Tragedy Tomorrow, Comedy Tonight!


To view A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum click here.

During the late 1950s, film adaptations of Broadway productions began to dominate the musical genre. Film historians such as Rick Altman, author of The American Film Musical, grumble about this trend, which often resulted in stilted adaptations or clumsy attempts to “open up” the original. According to Altman, adaptations lacked the freedom “to exploit the versatility of the film medium” compared to original film musicals. He compared Vincente Minnelli’s original musicals (An American in Paris [1951]) to his later Broadway adaptations (On a Clear Day [1970]) to make his point, which is valid.

I find A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966) to be an exception. It’s light, breezy surface belies its modernist approach to production numbers, clever verbal humor and well-researched production design, making it a unique adaptation of the Broadway hit. Forum is currently streaming on FilmStruck along with other films by director Richard Lester.

Richard Lester was fresh from his success with the Beatles musicals A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965) when he was tapped to direct Forum. Using New Wave techniques such as hand-held camera as well as a montage editing, Lester had updated the musical to capture the rebellious flavor of rock ‘n’ roll. Lester applied some of these techniques to the production numbers in Forum, infusing them with energy and vitality.

Forum opens with a montage of shots of the residents of ancient Rome in lieu of the standard establishing shots of the main setting. The latter was  typical of classic Hollywood films, including musicals. As star Zero Mostel sings “Comedy Tonight,” the credits are intercut with shots of everyday Romans going about their daily business. Mostel addresses the camera directly, breaking the fourth wall to explain the story. Shots of pratfalls and physical stunts from throughout the film are interwoven into the number, foreshadowing the comedy antics in store. The pace accelerates as the song and scene come to a climax. The rapid editing of the montage style combined with the flashforward shots definitely “exploits the versatility of the film medium.” My favorite production number in this style is “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid,” in which Mostel, Jack Gilford, Phil Silvers and Michael Hordern sing about the joys of domestic help. The vaudeville-style production number consists of dozens of shots of the veteran comedians hamming it up in front of various Roman structures and ruins. Low-brow humor meets high-brow history. However, all of the musical montages aren’t this fun or clever. The love song “Lovely,” sung by Michael Crawford and Annette Andre over shots of them running through a field, looks a bit too much like a TV commercial.


I was surprised to learn of the caliber of talent who worked on either the play or the film. The play had been penned by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, creator and head writer for the TV series M*A*S*H. Stephen Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics for the production numbers. Gelbart did not end up adapting his work for the big screen, and he was critical of the movie because much of his original libretto had been rewritten. Respected screenwriter Melvin Frank (White Christmas [1954], The Court Jester [1956], A Touch of Class [1973]) cowrote the adaption with Michael Pertwee. Nicolas Roeg was the cinematographer, and his bright, high-key lighting made the costumes with their primary colors pop off the screen. The cast of veteran stage and screen comedians delivered their lines with that exquisite comic timing associated with vaudeville and old-school showbiz.

Gelbart and Shevelove deserve praise for basing A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum on the work of ancient Roman playwright Plautus, who penned farces about Roman life during the Republic. Forum combines two plays by Plautus: Pseudolus is a play about a slave who helps his master’s son retrieve the girl of his dreams, a prostitute sold to another buyer and Miles Gloriosus tells the story of a pompous soldier. Some of the names in Forum were taken directly from Plautus, including Lycus, Pseudolus, which means “faker,” and Miles Gloriosus, or “boastful soldier.” Gelbart and Shevelove then piggyback on the playwright’s use of farcical names: The young, handsome lead is called Hero, while the courtesan he falls for is Philia, which is Greek for “love.” Pseudolus’s master is Senex, which is Latin for “old man;” Senex is henpecked by his wife Domina, a name perilously close to “dominate.” The anxiety-ridden slave played by Jack Gilford is called Hysterium (that is, hysterical), while the peripatetic father played by Buster Keaton is Erronius (meaning “wandering,” plus he is always wrong). Some of the best names are given to the courtesans: Tintinabula wears tiny bells that jingle when she moves; Panacea is good for what ails you; Vibrata jiggles when she moves; and Gymnasia is an athletic girl in scanty attire.


Noted production designer Tony Walton must have done extensive research into ancient Rome. Each set design echoes Roman architecture and art. The walls in and around Senex’s villa resemble the frescoes of Pompeii. There are four phases of Roman fresco painting. In Forum, the paintings resemble those from the second period in which the images were designed to suggest there were no walls at all. In other words, scenes of gardens and cityscapes were painted onto walls and framed in architectonic features such as columns or windows as though the viewer were looking out onto a vista. During “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid,” the group dances across the top of an aqueduct, which looks like the Pont du Gard famous for its precisely constructed Roman arches. Miles Gloriosus (Leon Greene) bursts into the city through a triumphal arch, befitting his overblown ego. My favorite art history reference is the marble bust of nagging wife Domina (Patricia Jessel), who is taking the sculpture to her mother to use at her funeral. It is as ugly as Domina herself, but the ugliness is actually historically accurate. The Roman interest in realism, called verism, was manifested in funerary busts commissioned by the patrician class to commemorate members of their families. The goal was to make the busts look exactly like the subject, with every wrinkle or flaw included. After the person died, the bust was carried to the funeral. In the case of Domina, her prominent nose and hardened expression are perfectly captured in the bust, which is the object of humor in several gags.

Hmmmm! I wonder if I can show A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum to represent Roman art the next time I teach art history.

Susan Doll

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23 Responses Tragedy Tomorrow, Comedy Tonight!
Posted By swac44 : October 23, 2017 8:55 am

Before films like Paint Your Wagon and Doctor Doolittle sank the Hollywood musical, there were a few bright moments like Forum, Bye Bye Birdie and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Too bad the best the next generation could come up with were At Long Last Love and New York, New York.

Posted By kingrat : October 23, 2017 1:31 pm

Susan, thanks for the valentine to a movie that has put a smile on my face every time I’ve seen it. Thank you for the context of Roman art, too.

Posted By George : October 24, 2017 4:04 pm

At Long Last Love is one of Karina Longworth’s favorite movies. Maybe I should give it another look. Been over 30 years since I’ve seen it.

I like New York, New York quite a bit. Hated it on first viewing, but it’s gotten better (or my tastes have improved with age).

Posted By Doug : October 24, 2017 7:22 pm

Years ago I read Gelbart’s “Laughing Matters”, a memoir of sorts about his life in the business of comedy-as I recall he started out writing for the radio show,”Duffy’s Tavern”.
Now a tangent, but one which connects to the post:
I also read “170 Years in Show Business” by Madeline Lee Gilford and Kate Mostel, wives of Jack and Zero, which detailed their lives together, including quite a bit about “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”.
And the Communist/HUAC stuff.
Quite a good read.
Sondheim, Roeg, Lester? All top notch-I have a feeling that I was too young to fully appreciate what I was seeing when I saw the movie years ago.

Posted By SergioM : October 24, 2017 9:03 pm

FINALLY this film is getting some respect. Every time i watch it never fails to make me laugh out laugh. Sure many of the jokes are corny and the situations are creaky but it’s such a funny fast paced, exhilarating film that I enjoy so much. And I just love good old fashioned bawdy double entandre humor Trivia – the sets used for the film were the old crumbling sets left over that Samuel Bronston had built two years earlier for his maga flop The Fall of the Roman Empire on his studio outside Madrid

Posted By George : October 24, 2017 10:59 pm

“And the Communist/HUAC stuff.”

See THE FRONT (1976), where Mostel played a character not unlike himself. Only the real Mostel survived the blacklist.

Posted By Dusty Ayres : November 8, 2017 8:28 am

@swac44, apparently you missed the ’70′s musicals Fiddler On The Roof, Bugsy Malone, Tommy, and Grease, all of which were successes.

Posted By Dusty Ayres : November 8, 2017 8:31 am

@George, Jack Gilford (who played Hysterium in this movie) also survived the blacklist, if I’m not mistaken.

Posted By swac44 : November 8, 2017 10:02 am

But they became the exceptions, rather than the rule of decades previous. No genre is ever truly dead, but some do go into decline.

Posted By George : November 8, 2017 7:24 pm

The musical, like the Western, will always be good for an occasional revival. But I don’t see studios going back to producing musicals (or Westerns) on a regular, routine basis, as they did before the ’70s.

Posted By Doug : November 8, 2017 7:46 pm

I dinna understand how we have opportunity to comment without the blog? Film magic, i guess.

Posted By Susan Doll : November 8, 2017 7:52 pm

I wonder if you can comment on the new version of the blog on Tumblr. I must confess I do not know a lot about it.

Posted By George : November 8, 2017 11:20 pm

You apparently have to create a password to “follow” Filmstruck on Tumblr. I haven’t done that, so I don’t know if a password allows you to post comments. But I don’t see any comments posted there.

Posted By Doug : November 9, 2017 7:38 pm

George, at the bottom of a Filmstruck Tumblr post there are four icons-an arrowhead {share}, a message balloon like we used to see in comics {reply}, arrows circling {reblog} and a heart {love the post}. You can leave a message by clicking the reply icon. I did on a post, and Greg answered, so they are seen. But it is hard to understand Tumblr. Good luck.

Posted By Susan Doll : November 9, 2017 8:36 pm

I looked at the bottom of my last post on Prince Achmed, and I only had two icons the reblog and the heart.

Posted By Susan Doll : November 9, 2017 8:42 pm

Okay, I kind of figured it out. Good grief.

Posted By George : November 10, 2017 12:34 am

I also see only the reblog and the heart. No reply icon. I really don’t have hours to spend trying to figure it out.

Posted By swac44 : November 10, 2017 10:31 am

I’ve got no plans to spend any time on Tumblr, so farewell Streamline, and adieu Movie Morlocks archives. It was a nice ride while it lasted. I sincerely hope the move brings some new readers, but it’s sad it has to be at the expense of the longtime devotees.

Posted By George : November 10, 2017 10:42 pm

I hope TCM keeps this archive up for a while, so we can revisit favorite old posts.

Posted By Doug : November 11, 2017 4:54 pm

swac44-I said nyet at first, but decided to give it a try. I was years late to the Facebook party, though I’ve been blogging since 2004. We move forward with technology, sometimes grudgingly, but it is the world we live in now. Tumblr has charms. I most especially like that it has a very simple interface. Come on in, the water’s fine.

Posted By George : November 14, 2017 4:26 pm

I still look at the new posts on Tumblr, but posting comments is more complicated than I feel like dealing with right now. And besides, after 5 or 6 years of near-daily commenting, I feel like I need a break from it.

Posted By Doug : November 14, 2017 7:16 pm

Hello, George. Come and play with us. Come and play with us, George. Forever… and ever… and ever.

Posted By SeeingI : January 16, 2018 1:04 pm

Screenwriter Michael Pertwee’s brother Jon Pertwee appears in the tavern scene, a few years before he became the third Doctor Who on the BBC. Unless that was really the Doctor slumming it in ancient Rome?

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