January 2, 2015

The Magic Christian

The Magic Christian (93 minutes) starring Peter Sellers, Ringo Starr, Laurence Harvey, Richard Attenborough, Christopher Lee, Raquel Welch, John Cleese, Yul Brynner, Roman Polanski. Directed by Joseph McGrath. Available through Republic Home Video.

As the legacy of the Beatles came to a close in the early months of 1970, Ringo Starr was already taking steps to branch out on his own. His first solo album, “Sentimental Journey” was being released, and his second foray into film acting without his Liverpool chums, in the dark comedy “The Magic Christian,” was about to raise eyebrows on both sides of the Atlantic.

Based on the Terry Southern novel of the same name, “Christian” follows the life of Youngman Grand (Ringo) who is adopted by the world’s richest man, Sir Guy Grand (Peter Sellers). Told in a series of vignettes, father and son set out on a mission to wreak all sorts of havoc amongst London’s wealthy, privileged, elite class. Openly bribing members of the arts, law enforcement, and transportation officials, the Grands’ schemes are scathingly politically incorrect and hilarious. The film falls in line with British humor of the period, akin to groups such as Monty Python, who, in turn, went on to influence the anti-establishment sketches of “Saturday Night Live.”

Ringo is quite charming as the innocent scruff who complements his dad’s penchant for mischief. He always stands by, commenting dryly on the shenanigans, while Peter Sellers has Laurence Harvey strip naked during “Hamlet,” fixes a boxing match so that the pugilists kiss, bribes Richard Attenborough to throw the Cambridge-Oxford rowing tournament, makes a spectacle out of an art auction, terrorizes a fancy restaurant, and causes chaos aboard the luxury liner “The Magic Christian,” an upper class venture which never even leaves port! Ringo’s most hilarious moment comes when he’s confronted by Spike Milligan, who plays a determined traffic cop issuing a parking infraction. While Sellers pays the meterman to eat his own ticket, Ringo practices isometric facial exercises that become ever more hysterical with each contortion.

The sequence garnering the most shock in this film was its conclusion in which Sellers and Starr see just how far wealthy businessmen will stoop to attain riches. Filling a large industrial vat with blood, vomit and excrement in the middle of London’s financial district, Sellers mixes in hundreds of pound notes to the vile brew and stands back to observe. Like moths to the flame, passerby executives stop to see all the money and after a while, they are swimming in the sickening mess, clutching at their fortune. When “The Magic Christian” aired on broadcast television throughout the 70s and 80s, this scene was invariably eliminated from the airwaves.

For a night of black humor with cutting edge overtones still relevant to today’s societal imbalances, you can’t go wrong with this Beatles’ finest solo comedy outing.

© 2000 Ned Truslow

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