The Sunday Intertitle: The Whoring Twenties

As far as I know, THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE is the only roadshow musical about the white slave trade, but I could be wrong.

We watched it partly in honour of the late Carol Channing and André Previn, both of whom make excellent contributions to whatever this film is, and partly just because I’d picked up the DVD for cheap and had never watched the film properly. An odd DVD, whose Greek subtitles seemed to switch on automatically whenever there was an intertitle.GOOD use of intertitles, though — the movie is a twenties pastiche, fine, but they’ve worked out a specific way of using intertitles in a talkie — they use them as thought bubbles. So Millie (Julie Andrews) will look to the camera at a key moment and the intertitle will pop up, giving us her take on whatever’s just happened. And they don’t overuse the gimmick.

The Hallelujah Chorus, wrote editor Ralph Rosenbaum, is “always a sure sign of a film in trouble,” and so are wipes, and this film liberally uses both. Iris in and outs are fine, period-appropriately, and I wish people would use them for no reason in non-period movies, but wipes are the devil’s own transition devices. They should be shunned. And those flip-flop things, where one image blurringly spins like a revolving door and another replaces it, make me want to take an axe to the next optical printer I see.

(DEEP BREATH) Everyone in this is perfectly good, OK, and it’s terrific to see Beatrice Lillie in a rare movie perf (but in a problematic role) but James Fox is the stand-out. The glasses are clearly aiming at Harold Lloyd (I overcomplicated things by wondering if Creighton Hale was also an influence), confirmed when he gives the matte lines a work-out by scaling Millie’s place of work, human fly fashion. It’s a shame his big number, the Tapioca, is quite poorly filmed (they over-edit and cut off the feet). George Roy Hill is not a musicals guy, I fear.

Oh, and Fiona was impressed by how sexy Julie Andrews managed to get during her vamp scene. Apart from THE AMERICANISATION OF EMILY, where James Garner seems to animate some hitherto iced-over aspect of the Andrews persona, she’s not really known for her blistering eroticism, is she? And yet, here it is, however briefly.

Being a long, sprawling roadshow affair, the movie by rights ought to offer a PANOPLY OF TWENTIES AMERICANA, but this it has no interest in doing. Mary Tyler Moore’s character’s putative stage career leads to absolutely no Broadway business, and the settings specifically evocative of the period are limited to a vaudeville show, a country house (with biplanes), a Chinatown knocking shop. Most of the action seems to take place in a nondescript hotel (it’s written as eccentric but the art department keep things TV-movie-looking) and an office.

Oh, the movie does come up with one of the great actor/drug combos of all time. You know how Dennis Hopper performing a sense memory of nitrous oxide became an iconic image in BLUE VELVET? The combination of John Gavin and curare proves similarly apt. The filmmakers must have known they were onto a good thing with this business, because they blowpipe the poor bastard twice.

Gavin is GOOD in this. He gets the joke, he knows he’s the butt, and he goes at it. Admirable.

The sex trafficking angle (no, we don’t see Calvin Coolidge as a customer: it was a different era) is handled… weirdly. The movie opens with a choloroforming/abduction scene shot like a giallo, lit and designed like a TV movie of the week. In Chinatown, the whorehouse-warehouse is a Man’s Adventure magazine style bdsm fantasia. And, when James Fox, looking rather fetching in flapper drag, is kidnapped and his captors go “Ugh!”, thinking him less than glamorous, Beatrice Lillie shrugs, “I know she’s not much, but in a dark corner on the late, late shift…” which puts the whole thing into a really horribly clear picture and any amusement kind of does a death rattle. We’re openly being invited to imagine a line of sweaty customers doing a train on a drugged-up, cross-dressed James Fox. I know it’s A Ross Hunter Production, but I can’t imagine they really wanted to do that to their audience.

The racism is another spectre haunting the story. Jack Soo & Pat Morita get a sinister gong on first appearance, as if we’re meant to be scared of them purely because they’re Chinese (in fairness, one can imagine a movie pastiche portraying any pair of spying henchmen of whatever race in a similar way: but here, it has a particular ethnic flavour). Philip Ahn as a sympathetic servant can’t do enough to remove the yellow peril undertones, as he enters too late and does too little, and that in a subservient capacity. The otherwise pointless Jewish wedding scene is presumably meant to make things feel inclusive, which is a pretty clueless idea. Seeing four white protags beat up a couple of stage Chinamen and stand triumphantly over their crumpled bodies has an uncomfortable feel to it, nowadays. The period pastiche patina should help alibi this, but it’s a strain.

And you don’t want strain in a musical.

THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE stars Maria Von Trapp; Chas; Mary Richards; Flo; Sam Loomis; Sammy Fong; Mr. Miyagi; Dr. Fong; Mrs. Lorelei Dodge-Blodgett; and Molly Molloy.

14 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: The Whoring Twenties”

  1. Torn Curtain has a brief go at eroticising Andrews at the start, but it’s almost impossible to believe she’d choose Topic A over arriving bright and early to the science convention.

  2. Yeah, that bit’s a notable failure that gets the film off to an unpromising start. Whatever Jim Rockford had for her, Butch Cassidy lacks.

  3. bensondonald Says:

    One pleasant thought is that Soo and Morita both enjoyed success and far better parts in the future — which they couldn’t have imagined while making this.

    But yes, the white slaver thing is unfunny and highly unpleasant in the bargain (Compare with “The Best House in London”, which is merely unfunny. The plot insists all hookers are happy and lower-class girls are eagerly complicit in their “ruin”, with pretty girls playing cartoon characters). The white slaver story was preserved in the fairly recent stage musical; don’t know if they made it more palatable.

    It’s as if “Pinocchio” kept reminding us that the Coachman was continuing to turn boys into donkeys while the puppet boy moved on to his happy ending (No villains are punished or even inconvenienced in that film, aside from Stromboli losing a profitable attraction).

    Any number of films show people — generally attractive women — captured by savages, monsters, mad scientists or aliens and being hauled out of the movie to implied fates, not to be rescued despite the heroes ultimate victory. In a genuinely serious film it might be accepted as necessary. In an entertainment it’s pee on the popcorn.

    A bizarre twist is offered by “Four Frightened People”, a precode survival tale. The first part of the film is harrowing and dark. An old spinster is taken away by hostile natives and the others are powerless to stop it. Then the film turns to a romance between survivors. And we get a comic scene where angry native men send the spinster back to civilization — she’s turned their women into feminists.

  4. chris schneider Says:

    My sister and I saw MILLIE when it was new, and we had the album. The picture never did a lot for me. But. The performance of “Rose of Washington Square” on the album, by one Ann Dee, sticks with me. (“They say my Roman nose, / It seems to please … artistic people …”) and I quite like the Jay Thompson song “Jimmy.” One hears that Thompson wrote an entire score for the film, only to have everything dumped ‘cept this.

    You’ve heard about Ross Hunter and THE BOY FRIEND? (The title of my next porn picture, but never mind.) Reputedly Hunter was enchanted by the Sandy Wilson show and determined to film it. But he couldn’t get the rights. So MILLIE, as the story goes, was this producer’s attempt to make one of his own.

  5. La Faustin Says:

    The Jewish wedding … in 1960s showbiz, there was a brief moment when being Jewish was seen as attractive and hip (Streisand, Woody Allen), even box office (Fiddler on the Roof) and played up, rather than desperately suppressed. Maybe a parallel with the rise of non-RP accents in Britain? Anyway, I hope that sequence made someone’s Momma kvell.

  6. Donald, at least Millie rescues all the abductees from the burning Chinatown warehouse she’s set light to in best Jackie Cooper style. So the slavers all get beaten up and captured and the victims all rescued.

    The Jewish wedding is perfectly pleasing in itself. It just doesn’t connect to anything in the story.

    Makes sense that The Boyfriend was wanted… I wonder if Ken Russell (busy making Billion Dollar Brain) would have been a better fit for this and George Roy Hill for that? But I like Ken’s anachronistic thirties Busby Berkeley visuals…

  7. David Ehrenstein Says:

    In recent years a stage adaptation of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” has met with great success — helping to launch the career of the remarkably talented Gavin Creel.

    It’s great fun seeing James Fox having a go at Hollywood at this point in his career — appearing quite amiably here and very dramatically in the insane Arthur Penn / Lillian Hellman farrago “The Chase” (1966)

  8. Fox is so versatile and interesting and appealing. A shame Performance kind of put a crimp in his career.

    I had the inestimable pleasure of directing his talented nephew, an experience I recommend.

  9. Fiona Watson Says:

  10. Baron Waste Says:

    Well, now, Yellow Peril is meant to be dastardly – why it’s a Peril. And it sure was lemon yellow. If you’ve ever read Sax Rohmer’s original “The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu” (1913) you get the picture. [Personally, I thought it would have been fun for Sir Nayland Smith to be barking mad, as the Si-Fan delicately suggested, and totally paranoid.]

  11. A student of mine made a fun short, The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu, after reading Rohmer, in which Smith is a nutcase and Fu Manchu a completely innocent random person he’s stalking, and Dr. Petrie too thick to understand. FM leaves notes saying “Why do you persecute me, I’ve done nothing,” and Smith attempts to decode their sinister hidden codes.

  12. Baron Waste Says:

    Yes, exactly! At first, he certainly sounds like a case of, “Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun”!

    It can be fun to tinker. Nicholas Meyer’s “Seven Percent Solution” was one famous example, but another is Michael Dibdin’s brilliant “The Last Sherlock Holmes Story”. I will not now be at all surprised if you know of it. If you don’t: What famous Victorian was a master of disguise, knew every back alley of London blindfolded, could dance rings ’round Scotland Yard, overused cocaine to a dangerous degree, had basic anatomical knowledge and a proverbial distaste for women? Was it S Holmes – or Jack the Ripper?

    That’s not an “or” question…

    The book is extremely well written, ties in the canon like Gulliver bound by the Lilliputians, and is unforgettable.

  13. I have a weird history of not being particularly taken with these kind of stories (Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem left me cold, I guess it within a few chapters).

    In the case of the Dibdin, it was obvious to me that the theory Holmes was working on was nonsense, so I asked why should that be the case…? I wonder if I’d like it better on rereading, not worrying about guessing the answers.

  14. Baron Waste Says:

    [Please excuse me for so departing from the subject of your post, a film I haven’t seen since it came out and upon which I am not qualified to express an opinion – save that the song lyric,“this is 1922,” seems several years too early for what appears to be at least AD 1926 if not 1929.]

    ‘Why were there no murders in August?’

    ‘Perhaps he was on vacation. It is the traditional month.’

    Holmes sat silent for a long moment. ‘I will never get your limits, Watson,’ he said quietly. ‘Never.’

    I suggest you do reread it. If nothing else, the way he worked in “The Final Problem” and Reichenbach Falls brought me to tears.

    Personal tastes are personal, as Dr Lyman Hall said in ‘1776,’ but I myself like the alternate history genre, so I’m not troubled by any purist sentiments. To me this is rather like the “remastered” ‘Star Trek’ with its new FX; as they said, it’s merely giving the show the FX it should have had, now that we can!

    Just so, in his first try and his second, far better but unknown “West End Horror,” Nicholas Meyer could now do what Conan Doyle obviously could not: If Mr Holmes really existed, whom would he really meet and what would he do? Thus he goes through London’s theatre world and interacts with Ellen Terry, Gilbert & Sullivan, Bram Stoker, Oscar Wilde, &c. Just so, it’s perfectly plausible that he would be asked to look into this Whitechapel business – even if Conan Doyle’s own stories never got that _heavy_.

    [”Detective Comics” became ‘DC Comics,’ as redundant as The The Tar Tar Pits in Los Angeles (!) and Batman was billed therein as “the world’s greatest detective,” but ‘Helter Skelter’ seems out of his league, so to speak… To a future generation, where both are legendary history, Charles “Joker” Manson might yet appear! ]

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