Once Upon A Scoundrel

Once Upon a Scoundrel.
Carlyle Productions 1974.

Before watching the movie:

I never heard of this before, but a Zero Mostel vehicle always sounds like fun. Even though I’m sure there will be many Mexican stereotypes abused for comedy here. Unless I’ve seen his Muppet Show appearance, it seems I’ve only seen two things Mostel ever did, and I ought to rectify that.

After watching the movie:

Señor Carlos de Refugio is a landowner who is used to getting his way in his small Mexican village thanks to his immense wealth and gratuitously bullies his servants because he can. He has developed a desire for the lovely Alicia, who is engaged to Luis. To get Luis out of the way, Refugio claims that an injured duck Luis rescued was stolen from his land, and as the foregone verdict is guilty, Luis is imprisoned “until the wronged party forgives him”. Refugio suggests to Alicia that he would show Luis forgiveness on the day that Alicia marries him instead. That night the town decides that they cannot support any more abuses from Refugio and his lineage, and Alicia’s aunt Delfina masterminds a plan to trick him into thinking he’s dying, because no Refugio ever did anything nice unless they believed they were dying.

This is an unusually balanced story. The only character who has much depth is Refugio, but he’s at best a deuteragonist, and the story doesn’t really have a lead protagonist. They seem to just be “some villagers” and “the character played by someone you’ve heard of”. I can’t even relate to him in the way A Christmas Carol makes the audience relate to Scrooge, and I think that’s because what Refugio is going through isn’t genuine. Though it may also be that there’s no spark of decency in him before he’s truly desperate, where Scrooge starts to thaw earlier in his experience.

Mostel doesn’t have much time to deliver what I expected. He’s a comedically entitled bully, sure, and he plays a funny induced hypochondria, but I didn’t really get a sense of what I saw in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum or The Producers until the third act and the escalation of the villagers’ plan. So much of the humor comes from him being terrible that once he actually reforms he stops being funny, and the movie goes on for a bit with that too.

Nobody else really stands out as comedians either. They’re all playing fairly straight for Mostel to act against. The closest anyone comes to making an impact comedically is the doctor, and maybe Alicia’s brother in the climax. He’s also the closest to a hero-type, but he doesn’t do much more than a little rabble rousing.

Promotional material often oversells, but this was substantially more bland than I expected. Aside from the one sequence where Refugio goes completely off the rails, the best recommendation I can give about this movie is that, as a Mexican co-production, I didn’t really feel like Mexican culture was being mocked. It’s a mildly amusing scared straight story that happens to be in a traditional Mexican village, and Zero Mostel is centered at all times.

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