Shirley MacLaine knocks 'em dead in... What a Way to Go! (1964)
What a Way to Go! is a film I cannot believe exists. When I first heard about it a few years ago, I'm 97% sure I lost my mind. There are so many things about this movie that boggles me. Let me just start with the biggest one: the cast. Oh my god, this cast. Shirley MacLaine. Paul Newman. Robert Mitchum. Gene Kelly. Dean Martin. Robert Cummings. Dick Van Dyke. And that's just the main people! There are also very small supporting parts by Reginald Gardiner, Margaret Dumont, and Tom Conway. This film would actually be the final one for Dumont and Conway.
Directed by J. Lee Thompson (The Guns of Navarone, the original Cape Fear), What a Way to Go! is unique not only in its cast, but also in its story. Shirley MacLaine's unlucky character finds herself consistently marrying men who rise to greatness thanks to her inspiration. Unfortunately, these men's newfound fame and wealth leads to their demises, putting MacLaine in a vicious cycle. With each new husband, the film spoofs a different genre that exemplifies that husband's personality and makes the film a truly lavish production. Understandably, MacLaine was thrilled that she would be working with "Edith Head with a $500,000 budget, 72 hairstyles to match the gowns, and a $3.5 million gem collection loaned by Harry Winston of New York. Pretty good perks, I'd say." The film would go on to garner Oscar nominations for Best Art Direction and Best Costumes.
At the Bureau of Internal Revenue, Louisa attempts to
Steffanson has her start from the beginning, when she was just a young girl in Crawleyville, Ohio. Louisa says that all her life, all she ever wanted was to live a simple life with the man she loved. Her mother (Dumont), however, insisted that the only things that mattered were success and money, despite the samplers on their wall that said otherwise. The film neatly demonstrates Mrs. Foster's hypocrisy by showing us words tumbling from the samplers to show what they really meant:
When Leonard makes a stop at his family's department store, he learns that Edgar Hopper (Van Dyke), Leonard and Louisa's old classmate and the owner of a rundown general store, has turned down his latest offer to buy Edgar's property. Annoyed, Leonard spots Edgar and uses his car to splash mud all over him. Sweet,
Later that day, Edgar is fishing and reading his beloved Thoreau when Louisa swims by and asks to climb in his boat. She then amazes him by quoting Thoreau, which she admits she only studied because she knew he loved
here.) In no time, the couple are laying in the grass, cuddling. Edgar asks about Louisa's engagement to Leonard, but she says that ever since they were kids, she had a crush on Edgar. She would gladly take him and his simple life over Leonard and his riches.
They marry and, as Louisa tells Steffanson, she recalls their life together as a "wonderful old silent movie." To illustrate this, the film turns to black and white, jaunty piano music enters the score, and MacLaine and Van Dyke do all sorts of exaggerated movements while looking like Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin/Stan Laurel. It's definitely a clichéd version of silent film, but it's still cute. (I'm also a firm believer that Van Dyke would have excelled if he had been a silent comedian rather than a TV and film star.)
Despite his small role, Van Dyke wrote in his autobiography, "I had fun. Shirley was a rascal. We were on location one day and she didn't want her makeup man to touch her up, so she took off across a field, running at full speed. I watched in puzzled amusement as her makeup man sprinted after her, caught up, and tackled her as if they were two football players in the open field. Pinning her down, he applied makeup. Both of them returned to the set laughing."
Van Dyke also recalled working with Martin, "an easygoing, friendly man who referred to me as Dickie. ... As we worked, I thought, There is no way they can use this footage. The man is smashed. True to form, Dean had been drinking on the set while entertaining various beautiful women who had come to visit him. One day it was Ursula Andress, the next day it was some other babe. He wanted to treat every hour as if it were happy hour. But when I saw him on the screen, I couldn't tell he was drunk -- and neither could anyone else. He was just Dean being Dean. That's what he did, and it obviously worked for him."
What a Way to Go! played an interesting part in Van Dyke's career. After he made the movie, he became "determined to be more careful about the choices I made. The movie's script had been a pleasure to read, but the final version included some colorful ad-libbing that made it significantly different, more adult in tone, and had I known that initially I would have turned it down." It's not that Van Dyke was a prude. As he told his agent, he wanted to make films that "I can see with my kids and not feel uncomfortable. ... It was similar to Carl [Reiner] wanting The Dick Van Dyke Show to be timeless, or Fred Astaire movies seeming classic. If I always felt comfortable taking the whole family to one of my films, I knew others would, too, and that would serve me well over time." It served him well, indeed! When like-minded Walt Disney read an article where the actor talked about this, he offered Van Dyke the iconic role of Bert in Mary Poppins.
Louisa realizes that she wants to be a part of this kind of lifestyle, and she and Larry get married. "As I look back on it," Louisa tells Steffanson, "it all seems like one of those wickedly romantic French movies." Again, we revert to black and white as Paul Newman speaks French and he and MacLaine drape themselves over one another with only a sheet to cover their modesty. There are also many repetitious shots, which pokes fun at the French New Wave.
When the piece fetches $200, Larry eagerly moves on to many more paintings, much to Louisa's worry. Before you know it, Larry has several successful shows and the Flints are rolling in the dough. Once again, Louisa never sees her husband; he is much too busy entertaining guests or painting. He even crafts ridiculous outfits for Louisa:
Some months later, Louisa decides to leave Paris, but misses her plane by seconds. On the tarmac, she meets tycoon Rod Anderson (Mitchum), who offers her a ride to New York in his extravagant private plane. She expects him to be the stereotypical playboy type, but
The role of Rod was originally intended for Frank Sinatra, one of MacLaine's close friends. When Sinatra suddenly demanded a much higher salary than the other male leads, 20th Century Fox refused and tried to offer the part to an unavailable Gregory Peck. MacLaine came to the rescue by suggesting Mitchum to director Thompson. Mitchum agreed to play Rod -- and for no fee because of tax purposes! During this time, MacLaine and Mitchum were nearing the end of a three-year love affair, which started when they met on Two for the Seesaw. Mitchum was a fascinating man and MacLaine dedicates a whole insightful chapter to him in her book My Lucky Stars. I highly recommend it!
In spite of all of this, Pinky couldn't be happier. Backstage, he tells Louisa that never wanted to hit the big time because it would be too much pressure. He reveals that he used to be married to his partner, but she was always pushing him to become a star. They divorced and she found a rich husband. Pinky's warmth, benevolence, and sense of humor quickly win Louisa over and soon she is living on a houseboat on the Hudson as Mrs. Benson. To her, their life was like "a gay musical number from one of those big, Hollywood movie musicals." What happens next is the highlight of What a Way to Go!
MacLaine begins lip-syncing to an operatic soprano's voice as she sings about their lovely little houseboat. Kelly then dramatically joins her, his own voice replaced with a bombastic tenor's. When the song becomes bouncy, however, MacLaine and Kelly's real voices come in and they do a delightful tap dance. Next, they do a more bluesy interlude as the lights dim to just two spotlights, MacLaine loses her skirt, and Kelly loses his blazer. His choreography here is a clear reference to his and Cyd Charisse's sensual "Broadway Rhythm" number in Singin' in the Rain -- and I love it! As the routine goes back to light and cheerful, the lyrics also allude to Kelly's previous musicals Brigadoon, Anchors Aweigh, and On the Town. Considering that these lyrics were written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, the geniuses who worked with Kelly on Singin', It's Always Fair Weather, and On the Town, I like the fact that they put in all of these lovely nods to their friend in this song. It's an interesting, subtle way to recall Kelly's long and beautiful career. You can watch the number here.
Before she became a Hollywood star, MacLaine had been a trained dancer. She got her big break while understudying for Carol Haney on Broadway in the Tony-winning musical The Pajama Game. (For more on that, click here.) Kelly, obviously, had a lot of experience with musicals, but he hadn't done one since Les Girls in 1957. Because he and MacLaine were a little out of practice, they went to an empty rehearsal hall at the studio to prepare. As Kelly said to his wife Patricia years later, "Even though we were only doing parodies of numbers, we still didn't want to look glumpy." He also recalled, "I gave her a lot of steps to work on and by the time we were ready to shoot, we had been up there working for three weeks and the shooting, of course, didn't take nearly that long."
Of MacLaine, Kelly remarked that she was "nice to work with. She was a bright girl and very clever and very good." Patricia Kelly, Gene's widow, said that after Gene died, she spoke with MacLaine and found her to have "an uncanny understanding of him and his work. She spoke with such intensity, that it was as though no one else was in the room and no party was going on around us." By the way, if you look closely enough, you might be able to spot Teri Garr as one of the background dancers!
Before long, it's showtime and Pinky looks like a deer caught in the headlights. However, once he starts to sing "I Think That You and I Should Get Acquainted," he loosens up and the customers gradually quieten until they're all transfixed by Pinky's charismatic crooning and divine dancing. (Although the quality isn't the best, you can watch this scene here.)
The success of his performance makes Pinky realize what he has been missing out on... and devastates Louisa. Her husband's star swiftly rises, as evidenced by a cheeky montage that shows Pinky as a "bistro balladeer" in a suit and fedora that references this iconic image of Kelly's dear friend Frank Sinatra...
The montage then follows Pinky's success on Broadway as Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady (Rex who?)...
And then it ends with Pinky as a movie star on the set of Cleopatra, having snatched the role of Marc Anthony from "that Welshman" Richard Burton.
Making What a Way to Go! was plenty of fun for Shirley MacLaine. She loved her co-stars: "There was Robert Cummings who lived on vitamins, Dean Martin who lived on Scotch, Dick Van Dyke who lived on comedy, Paul Newman who lived, Robert Mitchum who lived on life and Gene Kelly who lived on the perfection of song and dance." However, the film's structure proved a little difficult for MacLaine. "I had to adjust to a different leading man every two weeks," she said, "and this was not easy for every good actor has his or her idiosyncrasies and that at times can become quite disconcerting and sometimes disruptive. It's sort of like having a love relationship with a different man every two weeks. The give and take of the relationships have different boundaries and barriers that must be overcome to insure a compatible relationship, and in my circumstance, a good performance on the screen."
Remarkably, MacLaine has great chemistry with each man. For me, the film is unique in that I actually love every single cast member and I enjoy all of their characters. Van Dyke is darn right adorable as sweet Edgar; Newman clearly relishes playing the eccentric artist; Mitchum gets a chance to be a sophisticate; Cummings is fun as the slightly unhinged psychiatrist; Martin is just plain old brilliant; and Kelly is perfection. If I was absolutely forced to pick my favorite section, it would be Kelly's. There are moments when he is playing Pinky (before his stardom) when I think my heart actually stops because it can't handle the amount of love I feel. And then, as Pinky becomes famous, Kelly lets loose and hams it up and it is gold.
What a Way to Go! was a big hit and became the 11th highest-grossing film of 1964. It had many things stacked in its favor. In addition to the cast, the set design, and the sumptuous Edith Head creations, the film has music by Nelson Riddle, a script from Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and songs written by Comden, Green, and Jule Styne.
What a Way to Go! is my favorite kind of '60s film: bright and funny with tons of style. It's the type of movie that could have only been made in 1964. I'm so enamored with its look that I took almost 200 screenshots! As you scroll, keep an eye out for Mitchum's face on the cover of TIME Magazine, a hilarious doctored photo of Mitchum next to a prized cow, MacLaine's outfits, and some seriously mod grocery bags.
This is my entry to the Free for All Blogathon. Check out the varied and exciting roster here!