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By Phil Hall | May 16, 2008

BOOTLEG FILES 233: “The Optimists” (1973 British film starring Peter Sellers).

LAST SEEN: We cannot confirm the last public screening of this film.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: As of this writing, it was never officially released on home video.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: No clear reason is obvious.


I am very happy to report that this article will be painfully out of date within a month. That’s because this week’s film, “The Optimists,” is finally being released in an official DVD presentation.

But until such time, it is still only available as a bootleg. So in a frantic race to play beat-the-clock, allow me to share “The Optimists” with you.

“The Optimists” is a 1973 British production directed by Anthony Simmons, which is based on his 1964 novel “The Optimists at Nine Elms.” The book was a bittersweet, sentimental tale of the unlikely friendship that develops between two young children from a London slum neighborhood and an eccentric, lonely street performer whose gift for entertainment opens new worlds for them. Simmons’ book enjoyed more success in the U.K. than the U.S., but its substance was strong enough for film producers to sniff out acquisition rights.

Simmons, however, held on to the film rights and made two key demands for any film deals. First, he wanted to direct the movie (hey, you can’t blame the guy). Second, he insisted that the role of the street performer (or “busker,” to use the British expression) be assigned to Buster Keaton. Oddly, no producer had problems with Simmons being behind the camera – he helmed a few forgettable B-level movies in the 1950s and 1960s, so he could claim experience. However, Simmons’ mania with casting the American silent movie legend as a British busker seemed more than a little peculiar. No producer would agree to having Keaton as the lead in the film. Simmons stuck to his guns, but the situation was rendered moot when Keaton passed away in 1967.

Without Keaton, Simmons needed to come up with a replacement star. Six years and countless negotiations passed with a number of headline performers (including John Mills and Danny Kaye) before he was able to sign a major talent to headline the film: Peter Sellers. In many ways, it was a brilliant choice. In other ways, however, Sellers’ casting was a commercial kiss of death.

Of course, everyone knows Peter Sellers was one of the great talents of the 1960s. But by the time shooting on the film began in 1972, Sellers’ career had seriously run aground. After a string of extraordinary hits in the early 1960s, Sellers abruptly seemed to have the Midas touch in reverse: everything he appeared in turned out to be a major box office dud. Even when the films were genuinely intriguing, such as “The Magic Christian” (1970), “Hoffman” (1970) and “The Blockhouse” (1973), audiences nonetheless stayed away in droves. While his name recognition remained strong, it was clearly a commercial gamble to have Sellers at the top of the cast.

Sellers took his work very seriously and submerged himself deeply into his role, resulting it what may have been the most startling and memorable performance he ever gave. As a broken-down old man struggling to reconcile past glories with present disappointments, he created a stunning example of melancholy isolation that abruptly erupts with a bounty of magical, musical energy.

Sellers also achieved the impossible in demolishing the old show business warning about never acting opposite children and animals. Even though “The Optimists” saddled him with two excessively photogenic tykes and a cute dog as his main co-stars, he dominates the film with uncommon subtle grace. All through the film, your eyes are strictly on Sellers whenever he’s on screen.

“The Optimists” takes place in the Nine Elms section of London. This is not the area where tourists venture into – it’s a depressed, working class, rundown mess. The young siblings Mark and Liz (played by John Chaffey and Donna Mullane) lives with their bickering parents and infant brother in a cramped, dreary flat. The family is slated to move to a new government-owned council flat, but until such time they barely make it through each dreary day.

Mark and Liz somehow stumble into the lives of Sam (Sellers), who dresses in the colorful, funny costumes of the busker trade. Sam and his elderly dog Bella travel to London’s West End to perform on the street, with the hope that pedestrians will share some spare change. Sam was once a headliner in the British music hall circuit, but a mix of bad luck and bad people drove him away from the stage into this far corner of the entertainment world (and, for that matter, the real world).

“The Optimists” is primarily the exchange of insight, emotion and energy between the two youngsters and their new elderly friend. In Sam, the children find a passage from the miserable Nine Elms neighborhood and their cantankerous home life into a new realm of song and adventure (they visit parts of London they never knew existed). In Mark and Liz, Sam discovers a human connection that eluded him for many years. When he finally gets to meat the children’s parents, he calmly but bluntly tells them: “People like you bring kids into the world, don’t know what they’re all about.”

Yes, “The Optimists” is pure schmaltz and excess sentimentality. But the film works beautifully at so many levels. As mentioned before, Sellers is astonishing as the isolated man whose state of emotional numbness gives way to a late-life rediscovery of caring and connecting with those around him. The child actors John Chaffey and Donna Mullane, both non-professionals at the time the film was shot, are natural and charming. (Neither progressed further in show business – Mullane’s fate in not known and Chaffey grew up to become a noted British osteopath).

Paramount Pictures presented “The Optimists” for U.S. release – the film removed the reference to Nine Elms in the book’s title since the neighborhood had no meaning to American audiences. Curiously, Paramount marketed the film as a big, jolly musical comedy romp. Although the film included a few songs from Lionel Bart (best known for his hit show “Oliver!”), it could hardly be considered a giddy tuneful romp. Nonetheless, the Paramount promotional push insisted this was a “magical, musical, heartwarming story of friendship and courage” and Sellers’ character was “the wonder man” with “madness in his closet, everybody in trouble, the police in circles – and the world in his pocket.” I don’t know what film that is supposed to be, but it is not “The Optimists.”

The film opened at New York’s Radio City Musical Hall. Although reviews were positive, the disconnect between the marketing and the movie confused the few audiences who bothered to turn up. “The Optimists” was a major flop.

Sellers, of course, saw his career rebound the following year when he reprised his most famous role, Inspector Closeau, for a new series of “Pink Panther” films. Simmons went on to direct a few obscure films and some British TV programs. “The Optimists,” however, faded into obscurity. It turned up occasionally on cable television (I first saw it on American Movie Classics in the late 1980s). But for no clear reason, the film was never made available on home video. Bootleg copies circulated for years, including an unauthorized copy from a certain Miami-based company that was videotaped off Brazilian TV (complete with Portuguese subtitles!).

However, I am glad to say that Paramount is finally releasing “The Optimists” on DVD on June 3. Thus, the film’s status as a bootleg-only offering is soon to be history. And I am glad for it – this is a lovely, overlooked little film that deserves to be seen properly. I am eager to see the DVD version, and I hope those movie lovers who only know “The Optimists” from bootleg copies will seek out the official edition.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!

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