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.
"Can You Use Any Money Today?" Cosmo rejects
"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!
"International Rag," a 1913 tune that happens to be the most up-to-date song the band knows.
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
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
"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.
"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'.
"The Best Thing for You Would Be Me," a charming ballad that demonstrates the softer side of Merman's
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!
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
Irene didn't slouch when it came to Vera-Ellen's costumes, either. I love the jeweled netting that is always in her hair, and as is often the case for Ellen, high necks are popular. Many sources like to claim that because of Ellen's anorexia, she was forced to wear clothing with high collars, but The Blonde at the Film's article on White Christmas
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.