Movies You Might Have Missed: Herbert Ross's The Sunshine Boys

Walter Matthau and George Burns play a pair of still-bickering comedians in this warm-hearted movie
Walter Matthau and George Burns play a pair of still-bickering comedians in this warm-hearted movie

The highlight of the most recent series of Inside No. 9, BBC2’s anthology of darkly comic tales, concerned a feuding double act brought together for a reunion. The inspiration for the episode was clearly The Sunshine Boys (1975), an adaptation of one of Neil Simon’s greatest plays directed by Herbert Ross.

At 90, Simon is undoubtedly one of the greatest living comedy writers and perhaps it’s because he’s always known being funny takes a lot of work. At one point in the film, one half of the ageing duo turns to the other and says: “We did comedy on the stage for 43 years. I don’t think you enjoyed it once.” The reply? “If I was there to enjoy it, I would buy a ticket.”

Bob Hope and Bing Crosby were initially touted to play Lewis and Clark, the lead roles, but Simon felt the actors needed to be Jewish. Groucho Marx and Phil Silvers were in contention but Red Skelton and Jack Benny eventually landed the parts, the latter having not featured in a starring role since 1945. In a curious twist of fate, Skelton withdrew because he realised he could earn more money performing standup while Benny was diagnosed with the pancreatic cancer that would eventually claim his life.

Woody Allen was originally asked to direct but said he was more interested in playing Lewis (something he ultimately did in the admirable 1996 TV adaptation). Ultimately the roles were performed by Walter Matthau (playing a character decades older than his actual age) and George Burns in his first film role since 1939. In a case of life imitating art, Burns made his comeback playing a comedian involved in a comeback and it completely redefined his career; he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and continued to work regularly until his death in 1996 at the age of 100. Not bad for a man who turned up at rehearsals having learned the entire script by heart on the basis that it would be harder for the producers to fire him this way.

The film is full of quotable lines (“Words with ‘K’ in them are funny”) and buoyed by two remarkable central performances that call to mind Simon’s magnum opus, The Odd Couple. The script, however, is the real star and it is says something that the double act’s “Doctor Sketch” is discussed at length and implied to be one of the great comedy routines. Most writers would avoid actually showing the skit for fear it would pale in comparison to genuine routines (in other words, Studio 60 syndrome) yet Simon not only shows the sketch but it’s a bona fide classic.

Comedy about comedy shouldn’t work but this is an hilarious, heartfelt classic from a writer at the top of his game.