Whereas motion pictures deliberately constructed to shock and offend people with even the most lenient sense of humor are hardly unusual today, I have to wonder how audiences must have reacted when MGM first premiered The Loved One in 1965. Freely adapted from British author Evelyn Waugh's novel The Loved One: An Anglo-American Tragedy (with shades of Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death thrown in for good measure) by satirist Terry Southern ‒ who previously co-wrote Dr. Strangelove with Stanley Kubrick ‒ The Loved One could quite possibly be the darkest comedy ever to hail from the '60s. In fact, it almost makes Dr. Strangelove seem like a light-hearted B-unit romcom romp from the 1930s by comparison.
Directed by Tony Richardson (Tom Jones, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner), the outrageous film centers on young Robert Morse as British (!) poet Dennis Barlow, who arrives in Hollywood to visit his distant uncle after winning a free airline ticket. His timing could not be any better or worse, however, since said relation ‒ the good Sir Francis Hinsley (John Gielgud, whose very appearance in the film is just as shocking as is some of the subject matter), who has been working in the film industry for many years ‒ gets sacked from his job soon after (by future Planet of the Apes icon Roddy McDowall, at that), prompting him to hang himself on the grounds of his plush estate. And that's just the beginning of Barlow's adventure abroad.
Conned by his late uncle's fellow stuffy British expatriates, Barlow agrees to forego any possibility of an inheritance by agreeing to let Sir Francis' friends inter their belated colleague at a local cemetery/mortuary known as Whispering Glades. It is there that the real fun begins, as Southern and co-screenwriter Christopher Isherwood start bludgeoning more than just the never-changing face of Tinseltown phonies. As it turns out, Whispering Glades is run by another kind of phony America has become all-too accustomed to: the for-profit religious leader. Run by a delightfully corrupt Jonathan Winters (in one of two roles he plays in the film), Whispering Glades is exactly the sort of place you'd expect to turn people away during a natural disaster.
Unless they have lots of money, that is, wherein you're guaranteed to be in God's graces in a variety of jaw-dropping burial services (from upright to waterlogged) until Winters' Reverend Glenworthy figures out a way to upheave everyone and make an even more profitable business venture. And that's exactly the sort of thing you'll see in this wonderfully weird and bitingly bleak satire, which also features Jonathan Winters (again) as the less-fortunate brother of the Reverend Glenworthy, who, having also been discharged from the motion picture industry, now runs a pet cemetery called Happier Hunting Grounds, where he is working hard with boy genius Paul Williams to create tiny rocket capsules to catapult the ashes of the departed into space.
Meanwhile, our star poet woefully attempts to woo Whispering Glades cosmetician Aimée Thanatogenos (Anjanette Comer), who has a lethally blind devotion to her phony Reverend employer. Proudly named after infamous early 20th Century evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, Aimée is the type of gal who can't commit to giving in to actual human emotions, frantically writing letters to a fake newspaper advice guru. In reality, the Dear Swami character is drunk staff writer Lionel Stander, giving us one of his best cameos ever. But it's the casting of Rod Steiger ‒ the legendary In the Heat of the Night actor whose two settings were "On Point" to "Good God, Man, Switch to Decaf!" ‒ as an embalmer named Mr. Joyboy that really takes the cake.
Or "cake make-up," if you prefer. Sporting curly locks and enough face cake to bury everyone interred in Whispering Glades one more time, Steiger commits what could very well be his most joyous over-the-top performance here. Despite being fey as the day it long, Steiger's Mr. Joyboy ‒ who gets very excited when a child's corpse comes into be embalmed, mind you ‒ becomes Morse's rival for the heroine's affections, inviting her over to the pad for a disturbing "dinner with mother" moments ever captured on celluloid. It's exactly the sort of scene you'd expect to find John Waters drooling over at and Norman Bates recoil in sheer abject terror from. It's also the very type of thing that made The Loved One one of the least-loved movies of the 1960s.
When viewed at from the perspective of today's jaded and cynical world, however, The Loved One makes for exceptional entertainment to just the right kind of (deranged) mind who is capable of laughing at America's obsession with showcasing and worshipping the absurd. And don't forget about Barbara Nichols as a late astronaut's stripper widow and a scene where evil evangelical Winters hosts an orgy at the mortuary for military brass to procure funding for his latest scheme. Plus, if you look close enough (providing you can bear to look at the movie at all, that is), you'll even spot an extra in the Hollywood studio cantina wandering around wearing the same mask David McCallum wore in an episode of The Outer Limits.
Needless to say, I was in phony evangelical heaven with this film, and the fact that the Warner Archive Collection has issued this underrated (and still generally loathed!) black comedy on Blu-ray is a true godsend. Also featuring cameos by Dana Andrews, James Coburn, Milton Berle, Tab Hunter, Robert Morley, Alan Napier, and a surprisingly convincing Liberace (in what was not only his final theatrical role, but also the only film time he appeared on-screen without playing the piano). A young ‒ but nevertheless still instantly and immediately recognizable for some strange reason ‒ Jamie Farr also has an early bit here, as does Bernie Kopell (who also made a memorable cameo in the WAC's recent BD release of The Wheeler Dealers).
Presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio and in a 1080p MPEG-4 AVC encode, the Warner Archive Collection's transfer of The Loved One is a true thing of beauty to behold. Sporting gorgeous black-and-white cinematography by Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'s Oscar-winning Haskell Wexler, this flawlessly magnificent WAC presentation has been mastered from a new 2K scan of a recently-struck master positive from the original negative ‒ which should confirm to any and all naysayers out there that somebody out there certainly feels a fondness for The Loved One. The accompanying DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono soundtrack that has also been freshly mastered from original vault materials, and optional English (SDH) subtitles are included.
Also found on this Warner Archive Blu-ray are two extras. The first, a retrospective featurette from the 2003 Warner Bros. DVD entitled Trying to Offend Everyone featuring interviews by surviving cast and crew (credited or otherwise), including our morbidly comical tale's two romantic leads, Paul Williams, and cinematographer Haskell Wexler. It's quite an interesting piece, so if you actually enjoy The Loved One for what it is ‒ intentionally offensive, but brilliant just the same ‒ you'll want to give it a go. Wrapping up this release is the original (and slightly worn) theatrical trailer, which has also been remastered in 1080p by the Warner Archive. All in all, I was thoroughly impressed with both the movie and this amazing HD WAC release.
In fact, I might even go as far as to say I Loved it ‒ although I may never be able to go as far as to top the film's sheer outrageousness itself. Naturally, I Highly Recommended it.