If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out

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To view Harold and Maude click here.

Anyone who came of age in the 1970s and 1980s probably remembers their first viewing of Harold and Maude (1971). For me it came in the early days of cable TV when HBO and Cinemax started running it in the afternoons on Saturday and Sunday; after all, it was rated PG so that meant it could comfortably rub shoulders with other family-friendly fare like Barbarella (1968) and Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). So imagine my surprise as an impressionable nine-year-old kid seeing this hilarious black comedy with a welcome morbid streak, delivering one of the screen’s great love stories when Bud Cort isn’t spurting fake blood or setting himself on fire.

This film was already a decade old when it was propelled through coaxial cables to unsuspecting suburban households all over America. I had no idea that it had received some pretty withering reviews when it first opened (Roger Ebert and Vincent Canby, how could you?) and had gotten a little traction as a modest midnight film around the end of the decade. What I did know was that it was something really special, the kind of film that can’t possibly be replicated again. Though it wasn’t a major success at the time, Harold and Maude is really the bedrock for one of New Hollywood’s more challenging pioneers, Hal Ashby, who had made his directorial debut a year earlier with The Landlord (1970) after nabbing an Oscar for his film editing work on In the Heat of the Night (1968). From here on he filled out the rest of the decade with five more stone-cold classics — The Last Detail (1973), Shampoo (1975), Bound for Glory (1976) and Being There (1979) – before seeing his career crumble due to jinxed projects and health and dependence issues that would end with his death in 1988.

As much as this is considered an Ashby film, it’s one that doesn’t really fit into the auteur theory box all that comfortably. That’s because it was written by a young UCLA student named Colin Higgins as his thesis project, with intentions to direct the film himself after selling the script (through his studio connections as a pool boy!). To make a long story short, he ended up acquiescing to having Ashby direct the film as long as he could be on the set as a learning experience. It took a while for Higgins’s career to take off; his next produced script for the big screen was Silver Streak (1976), directed by Arthur Hiller, with only an above-average, made-for-TV Shelley Winters horror film called The Devil’s Daughter (1973) in between. And remember how I mentioned cable earlier? Well, the success of Silver Streak was enough for Higgins to convince Paramount to give him a shot at directing his own script, which turned out to be the incredibly entertaining and much-loved “Goldie Hawn-y Chevy Chase-y” romantic comedy/thriller, Foul Play (1978). Seemingly tailor made for discovery on the small screen, it became a staple of both network and cable TV for years and still pops up frequently on various movie channels and streaming services. From there it was time for another HBO classic from my childhood, the lightning-paced feminist workplace comedy 9 to 5 (1980) with Higgins writing and directing again, followed by the flawed but sometimes delightful stage musical adaptation, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982). He passed away from AIDS-related complications in August of 1988, with Ashby following him in December. Had they made it out of the 1980s, we can only wonder what else they might have given us.

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That means that what we have in Harold and Maude is a special kind of director-writer alchemy going on, with Ashby’s counterculture-inspired voice melding with Higgins’s knack for digging into the quirkier side of genres like romantic comedies (or, later, thrillers). As great as Ashby’s subsequent 1970s films are, this is the only one that people consistently describe as “lovable”—a substantial feat when one of your title characters spends the first act repeatedly staging suicides for attention. It’s even more remarkable when you consider that Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon were nowhere near the first choices in mind for either the writer or director with names like Richard Dreyfuss and Peggy Ashcroft thrown around at various points and, according to Nick Dawnson’s Being Hal Ashby, even Agatha Christie! The mind boggles.

Of course, there’s no way this film would work as well without its incredible soundtrack, one of the greatest popular music accompaniments for any film ever. Cat Stevens (stepping in after Elton John dropped out) only wrote two new songs, “Don’t Be Shy” and the ridiculously catchy “If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out” (which Gordon even covers at one point), but other standards like “Where Do the Children Play?” and especially the climactic “Trouble” are so perfectly suited you could swear they were originals for this film. It’s heartening for fans of the film that the singer, born Steven Demetre Georgiou and now known as Yusuf/Cat Stevens after going by Yusuf Islam for many years, has come back to embracing his music legacy in recent live shows and albums after eschewing his Cat Stevens identity in 1978. A terrific piece in The New Yorker last month by Howard Fishman about the gradual reemergence of Stevens since 2006 perhaps sums up the appeal best: “Indelible melodies, beautiful production, emotionally committed performances, and, most of all, a gentle wisdom, a repudiation of the status quo, a sense that we were not alone. Here was someone who was trying to make sense of life, too; he may not have had the answers, but he was looking for them, and we were encouraged to join him. Here was a friend.”

That description fits Harold and Maude like a glove, too. Without spoiling anything, the double-twist ending leaves you with a feeling that’s hard to put into words; it’s a mixture of sadness and joy, gratitude and wistfulness, just like life itself.

Harold and Maude is streaming for a limited time on the Criterion Channel of Filmstruck. It will be available until October 31st.

Nathaniel Thompson

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4 Responses If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out
Posted By kingrat : October 11, 2017 12:11 am

Thanks for all the information about the much undervalued Colin Higgins. FOUL PLAY seems to me the best American comedy of the 1970s, and I am glad to see the growing regard for this fine and very funny film.

Posted By Doug : October 11, 2017 7:56 am

Thank you, Nate-I had no idea this Higgins was writing some of my favorites-”Foul Play” being at the top of the chart. I also didn’t know that Cat Stevens had songs in “Harold and Maude”-it’s been a few decades since I’ve seen it. I have a feeling I’ll be listening to some Cat Stevens at work today.

Posted By AL : October 12, 2017 11:59 pm

Colin Higgins undervalued–an understatement. I suppose I’ll be condemned for saying this, but, even though HAROLD AND MAUDE is in my TopTen, I’ve always felt that Vivian Pickles “stole” the film.

Posted By swac44 : October 16, 2017 9:41 am

Also the template for Wes Anderson’s oeuvre (and Bud Cort appears in The Life Aquatic).

I’ve been a firm fan of Cort’s for years, always a pleasure to see him turn up in roles big and small, like in some recent TCM airings of hard-to-find titles like The Strawberry Statement and Cinderella Liberty.

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