Watching Arthur For the First Time

If it gives you any idea how inside-out my movie viewing track record was as a child, the only Dudley Moore movie I had ever seen until this week was 1988’s Santa Claus: The Movie. You know, the one where candy canes make you fly for some reason. Oh, you don’t remember that? Neither does anyone else.

I’m glad to discover that Moore had a career besides that film. Who knew? And seeing how there’s an Arthur remake coming, I felt like this was a perfect opportunity to check out the source material, a 1981 film about a drunken millionaire who must decide between marrying a girl his family has decided upon and a quirky waitress from Queens with whom he falls in love.

It would be pretty difficult to hate a movie like Arthur. It’s designed to be charming, and generally is. Like Police Academy, Arthur is a movie sort of like its titular character — it’s not perfect, but warts and all, you root for it. Unlike Police Academy, it’s easy to see why. Arthur is at times hilarious, touching and ridiculous, and it’s a solid comedy executed well.

I’ll say that I’m not a huge fan of alcoholism as a fuel for jokes — like any sort of not-funny real-life problem, spending 90 minutes acting like it’s a comedy goldmine can be a little tiring. From a writing perspective, though, I’m genuinely impressed by how well it works here, for two reasons. First, Arthur’s alcoholism is rarely used as a joke in itself. He’s drunk most of the time, and the jokes he makes while drunk are great, but few of the jokes are really about how funny it is to be an alcoholic. I know it’s a fine line, but it’s important. Secondly, by using Arthur’s drunkenness as a justification for the silliness of the jokes, the writers can get away with a huge amount of very funny, but totally ridiculous stuff. When Arthur’s father-in-law-to-be tells him his family never drinks, Arthur replies, “That’s great! You probably never run out of ice your whole life!” Later in the same scene, Arthur looks at a mounted moose head and asks, “Where’s the rest of this moose?” Those are jokes you can’t get away with sober, unless it’s the 1930s. But it’s a genuinely impressive device to combine the single-minded silliness of a drunk guy with a character who is genuinely charismatic and funny as a reason to tell some great 5¢ Groucho Marx jokes.

The majority of the rest of the laughs come from Arthur’s butler, Hobson (John Gielgud), which, again, is a great framing device for cheesy insults and asides. You get a lot more leeway with a stuffy English guy than with a standard sidekick, and it gives you the opportunity to deliver lines like, “thank you for a memorable afternoon, usually one must go to a bowling alley to meet a woman of your stature” without apology, high-five or rimshot. In the hands of a wacky friend (imagine this movie with, say, Billy Crystal and Bruno Kirby), the Hobson character could be insufferable. But there’s something about the way Moore and Gielgud interact that makes their jokes hit, hard.

Because beneath all the jokes is a surprisingly tender relationship between Arthur and Hobson — and, honestly, between Arthur and everyone he meets. It’s heartbreaking how amiable and earnest and funny Arthur is in the face of his mess of a family, his alcoholism, his reputation with the media, and his own loneliness. But it’s there, and it adds an unexpected amount of weight to a lot of what happens in the film. Arthur’s love-at-first-sight, Hobson’s illness, Arthur’s interactions with his family and his would-be fiancé — on paper, like the jokes, these plot points read as corny bordering on trite, but there’s a kind of love and freshness and honesty in Arthur, and in Arthur, that renders it all moot.

Of course, you need a good cast to pull off both jokes and pathos like that, even if the characters make it easier. Fortunately Dudley Moore is hugely charismatic, plays both drunk and sober as two sides of a sweet, optimistic, hilarious sad clown coin. Gielgud doesn’t need much of an introduction but he’s great as well, and every last bone-dry stuffy English bit works. Liza Minelli is good, too, and as sort of strange as she is, as both a character and an actor, she gets her share of jokes in. Her chemistry with Moore is great as well, although I get the impression that Moore would have good chemistry with anyone. He’s pretty hard to dislike, and he believable acts like best friends with every character he talks to.

Not much has changed in the last 30 years to affect the jokes in Arthur — unlike more concept-based films of the time, Arthur isn’t trying to push the envelope, so it doesn’t feel as dated as some of its contemporaries. It really does remind me of a Marx Brothers movie, not in terms of style, but in terms of ambition; it doesn’t aim to be anything but a solid vehicle for hundreds of great little punchlines, wrapped in three immensely likable characters. It’s a noble goal in comedy, and it still holds up today. And the fact that it’s also pretty poignant is commendable.

As a side note, I can’t imagine casting a less appropriate two actors for a remake than Russell Brand and Helen Mirren. Arthur is charming precisely because he’s tiny, self-depricating, moderately unattractive and a little sad, none of which I would think to attribute to Russell Brand (expect maybe moderately unattractive, but in a completely different way). And Helen Mirren is matronly, fierce, intense and a little cold, all of which would undermine what is so wonderful about Hobson. Plus, there’s something about a surrogate father that feels more important to a guy like Arthur than a surrogate mother. The trailer seems to indicate that alcohol plays no part in the remake as well, which could be a good thing but certainly takes some of the stakes out of Arthur’s underlying sadness. It might be okay, but with the original fresh in my mind, it really only makes me wish the 1981 Arthur was still the film people were watching and talking about. If you’re planning on seeing the remake and you haven’t seen the original, do yourself a favor and check it out. Heck, check it out if you don’t plan on seeing the remake.

I’d be interested to hear what people think of the two if anyone sees both — I’ll probably post my own mini-review in the comments section.

Alden Ford is an actor, writer and comedian living in Brooklyn. He performs regularly in NYC with his sketch/improv group Sidecar.

Watching Arthur For the First Time