Although he started his career on the BBC program, “The Frost Show,” John Cleese is best known as one of the ensemble cast members in the legendary British sketch comedy troupe Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Together with Monty Python, Cleese has appeared in no less than ten movies. On his own, Cleese has proven to be a powerful force in films. John Cleese turns sixty this week and salutes us with his best films.
The Magic Christian, an oft-overlooked satire written by Cleese, Graham Chapman and Terry Southern, based on Southern’s novel, features Peter Sellers as Sir Guy Grand, the world’s richest man. Grand adopts a homeless man (Ringo Starr) and sets sail on an ocean liner with an invitation to the greedy--that is, to come on board and dive into a pool of compost to retrieve millions in cash buried within. Cleese plays the director of Sotheby’s, Yul Brynner plays a transvestite diva, Christopher Lee plays the Ship’s Vampire, Raquel Welch plays the Priestess Of The Whip, John Lennon and Yoko Ono play themselves and Badfinger and Thundreclap Newman contribute to the soundtrack. This rarity is a treat!
In the hilarious Arthurian Legend lampoon, Monty Python And The Holy Grail, Cleese plays Sir Lancelot, the brave but limbless Black Knight and the insulting French Soldier. This is the fundamental Python film: anachronisms aplenty, singing-dancing Knights of The Round Table, Trojan Rabbits and all of your favorite quotables (“I fart in your general direction!” “We are now no longer the Knights who say ‘Ni.’ We are now the Knights who say... ‘Ekki-Ekki-Ekki-Ekki-PTANG! Zoom-Boing! Z'nourrwringmm’!” ad pythonium.)
After Python called it quits, at least on television, Cleese starred in his own BBC series, the zany sitcom Fawlty Towers. The show was set in a hotel run by rude host, Basil Fawlty and his domineering wife, Sybil (Prunella Scales). Their staff included unlucky demi-lingual Spanish waiter, Manuel, even-tempered chambermaid, Polly and chef, Terry. This is slapstick at its best.
Time Bandits is a wonderful children’s fantasy film that kids absolutely hate, but adults who dig dark comedy, time travel and midgets completely love. Directed by Python animator Terry Gilliam and written by the other Pythons save Graham Chapman, Time Bandits is a hilarious episodic journey-through-time undertaken by a curious young boy and a band of rebel dwarves. Cleese dips into his bag of tricks to pull out one of his patented stuffy personas, portraying Robin Hood as an uptight conservative. Cleese’s performance is a definite stand-out in this starstudded cast that includes Sean Connery as Agamemnon and Ian Holm as Napoleon.
An outlandish farce that manages to be both incredibly intelligent and downright tasteless, A Fish Called Wanda, scripted by Cleese, stars Jamie Lee Curtis as a femme fatale con artist who seduces the moronic henchman (Kevin Kline) of her gangster boyfriend to steal a fortune in jewels. In the meantime, she dupes the gangster’s stiff-upper-lipped attorney, played by Cleese, and eventually falls head over heels for him. A Fish Called Wanda not only marks a maturation of Cleese’s style as both a writer and actor, but it is funny as hell.
Happy Birthday, Mr. Cleese. Your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries. Now go away before I taunt you a second time.