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The idea for a Sonny & Cher movie came from none other than Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis Presley's controversial manager. Brian Stone, one-half of Sonny & Cher's mid-1960s management team, met Parker backstage as Sonny & Cher were topping the charts with such early hits as "I Got You, Babe," according to Cher biographer Mark Bego. Not surprisingly, Col. Parker told Stone to "...have the kids do a movie. Do it fast and do it cheap. Nothing artsy-craftsy." The movies that Col. Parker arranged for his own client at the time were of the assembly-line variety; he may have done well to note the recent A Hard Day's Night (1964), the Beatles movie which was filmed cheaply, but also steered by an innovative younger director, Richard Lester. That film was winning major critical acclaim and cleaning up at the box-office at the same time.
A deal for a Sonny & Cher movie was worked out with Columbia Pictures in early 1966. The producers, Lindsley Parsons and executive producer Steve Broidy, were definitely of the older generation; their experience was in poverty-row productions dating back to Monogram in the 1930s. Sonny Bono, the slightly-over-30 mastermind of the Sonny & Cher success, made a wise early demand of his producers: that they hire a young, hip director. William Friedkin had come out of Chicago with some impressive documentary credentials, and in 1962 had directed an episode of the anthology series "The Alfred Hitchcock Hour." In his book Hurricane Billy: The Stormy Life and Films of William Friedkin, author Nat Segaloff quotes Friedkin: "Sonny wanted a young director that he could relate to because at the time he was a freak." Friedkin and Bono did uncredited script rewrites on Good Times during preproduction, though Friedkin admitted, "I was acting mostly as story editor for Sonny. He was really the only person who could write for Sonny and Cher." Co-manager Charlie Greene saw the situation a little differently: "Sonny began calling us at three in the morning, asking for writers' conferences. He didn't like the plot, or he didn't like the script. He thought he was a big hotshot producer or director. His ego was taking over."
The final script for Good Times was a self-reflexive bit of nonsense on which to hang a series of comedic sketches and musical numbers. As the film opens, Sonny & Cher (playing themselves) have been offered the chance to make a movie by a megalomaniacal movie producer named Mr. Mordicus (George Sanders). While Sonny tries to convince Cher that it would be a good idea to make a movie, he has his own reservations about the script. Mordicus assures Sonny that he will be able to change anything he doesn't like about the scenario, so Sonny proceeds to imagine different filmic situations for himself and Cher. (The movie has three extended fantasy genre parodies, or films-within-a-film: "The Saga of Irving Ringo," "Morry, King of the Jungle," and "Johnny Pizzacatto, Private Eye"). Unfortunately for the duo, Mordicus has every intention of making his contractees stick to the agreement and film the bad rags-to-riches script as written.
Shooting Good Times proved somewhat chaotic. The budget allowed for twenty days of filming with a union crew, after which the rest of the footage was picked up more "creatively," by shooting without permits and with a non-union cinematographer, Bill Butler. According to Butler, much of the "Irving Ringo" segment was shot on the backlot western street of Paramount Studios after their permit had run out. "We'd drive on that lot with the station wagon loaded with camera gear and Billy [Friedkin] wouldn't think twice about it....The film was over and done before anybody knew what we were doing."
Good Times sat on the shelf at Columbia for almost a year; it finally opened in May, 1967 to disastrous box-office results. "I think it was seen by eleven people in Topanga Canyon," Friedkin later said. "The picture came out too square...the ethics and morality the picture represented are out of date. The kids weren't interested." Certainly, by the time of the film's release, Bob Rafelson's TV series The Monkees had been airing for eight months, and had well-mined the genre-parody ground that Good Times covered, but in a faster-paced, funnier style. More to the point, though, Sonny & Cher's peak of popularity had also passed. In December of 1966, while Good Times was still sitting on the shelf, Bono fired Sonny & Cher's original management team. The new management reflected Bono's own more conservative nature; a good indication of that is the first gig that was lined up: On January 1, 1967, Sonny & Cher became the first pop group to ride in a float during the Annual Rose Bowl Parade. Bono also began an anti-drug campaign, which during 1967 seemed at odds with current fashion, and his musical choices also clashed with the psychedelic sounds being produced by his contemporaries. In other words, Friedkin may be correct that Good Times "came out square," but it may have never had a chance because Sonny & Cher were themselves considered square by May, 1967. The film was not a money loser, due to a simple shrewd move: the television rights were sold prior to release, and those proceeds alone covered the film's production costs.
Friedkin went on to direct The Night They Raided Minsky's (1968), followed by The Boys in the Band (1970), The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973). Meanwhile, Sonny Bono took a considerable risk and financed, wrote, and produced a vehicle starring Cher, Chastity (1969). This film sent the couple into bankruptcy so they were forced to develop a nightclub act and began playing small clubs - a far cry from their heyday just a few years before. Luckily, their club routine evolved into their hit TV series of the early 1970s, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour. In this venue they also revived the type of sketch comedy that is very much in evidence in Good Times.
There are some wonderful touches of mid-1960s pop culture on display in Good Times. The solo musical number which Mr. Mordicus screens at the beginning of the movie features Cher singing in front of a Pop Art collage of comic strip panels with Popeye, Tarzan, Batman and other characters. Triggering Sonny's western fantasy in the film is a face-off with toy guns that he has with a kid named Brandon, played by child actor Peter Robbins. Robbins only made a few on-camera appearances in his career; he was best recognized by voice. He was the voice of Charlie Brown in all of the 1960s "Peanuts" television specials, as well as the feature film A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969). Another familiar voice is heard throughout Good Times, that of Paul Frees, the ubiquitous voiceover talent. Frees performs every TV or radio announcer overheard in the film, as well as a robotic greeter in Mr. Mordicus' office, and every voice of a family of talking chimpanzees in the jungle sketch. Frees also seems to have dubbed George Sanders on at least one occasion!
Producer: Lindsley Parsons
Director: William Friedkin
Screenplay: Tony Barrett
Cinematography: Robert Wyckoff
Film Editing: Melvin Shapiro
Art Direction: Arthur Lonergan, Hal Pereira
Costume Design: Leah Rhodes
Original Music: Sonny Bono
Consultant on musical sequences: Bill Butler
Cast: Sonny Bono (Himself), Cher (Herself), George Sanders (Mr. Mordicus), Norman Alden (Warren), Larry Duran (Smith), Lennie Weinrib (Garth), Peter Robbins (Brandon), Micky Dolenz (Jungle Jino).
by John M. Miller