Flush from his success with the multi-Oscar-winning Tom Jones, after toiling away over the British "kitchen-sink" industry, Richardson returned to black and white cinematography (by Haskell Wexler) in an adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's novel adapted by Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood. Waugh's book was inspired by a disappointing trip to Hollywood on the pretense of making a film of "Brideshead Revisited," and his twining of the film industry with the funeral business has a natural feel to it, as both have a lot to do with presentation, and the construction of artifice, all in the name of comfort (while robbing them blind).
But that was in the 40's. The film was made in the early 60's on the cusp of "mod" and in the nuclear shadow of Dr. Strangelove. Both films have that Southern exposure in common, but where Kubrick made his film with a gargoylishly straight face, Richardson can't help gilding the mourning lily.
Poet Dennis Barlow (Robert Morse, post-dubbed with a wavering British accent) wins a literary competition, the first prize being a trip to Hollywood, where he stays with his uncle, Sir Francis Hinsley (John Gielgud) who works at a film studio. Hinsley is soon fired by the studio's boss DJ, jr. (Roddy McDowell) and commits suicide. The British community (led by Robert Morley) insists that Hinsley's funeral be as grand as possible, bankrupting the old man's estate, and forcing Barlow to stay in Hollywood and taking a job at a pet cemetery run by Henry Glenworthy (Jonathan Winters), whose brother, the Reverend Wilbur Glenworthy (also Jonathan Winters) runs the Whispering Glades cemetery and mortuary, the establishment handling Hinsley's solemnities. There, Barlow meets Aimee Thanatogenous (Anjanette Comer), a corpse beautician and Mr. Joyboy (Rod Steiger), the Whispering Glades embalmer, who competes with Barlow for her affections.
There is a lot of brilliant stuff here: a sequence at another chapel has a wedding (ministered by Ed—the original "You're in good hands with Allstate" Reimers) that is run like a television production, so that everyone can be ushered out, and a funeral ushered in; the "keeping up appearances" haranguing of the British enclave in Hollywood; Jonathan Winters, not really given free rein to his inner demons in the roles, but showing how he might have been our Peter sellers; and (okay) Liberace as a coffin salesman, there's something utterly apropos about that; a visit to Ms. Thanatagenous' under-construction cliff-house that is constantly rumbling with the threat of sliding to the highway below (a nice visual representation of her fragile doe-eyed innocence); Lionel Stander as newspaper advice columnist Guru Brahmin—a study in contrasts; the creepily loving reverence of the Whispering Glades workers for "the loved ones," as opposed to how the stiff pets at the pet cemetery are tossed into a freezer.
It's all very ghoulish and naughty (even flirting with pornography towards the end, discretely edited by Hal Ashby) but something of a misfire in its presentation. Morse is energetic and fun (and he has the teeth to play British), but in the same way The Wrong Box has the timing wrong to evoke humor, The Loved One never quite convinces you that you're supposed to be laughing, even guiltily. Instead, it has the air of stuffy indignation even as it's trying to regale. And one can sympathize with the sentiments, but one wishes it was done better, less fire and more mockery. What's the quote? "There's nothing I like less than bad arguments for a view I hold dear."