Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Unsung!: The Magic Christian

Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr in a movie TOGETHER? This I GOTTA see!

I have waxed rhapsodic in the past about my love/hate relationship (mostly love) with a beast from my youth known as the Channel Seven 3:30 Movie. Our local Chicago ABC affiliate would shoehorn a movie into their daily broadcast schedule before the 5:00 news, meaning that we would see a sometimes two hour film in a 90 minute time slot minus commercials. They should have called it The Channel Seven Half a Movie.

This is how, at age fifteen, I first watched The Magic Christian. Because the film is episodic (and incoherent) I had no idea there were pieces missing (mostly the dirty parts) and that I was actually seeing less than half of it. Thanks to Olive Films and their delightful reissue program, you can now see the film uncut. “Uncut and Unsung!,” I say.
The Plot in Brief: Sir Guy Grand (Peter Sellers), one of the richest men in the world, adopts homeless street urchin Youngman (Ringo Starr) in the hopes that his young ward will help him with a series of social experiments. In short, the Grands set out to discover how far people will go – how outrageously they will behave – if the price is right. They bribe policemen into eating the tickets they issue, they pay the Oxford rowing team to ram their competition’s boat, and finally they convince a slew of ordinary people to dive into an immense vat of shit, urine, and blood to retrieve the paper money floating therein. (Like we used to do at camp!) And in this way, The Magic Christian is life affirming.

I am not saying this movie is great. I AM saying it is unique, worth watching, and definitely “unsung.” There are many reasons why you need to see this film:

•    The cast. Where are you ever going to find a film that not only features the aforementioned Sellers and Starr, but also Yul Brynner in drag, Richard Attenborough, Christopher Lee, Lawrence Harvey, and Roman Polanski?

ANNOYING BEATLEFAN PAUSE: A certain Beatles bootleg would not exist if it were not for The Magic Christian! During filming, Sellers asked Starr what the Beatles were currently recording, and as a courtesy Starr gave Sellers a cassette tape of White Album demos. When Sellers died, the tape was auctioned off with the rest of his estate and so found its way into the hands of friendly bootleggers. Thanks, Peter! (Look for more Beatle fan digressions tomorrow, when we post our latest podcast on… A Hard Day’s Night!)

•    The soundtrack is chock full of hits. There is even a song from Paul McCartney (probably doing his old pal Ringo a favor by penning “Come and Get It” for the film and producing Badfinger’s version of it.) Thunderclap Newman’s “Something in the Air” (perhaps a reference to, you know, the shit vat) is also featuring prominently. Trust me—you have heard this song before. It is one of those oldies distinguished enough to be endlessly played on FM radio, but not quite distinguished enough to lodge in your memory… until the next time you hear it.
•    The script is covered with the fingerprints of proto Python cast members John Cleeese and Graham Chapman. They worked on a very early draft of the screenplay, and in his book A Liar’s Autobiography Chapman recounts what an unpleasant experience it was. The spirit of the entire film is very Pythonesque, but apparently, the only parts the two wrote that remain in the film are the segments that they themselves appear in. In one “sketch,” John Cleese plays a Sotheby’s auctioneer who sells Grand a Renior painting for three times the auction estimate, only to witness him pull out a scissors and snip the nose out of the portrait, explaining “that’s the only part of the painting I really ever liked.” Chapman is featured in the before-mentioned Oxford rowing team adventure.

•    The genre. This is a black, absurdist comedy. We do not have a lot of those, really. In the spirit of Jonathan Swift (well, a chemically altered Jonathan Swift) the filmmakers set out to explore just what people will do for a little bit of money; in the largest sense, the film prophesies the emergence of reality TV.

•    The final scene (aka, the Shit Vat), which breaks some sort of record for tastelessness and excess.

•    The Magic Christian covers so many days of Junesploitation! In fact, it could be considered the Swiss army knife of Junesploitation: in the most all-encompassing, generic sense, the film can be considered Sci-Fi, so June 6th is covered; one of the film’s main claims to fame is a notorious cameo by Raquel Welch, who in the context of her role here is definitely a “Badass Chick,” so June 11th is covered; the McCartney song, the presence of our friend Ringo, and the whole spirit of the thing make it ideal for “Rock and Roll” day on June 24th; and there are two scenes I do not wish to spoil that make it a contender for “War” on June 29th, too! Needless to say, The Magic Christian is also perfect “Free Space” fodder. Next year, “Shit Vat” gets its own day.
The Magic Christian was released on Blu-Ray last Tuesday. “If you want it, here it is. Come and get it, but you better hurry, ‘cause it’s going fast.”

Did I mention the shit vat?


  1. Would you walk away from a fool and his money? I actually dig that simple little tune - it was an early number in my guitar repertoire as it was one of the easiest songs to play in my Dad's old Lennon/McCartney songbook.

    I actually quite like Ringo as an actor - this article reminded me of a caveman movie he's in that I thought was hilarious back when I only had a vague notion of the Beatles' existence - and with such an all-star band of actors this movie sounds great! I'll definitely try to check it out ASAP.

    Looking forward to the A Hard Day's Night podcast! It's weird, I watched it at the peak of my Beatles love when I was about 20 and didn't like it AT ALL. It was a Blockbuster "guaranteed" movie and I actually got my money back I disliked it so much. Watched it again a few years ago on blu-ray (I think it's been available in Canada longer than the U.S.) and loved it. Go figure! But I've never really thought to deeply about it so I'm interested to hear what you guys have to say!

  2. There are A LOT of levels that "A Hard Day's Night" works on. It's not simply a musical comedy.

    Can't wait for this podcast either.

  3. My favorite part of "Unsung!" is finding movies I can't believe exist. With the way the Beatles are so well documented, even their solo careers, I'm really surprised I haven't heard of this film. Will have to check it out.

    Very excited for the "Hard Day's Night" podcast!

  4. Thanks for the compliment. That is nice of you to say. Hang on, too. We have some REAL obscurities coming up in the next few weeks!

  5. Ah, memories.

    Not that I ever saw the movie. But it played the repertory theatres of San Diego in my youth. One of them had original posters done by a local cartoonist. For Magic Christian he showed Scrooge McDuck diving into the vat.

    That cartoonist was Scott Shaw!, who went on to create Captain Carrot and the Fruity Pebbles commercials. Lately he's been working on the Annoying Orange comics.