Thursday, September 10, 2009

Apple #408: Harold and Maude

Last night I watched Harold and Maude again for the, I don't know, 15th time? I was first introduced to it in college by a woman who lived on my floor, DeeDee. DeeDee was royally cool in a Gashlycrumb Tinies-loving way, and she also loved this movie. She must have put it on the TV & VCR in our common room 5 or 6 times a year.

Now, watching it again many years later, even after having suffered the death of a family member, I still laughed out loud at parts of it. Some elements of the movie's attitude about death -- it's a parade, it's part of the great circle of life, etc. -- seem at best simplistic to me now. But I am won over again anyway because of the movie's deadpan delivery and its overall enthusiasm.

Another nice thing about the movie are the occasional landscape shots like this.
(Screen shot from Flickr, uploaded by abemaddk)

For those who haven't seen it -- and I know some of you are still out there (ahem, Jason) -- it might seem strange at first to call this movie enthusiastic. Harold Chasen is a 20 year-old living in an enormous California house with his widowed mother, and he is obsessed with suicide and death. Sounds lovely, you might say. I don't want to spoil it for you, but trust me when I tell you there is a comic, albeit dark, edge to his obsession.

The car he buys is an old 1959 hearse. For diversion, he goes to funerals. There he meets Maude, a 79 year-old woman who is a delightful nut. She, too, likes to go to funerals. She also likes to take other people's cars ("merely acting as a gentle reminder: here today, gone tomorrow, so don't get attached to things"), pose for ice sculptures, experiment with enormous erotic wood carvings, sing and dance, and drink oat straw tea.

The scene where Maude first speaks to Harold, at a funeral.
(Image from Bill's Movie Emporium)

Telling you much more would spoil some of the surprises the movie has in store. I will add that Vivian Pickles, who plays Harold's mother, has stayed fixed in my mind all these years. Often when I do something that absolutely cracks me up but which I also know is kind of ridiculous, I will say to myself in her voice, "I suppose you think that's very funny, Harold." Absolutely dripping with disdain. And it makes me laugh even more.

Harold's mother (Vivian Pickles), calling him on the carpet.
(Screen shot from Cinema Splendor)

Lots of deadpan, dark humor, and some more obvious slapstick stuff too, especially in the scenes with Uncle Victor. One film critic argues that this movie, released in 1971, was the first black comedy.

There are lots of great sites out there that already pay tribute to this movie in far greater detail than my lone entry will do. But I'll try to assemble some trivia from an assortment of those sites so at least this won't be the same combination of trivia that already exists everywhere else.

  • All the music in the movie is songs by Cat Stevens (now Yusuf Islam). Two of the songs he composed specifically for this movie -- "Don't be Shy" and "If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out." Neither song was available for purchase until 1984, so if you wanted to hear those songs, you had to go see the movie.
  • The other songs that appear in the movie are:
  1. On the Road to Find Out
  2. I Wish, I Wish
  3. Miles from Nowhere
  4. Tea for the Tillerman
  5. I Think I See the Light
  6. Where Do the Children Play?
  7. Trouble
  • The songs were released on a few different albums, but no soundtrack per se existed until 2007 when a limited edition LP was released. As far as I can tell, everybody is now sold out of it so it's probably a collector's item now.
  • Ruth Gordon never learned to drive a car. So in the scene where Maude is driving Harold's hearse like mad down the hill from the cemetery, the hearse ("Good on curves") is being pulled by a tow truck.
  • Later, Harold fuses his Cadillac hearse with a Jaguar that his mother buys him ("I quite like it, indeed"). The props people actually did this, but they only made one and they could only do that scene at the end in one take.

Harold and his Jaguar-hearse
(Photo from Everybody Lies)

  • Lots of cameos in the film. The director, Hal Ashby, is the crazy-looking bearded fellow with the glasses, watching the trains at the amusement park with Harold and Maude.
  • After Maude ttss's to get Harold's attention at the funeral and people turn to look at her, she hides by another funeral attendee -- who is Cat Stevens.
  • The hapless cop on the motorcycle is credited as M. Borman, but he was actually Tom Skerritt.
  • The movie was filmed in Hillsborough, California, which is south of San Francisco. The house where the Chasens live is the Rose Court Mansion. Mrs. Chasen's butler is played by the man who was the actual butler of that mansion at the time.

The butler and Mrs. Chasen in the Rose Court Mansion. "Harold, what have you done? That was your last date!"
(Photo from Harold & Maude the Unofficial Homepage)

  • The screenplay was written by Colin Higgins in 1971. An earlier form of it was his MFA thesis at UCLA.
  • Harold and Maude was later novelized and still later turned into a play. But it was a movie first.
  • The movie was not a hit when it was released. The New York Times' Vincent Canby said in 1971 that Harold and Maude are obviously made for each other, but only because Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon are "so aggressive, so creepy and off-putting." He said that the scene that begins with Maude singing at the piano and ends with her gimme an L cheer is "an embarrassed low."

Left to right, director Hal Ashby, Bud Cort, and Ruth Gordon
(Photo sourced from Cinebeats)

  • I thought I detected a New York accent in Bud Cort (Harold) and yes, Cort was born in New Rochelle and later moved to New York City.
  • His birth name was Walter Edward Cox, but he later changed it because he didn't want to be confused with Wally Cox. When he was a child, he slept in a teepee in the living room.
  • In 1975 he was offered the part of Billy Bibbit in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, but he turned it down because he was afraid he was in danger of being typecast and he wanted the role of McMurphy, which went to Jack Nicholson.
  • 8 years after Harold and Maude, Cort was in a car accident that almost killed him. His skull was fractured, his arm and leg were broken, and several teeth were knocked out.
  • Ruth Gordon played one of the evil people in Rosemary's Baby, and she won an Emmy for her role as Dee Wilcox on Taxi.
  • She also has the dubious distinction of being the oldest person, at age 79, to host Saturday Night Live.

To me, they will always be glorious birds.
(Screen shot from Hughshow's top 5's)

Harold & Maude, the unofficial Homepage is probably the most complete site for those who want to dig deeper into this movie
Film in America, Harold and Maude (locations)
IMDB, Harold and Maude, Bud Cort
Whitney Matheson, "For the love of 'Harold and Maude,'" USA TODAY, July 24, 2000
Nina Metz, "'Harold and Maude' aging gracefully,"
Chicago Tribune, September 4, 2009
Vincent Canby,
The New York Times, Harold and Maude (1971), December 21, 1971


  1. You might enjoy this conversation with the author of a recent biography of Hal Ashby:


  2. yes, apple lady - glorious birds - yes.

  3. I think this one needs to go on my NetFlix list!

  4. Did you notice that Maude had a concentration camp tattoo - a split-second shot of it, which Harold notices while sitting watching the birds.

  5. Interesting info, Thank you for posting it.


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