Thursday, December 1, 2011

Funeral Films: The Loved One

The Loved One satirizes the funeral business, including pet funerals, as well as the movie industry and the military-industrial complex. It debuted in 1965, two years after Jessica Mitford's exposé book The American Way of Death rocked the funeral industry. Despite its black-and-white vintage, The Loved One does show funeral trends that have continued to this day.

Critics at the time skewered the movie, although others have come to regard it as a very funny comedy. Its tag line is "The motion picture with something to offend everyone." It's not terribly offensive by twenty-first century standards, however, the story gets rather confusing toward the end and most of the characters are unlikeable.

The exception is Sir Francis Hinsley (John Gielgud) who hangs himself because he's summarily laid off after 31 years of working for a Hollywood studio. He becomes "The Loved One" for whom nephew Dennis Barlow (played by a young Robert Morse) sets out to arrange a funeral.

At the Whispering Glades mortuary and cemetery, Barlow encounters discrimination against blacks and Jews, faces a huge array of choices to make in caskets, interment options and burial clothing (gleefully presented by Liberace), and gets a tour of the Whispering Glades cemetery grounds (Forest Lawn gets its close-up).

Barlow, an unemployed "poet" from England, is attracted to Aimee Thanatogenous (Anjanette Comer), a young lady who does the make-up on the corpses at Whispering Glades. Once Uncle Francis is dispatched with a high level of pomp, Barlow pursues Thanatogenous, who is also pursued by co-worker Mr. Joyboy (Rod Steiger), an embalmer. He brings Miss Thanatogenous home to have dinner with him and his obese mother in a bizarre food orgy.

Things just get weirder as The Loved One progresses.

Barlow goes to work for a pet cemetery and cremation service. On his first call, he encounters a highly distraught dog owner (Margaret Leighton) and her husband (Milton Berle) who can't wait to get rid of the carcass and go out to a dinner party.

(Spoiler Alert! Skip to the next paragraph if you don't want to know the ending.)

Miss Thanatogenous commits suicide by self-embalming. Air Force officers have a wild party in the Whispering Glades casket room. A rocket launch is supposed to carry the remains of a war hero into space, and Barlow manages to switch bodies and launches Miss Thanatogenous instead.

Terry Southern, known for satirical outrageous fiction, wrote the screenplay based on the Evelyn Waugh novel. Other Southern screenplay credits include Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Easy Rider, Barbarella, and The Magic Christian.

These elements in The Loved One endure and provide lessons for today's funeral consumer:

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