British author Evelyn Waugh is far better known for his stories about classically British people in classically British settings like Brideshead Revisited. In fact, were it not for Brideshead Revisited, Waugh would likely never have written The Loved One, his 1948 satire set in Hollywood that focuses on the funeral services industry.
It was in the wake of the publication of his best-known work that Waugh came to Hollywood. As so many literary novelists discover, the link between writing a book and adapting that book into a film is neither linear nor as simple as simple as merely tailoring narrative prose to meet the necessities of a more complicated medium. Also like so many other novelists coming to Hollywood, Waugh left with a vision of a story to tell informed by the sometimes alien and occasionally otheworldly consciousness existing in and among the movie industry. The Loved One belongs on a spectrum that ranges from Fitzgerald’s uncompleted and more prosaic The Last Tycoon to West’s definitively strange and telling The Day of the Locust as well as all those novels about La-La Land which it subsequently influenced.
Waugh’s short, satirical take is not so much on Hollywood specifically as the American urge to monetize and market even the most unlikely of artistic talents and aesthetic endeavors. It is perhaps a symptom of the genre that more people may be familiar with the film version produced nearly twenty years later as Tony Richardson’s immediate follow-up to his Oscar-winning Tom Jones. The cast alone should be forwarded as evidence in argument against the star theory of box office expectation. Despite featuring seemingly bankable stars of the time like Robert Morse, Jonathan Winters, Rod Steiger in major roles and John Gielgud, Roddy McDowall, James Coburn, Milton Berle, Dana Andrews (not to mention Liberace!) popping up in smaller parts, the film was a box office dud.
The failure of the adaptation is almost certainly not the fault of the stars, however. Waugh produced a novel that is an irrepressibly darkly ironic tale of funerary direction as a commentary on Hollywood commercialism and American crassness and the filmmakers constructed upon that foundation an even fiercer form of dark comedy that—in the era of Dr. Strangelove, Lord Love a Duck and A Thousand Clowns—should have been as close to a guaranteed hit as possible. Perhaps a re-release to take advantage of the success of M*A*S*H might have recouped the film's losses experienced five years earlier. It is entirely possible that moviegoers were simply not as receptive to satire that trades upon pet funerals as readers even in the 1960's.