March 26, 2008
The Loved One (1965)
Grade: 72/100

Director: Tony Richardson
Stars: Robert Morse, Anjanette Comer, Jonathan Winters

What it's about. Dennis (Robert Morse) is an likeable but somewhat hapless would-be poet. He moves from England to Los Angeles and gets a job at a pet funeral home run by shameless Jonathan Winters. Winters' brother, a corrupt but successful reverend, runs a lavish funeral home and cemetery. There works Anjanette Comer, an attractive but brainwashed young woman whom Dennis falls for and woos with mixed success.

The Loved One has a remarkable number of familiar Hollywood faces in small supporting roles. Presumably, the actors accepted the minor parts due to the reputation of talented director Tony Richardson, whose career had crested following the Best Director/Best Picture success of Tom Jones (1963).

The impressive series of small-role actors include Dana Andrews as a cynical general, Milton Berle as a henpecked spouse, James Coburn as an immigration officer, John Gielgud as a movie studio artist, Tab Hunter as a funeral home tour guide, Liberace as a casket salesman, Roddy McDowall as the son of a film studio owner, Robert Morley as a blue-blooded Englishman, songwriter Paul Williams as a junior rocket scientist, and Rod Steiger as a mother-obsessed embalmer.

How others will see it. How I felt about it. The Loved One, of course, is a satire of American culture, with an emphasis on the television, religion, and funeral home industries. Dennis adapts quickly to Los Angeles simply because he has no scruples. He is willing to do whatever it takes to get by, unlike John Gielgud and Anjanette Comer, both of whom have no Plan B.

The Loved One, like all movies, is a product of its era. 1960 to 1966 was the golden age of black & white black comedies. A list of such films is too long for the review, but the best among them are Dr. Strangelove (1964), Psycho (1960), and The Manchurian Candidate (1962).

What makes the present film special is the director's willingness to go to extremes to draw laughs, yet he respects the boundaries of the characters and story. The ultimate example of this is Dr. Lovejoy's disgustingly food-obsessed mother, whose concern when she falls is the location of the cranberry sauce. The unseen advice columnist isn't a guru, but a crude blue-collar drunk. Jonathan Winters' reverend turns out to be remarkably evil, and when his true face is finally revealed to Anjanette Comer, he laughs like a mad doctor from a horror movie.

Dennis' rapid evolution from failed poet to disreputable salesman represents the descent in culture from England to Los Angeles. His only purpose, aside from his continued comfort, is to win the love of Comer, nearly his exact opposite in terms of moral purity. The question is, does Dennis want Comer because she's beautiful, because she's sweet, because she is nearly unobtainable, or to secure redemption? The answer is, all of the above.