Dennis Barlow’s (Robert Morse) introduction to the Land of the Free is not auspicious. After explaining that the occupation listed in his passport as ‘AID’ means Artificial Insemination Donor, he really puts his foot in it by saying he is actually a poet. An intellectual, and probably a Beatnik! “You got one o’ them Beatle haircuts, hav’ncha?” growls Immigration Officer James Coburn.
Finally let loose on the USA Barlow makes contact with his uncle, Sir Francis Hinsley (John Gielgud). Once a serious artist Hinsley has worked with Megalopolitan Pictures since the 1930’s and is now reduced to acting as dialogue coach to Texan actor Dusty Acres (Robert Easton) for a projected James Bond rip-off. (In an uncanny twist, Easton coached Gielgud in a Texan accent for the 1985 film Invitation to the Wedding where Gielgud played preacher Clyde Ormiston.)
Hinsley takes Dennis under his wing, and introduces him to the British ex-pat community led by Sir Ambrose Abercrombie (Robert Morley). Unfortunately, the Dusty Acres project fails and Hinsley is thrown out of Megalopolitan (a fact he discovers when he turns up to find his office “re-allocated”). Dennis returns home that day to find Uncle Francis hanging from the diving board over his empty swimming pool.
To cover any hint of scandal Dennis is bullied into using Hinsley’s legacy to finance a grand funeral. This brings him into the world of Whispering Glades, the burial ground to end all burial grounds where clients are encouraged to buy caskets with silk linings (“rayon chafes… personally I find it quite abrasive” explains salesman Liberace), with “Perpetual Eternal” flames of propane (it burns bluer) for “exterior designations” (“Standard Eternal” is turned off at night). Whispering Glades will even dress the body, complete with 'Rest In Peace' footwear - "The foot curls a bit, you know, when rig mo sets in.". The dead are “Loved Ones”, relatives are “Waiting Ones”, and Jews are excluded (“try Forest Lawn”).
Making the arrangements Dennis becomes infatuated with cosmetician Aimée Thanatogenos (Anjanette Comer), a naive young woman who sincerely believes in the Whispering Glades ideology and its guiding light “Blessed Reverend” Wilbur Glenworthy (Jonathan Winters), and is herself attracted to Chief Embalmer Mr Joyboy (Rod Steiger).
Unfortunately Glenworthy has realised the limitations of the funeral business – people can only die once. Far more profitable to erase Whispering Glades and build a retirement community on the site in order to have a constant turnover of clients. However, that means another problem: “What am I going to do with all these stiffs on my property?”
Dennis, meanwhile, has become involved in a pet cemetery run by Glenworthy’s twin brother Henry (also played by Winters). An encounter with a child prodigy interested in rocketry provides an ideal solution to the Whispering Glades problem – fire the corpses into space. Deferred gratification not being the Californian way, “Loved Ones” will achieve instant entry into Heaven (or, at least, the heavens) into an "Orbit of Eternal Grace".
Learning that Whispering Glades – and everything she believed in - is to be shut down destroys Aimée’s faith in life and she ends it, appropriately, by injecting herself with embalming fluid. Threatening to implicate Mr Joyboy in Aimée’s death Dennis blackmails him into seeing that she is the first body launched into space, and into financing his return to the UK. He walks through the airport as the launch is played live on television.
Advertised as “the film with something offend everyone”, The Loved One is a rather scattergun satire on certain aspects of the American Way of Life which probably seemed more shocking in the mid-1960’s than it does today. We are now used to lampoons of greed, consumerism and the American idealisation of motherhood. Nevertheless, there are good things here, and the film still lands a few solid punches.
First among these is Rod Steiger’s Mr Joyboy. With blond curly hair, mincing walk, a serious mother complex and a decidedly unhealthy interest in his ‘clients’ (“Come to poppa!” he murmurs as he whisks up the body of a child killed in a traffic accident). The man is seriously creepy and Steiger plays him at full pitch, completely at variance with his usual characters and winning a Spanish film award for his efforts. (The scene where Aimée dines with Joyboy and his mother (Ayllene Gibbons- obscenely obese and obsessed with TV food commercials) is sublimely tasteless.)
Then we have Milton Berle and Margaret Leighton as a couple coping with the death of their dog in very different ways. This is an inspired pairing as Berle snarls and chews on his cigar, while Leighton histrionically emotes over poor, dear Arthur. “Just another well-adjusted American couple,” Barlow reports as he flings the pooch in the freezer at the ‘Happy Hunting Grounds’ pet cemetery.
The film works best in its first half with scenes like these, sketches taking a facet of American life and turning it inside out. In the second half it becomes more plot-driven, featuring Aimée’s consultation of the “Guru Brahmin” in her LA newspaper (in fact alcoholic journalist Lionel Stander) to decide where her heart lies, Dennis’s increasingly desperate attempts to woo her, and the “Blessed Reverend” trying to rid himself of the inhabitants of Whispering Glades. The performances of Morse and Comer lack intensity and credibility, and we never believe he is genuinely interested in her or that she is truly torn between Barlow and Joyboy.
At other times the film just seems too determined to shock. A climactic scene has the “Blessed Reverend” bribing Air Force officers to sell him a few spare Atlas rockets with prostitutes concealed in his coffins and a full orgy (discretely filmed) ensues.
For connoisseurs of bad taste The Loved One does have its moments but fails rather as a whole, and does tend to leave a sense of despair and sourness as its aftertaste. Nevertheless it is worth watching for Rod Steiger, and Liberace’s rare (and very funny) film appearance: “You’ll be the death of me yet, Mr Barlow.”