In fashion as in history trends that were previously forgotten return to repeat themselves once again. The old adage that ‘what once was old is now new’ also holds true for cinema, as sequels and remakes are routinely released as new despite their recycled themes and plots. Another way that Hollywood makes the retro trendy is by reviving styles and genres long since fallen out of favor. One genre that Hollywood has routinely attempted to remarket is the screwball comedy. Due to its effervescent nature and Depression-era origins the screwball comedy, while always entertaining is difficult to modernize. One film, however, managed to successfully pay homage to the screwball comedies of Hollywood’s Golden Age while adding its own modern twist; the 1981 Arthur.
Like many of the 1930’s comedies that inspired, Arthur follows the hijinks of a wealthy eccentric whose unique world view is beyond the comprehension of either his healthy family or working class friends. Unlike those earlier films which left their protagonists’ unconventional lifestyles without motive or explanation, Arthur delves into the psyche of its loveable oddball, making the film both a hilarious genre throwback and a surprisingly heartfelt character study. The story begins with Arthur (Dudley Moore) aimlessly pursuing whatever thrills he can find or buy as his best friend and butler, Hobson (Sir John Geilgud), does his best to keep Arthur out of trouble and Arthur’s name out of the newspapers. Conflict enters when Arthur’s stern tycoon father (Thomas Barbour) demands that Arthur marry Susan (Jill Eikenberry), the mousy daughter of his best friend ruthless businessman Burt Johnson (Stephen Elliott). When Arthur refuses, his father threatens to cut Arthur off from all family funds. Still childishly dependent upon his family’s money, Arthur finds himself unable to fathom life beyond the family estate and reluctantly agrees to his father’s demands, resigning himself to a loveless marriage. Just as Susan prepares to reform her playboy fiancée, however, fate intervenes in the form of charismatic waitress and aspiring actress Linda Marolla (Liza Minnelli). As the wedding draws near, Arthur is forced to choose between a hard-working but fun-loving life with Linda and the emotionally void but financially secure life that Susan and his family offer, and begins to grow-up in the process.
While at first glance, Arthur may appear to be a frivolous comedy, the film successfully blends lessons about, love, family, the search for meaning and growing up between its many laughs. Although endearingly zany until the film’s final frame, Arthur is for much of the story a tragic character. Despite, and in large part because of his wealth, he leads a life that is almost entirely devoid of connection or meaning. After regular rejection by his family and constant reminders from his fiancée of the many ways in which he needs to change he realizes that the people who are supposed to be closest to him are close to him in proximity only. Compounding his isolation is the fact that his sheltered existence has left him unprepared to do anything except follow his father’s orders. As a result, he is a mean without passion or interests beyond the temporary thrills that his parent’ money affords him. Fully aware of the emptiness of his lie, he self-medicates, relying upon alcohol to dull the ache of his loneliness and distract him just long enough to maintain the illusion of his carefree existence. Through his budding romance with the equally quirky Linda, however, he eventually finds understanding and begins to see how fulfilling adult relationships can be. When the father-son relationship between Arthur and Hobson is reversed by Hobson’s failing health, he learns the value of helping others and begins to find meaning in give back to, rather than always taking from, his relationships. Although the script acknowledges the necessity of money to sustain life, by the film’s finish Arthur finally realizes that it is only by living with purpose amongst those you care about that makes life truly worth living for.
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Although initially criticized for playing alcoholism for laughs, Arthur actually provides a more realistic depiction of alcoholism, albeit from the perspective of an alcoholic. At the film’s start, Arthur is happily engaging in inebriated antics, leading the more entertaining and social life that alcoholics convince themselves drinking provides. As the story continues, however, and his addiction begins to take its toll, he becomes isolated from those around him and begins to see how his addiction has actually added to rather than cured his problems. Finally, it is only when personal loss gives him the courage to live a full and sober life while he still can that he is able to regain control of his life and earn Linda’s love. Thus, while its story ultimately ends with its glass half-full, Arthur uses its hero’s struggles to show the lure of addiction and its consequences.
While Arthur’s screwball take on a Don Quixote-esque quest for a better world is an enticing premise, the script alone could not have made the film the enduring fan favorite that it is. The cast turn in uniformly superb performances, with the tree central players creating characters that remain highlights in each of their lengthy careers. Through a unique balance of slapstick comedy and poignant emotion Dudley Moore brings Arthur, a character that easily could have been a one-dimensional role, roaring off of the screen and straight into audiences’ hearts. Similarly, Sir John Geilgud rises above the stereotype of the devoted and proper butler through his by turns caustic and emotionally resonant portrayal of Arthur’s mentor, father-figure, and unwilling partner in shenanigans, Hobson. Liza Minnelli completes the trio in her portrayal of the outwardly tough and sassy, but inwardly vulnerable Linda, in a performance that is reminiscent of her Oscar-winning work as Sally Bowels in Cabaret. The supporting cast perfectly complement the performances of the leads with Stephen Elliott and Geraldine Fitzgerald earning particular notice in their side-splitting turns as Arthur’s volatile future father-in-law and saucy grandmother.
Life, love, and the pursuit of happiness; through his whimsical journey Arthur Bach learns the meaning of all these things and more. Through its winning combination of comedy, romance, and life lessons, Arthur is a film that defies both genre definitions and audience expectations. Just ‘once around the park’ with Arthur, Hobson, and Linda and you too will be feeling a buzz that will linger long after the final reel.
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