Arthur isn't much more than a competent romantic comedy with a reasonably witty script, a memorable music score and one great comic performance. However, in these days when so few comedies are aimed at mature adults, it's nice to see a comedy which is carefully structured and which relies on verbal wit as much as physical clowning. The level of verbal wit isn't always particularly high but at least it's there in the first place.
It's an odd mixture of thirties screwball comedy and eighties permissiveness. Arthur Bach (Moore) is a middle aged millionaire who spends his time drinking, whoring and behaving like a spoilt child. Living in a luxury apartment with his faithful butler Hobson (Gielgud), he exists in a charmed universe where he gets whatever he wants - until, that is, his father threatens to cut him off without a cent unless he marries the appalling Susan (Eikenberry), daughter of the demented Bert Johnson (Elliott). Arthur can't stand Susan but is willing to marry her to ensure that he gets the $750 billion dollars from his parents. Then he meets Linda Morolla (Minnelli) while she is shoplifting, falls head-over-heels for her and faces an unpleasant choice; money or true love ?
It's an old plot and the actual mechanics of the story are rather dragged out by writer-director Steve Gordon. His direction is nothing special and the visual advantage of New York is entirely wasted. But he writes wonderfully unexpected one-liners and there's a freshness to the dialogue which makes it more than just a re-run of old movies. From the start, with Arthur's engagingly silly attempt to pass off a hooker as "Princess Gloria" who comes from a country so small it's just been carpeted, to the final whacked-out happy ending you sense that Gordon is succeeding in taking cliches and, if not renewing them, at least giving them a bit of a twist. He's helped in this by Dudley Moore whose comic timing is, as expected, superb and who manages to make Arthur less irritating than he should be. In the totally unnecessary sequel Arthur On The Rocks from 1989, the character was an obnoxious nightmare but that's mostly because Gordon's presence as writer was missed - he died in 1982. The other actors aren't as assured. Liza Minnelli is competent but not much more - there's a comic spark to her encounter with a security guard that immediately vanishes and doesn't return - and the supporting cast tend to ham it up rather than create believable characters. There is one big exception, about which more in a minute, but I shouldn't forget to mention the excellent work from Ted Ross in the nothing part of Barney the chauffeur.
The exception is the majesterial performance from John Gielgud. Given a bad line, he manages to produce an interesting reading - "I want to be young" has overtones from Shakespeare and Chekhov when Gielgud reads it - and given a half decent line he lavishes such care and attention on it that you want to stand up and cheer. Luckily, he gets all the best lines in the script, including some choice swearing that he pretended to find vulgar but probably relished - could the line "I suppose you'd like me to come in there and wash your dick for you ? You little shit !" possibly be funny except in this context ? Confronted with Arthur's statements that girls are wonderful and baths are wonderful, Gielgud pauses for a perfect moment and then says, "Yes, imagine how wonderful a girl who bathes would be. Do your armpits." It's a horribly sentimental part, the old butler cliche, but Sir John comes up trumps and thoroughly deserved the Oscar he won for the part. He dismissed Arthur as a silly film, but actually it's very hard to take fluff like this and give depth and character to it, which is what he does.
Otherwise, Arthur is just a professional Hollywood product. As a romantic comedy it has none of the genuine nerve and edge of Tootsie and none of the inventiveness of Groundhog Day. But it's fast and funny and paced well enough to be satisfying. Nice music too, by the man Eric Morecambe memorably called Bert Backache. The catchy title song won an Oscar but if anyone can explain the lyrics of the chorus to me I would be very grateful. Come to think of it, whatever happened to Christopher Cross ? And why didn't it happen sooner ?
In contrast to the last Warner Brothers disc I reviewed, the superb North By Northwest, this is a very slight offering. I'm not suggesting that Arthur demands a three disc special edition but it would have been nice to have had a trailer at the every least.
The picture quality is decidedly mixed. We have nice colours and a fairly good level of detail. The transfer is anamorphic 1.85:1 unlike the previous video releases which have all been cropped. But there is a considerable amount of artifacting and the blacks are a bit washed out. There is constant grain too which is particularly obvious in the exterior scenes.
The soundtrack is the original mono recording which is how the film was shown in cinemas. It's not bad but some of the dialogue is a little hard to decipher unless the volume is raised and the music seems unpleasantly over-emphasised in places.
There are no extras at all - this is a disc from 1999 when Warners went through a phase of issuing back catalogue discs with no bonus materials. They seem to have improved now - we usually get at least a trailer. There are a reasonable 30 chapter stops and static menus. The '15' certificate is ludicrous by the way - for once the Irish censor has been sensible and awarded a '12'.
An enjoyable film then, raised about the run of the mill by Sir John Gielgud's wonderful performance. The disc is, by contrast, entirely average.