Friday Flashback: Arthur (1981)

Thirty years ago we were introduced to the eccentric, drunken playboy Arthur Bach in Steve Gordon’s hilarious and tender-hearted film, Arthur. Terrified to death by the idea of actually working for a living, the spoiled Arthur has inherited his vast fortune and has no shame in treating the world like his own little playground. “I race cars, play tennis, and fondle women, BUT…I have weekends off, and I am my own boss,” he says. The late Dudley Moore played the lovable man-child and in doing so, created one of the funniest characters in film history. I’ll go one step further…I think Arthur is one of the Top ten funniest films ever made – and this is due, in large part, to Moore’s magnificent, unconstrained performance (which rightfully earned him an Oscar nomination).

On top of the hysterical one-liners that are delivered at breakneck speed throughout (“Do you have any objection to naming a child Vladimir? Even a girl?”), the nucleus of the film is an unlikely father-son relationship – between Arthur and his valet Hobson (Sir John Gielgud in an Academy Award-winning performance). It’s an unconventional bond, but it is all that Arthur has. You see, Arthur is the heir to a $750 million fortune – but will only receive this if he marries the suitable Susan Johnson (Jill Eikenberry), an upper-class woman who Arthur does not have any feelings for. In fact, Arthur doesn’t really have feelings for anyone but himself – that is, until he meets Linda (Liza Minelli), a working-class waitress from Queens who he sees stealing a tie from a department store. He is instantly smitten and determined to have her, despite what his wealthy family (and Hobson) might think.

Gielgud and Moore are wonderful together. Moore is so outrageous in his manner, and the classically trained Gielgud is superb in his matter-of-fact, composed delivery. Their rapport and comedic timing is impeccable (Arthur: A hot bath is wonderful…Girls are wonderful! Hobson: Yes, imagine how wonderful a girl who bathes would be. Get dressed.”). But what begins as a dynamic that seems more babysitter-child, slowly reveals its true colors. There is genuine love between the two. Though he certainly does not approve of his employer’s behavior (in fact, he frequently mocks it), Hobson will do anything for him and when Hobson falls ill, Arthur’s entire world falls apart. At one poignant moment, Hobson tells him, “Arthur, you’re a good son” – and it breaks your heart.

Moore’s chemistry with the wise-cracking Minelli is equally as impressive. They might not be the most glamorous couple in film, but they are perfect for each other. If anyone can tame this man whose only overnight guests are limited to prostitutes, it is Linda. And what’s more, she couldn’t care less about his inheritance.

Arthur features a delightful score by Burt Bacharach and the famous Oscar-winning single “Arthur’s Theme” by Christopher Cross. It was, sadly, the first and only film to be directed by Gordon, who died at a young age the following year. But the comedy here is timeless. Moore rightfully earned an Oscar nomination for his performance and, despite what some Hollywood execs might think, his work here his beyond reproachable. He is cinema’s greatest drunk, bar-none. And yes, the movie goes right up there with the very best comedies of all-time, to be sure. What makes it even more special is watching the irresponsible and selfish Arthur Bach slowly take stock in himself and his life. We watch him grow up — and we are laughing the whole way through.



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