Steve Gordon died the year after Arthur came out, so he never made any other films, which is an exceptional tragedy. Arthur is a singular comedy–it’s a mix of laugh-out-loud comedy, romantic comedy, sincere human relationships and genuine character development. The first two are not mutually exclusive, but I’m not even sure Woody Allen’s managed to combine them with the second two (two of Woody’s regular producers, in fact, produced Arthur). Gordon frequently gets affecting hilarious scenes going–usually involving John Gielgud–and the film’s a joy to watch.
For the last third, Gordon takes a hint from Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and sets everything at one location. (Oddly, as Dudley Moore shuffles in–the character’s a complete drunk and Moore’s got some incredible bits with how far he’ll go to protect his alcohol–I thought it’d be interesting if Gordon did the Deeds close, but didn’t even realize he had until I started typing this post up). It’s a good format for the close, but also the only part where Gordon stumbles. He offers the film’s most profound moments, then shies away. Worse, he continues this absurd life-threatening subplot, which kind of worked as a joke in a scene in the middle, but at the end… it had me thinking about framed bellboys instead of the movie itself.
The acting in the film is all excellent. Gielgud’s performance as Moore’s exasperated but loving butler is exceptional. The scenes with him and Moore are all great, just getting better as the film goes along. Moore, as the leading man, is a comic genius–he can make his heel of a character utterly sympathetic from the first moment on film. Also great are Anne De Salvo, Ted Ross and Barney Martin. Strangely–or maybe not–Liza Minnelli’s best scenes are the ones without Moore. She and Moore are good together, but they’re very cute, and when it’s her and Martin or her and Gielgud, the scenes just have a lot more resonance. It’s a romantic comedy, of course she’s got to have scenes with Moore, but the rest of her scenes–even the brief second watching her at work–are when it’s obvious Gordon was really writing the character.
For a while, I thought Arthur was going to be that supreme example I’d compare all other popular comedies against. The way Gordon serves actual human regard with the funny stuff, it’s incredibly rare (because the laughs Gordon goes for are cheap, popular laughs). So, it might not be the ultimate comparison, but it’s still great.