What? Ah! Way to go!

Pretty in Pink

So, WHAT A WAY TO GO! is available on DVD and SOME CAME RUNNING isn’t. That makes sense.

I’m hoping David Ehrenstein can tell me more about the history of this film, because the question of how it came to be is a vexing one. This piece is not so much a critique of the film as a cry for enlightenment. The film itself is a glorious horrible accident, like a twelve-car pile-up with multiple fatalities that’s somehow arranged itself into a pleasing composition on the motorway, just before bursting into flames.

The facts: Shirley MacLaine stars as a fabulously wealthy widow telling the story of how all her husbands became rich, successful and dead.

Big Night

The TRUE facts: Shirley MacLaine wears seventy-two insane Edith Head creations (including about four in the course of a single spoken sentence — honest, I’m not making this up!) and a half million bucks in jewellery, also Bob Mitchum, Dean Martin, Dick Van Dyke, Bob Cummings, Paul Newman, Gene Kelly…

The background facts: Arthur P Jacobs, soon to be responsible for the overweight turkey DR DOLITTLE, somehow was given the run of Fox, where he got gorgeous lifelike color by Deluxe and cameraman Leon Shamroy to shoot it. Comden & Green scripted, creating something like a musical without songs. And then very strangely somebody (though not Comden & Green) thought it would be a great idea to get J. Lee Thompson to direct it.

(Say goodbye to facts, we’re into the woozily subjective now.)

Phone Call

He was a good director in his day (there is an ignominious decline into Charles Bronson pictures — BAD ones) but I don’t recall anybody ever accusing him of having a light touch. Which I would guess is what’s needed here. Thompson is used to shooting Dutch tilts of Diana Dors looking homicidal, so he does the same with Dick Van Dyke. The effect is undeniably arresting.

His approach to comedy is to undercrank and have people run around — I guess he’s been looking at ZAZIE DANS LE METRO or something. It’s all very positively unfunny — the desire to laugh leaches away as soon as Van Dyke widens his mouth and juts his chin, or MacLaine squints or shrieks (she does a lot of shrill stuff in this one).

There ARE a few laughs, and a few surprises, though. A chimpanzee is dressed in mourning. Mitchum grabs a bull by the pizzle and gurns, “Forgive me, Melrose!” before being kicked fifty feet in the air. Gene Kelly plays a horrifically self-important movie star — “Ah, the little people — how I love them!” And there are those dance numbers:

Did you spot Terri Garr in the chorus? Me neither.

Meanwhile, surrounded by all-pink sets and chorus lines in sailor suits, the man who helmed THE GUNS OF NAVARONE asserts his heterosexuality as forcefully as he can:

Ben Dover

Backless

The Tit and the Moon

It’s the kind of film where, as Billy Wilder put it, the director spends half his time devising shots where the leading lady leans forward to pick up a pepperpot.

The ’50s-’60s studio taste for gigantism is everywhere to be seen. There are jokes at the expense of LB Mayer, Ross Hunter and CLEOPATRA, as if this movie were any different. Only expensive things are beautiful here. MacLaine and Newman are the most beautiful and among the most expensive. Newman, as artist Larry Flint (!) is actually kind of funny, and certainly enjoyable. He seems to be having fun, and Newman having fun can be infectious. Mitchum also gives one of his unique performances – -you think you know this guy and then he’ll pull a random variant on his style that knocks you for a loop.

During the major “what-will-she-wear-next?” number, there’s a swell slomo shot of MacLaine burling around in a yellow cape, and as Fiona says, you don’t notice her because the spectacle of Mitchum just WALKING in slow motion is so beautiful:

(This clip strobes a bit — sorry, not my doing — but you sort of get the effect.)

Because everybody involved has some kind of (mis-matched, out-of-control) talent, the effect is never less than watchable, and never actually unalloyed pleasure. In fact, it may be the most heavily alloyed light entertainment ever bolted together.

But, you know, worth a look.

The Couch Trip

How did it happen, David?

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13 Responses to “What? Ah! Way to go!”

  1. Thank you for confirming that this film actually exists and giving it a title. My father took me to see it when I was a small child (presumably when it came out first) and I loved it and retained a very strong impression of Shirley Maclaine, pinkness and many, many frocks, but when I tried to describe it to someone recently I began to wonder if I’d imagined the whole thing.

  2. Yeah, it kind of has the quality of a waking cheese dream.

    The story seems pretty easy to summarise, and yet it kind of floats away when you try.

    For a “bad film” it’s quite enjoyable because all of the talents concerned are doing interesting things, and the resources thrown at it are so immense.

  3. I think Shirley MacLaine’s STILL wondering how it happened. I think she’ll need another incarnation to figure it all out.

    When Cahiers du Cinema interviewed them Comden & Green complained loudly about the film as being the only one in their entire career where their work was interferred with. One example they cited was the use in one sequence of the phrase “A Lush Budget Production.” In the script they did this once. In the finished film the phrase is used numerous times. For no good reason, and to no comic effect.

    What a Way To Go represents the panicked desperation of the last days of the studio era. Cleopatra had for all intents and purposes finshed Fox off. What a Way to Go threw a few more tons of dirt on the coffin. It SHOULD have been a fast-paced romp — like Ask Any Girl, a marvelous MacLaine-starred comedy from several years before. But Charles Walters directed that one. All the difference in the world, needless to say.

    The couch in that final screen-grab looks like the one “Yul Ulu” designed for Auntie Mame.

    A final very sad note: What a Way to Go contains the last screen performance of the great Margaret Dumont.

  4. Needless to say, Ask Any Girl isn’t available here. Is Fox still trying to recoup its investment in WAWTG? Will Shirley finally receive her profit points three incarnations from now?

    The Lush Budget thing was annoying, yes. One could see what the gag was meant to be — the big producer who plasters his name everywhere. But Lush Budget isn’t a person’s name, and C&G clearly meant it as a company name. The nerve of J Lee Thomson thinking he could improve their writing! based on WHAT comedy writing experience?

    I must say they were fortunate to have reached that stage in their careers without having faced this treatment earlier, the surprise to me is that Arthur Freed allowed it.

    It was amazing to see Margaret Dumont. But she’d lost the operatic force in her voice, and was trying hard to create that impact by other means, which changed her into quite a different performer.

    One of Sturges’ regulars, the randy window from Sullivan’s Travels, turns up as one of Dick Van Dyke’s customers, I think, still with the same flirty smile.

  5. Actually it wasn’t Arthur Freed, but Arthur P. Jacobs — who went on to produce the almost-as-egregious megaflop Dr. Dolittle

  6. I stand corrected — and so does the piece. Dolittle was the first film I was taken to see, aged 3. I started to cry as the lights dimmed because nobody had warned me it would be dark.

  7. The first film I saw, at age 4 was Meet Me in St. Louis. It was 1951. Just was playing the Palace. The Capitol theater on Broadway (where in 1968 I first saw 2001 in Cinerama) was playing a revival of Meet Me in St. Louis and Babes in Arms in her honor. We came in just as Judy was singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to Margaret O’Brien. This was the first film image I ever saw.

    The following year I was taken to Radio City to see my first NEW film : Singin’ in the Rain.

    It’s been downhill from there.

  8. This is strange. For a long time I always thought that the first film I ever saw was 2001; a Space Odyssey at the age of 5 but you know, I think it might have been this one. My very earliest cinema memory is of Dick Van Dyke running full pelt at a tromp l’oeil corridor and rebounding off a wall. I always thought I’d imagined it so dismissed it but seeing these images is bringing a flood of half-memories. How very unusual. I may need to sit down now.

  9. I don’t think that’s this one — are you sure it’s not Donald O’Conner, who does that exact thing in Singin’ in the Rain? Maybe you saw that on revival? O’Conner is definitely in the same genre as D Van D. And the look of WAWTG is reminiscent of MGM musicals…

  10. I also read that and thought of Make ’em Laugh from SITR: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FW02c5UNGl0

  11. […] What a Way to Go! dcairns.wordpress.com […]

  12. I am not sure that I have ever seen this movie in its entirety, but I have seen the Melrose scene at least three times. It is one of those weird instances that occur in channel surfing and you stop and lo, there is a scene that you recognize from a movie or show and you watch it from that point.
    IIn my hometown, Melrose is the name of a street that is often used as a shortcut. Whenever I turn onto it, I mutter, “Melrose, forgive me”.

  13. It’s so episodic it’d be very hard to know if one had in fact seen the whole thing all the way through if not viewed in one sitting from beginning to end. What sticks in my memory three years later is the unpleasant frenzy and the candy-colored expense, all shoveled at the audience as if by slave-driven dwarfs.

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