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.
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.)
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:
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.
How did it happen, David?