By Gail Rubin
The Loved One satirizes the funeral business, including pet funerals, as well as the movie industry and the military-industrial complex. It debuted in 1965, two years after Jessica Mitford’s exposé book The American Way of Death rocked the funeral industry. Despite its black-and-white vintage, The Loved One does show funeral trends that have continued to this day.
Critics at the time skewered the movie, although others have come to regard it as a very funny comedy. Its tag line is “The motion picture with something to offend everyone.” It’s not terribly offensive by twenty-first century standards, however, the story gets rather confusing toward the end and most of the characters are unlikeable.
The exception is Sir Francis Hinsley (John Gielgud) who hangs himself because he’s summarily laid off after 31 years of working for a Hollywood studio. He becomes “The Loved One” for whom nephew Dennis Barlow (played by a young Robert Morse) sets out to arrange a funeral.
British ex-pat Sir Ambrose Ambercrombie (Robert Morley) directs Barlow to sell his uncle’s house to pay for a sufficiently impressive funeral.
At the Whispering Glades mortuary and cemetery, Barlow encounters discrimination against blacks and Jews, faces a huge array of choices to make in caskets, interment options and burial clothing (gleefully presented by Liberace), and gets a tour of the Whispering Glades cemetery grounds (Forest Lawn gets its close-up).
Barlow, an unemployed “poet” from England, is attracted to Aimee Thanatogenous (Anjanette Comer), a young lady who does the make-up on the corpses at Whispering Glades. Once Uncle Francis is dispatched with a high level of pomp, Barlow pursues Thanatogenous, who is also pursued by co-worker Mr. Joyboy (Rod Steiger), an embalmer. He brings Miss Thanatogenous home to have dinner with him and his obese mother in a bizarre food orgy.
Things just get weirder as The Loved One progresses.
Barlow goes to work for a pet cemetery and cremation service. On his first call, he encounters a highly distraught dog owner (Margaret Leighton) and her husband (Milton Berle) who can’t wait to get rid of the carcass and go out to a dinner party.
(Spoiler Alert! Skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to know the ending.)
Miss Thanatogenous commits suicide by self-embalming. Air Force officers have a wild party in the Whispering Glades casket room. A rocket launch is supposed to carry the remains of a war hero into space, and Barlow manages to switch bodies and launches Miss Thanatogenous instead.
Terry Southern, known for satirical outrageous fiction, wrote the screenplay based on the Evelyn Waugh novel. Southern’s other screenplay credits include Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Easy Rider, Barbarella, and The Magic Christian.
These elements in The Loved One endure and provide lessons for today’s funeral consumer:
- Weddings and funerals are similar. The Whispering Glades chapel and minister do double duty. There’s a quick-change scene where a newly married couple is hustled out and the black crepe drops from the ceiling for Uncle Francis’ funeral. Some funeral homes and cemeteries offer their facilities for both life cycle events. Whether the event is a wedding or a funeral, plan ahead if you want to reduce stress and save money.
- There is always a mind-boggling array of choices to make. While casket rooms are disappearing from funeral homes, the array of caskets from which to choose, and sources to get them, have only proliferated. Shop around before someone dies to make an informed decision without pressure.
- Funerals are expensive. Barlow has to resort to selling his uncle’s Hollywood home to pay for a traditional funeral. How will your household manage to pay for a funeral with costs that can range from $8,000 to $20,000?
- Pets are part of the family and their loss is keenly felt. People love their pets and often experience intense grief when they die. The pet cemetery and cremation operation in The Loved One showed less-than-respectful treatment of dead animals. As with people funerals, shop around before you need such services to ensure you work with an ethical provider.
The Loved One is available on DVD from Netflix and can be purchased (as available) on Amazon.com. This film is not rated.
Gail Rubin, “The Doyenne of Death,” is author of the award-winning book, A Good Goodbye: Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan to Die. She speaks to groups using clips from funny films to illustrate funeral planning issues and help start serious conversations.