‘Candy’ (1968): Hot lead and all-star cast in long-but-fun trash

Consistently amusing—if too long—dirty joke, with a high-powered all-star cast.

Looking for something—anything—to amuse myself during Governor Bilbo Baggins’ enforced panic, I descended 300 feet via elevator into the bowels of the earth, to my vast, subterranean DVD library. A quick 10 minute electric tram ride to the northeast wing (substation 17, vault 34B), brought me to my Kino Lorber stores. A few years back, their KL Studio Classics label released Candy on Blu-ray (in a sparkling 2k transfer), the 1968 American/French/Italian co-production sex comedy (distributed by Cinerama Releasing here in the States), based on the notorious Terry Southern/Mason Hoffenberg book.

By Paul Mavis

Scripted by the recently-passed Buck Henry, directed by Christian Marquand, and starring A-listers Richard Burton, Marlon Brando, Walter Matthau, James Coburn, Ringo Starr, along with John Huston, Charles Aznavour, John Astin, Elsa Martinelli, Sugar Ray Robinson, Anita Pallenberg, Enrico Maria Salerno, Umberto Orsini, Florinda Bolkan, Marilu Tolo, Nicoletta Machiavelli, Lea Padovani, Joey Forman, Fabian Dean, Buck Henry himself, and Miss Teen International 1966, Swedish bombshell Ewa Aulin (in the title role), Candy may have been critically reviled when first released at the very end of 1968…but it nevertheless sold a ton of theater tickets to a general public curious to see big stars like Burton and Brando and Matthau cavorting around in what audiences just hoped would be a “dirty” movie. And on that gewgaw level, Candy works pretty well. It may drag at times, but the laughs are always there…even if the fuzzy, scattershot satire was already stale by ‘69.

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Deep in space, a cosmic amalgamation of crystals and lights amid the stars descends to the ocean beach, and then the American Southwest desert, transforming itself into wide-eyed, pouting, knee-weakening blonde Candy (Ewa Aulin). Just as suddenly, Candy is now a vacant, ready-to-please high schooler at Rolling Fields Center High School, where her father, overly tense prig T.M. Christian (John Astin), teaches social sciences while vigorously suppressing incestuous stirrings for his nubile, micro mini-dressed daughter. Enter McPhisto (Richard Burton), superstar poet and degenerate drunk, whose visit to Rolling Fields includes a stirringly hammy rendition of his latest lust-filled opus, and an invitation for Candy to ride home in his limo, piloted by seen-it-all driver, Zero (Sugar Ray Robinson).

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Too drunk to score with Candy (“My huge, overpowering need!”), McPhisto nails one of her dolls in Daddy’s basement playroom as he spurs on poor Mexican gardener Emmanuel (Ringo Starr) to deflower Candy on the pool table—an act of defilement that enrages her father when they’re caught…and which delights his pervy, lecherous twin, Uncle Jack (Astin in a dual role). Deciding to send Candy to school in New York, the Christian family barely escapes death at the hands of Emmanuel’s biker gang sisters (“Ladies, a bit of flagellation is okay, but this is going too far,”), before they’re rescued by General Smight (Walter Matthau) whose perpetually flying paratroop ship has briefly landed at the airport for refueling.

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T.M., however, suffers a brain injury thanks to one of the bikers, and Candy will do anything if General Smight—who’s been in the air without a woman for six years—will help. Alas, the General’s prolonged abstinence induces premature bail-out when he corners a nude Candy in the cockpit, so cut to The New York Neuro-Homeopathic Center, where superstar brain surgeon Dr. A. B. Krankeit (James Coburn), performing live for the cocktail crowd, is going to fix Daddy with a sub-cranial medulla oblongotomy (the movie poster-like surgery announcement states, “No one will be seated after the first incision,”). A wild post-op party ensues, with both Uncle Jack and the good doctor trying to nail Candy, before she escapes the hospital and makes her way out onto the even crazier streets of “Fun City.”

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There she meets fanny-pinching gangster, the “Big Guy” (Umberto Orsini), self-absorbed lunatic cinema verite director Jonathan J. John (Enrico Maria Salerno), and a human fly hunchback (Charles Aznavour), before two instantly violent cops (“Let’s get ready to beat somebody to a pulp!”) bust her (Joey Foreman and Fabian Dean). Candy escapes their lewd clutches only to be introduced to seven levels of sexual enlightenment courtesy of mobile semi-tractor trailer guru Grindl (Marlon Brando)…before her awakening comes.

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Originally published in 1958 for French “smut” peddler Maurice Girodias and his Olympia Press, Candy went from being a whispered-about cult phenomenon here in the States, to full-blown mainstream commercial success when authors Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg had G.P. Putnam’s Sons re-publish the novel under their real names in 1962. Candy went on to become the second best-selling fiction book of 1963 in the U.S. Had a movie adaptation of Candy somehow been produced that year, in spite of the still-enforced but rapidly-crumbling Production Code, it’s arguable whether CANDY would have had a bigger impact with critics and audiences still relatively unexposed to even mildly suggestive sexual themes (certainly it would have been scrubbed clean, as was Kubrick’s Lolita the year before).

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By the time Candy finally did wind up on screens at the very end of 1968, however, the world’s movie houses were already convulsing with heretofore forbidden—and now mainstream—subject matter and nudity. So the appearance in ‘68 of an all-star adaptation of a once-scandalous 10-year-old book ironically carried with it a hidden patina of respectability that muted the movie’s intended outrageousness. After all, the pubic wasn’t stupid (despite critics’ constant assertions to the contrary)—they knew that despite the rapidly-changing times on American movie screens, huge stars like Brando and Burton and Matthau wouldn’t be doing anything too naughty in Candy, lest their big money-earning reputations be suddenly downgraded to the lower levels of exploitation cinema.

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And if Candy’s erotic charge was muted either by savvy audience expectations or outright design to keep the movie barely within the borders of acceptability (as scripter Buck Henry freely admits on this disc’s bonus interview), its intended satire was a victim of thorough familiarity. Candy’s targeting of incestuous bourgeoisie fathers (Lord Love a Duck peeked at that a good two years earlier…even Rebel Without a Cause and Splendor in the Grass briefly touched on it), boozy, self-important “intellectual” celebrities (Two Weeks in Another Town among so many others), narcissistic, murderous doctors (TV covered that on Ben Casey and Dr. Kildare), impotent war mongers (Terry Southern’s Dr. Strangelove, clearly), oversexed “foreign” revolutionaries (aren’t they all in the movies?), and phony, oversexed religious charlatans (Elmer Gantry), were already familiar butts of pop culture jokes in 1968.

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There’s nothing in Candy that couldn’t have been found at that time in a Playboy cartoon…or even MAD magazine. Critics at the time correctly noted Candy’s tired, diffused satirizing (while grumpily ignoring the fact that old jokes can still get laughs…if told right). However, audiences took to it, making relatively low-budgeted Candy one of 1968’s most successful pictures at the U.S. box office, coming in 18th for the year, with eventually over $16 million in ticket sales. If Candy was a flop—modern critics still parrot this incorrect info—and “lost” money for anyone on returned rentals of $8 million just from the U.S. release alone (not counting its worldwide net), it was no doubt due to those mysterious accounting “tricks” endemic in the moviemaking biz. Someone made money on that gross.

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So…that just leaves the sex and the nudity and the performances and the jokes. Forget trying to find deep meaning in Candy; this is a shallow, smutty, picaresque lark, haphazardly designed to titillate and briefly amuse…and it comes off not too much the worse for wear, aiming that low (if you think Candy is saying something new or brave or feminist about “men are ridiculous sexual creatures,” well…who the hell didn’t know that already by ’69? Go back to Shakespeare, just for a convenient start). Assembled in a remarkably similar fashion to the previous year’s all-star comedy romp, the James Bond spoof, Casino Royale (which Terry Southern and director John Huston worked on), Candy plays to the viewer just as scripter Buck Henry describes its actual physical production: big name actors were sought to guarantee box office on an admittedly slim premise.

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Once the stars were signed, scenes were hastily constructed to their liking, around their limited schedules, regardless of how well those scenes fitted into an overall aesthetic scheme (at one point in the production, Henry was writing only 11 pages ahead of the actual shooting). For critics and viewers unpleasantly surprised by the movie’s overall schizophrenic vibe…who wouldn’t suspect that a movie based on a co-written book (chapters were alternated between the two authors, who were in separate countries), adapted by an American scripter (after Southern’s script was tossed out) for French, Italian and American producers, with a Frenchman directing an international cast…might have problems of sustained, unified tone?

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And just like Casino Royale, you can bitch about the frequent lack of proper—or even basic—filmmaking technique in Candy, such as understandable scripting, direction, and editing (and you’d be perfectly right to do so, should your mood dictate)…while at the same time just grooving along with the movie and getting what laughs you can out of the mess. Candy’s biggest problem was Casino Royale’s, as well: it’s way too long. It’s certainly not a hard or fast rule, but full-on comedy on the screen, except on rare occasions (or if balanced by dramatic elements), can often begin to wilt after 90 to 100 minutes. At 124 minutes, Candy is just too much candy. Scenes that go on and on and on would have received twice the laughs if the scissors had come out and liberal cuts were made (it’s too bad that Coburn’s operation and post-op orgy scenes are the chief victims; the extended, pointless Fellini motorcycle chase fails, and Brando’s funny sequence goes just beyond its successful reach). And scenes that just plain stink, like Umberto Orsini’s “Big Guy” gangster—or almost all of Matthau’s embarrassing segment—could have been excised completely.

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What saves Candy, however, is that an amusing joke or line reading somehow always pops up right when we’re tempted to check how much time runtime is remaining. And that’s all a comedy needs to be successful: do we laugh at the material more than we don’t? Candy’s nominally biggest stars, Richard Burton and Marlon Brando, anchor the movie’s opening and closing, and they do what big stars should in such a project: deliver the goods for their hefty paychecks (The Addams Family‘s John Astin also bookends the movie; excellent as he is here, though, he doesn’t elicit the expectations and anticipation in us that those two giants do).

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Richard Burton’s opening segment as a demented Dylan Thomas-ish superstar poet is the movie’s highlight (which necessarily dooms Candy to a downward trajectory). It’s beautifully written by Henry (that poem from the hilariously monikered collection, Forests of Flesh, had me on the floor with “Life which burned and bled in the triumph of my dream dim days,”), nicely directed by Marquand (he gets a laugh just quick-panning the camera back to Candy, framed in a rose-covered arbor like an impossibly hot Madonna), and brilliantly acted, frankly, by Burton (Burton lapsing into a commercial for his own book sales, even to the point of repeating the address to send a check, may be one of the best-timed pieces the actor ever committed to the screen).

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Burton lapping up liquor off a glass-bottomed limo as the camera shoots up at him, is often cited with utter disdain by disgusted critics, but it’s a paralyzingly funny moment, one that shows Burton completely loose and unhinged (and as we’d like to imagine that glorious hellraiser might have acted, just once, in his private moments). Just the sight of Burton’s Byronically teased-out hair perpetually blowing in an unseen, private breeze, his preening, ravaged face a mask of immensely satisfied self-adulation, is worth the price of the whole movie.

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As for Marlon Brando, by this point in his career considered box office poison, I find it hard to believe he was the sole reason, as some suggest, that Candy was financed. Yes, he was close friends with director Marquand…but friendship doesn’t get producers to sign checks: a source novel notorious all over the world for its sexual content, and a gaggle of other, more financially successful stars signed up for a naughty farce, does. Seeing Brando here, in a performance he himself described as his worst on-screen, it takes a minute or two for us to get past the outrageousness of witnessing one of America’s greatest screen actors playing a badly-accented guru, complete with dye job and flowing wig—a wig he’s brave enough to let keep slipping (and no, I’m not speaking to any perceived p.c. whining).

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However, once we see how committed he is to the broad farce, and how skilled he is at the poor jokes (“‘Gosh!’ ‘Gosh’ isn’t the half of it!”), it’s a marvelous crack-up, made all the more fun because of Brando’s own (and hated) self-serious reputation. Marquand rises to the occasion, as well, shooting the sequence with a lot of verve, getting big laughs when he stages a montage of various groupings of Brando’s disembodied head among assorted feet and hands—his and Candy’s—as Brando has Kama Sutra sex with her, telling the story of The Pig and the Flower (Brando’s guru also offers up a bit of Eastern wisdom about a centipede that can’t tap dance…but then admits the analogy loses something in the translation).

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What lies between these two standouts, is a mixed bag. John Astin, certainly most known at this time (at least in the States) for re-runs of TV’s The Addams Family, gets the movie’s biggest part—an odd choice considering how lesser his movie star power was compared to his co-stars (I’ve always suspected everyone hoped to draw in Peter Sellers for one of his patented dual roles, to no avail, and Astin was a last-ditch choice). Astin’s quite funny, though, particularly as blase pervert Uncle Jack, matched well by the amoral chic of his beautiful wife, Elsa Martinelli (who regrettably has little to do here). Coburn probably didn’t know at this time that he had already peaked at the box office; his Derek Flint movies were his biggest claim to fame before he overexposed himself with box office misfires like What Did You Do In the War, Daddy?, Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round, Waterhole No. 3, The President’s Analyst, Duffy, and Hard Contract, all bombing in a span of just three short years.

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Coburn is hilarious delivering big, bombastic line readings with weird spins of emphasis and hidden comedy (with his middle finger inserted entirely into Astin’s brain, he yells, “My left index finger is now fully three inches inside the patient’s head. A hiccup would put a dent in the patient’s speech center that would leave him not only incapable of pronouncing the letters L, R, D, Y and F…but make him absolutely incapable of digit-dialing!”). But the length of the scene defeats the performance in the end (he recovers when he starts trading insults with a hilariously grave John Huston, too briefly seen here). Critics seem to universally hate the Charles Aznavour hunchback scene, but I laugh every time he jumps around like a human fly, crawling on the walls and ceilings; it’s weirdly-constructed, surreal slapstick. I’m not too familiar with Enrico Maria Salerno, but he scores one of the best moments in Candy, as the self-obsessed cinema verite director who wants to document hundreds of people simply saying, “No,” particularly himself, because it’s a “part of life” (there’s real manic comedy energy here with Salerno; pity his sequence was so short).

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The critics are right, though, about Ringo Starr’s Emmanuel: the less said, the better—not because of any perceived racism with the character, but because he’s simply, excruciatingly unfunny here (if you’re offended by anything in Candy, you need to seriously lighten up: political correctness is dead). If you look at Candy’s U.S. one-sheet poster, you’ll see 1968’s biggest box office star among this cast: Walter Matthau, right at the top of the pyramid of star images (he had steadily been gaining a following, before scoring the 4th biggest movie of 1968 that winter and spring: The Odd Couple). Unfortunately, his segment in Candy is the least effective, being too similar to the comedy in Dr. Strangelove, and delivered in a surprisingly awkward, ungainly manner by an unconvinced Matthau; his simulated premature ejaculation is probably the actor’s lowest career point (I’m betting he’s one of the actors Buck Henry alludes to in this disc’s doc, who didn’t really want to be here).

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As for the true star of Candy, Ewa Aulin, it isn’t enough to just give her credit for being not only stunningly beautiful, but sexy as hell (two entirely different things), despite her voice being dubbed. She’s actually quite funny as the perpetually flummoxed Candy; she has a reaction shot to Matthau’s twisted reasoning that’s a masterstroke of comedic timing (or just spot-on editing). Nobody seems to understand why the script has Candy coming to Earth from space, but looking at Aulin, looking at that body and face, and seeing her believably perplexed look as she charges around the sets driving every character mad with insane desire, then the only explanation for her otherworldly appeal is that she must be an alien: real women like her just don’t exist in our realm, the movie seems to say…and we believe it seeing Aulin.

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It’s a shame that Ewa Aulin couldn’t do more comedy; she was equally accomplished in the Gene Wilder/Donald Sutherland cult favorite, Start the Revolution Without Me, before she wandered off into Italian giallos, eventually quitting the business altogether. If Candy is going to work on the most basic level, we have to buy that the title character would indeed drive every man she meets instantly, insanely into lust. Aulin pulls that off, innocently keeping the dirt in Candy amusing and light (no mean feat—you think today’s jokes they call “sex symbols,” like Gal Gadot or Jennifer Lawrence, could do that?). Without her, Brando and Burton and the rest of the cast would be even more at sea than they are here in this chaotic but undeniably entertaining sex farce.

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On a side note (speaking of jokes), you can thank Kino Lorber for additional laughs on their Candy Blu-ray with the inclusion of something called Sugar Rush with Kim Morgan, one of the (unintentionally) funniest ramblings I’ve heard in quite some time about pop culture and movie criticism. I’ve watched it twice, now, and I still don’t know what the hell she’s talking about…and neither does she, as she freely admits: “[Candy] has this mysterious essence to it that I can’t quite pull out of exactly what it is, sort of the darkness and the light.” Ohhhh-kay. For some reason, Miss Morgan seems to be in a constant state of confusion—not unlike the title character, come to think of it—as to what Candy is, or what it says, or what it means…which frankly doesn’t bode well for someone who calls herself a “film critic,” or for whomever booked her at Kino Lorber (“It’s hard to describe, it’s hard to articulate simply,” she offers). As a final summing up, we get this rather remarkable switchback in equivocating movie criticism: “There’s all these difficult things about the movie that whether or not you find it good—and I don’t even think that’s the right way to look at it: ‘Is this a good movie?’—that don’t really matter. Just watch it for the experience. It’s complex, it’s hard to distill into one thing,” Jesus Christ….

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