Merman, O'Connor, Ellen, and Sanders stun in... Call Me Madam (1953)
There's No Business Like Show Business, my curiosity was tweaked when I heard about Call Me Madam. Released the year before Show Business, it had two of the later film's stars, Merman and O'Connor, and it boasted an Irving Berlin score too. The day I found it at the library left me all sorts of giddy, but I was even more thrilled when I actually watched it. You guys, Call Me Madam is fantastic. Like, why-aren't-we-shouting-about-it-from-rooftops? fantastic. I'm sensing trepidation, but read on and you'll understand.
First of all, the film starts with a fun title sequence that has a bunch of adorable artwork to accompany the cast and crew's names:
"The Hostess with the Mostest" is our real introduction to Sally, as she explains in song that her money came from her father finding oil on their Oklahoma farm and over time she became the grand dame of Washington, entertaining and charming politicians and the like, contributing money to campaigns, and so on. In other words, she can be a pretty powerful lady.
Ken shows her to her office, where she gets to meet a very passive aggressive Maxwell. Within a minute, he insults her background and her intelligence, but she pushes back.
They're still butting heads when the foreign minister, Gen. Cosmo Constantine (Sanders), arrives. Sally is instantly smitten and it's not hard to see why. I'm used to the villainous sleazeballs that Sanders excelled at, but here he is a complete doll -- charming, sweet, warm, like a big teddy bear personified. All it takes is one kiss on the hand for Sally to offer him any money he needs from the U.S. She's so enthusiastic, she bursts into "Can You Use Any Money Today?" Cosmo rejects the offer, though, believing that Lichtenburg doesn't need outside help to get back on its feet financially.
Sally is amazed, and then charmed when Cosmo indulges the location of a secret passageway in her office that leads to the palace's wine cellar (the embassy had originally been built ages ago for the then-Grand Duke's mistress). We get a lot of information in this scene: Cosmo isn't married; Sally and her staff are being presented to the court tonight; she and Cosmo have a dinner date in a few nights; and Cosmo is adamant that although it is customary in his family and in his country to marry for money, he would much rather marry for love, giving us "Marrying for Love."
George Sanders's voice is so splendid, it makes me smile just thinking about it. It certainly makes Sally dreamy-eyed. When Cosmo leaves, the only thing she can say is "Wow."
"It's a Lovely Day Today." A gorgeous woman in peach approaches him, thinking he is a sales clerk, and asks if the song is American. Ken replies that it's "a hit from a show that ran a couple of years on Broadway," probably referring to Call Me Madam's origins as a Broadway musical. The woman he is speaking to, of course, is Princess Maria. She asks to hear the words to the song and Ken happily obliges. When a bodyguard interrupts them, Ken realizes who he is singing to and introduces himself. They flirt some more, which includes Maria singing the chorus back at him, but she remembers an appointment and has to go, leaving Ken in bright spirits. It's a lovely day, indeed!
That night, high society steps out to see Sally at the palace. Decked out in white and silver, Sally looks incredible, but she's not too crazy about the long train she has to wear as part of the formalities. She kicks it around and tries to remember the procedure she has to go through when she meets the Grand Duke. When Cosmo enters the room, though, she hilariously hikes the train up around her legs so she can walk without a problem and then throws it back behind her like she is hiking a football. Maxwell is at a total loss, naturellement. When it comes time for Sally to make her big entrance and introduce herself to the Grand Duke and Duchess,
"International Rag," a 1913 tune that happens to be the most up-to-date song the band knows.
This kind of fascinating stuff is why I love musicals so much -- there can be layer upon layer of interpretation, it is not just people randomly bursting into song and dance. It all has some kind of meaning and some relationship to the characters. For Vera-Ellen and Donald O'Connor, it's about establishing the feelings between Maria and Ken, people who feel so deeply about those feelings that they have to express them musically.
This dance is sublime and sweet, with some impressive skirt work from Ellen. You can watch it here. The dance ends in a kiss, but Maria feels slightly ashamed and says they better get back to the party. It seems like trouble is brewing when Prince Hugo observes the couple returning; Ken, after all, is a threat to Hugo's country getting Maria's dowry.
"You're Just in Love," my absolute favorite number from this movie. It is so incredible -- Sally's part is all bright and upbeat, while Ken's is more poignant and forlorn, both of their parts overlapping into a kind of dueling duet. Merman had Irving Berlin write this song for the stage show, and it became the musical's showstopper. The camaraderie between Sally and Ken is one of the best parts of Call Me Madam. They become like family to one another and it is so heartwarming to watch. Also, I gotta admit that Donald O'Connor's look here is super adorable. I've always loved O'Connor, but this film makes him absolutely swoon-worthy.
"The Ocarina" with some of the townspeople in traditional garb.
Vera-Ellen often seems to be overlooked in favor of Cyd Charisse, but my God, the woman was magnificent. She could do acrobatics like nobody's business, making her a fantastic athlete, and she was the master at skirt choreography. I know, I sound obsessed with those skirts, but there's something so visually appealing about the movement of a skirt during a dance. To me, it looks like the
Sebastian and Tantinnin hope to ambush Sally at the fair, but Tantinnin's creepy attempts at flirting get shut down right quick. She bumps into Cosmo, and although she's on high alert about his "scheming," she still can't help spending the day with him.
Elsewhere, Ken finds Maria and tries talking to her, but she believes it isn't right for them to continue whatever it is that they have. Plus, even if she wanted to break her engagement
Hugo chooses this moment to arrive, and he has to make it worse by threatening Ken and demanding he leave Lichtenburg. When Maria agrees that his attentions towards her are "far from discreet" and sides with Hugo, Ken is hurt.
"What Chance Have I with Love?" Ken wrecks the place, breaking a chair to play the xylophone and then falling on said xylophone, throwing glasses once he has emptied them, and crashing into a pyramid of dishes. He's a mess, but a very well-choreographed mess. O'Connor is brilliant here, adding sly touches to embellish the lyrics while also excelling at pretending to be smashed. "What Chance..." was added to the film to showcase O'Connor, and boy does it. Probably the most famous part of this routine is when he pulls down a bunch of balloons and then proceeds to pop them as he dances.
In the cobweb-infested cellar, Ken discovers that Maria set up this meeting to warn him that Hugo has been making threats, but she admits that she also really wanted to see him. She doesn't plan on marrying Hugo anymore; since there is no money for the dowry and it doesn't look like there will be thanks to Sally, the likelihood of the marriage happening is slim. Excited that they can be together, Maria and Ken have "Something to Dance About." This number is a fun, quick-paced affair that never fails to make me happy. You can't go wrong with illicit wine cellar dancin'.
It's the night of Sally and Cosmo's dinner date. Looking dazzling in shimmering red, Sally asks Maxwell to stay in the room with them, no matter what she says -- if Cosmo wants to seduce her, he's going to have a difficult time doing it with Maxwell standing there. When Cosmo arrives, Maxwell gives them a minute to say hello alone, cuing Sally to give the foreign minister her practiced speech about being upfront with each other instead of playing games. "I know what's on your mind," she says. "Why not be straightforward and direct about it?" "Okay," Cosmo replies, planting a big kiss on her.
Sally melts and although she still isn't sure that Cosmo is being honest, she asks Maxwell to leave them alone. He thinks she is just sticking to the plan, forcing her to amusingly kick him out. As she and Cosmo talk about doing the best thing for their respective countries, they slip into the song "The Best Thing for You Would Be Me," a charming ballad that demonstrates the softer side of Merman's booming voice.
That evening, Sally hosts a big party. She has her fingers crossed that this loan will go through, however Ken is disappointed. Cosmo, meanwhile, is shocked to learn that he has just been made prime minister; Sebastian and Tantinnin told the rest of the cabinet members that the U.S. would solely deal with Cosmo, so they overthrew Sebastian and elected Cosmo his successor. Cosmo is further surprised when the senators try talking to him about the loan. He emphatically refuses the aid, which only impresses the investigatory committee more, leading them to offer him $200 million.
Cosmo rejects that too, and quickly resigns as prime minister. Sally tries to explain to him that she just wanted to help, but he can't understand it and accuses her of ruining everything he had been working towards in his career. Ouch.
Worried about the loan, Ken has Maria meet him in the wine cellar. He thinks it is still going through, but he argues that Maria doesn't have to stay true to her marriage contract -- it's 1953, after all!
Maria feels bound to her duty to inherit the throne, to which Ken responds insultingly "You're beautiful, you're charming, and I adore you, but do you honestly think you have any special talent for ruling a country?" I love you, Ken, but that was truly idiotic. Maria takes offense as well and thankfully Ken apologizes and admits he didn't mean it. They're both having a difficult time accepting that they can't be together. With tears falling down her face, Maria hugs Ken one more time and hurriedly walks away before she changes her mind.
here, starting at 3:02.
Back in Washington, D.C., Sally is hosting another party when Ken arrives to tell her that he just heard from the State Department that Cosmo was appointed the Lichtenburg ambassador for the U.S. She is thrilled, but Ken says there's more... he was seen coming on the boat with a woman, who he is bringing with him to Sally's party. Just then, Cosmo arrives and it seems like he has forgiven Sally considering he is all smiles. Before they can say much, the butler announces the arrival of "the honorable Ms. Hammenschlaffen" -- it's Maria! That's the woman who was traveling with Cosmo! While Cosmo awards Sally with a medal from Lichtenburg (she is now Dame Sally Adams to you!), Maria goes on the terrace to find Ken. She has renounced the throne, hence her using her family name of Hammenschlaffen, and they can finally be married. For our grand finale, we get "You're Just in Love" courtesy of Cosmo and Sally, and then everybody joins in for a reprise of "Something to Dance About."
partner to Russell Crouse, saw his friend Ethel Merman reading a magazine one day that had an article about Mesta and he became inspired to bring the two women together in a musical. Funnily enough, Merman had to ask "Who's Perle Mesta?" (The two would later become good friends.) The actress was more interested in finding something dramatic, but when Irving Berlin signed on to write the score, she conceded to a few songs... and then she realized she was going to have to give in completely, especially since both she and Berlin were hoping to repeat the massive success of their collaboration on Annie Get Your Gun.
But let's get back to the costumes for a minute, because they are really spectacular here. Merman's wardrobe in particular is so lovely, with just the right amount of flash and elegance. Nothing is too over-the-top, which is good because Merman's own personality could sometimes be over-the-top, so well-balanced costumes keep her from not being too in-your-face.
Another thing I really enjoy about Irene's costuming is that she connects the characters of Sally and Cosmo through their clothes. For example, in their first meeting, they're both wearing navy blue. When they have their dinner date, Sally has a silver pin on the back of her dress, one that looks very similar to the silver medallion Cosmo often has pinned to his jacket. She is wearing another pin like his in that last scene when they are reunited.
an interview from 1979, O'Connor had this to say about CMM: "We did some beautiful numbers. The one with the castle all broken down, and around the water, was beautiful music beautifully choreographed. Working with Vera-Ellen was such a joy. And there’s one they cut out [when the movie is shown] on television. It had everything: a very fast two-person number, tap dancing. If you see the picture in its entirety, you’ll see it. That was, for me, my best dancing. As far as the best picture is concerned: There’s No Business Like Show Business." It's surprising that he didn't consider Singin' in the Rain his best, but you have to wonder if he considered that more Gene Kelly's picture than his. Regardless, I would say he was right in ascertaining that CMM has his best dancing. While he did iconic work in Singin', CMM gives him a romanticism and sophistication that is more indicative of his leading man talents, instead of just being the funny sidekick who can keep up with Gene Kelly. But that's just my opinion. See CMM for yourself before you kick me in the teeth.
This is my entry to the Royalty on Film Blogathon. For the other marvelous contributions, click here.