on their yacht. Long after Ringo had finished his part, the production moved to New York and California for location shooting, and finally wrapped in April of 1968.

Ewa Aulin

Amid all the celebrities on display, who would be the film’s anchor? Who would play Candy? Haggiag and Marquand chose Ewa Aulin of Sweden. A petite, wide-eyed, pouty-lipped blonde, Aulin certainly had the “sex kitten” look, but her grasp of English was tenuous at best. Southern was disappointed. He felt Candy should be an all-American apple pie Midwesterner. But he knew the film adaptation was beyond his control, and Marquand wanted Candy to have a more “universal” quality. Aulin was Miss Teen Sweden of 1965, and Miss Teen International of 1966. Naturally, she attracted the attention of a bevy of slightly shady European film producers, and had appeared in a couple of low-budget Italian films which put her on Haggiag’s radar. 

According to some sources, Aulin had the same effect on her co-stars as Candy had on the characters they played. She was hit on constantly, and one actor’s groping “attention” — let’s just call him “Harlon Frando” — shocked even the other cast members, who were not exactly models of restraint. (Glad to report that Ringo by all accounts was a perfect gentleman, and Aulin spoke of him fondly later.)

Buck Henry

The actors all seem as if they had just glanced at the script for the first time right before the cameras rolled (this may indeed have literally been the case in a few instances). Not that it was much of a script anyway. Buck Henry’s considerable gifts have deserted him here. (“I wish I had written a better script,” Henry frankly admits in one of his last interviews before his death in 2020.) The dialogue is clunky and not particularly funny. It is supposed to be a comedy, but it mistakes eccentricity for humor. Admittedly, the eccentricity can be fun to watch in a few sequences, but there’s no earthly reason for the official cut of Candy to run just over two hours. 

After a psychedelic opening that alludes to Candy being a cosmic force deposited on Earth to do her cosmic thing, we meet her as a high school student attending a lecture by her father (John Astin), an uptight civics teacher clearly repressing his incestuous desires for his daughter. The guest speaker at the school that day is famous poet MacPhisto (Richard Burton, filling the role of the novel’s more mudane philosophy professor). MacPhisto is a sort of combination of Dylan Thomas and Elvis, who has a permanent breeze blowing back his hair (in one of the film’s best sight gags) and makes all the girls swoon. He invites Candy into his limousine to give her a ride home. MacPhisto’s limo is driven by Zero (Sugar Ray Robinson), whom MacPhisto defensively insists is his friend and not his valet/driver. The limo has Scotch on tap, and by the time it reaches Candy’s house, MacPhisto’s drunken attempts to seduce her have come to naught.

Candy invites him in to dry his whiskey-soaked pants, and they encounter the household’s Mexican gardener, Emmanuel (Ringo). If MacPhisto can’t have Candy himself, he can at least voyeuristically manipulate innocent Emmanuel into giving into his carnal desires and mounting Candy on a pool table. The pair being caught by her father in flagrante delicto kicks off a chain of events that sees Candy’s father beaten into a coma by Emmanuel’s vindictive motorcycle-gang sisters, and Candy being sent away to New York, along with her lascivious, swinging Uncle Jack (John Astin again) and his sardonic wife Livia (Elsa Martinelli). 

Along the way, they meet a crazed general (Walter Matthau) whose paratroopers are on permanent — and celibate — airborne patrol watching for communist (or Albanian, or Mexican) invasion. They make it to New York, where Dr. Krankeit (James Coburn — in the film version, Krankeit is a narcissistic neurosurgeon in eyeliner and pale pink scrubs) operates on Candy’s father. After a traumatic run-in with Krankeit’s judgmental rival, Dr. Dunlop (John Huston), Candy escapes the clutches of the fiendish Krankeit, who wants to lobotomize her into one of his compliant nurses/servants (Aunt Livia happily volunteers). She goes on the run in search of her father, who has wandered off from the hospital in a catotonic-but-ambulatory state.

She’s alone on the streets of New York, where she has run-ins with a Mafia boss, an avant-garde filmmaker, and yes, the hunchback (played by French singer Charles Aznavour in a characterization very toned down from the novel.) She ends up in the company of the (phony) Indian guru Grindl (Marlon Brando), who travels the country in a portable temple set up in the trailer of a semi-truck (and “levitates” thanks to a clear plexigalss stool). Eventually, she is reunited in a very unexpected way with her lost father.

The whole mess ends as Candy strolls passively through a massive, dream-like open-air love-in/freak-out, where we see the whole cast again, lolling about in a blissful hallucinogenic haze. (I was a little disturbed seeing Walter Matthau frolicking around like a free-spirited love child, but he seemed to be fine with it. He’s a true pro.) She ascends back into the heavens. The End. Roll credits.  

Candy is not a good movie. But on its own terms, it’s an interesting movie. A completely self-indulgent combination of free-form psychedelia, European ‘60s/New Wave filmmaking, and exploitative sex farce. It can’t even really be called “softcore pornography,” because although the notion of sex permeates the whole endeavor, any actual nudity is fleeting, and the sex scenes could play on network TV today. (The men somehow manage intercourse while never taking their pants off. It’s weird.)

Some sequences go over quite well visually, and there are a few good moments of surrealism. We suddenly find ourselves looking up through the transparent floor of MacPhisto’s limousine as he laps up spilled Scotch. Krankeit’s massive operating theater is full of evening-dressed socialites, as if brain surgery were the opening night of an opera. The Candy production team did not skimp on hiring qualified crew. The famed Italian cinematographer and favorite of Fellini, Giuseppe Rotunno, was the DP here and did his usual fine job.

Overall, the film suffers from what I call “Cannonball Run Syndrome.” It looks like it was way more fun for the actors to make than for the audience to sit through. Burton deftly parodies his own “Welsh bard” persona (and his well-known fondness for booze), and is not afraid to absolutely go for broke, leaving behind every shred of the dignity he normally exudes (see pic above). For all his shortcomings as a human being, Marlon Brando is always captivating to watch, and even a supremely silly character like Grindl benefits from being inhabited by Brando. The airborne sequence with Matthau is too reminiscent of Dr. Strangelove to really work, and just serves to remind us which was the better movie. John Astin as Uncle Jack is the only character who gets solidly funny dialogue on a consistent basis.

Although it has never been confirmed, it is generally believed that Astin’s dual role as Candy’s father and uncle was the part originally intended for Peter Sellers, who specialized in playing multiple parts in a single film. Ewa Aulin was not a great actress, and despite the best efforts of a dialogue coach, her voice had to be dubbed (still retaining the Swedish accent for some reason). But her stilted blankness actually works for the character.

And Rolling Stones fans take note — long-time Keith Richards paramour/muse Anita Pallenberg appears as Krankeit’s evil head nurse. Her voice is also obviously dubbed, but she is riveting in a black-magic way, and exudes perfect animal magnetism in her handful of scenes. No wonder she managed to seduce three of the five Stones. 

Oh, and Ringo? He’s flat-out terrible. He can’t even manage the most basic imitation of a Mexican accent, and his amateurish emoting would be an embarrassment to a third-grade school play. All the actors were clearly directed by Marquand to go as over-the-top as possible, but you can really tell the difference between the professional actors (whose version of “over-the-top” still shows technique and training) and moonlighting drummers. When you’re out-acted by Sugar Ray Robinson, you may want to re-think acting as a second career. 

Candy was released in the United States on December 17, 1968 with the newly-minted “R” rating. (The MPAA rating system had gone into effect on November 1.) Despite being called “an incomprehensible mess” and “frenzied, formless, and almost entirely witless” by the critics, the film did draw an audience in the larger markets, mostly due to the curiosity factor of how the contents of the “dirty book” made it to the screen. This was enough to turn a pretty decent profit for its makers, but Christian Marquand never directed again. Ewa Aulin made a few more films, and left the business in 1974. Several cast members have remarked that Candy was the worst film of their careers, but they always seem to say it with a smile.

By the time the film came out in Britain in early 1969, the Beatles had performed their rooftop concert, were drifting into the recording sessions that would result in Abbey Road, and Ringo was getting ready to shoot his next movie — another Southern adaptation. For Ringo, Candy was a fun two weeks in Rome, nothing more. Apart from attending the British premiere, he did not participate in any publicity for the film, never spoke of it in any later interview, and seemed to have forgotten its very existence. In fast-moving Beatle-world, Candy was already a dusty, flower-power relic of a bygone era. 

Back to Terry Southern…

As the Candy manuscript passed back and forth between Southern and Hoffenberg, Southern found himself more and more distracted by a project that would become his third novel — The Magic Christian. The premise was simple, and it’s easy to see why it would intrigue a jaded cynic like Southern: What is the limit on what a typical person would do for money? What if an eccentric billionaire decided to use his fortune to seek the answer to that question?

The Magic Christian was published in 1959, a year after Candy, and as to be expected, carried none of Candy’s scandal and notoriety. It was not at all a “dirty” book, just a brief, dark comedy novel (novella, really — I read it in a single sitting) about the nature of greed. It became a great favorite of Peter Sellers, and his support put it on the path to film adaptation.

Peter Sellers rose to fame in the 1950s as one of the cast members on BBC Radio’s The Goon Show, which may have been one of the most influential comedies ever. Without the Goons (Sellers, Harry Seacombe, and resident genius and main writer Spike Milligan), there would not have been a Monty Python, and even the Beatles may have developed very differently. (John Lennon was proudly the Goons’ number-one fanboy, and their verbal flights of fancy definitely influenced the wordplay in his songwriting, and his books of poetry and short stories.)

From time to time, there were attempts to adapt the Goons’ audio brilliance to the television format. Sellers and Milligan went visual with The Idiot Weekly, Price 2d, A Show Called Fred, and Son of Fred (all 1956). The director for all three was Richard Lester, who went on to direct the Beatles’ films A Hard Day’s Night and Help! (and Lennon’s How I Won the War). The shows’ graphic designer was a young Scottish graduate of the Glasgow School of Art, Joseph McGrath. McGrath became part of the Goons’ and Lester’s inner circle of frequent collaborators. (He would be an uncredited production assisstant on both Beatles films.)

The Magic Christian film adaptation became Sellers’ long-gestating pet project. He bought copies of the book in bulk, and gave them away as if they were religious tracts. As he rose to international fame on the strength of Dr. Strangelove and The Pink Panther, he used his influence to raise money to bring Southern’s novel to the screen. Terry Southern himself was again contracted to adapt his own novel, and set to work sometime in 1965 to do so. He gave the main character a son to act as an audience surrogate, but progress was slow. The screenwriting bogged down with the number of drafts in the double digits. (Sources differ on if the “son” character was in the Southern script from the get-go, or if it was added at the last minute specifically to snag a Beatle.) The story goes that Sellers would offer the Magic Christian writing job to anyone he met at a party. No one knows how many random writers had an uncredited attempt at the screenplay, but the average guess is about nine or ten.

Joseph McGrath

Meanwhile — November 1965… Although they had another year of touring to go, the Beatles were tiring of the grind. They had just finished recording one of their first true masterpieces, Rubber Soul, and its accompanying single “We Can Work It Out/Day Tripper.”  The notion of making the rounds of British and American TV shows to promote the new release was particularly unappealing. Travel, rehearsals, sound checks, and camera blocking were all a drag, and they could never get the sound they wanted on their TV appearances anyway. Their audio was always compromised and puny. Then they had a stroke of genius — why not film themselves performing some songs, then send the films out to the various TV stations who were clamoring for an appearance? They did just that on November 23 at Twickenham Studios in southwestern London. They mimed to their official recordings over the course of ten separate films — three versions each of “We Can Work It Out” and “Day Tripper,” two for the previous year’s single “I Feel Fine,” and one for “Help!” and “Ticket To Ride.” These were made available for purchase to any media outlet that wanted to air them. The Beatles made only one live performing appearance on television (Top of the Pops, June 16, 1966) after discovering this shortcut. Almost every major single release by the Beatles thereafter got an accompanying film. 

At the time they called them “promo films,” but music videos as we know them were born. The director for all ten films and the unacknowledged godfather of ‘80s/’90s MTV? None other than the close pal of both Richard Lester and Peter Sellers — Joseph McGrath.  

Peter Sellers was a superstar by early 1968, and certainly had more than one project going at a time. He was offered an American TV special, and on the recommendation of British TV satirist/journalist David Frost, hired two of Frost’s writers, John Cleese and Graham Chapman, to come up with some comedic sketches. The TV special deal fell through, so Sellers decided to give the young writing team a crack at the Magic Christian screenplay, which had been sitting on the shelf for the past couple of years. The future Pythons infused Southern’s material with a healthy dose of distinctly British humor.

Eager young comedy writers Graham Chapman, John Cleese, and associates

Sellers knew Ringo from the London nightclub circuit, and with the film looking like a go, he offered the Beatle a part on a whim in the summer of 1968. (In fact, the easygoing Ringo was one of the few people who could maintain a genuine friendship with the mercurial Sellers. Perhaps it helped that Sellers started his career as a drummer.)

Joseph McGrath was tapped to direct. At this point, in addition to the Beatles’ promo films, he had directed the brilliant Peter Cook/Dudley Moore sketch comedy show Not Only…But Also, and had two unassuming romantic comedy films to his credit, the Dudley Moore vehicle 30 Is a Dangerous Age, Cynthia and Shirley MacClaine’s The Bliss of Mrs. Blossom. (He also directed Sellers’ segments of the 1967 James Bond pastiche Casino Royale, the nightmarish production details of which could fill its own book.) McGrath took elements of Southern’s screenplay(s) and the Cleese/Chapman draft, and mashed them up with his own contributions. The final screenwriting credit was “Terry Southern and Joseph McGrath” with “additional material” by John Cleese and Graham Chapman. At least they scored small parts in the final film. Southern was brought on board again for rewrites and a final polish as the film moved towards shooting. (He recalled the producers coming to him one night saying “We’ve got Raquel Welch!” Southern responded “I don’t have a part for Raquel Welch.” “Well, write one!” It was that kind of production.)

Sellers visits the Beatles on the “Get Back” set at Twickenham a few weeks before shooting on The Magic Christian begins

Ringo’s initial starting date on the film caused the Beatles’ famous “Get Back”/Let It Be sessions to be rushed through January of 1969, but his start ended up delayed by about a month. The Magic Christian filmed at Twickenham Studios and various locations around London and rural Surrey beginning in early February 1969 and running through early May. Most sources say that Ringo began his work on the film on March 1. Throughout production, Ringo still participated in a few Beatles recording sessions (Abbey Road was tentatively getting underway), which were usually at night. He missed the occasional daytime session. (Paul played drums on “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” recorded on the afternoon of April 14.)

Like Candy, The Magic Christian is basically a series of slightly surreal vignettes, laden with celebrity cameos. But unlike the colorful international flavor of Candy, The Magic Christian is very British, and set mostly in a cold, drab post-Swinging London with permanently gray skies. And unlike the swirling, LSD-drenched soundtrack of Candy, the music here consists of several wonderfully concise pop-rock nuggets by the band Badfinger, newly signed to Apple Records, and including the McCartney-penned Top Ten single “Come and Get It.” Badfinger’s debut album — Magic Christian Music — was also the official soundtrack to the film.


Released: December 12, 1969

Director: Joseph McGrath

Producer: Denis O’Dell

Screenwriters: Terry Southern and Joseph McGrath, based on a novel by Terry Southern. Additional material by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, and Peter Sellers

Studio: Commonwealth United Entertainment

Cast: Peter Sellers, Ringo Starr, Isabel Jeans, Caroline Blakiston, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Leonard Frey, Richard Attenborough, Laurence Harvey, John Cleese, Patrick Cargill, Spike Milligan, Christopher Lee, Roman Polanski, Yul Brynner, Raquel Welch, Dennis Price, Graham Stark, Victor Maddern, Terence Alexander, Joan Benham, Tom Boyle, Peter Bayliss, Graham Chapman, Ferdy Mayne

The film follows the general outline of the novel. Immensely wealthy businessman Sir Guy Grand (Sellers), filled with ennui and bored with his conventional life, randomly adopts a homeless drifter whom he dubs “Youngman” (Ringo) as his legal son and sets out on a series of social experiments to find people’s “price.” This ranges from simply paying a policeman (Spike Milligan) to eat the parking ticket he was about to give him, to paying the Oxford rowing team (coached by Richard Attenborough and captained by Graham Chapman) to defeat Cambridge by blatantly ramming and sinking their boat, to paying a renowned Shakespearan actor (Laurence Harvey — pretty famous back then, almost forgotten now) to deliver a complete, full-frontal striptease while performing Hamlet in front of an appalled blue-blood audience. 

Grand also uses his wealth not only to see what others will do for money, but to see what pointless nihilism he can get away with himself, such as buying a £30,000 portrait at a Sotheby’s auction, only to snip out the nose with a pair of scissors as the horrified curator (John Cleese) looks on. Through all of this he is accompanied by his adopted son, and occasionally by his clueless and painfully bourgeois sisters, Agnes and Esther (Isabel Jeans and Caroline Blakiston, later the original Mon Mothma!). 

The film’s penultimate sequence takes place on board the luxury liner Magic Christian. Grand now has a captive set of stuffy, upper-class test subjects for his “lessons.” Stranger and stranger things begin to happen as the previously washed-out tone of the film starts to pulaste with color. The passengers are menaced by a vampire (Christopher Lee, sending up his role as Dracula in the long-running Hammer Films series), a lone drinker (Roman Polanski) is seduced by the lounge singer, who turns out to be Yul Brynner in pretty convincing drag, crooning the Noel Coward torch ballad “Mad About the Boy.”

A gorilla runs amok. The ship is sinking. Or maybe not. Or the ship may actually be powered by a galley full of topless female slaves, lorded over in fine S&M fashion by the aforementioned Raquel Welch (who died as this was being written, RIP) as the “Priestess of the Whip.” 

The connection between all of this chaos and the point Grand is trying to prove becomes increasingly tenuous. We return firmly — and disgustingly — to the theme when Grand and Youngman fill a massive vat with several hundred gallons of slaughterhouse runoff, then scatter hundred-pound notes across the surface. Distinguished bowler-hatted “city gents” eagerly plunge into the unholy stew of blood, urine, and manure. If nothing else, it makes for an incredibly memorable final scene. (For this sequence, Badfinger steps aside in favor of Thunderclap Newman’s “Something in the Air,” covered many years later to great effect by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers.)

The closing sequence was originally scheduled to be filmed at the foot of the Statue of Liberty, but at the last minute the studio got cold feet over such a potentially controversial scene, and canceled the location shoot. The scene was done instead on an empty patch of the south bank of the Thames in London, where the National Theatre complex (built in 1976) now stands, and was allegedly paid for out of Sellers’ own pocket.

The novel’s Guy Grand is a vulgar American tycoon, jowly, bald, and ruddy-faced, and has Southern’s typical edge of maliciousness to what he is doing. In an oft-repeated statement, he likes “making it hot” for people. It’s not so much finding someone’s price that the literary Grand gets off on, it’s watching their discomfort as they go through with whatever demeaning thing they’ve agreed to do. Like many of Southern’s characters, he is ugly inside and out. By making Grand an upper-class Brit — Sir Guy Grand — and having him played by Sellers using his best “posh” accent and with a dapper, distinguished appearance, the film changes the entire nature of the character. He is no longer a crass prankster, but just another in a long line of British patrician eccentrics. Sellers’ Guy Grand is likable.

As noted, Ringo’s character did not appear in the novel at all. When brought back into the creative loop just before shooting, Southern pushed for the edgier, more counter-culture John Lennon as Youngman*, but Lennon had no further interest in film acting, and Sellers’ preference was for his friend Ringo. Ringo’s performance is much better here than in Candy, but that was a pretty low bar, and he’s not called upon to stretch very much as Youngman Grand. He tags along with Sir Guy, asks a few questions, makes a few remarks, but mostly just observes. They could have just as easily named the character “Ringo” and dropped all pretense of this being any kind of true performance.

The Magic Christian was released in the U.K. on December 12, 1969 (two months later in America) to middling box office and mixed reviews. Like Candy, it has its latter-day defenders as an example of anything-goes, freaky ‘60s “cult” cinema (see also Casino Royale and Skidoo). For fans of British humor or black comedy, it is worth a look, and overall it’s a more polished, better-paced (and funnier) film than Candy. “You have to really hate people to love this film,” Spike Milligan remarked, and that’s as good a tagline as any.

After helming a few more British film and television productions, Joseph McGrath left the director’s chair in 1984. I don’t know what he’s been doing since, but as of this writing he’s still alive at almost 95, and cheerfully giving interviews to journalists and podcasters about his work with Peter Sellers and Peter Cook.

Whatever quality Southern’s writings are reputed to have is admittedly lost on me. Smarter people than me have given him awards, but I slogged through Candy and The Magic Christian joylessly. Perhaps what seemed shocking and outre in the 1950s is dull and irrelevant in the 2020s. Perhaps his style has been co-opted by later imitators so much that the original impact is blunted. I have to say, deeply flawed as they are, both Candy and The Magic Christian as cinema experiences are improvements on the source material. (Caveat — Southern’s short stories are much better, and his letters have a relaxed style missing from his labored works of longer fiction.)

Terry Southern, 1924 – 1995

Southern produced nothing of note after 1970 or so. Even his lauded screenwriting work of the ‘60s has come under scrutiny, with Stanley Kubrick stating that he had to substantially re-write Dr. Strangelove, and Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda stating that Easy Rider was mostly ad-libbed from Southern’s sketchy outline. At the urging of writer Michael O’Donoghue, a long-time admirer, Southern was hired to write sketches for Saturday Night Live in the 1980s. Nothing he produced ever made it to air. He ended his days in an alcoholic haze, mired in unpaid income taxes and failed attempts to write a memoir.

His biggest claim to fame these days is being on the cover of Sgt. Pepper.

Film offers for Ringo kept rolling in as the Beatles split up. Stay tuned…

*Ken Anderson of the excellent Dreams Are What Le Cinema Is For…website says reports of Lennon’s consideration for the role are erroneous, but he doesn’t elaborate.

AUTHOR’S NOTE — Elaborating on the footnote above, this was one of the most difficult pieces for the Holy Bee to put together. Official biographies of Southern, Starr, and Sellers, along with various websites, autobiographies, and interviews all contradict each other all over the place as to dates, names, motivations, etc. The heavy drug use of the late ’60s certainly isn’t doing the modern researcher any favors in piecing together a coherent picture of these films’ development and production.

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