Written by El Fangorio
When you first look at the artwork for Paramount’s 1973 film The Optimists, you would be think it’s a musical. It’s got a colorfully drawn image of Peter Sellers in period costume, smiling away, holding a ukulele and clicking his heels. There’s even a cute little mutt next to him, standing on its hind legs, seemingly dancing. Within this illustration is imagery implying more dancing and singing. Even the lettering used for the title has little suns and stars within its bright blue and gold font, implying sunny days and golden moments of happiness. Alas, you’d be better off sitting outside in the rain writing a suicide letter, than trying to ring some cheerfulness out of this dreary little flick. A self-proclaimed pessimist, I have no problem admitting that I hated The Optimists.
The film concerns itself with the poor ex-vaudevillian Sam (Peter Sellers) who is trying to make a living as a street musician singing the songs of a time gone by that obviously nobody cares about anymore. Even his feeble dog’s attempt at feigning a lame leg seems to go unnoticed by the busy passerby, that is until it catches the attention of two children, siblings Liz and Mark (Donna Mulane and John Chaffey). Their boredom, matched with the unwelcoming situations going on back home, cause them to gravitate towards this seemingly cheerful character and his cute little mongrel. At first Sam is annoyed by their presence as he’s become somewhat jaded of children being alone for so long, but they soon grow on him as he realizes that they look to him for some sort of parental guidance. He goes on to show them some of the important lessons in life (such as responsibility, hard work, even death) and in the end, though the sun still hasn’t come out, they’ve all learned that life isn’t all that bad even in the dreary old perpetually muddy slums of London.
First off, this film isn’t a musical. The only tunes to be heard are the little numbers he plays for the public and though they are certainly more enjoyable than his lack of tips would imply, they are few and short. As for dancing, the dog hopping on one leg is the closest thing you’re going to get. Even that is sort of depressing as again, nobody gives a shit if he’s crippled. Did I mention the dog dies? Now you don’t have to watch the film.
It’s also important to note that this film was originally made with Danny Kaye in mind who would have probably made all the difference since, even when he’s playing a sad man, he still looks like the friendly type you just want to hug and pet on the head. Sellers, probably because he wanted to show a more dramatic side to his persona (this is still six years before Chance the Gardner), plays this part with too much seriousness. I’m pretty sure he would scare most kids, eventually warming up to them and boring them to death.
As for the kids, they do a decent enough job. Like most British children in film, everything they do seems more charming than their American counterparts. I’m pretty sure all parents wish their kids talked with funny British accents and acted like little adults. I know I would if I had children.
The setting are just as cheerless as the kids come from a rotten home where the dad works all day in the factory and the mom stays at home bitching about it. They are so poor that the little boy has to crap in a plastic bowl. Sam also lives in squalor with the pained memories of his dead wife who he still talks about as if she were alive. He’s probably even a little daft but that is to be expected given his situation. Needless to say, these usually don’t make for uplifting cinematic moments unless there’s Gene Wilder and a nearby candy factory involved.
Also, this film takes place entirely on overcast days, making this one dreary little flick. It’s too rainy to even be a ‘rainy-day movie.’ I would understand if it was so that the inevitable breaking of the sun in the end would indicate that all is well again but even then, the sky stays gray. If you’re anything like me, certain films play better at certain times, sometimes certain seasons even (horror films in the evening, Westerns in the summer), but you’d be hard pressed to find the ideal time to watch this. Maybe after a favorite uncle dies? I don’t know.
It’s probably a British thing that I don’t grasp but The Optimists does have its fair amount of fans. Legend Films has done them a favor by rescuing this from the vaults at Paramount with a proper release that boasts a fine transfer considering the elements at hand. Though in a perpetual gloom, the scenery does make for some nice cinematography as only the early ‘70s could, rendering the film’s palette to appear much richer than it really is with its royal blues, burgundy reds, and forest greens. The mono audio isn’t the strongest but that’s probably because everyone talks like bloody fucking Londoners that only bloody fucking Londoners can understand. Needless to say, subtitles would have been a most welcomed addition (something that Legend Films has yet to learn). Like most of their recent releases, Legend Films graces the film’s DVD cover with the original artwork, a practice that I can’t help but commend every time.