by Pat Perry
Arthur Bach, Dudley Moore’s perpetually and cheerfully sozzled billionaire man-child – whose mad, inebriated cackle we hear ringing out from his chauffeured Rolls Royce even before we lay eyes on him – is a much-loved film character.
We may cherish Arthur all the more nowadays since his kind has nearly vanished from the entertainment landscape. In the thirty-plus years since Arthur first hit movie screens, the balls-out funny drunk has been become an increasingly rare commodity in film and television. When I was a kid, my family and I laughed ourselves silly over W.C. Fields movies, Foster Brooks slurring his way through Dean Martin’s Celebrity Roasts, and Otis, the Mayberry town drunk who locked himself into a jail cell each night with the key that Sheriff Andy left out for him. These days, pratfalling inebriates are mostly served up for either our scorn or our pity on reality television. (It’s instructive that, in both this film’s 1988 sequel and its 2011 remake, Arthur is forced to make a painful journey into sobriety.)
But then, even in its day, Arthur was a bit of a throwback. Writer-director Steve Gordon grounded his 1981 film firmly in the traditions of classic screwball romantic comedy: rich people behave badly (or, at least, eccentrically), a madcap hero rejects the class-appropriate marriage partner of his family’s choosing to be with his equally madcap soulmate, “a nobody from Queens.” Featuring a hapless, wealthy bachelor who is looked after by a dry-witted, quietly clever manservant (John Gielgud), it also owes a little to the lore of P. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster and Jeeves.
At its core, however, Arthur is pure escapist fantasy, conjuring up a swank and sparkly world where no form of rebellion or bad behavior – shoplifting, guzzling scotch at the wheel of a classic convertible, taking a prostitute to the Plaza for dinner, or even refusing to grow up and get a job – carries any real consequences. Released at the dawn of the Reagan administration, it deftly straddles the dividing line between the anti-establishment subversiveness of 1970s comedies like Harold and Maude and the crass materialism of the incipient “Greed is Good” era.
Arthur may be a childlike free spirit who rebels against the unsmiling propriety of his upper-crust family by drinking and bringing hookers home to his toy-filled apartment. He may chafe at the bonds his family imposes on him by making his $750 million dollar inheritance contingent upon his marriage to a business partner’s uptight ninny of a daughter (Jill Eikenberry) and a job in the family business. He may even fall in love with a waitress from Queens (Liza Minnelli) while watching her steal a necktie at Bergdorf’s and imagine himself living happily with her, holding hands on the subway and sharing tuna fish sandwiches. But it’s never seriously suggested that he would be happier – or even sober – without heaps of money. “You’re too old to be poor,” his grandmother lectures him. “You don’t know how.” And in the end, even when he manages to defy his family’s edicts, that same grandmother doesn’t allow him to be. As the closing credits roll, Arthur rides off in the same two-toned, chauffeured Rolls with his dream girl by his side and his fortune intact.
That Arthur’s father, though ostensibly born rich himself, works hard and takes the family business seriously seems quaint and old-fashioned. That Arthur gets to stay rich for doing little more than being the “delightful child” his grandmother dotes on ought to be offensive to recession-era audiences (and those would include the original audiences back in 1981, by the way). But audiences – then and now – love Arthur because his luxurious, responsibility-free life looks like so damn much fun that we’d rather live vicariously through his antics than chastise him. Its enduring popularity is also a testament to the once-in-a-lifetime magic created by Gordon with a witty script and a perfectly cast trio of actors in the leading roles.
The late Dudley Moore was an exquisitely gifted comic actor who rarely found film roles worthy of his considerable talents. But in Arthur, he found his justly iconic, best-remembered role. Moore strikes the perfect balance between the character’s manic sense of fun, cuddly vulnerability and pie-eyed inability to engage in an adult conversation without steady supplies of scotch on the rocks and smart-ass comebacks – all of which is evident in this clip:
Insert video clip: (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lwZrAamm86Y)
In some grim alternate universe, Moore’s scenes could be played – as written -as lurid outtakes from Days of Wine and Roses; fortunately he takes so much glee in his own inebriated mishaps that it’s impossible to feel pity or revulsion. Even taking a face plant as he exits his Rolls at the Plaza makes him positively exult “I fell outa the goddam car – isn’t that the funniest thing ever?”
Not surprisingly, the actor’s diminutive stature only highlights the notion that Arthur is eternally a child at heart – a point that Gordon lays on a bit thick. To see this film again after many years is to notice how often Moore is towered over by taller actors in roles of authority or dwarfed by sets with very high ceilings and huge, imposing wood-paneled walls. In one scene he’s even shot from the top of a very long, grand staircase which makes him look truly tiny. (Should you still miss the point, however, the Oscar-winning theme song will spell it out for you: “Deep in his heart, he’s just… he’s just a boy.”)
In Liza Minnelli, Moore gets his ideal partner and playmate. Her Linda Morolla, the “nobody from Queens” who steals Arthur’s heart along with that Bergdorf Goodman necktie, proves a perfect, feisty foil for Moore, despite being seriously cast against type. Let’s face it, Minnelli as a tough-cookie, working-class girl from Queens is a bit of stretch. (And at 35, she was rather long in the tooth to play an aspiring actress still living at home with her father.) But she and Moore have a palpable chemistry together. They’re great fun to watch, precisely because they’re obviously having so much fun together.
Finally there’s John Gielgud – dry, droll and unflappable – providing the perfect fulcrum point in the lead trio as Arthur’s faithful valet and father figure, Hobson. Where Moore and Minnelli are natural-born crowd pleasers, Gielgud seems almost incapable of twinkling at the audience, and his starchy delivery of such bon mots as “One usually has to go to bowling alley to meet someone of your stature” is riotously funny because the nastiness is so unexpected. Gielgud’s scenes with Moore cover a wide range of emotional territory. Early on, we get sharp-witted exchanges like this one:
Arthur: Do you know what I’m going to do, Hobson?
Hobson: No, I don’t.
Arthur: I’m going to take a bath.
Hobson: I’ll alert the media.
Arthur: Do you want to run my bath for me?
Hobson: It’s what I live for. (Arthur exits). Perhaps you’d like me to come in there and wash your dick for you, you little shit.
Later, as Hobson falls ill and Arthur sobers up to take care of him, the film becomes unexpectedly moving. Granted Arthur’s care taking amounts to little more than buying piles of toys for Hobson and having expensive restaurant meals brought to his hospital room, but it’s an honest attempt on his part to grow up and it shows some genuine heart beneath his party-boy facade. And the understated affection between the two men is every bit as palpable as Moore’s playful chemistry with Minnelli. Both actors were nominated for Oscars; Gielgud won.
You don’t have to see the sequel Arthur 2: On the Rocks (in fact, please don’t) to appreciate that this film was lightning in a bottle, a unique moment of comic alchemy that would never be recreated. For many of the participants, it was the kind of career peak from which the only direction was down, and that makes it particularly bittersweet to watch today. Most tragically, Steve Gordon – a seasoned television writer whose first film this was – died suddenly of at the age 44, just one year after Arthur was released. Moore went on to make a string of mediocre, commercially unsuccessful films. His film career eventually petered out completely, and he succumbed to a degenerative brain disease in his mid-sixties. Minnelli’s ferocious talents have since been overshadowed by her personal struggles with addiction, health issues and a short-lived fourth marriage to a human punchline named David Gest. But for a brief, serendipitous time in 1981, when they were all caught between the moon and New York City, they made a little bit of comedy magic.
How Arthur made the Top 100: