It seemed like just another ordinary Sunday in just another ordinary city, as two friends, or neighbours from the same apartment block to be precise, had arranged to meet for lunch. One was John (Zero Mostel), a fastidious blowhard who felt a lot better when he had the other, Stanley (Gene Wilder) to look down on and denigrate, but Stanley fully admitted he was defeated by life and was taking refuge in the bottle. So they sat at a table in this little restaurant, having a somewhat one-sided conversation as Stanley was suffering a hangover, when something strange happened. There was a rumpus outside in the street, and everyone rushed to the windows to see... a rhinoceros.
Rhinoceros was the absurdist play by Eugene Ionesco, possibly his most famous work if you had any awareness of that kind of material, but far from the most celebrated plays in the world. This made it odd that it was chosen for the American Film Theater project, a low budget endeavour to adapt a selection of noted plays for a series of films which would be attended by interested parties through a subscription service. That proved disastrous for the profits, as often it was difficult to work out what was playing where and when, and it was too much trouble to arrange to seek out for theatre fans who would more or less prefer to see a play as an actual play, not a cinematic facsimile.
Nevertheless, there has been interest subsequently in this largely disastrous experiment, mostly because of the talents they gathered in front and behind the camera, and this little item was intriguing because it reteamed the cult duo from Mel Brooks' The Producers, Mostel and Wilder. Now, their first teaming had not been a financial blockbuster by any means, but it had won a growing number of fans, and they would have been attracted by that billing, yet as mentioned the production had been far too difficult to see by conventional means, leaving it adrift and a matter of questioning what this might have been like by comedy aficionados - were they good without Brooks?
Over the years, American Film Theater efforts escaped from their straitjacket of restrictions and showed up on television, or slipped out on home video with very little fanfare, and some garnered a following - Laurence Olivier's version of Three Sisters, a starry The Iceman Cometh or a brutal reading of The Homecoming by Harold Pinter, spring to mind. Rhinoceros was not so lauded, possibly thanks to its association with its director, Tom O'Horgan who had made Hair a huge stage hit of the turn of the sixties into the seventies (he brought its composer Galt McDermott along to attend to the soundtrack, too). By 1974, he was very much yesterday's news, and this film was the last of a talent judged a flash in the pan: when you see his tries at updating the 1959 play to his newer decade, make it less about the Nazis and more about the Me Generation, you could see why.
Apparently they were all set to have actual rhinos in the film, to make it clearer what the population of the unnamed city are transforming into, but the costs and management proved prohibitive, therefore we see barely a glimpse of the beasts, merely their destructive results as buildings collapse and streets are laid waste to. There was certainly an apocalyptic mood to this reimagining as Stanley (Wilder at his most whiny) finds everyone around him whittled away as they turn into pachyderms, first in public, then at work, and finally at home as Mostel went all out to portray the metamorphosis, all bellowing and flailing. Karen Black was there too as Stanley's colleague Daisy who might have been girlfriend material except she feels the pull of the transmogrification too, though all three principals got to act out an ersatz music video featuring Wilder in a cage at the beach while the other pair cavort to the plaintive tune. It was a brave attempt, but its attack on conformity was hobbled by its lack of focus on what it was complaining about, if not fascism. Strange, but wearing.