Sunday, February 25, 2018

What a Way to Go

Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, things just don't work out. Sometimes, no matter how much money and starpower you put into a movie, it just doesn't turn out. Such is the trouble with What a Way to Go.

Shirley MacLaine is our lead, with Gene Kelly, Dean Martin, Robert Mitchum AND Paul Newman as her leading men. Screenplay by Comden & Green, costumes by Edith Head, hair by Sydney Guilaroff, jewels by Harry Winston. Yet, somehow, What a Way to Go doesn't quite get there. It wants to be an outrageous, self-mocking comedy, but it's afraid to muss its hair or make any waves. So why watch it then? Well..

Edith Head's career contained many dazzling achievements, from Elizabeth Taylor in a A Place in the Sun to Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard to Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief. In What a Way to Go, Head was, well, given her head--and half a million dollars, which was some serious scratch back in 1964. Shirley MacLaine is attired in a series of fur hats, beaded gowns and marabou pajamas that would knock the most discerning eye out. If you lean back, put some Peggy Lee or Raveonettes on the stereo, pop open a bottle of bubbly and let the fashion show commence, What a Way to Go is far more enjoyable.

So, out opening introduces us to fabulously wealthy widow Shirley, who is trying to give her fortune away to the U.S. government. See, every one of her husbands has gotten rich and then died while she was married to them Since she actually loved her husbands, this is problematic and she thinks she's cursed. We are told the story in flashback as she tells it to a psychiatrist (part of the telling-it-to-your-shrink genre that was popular for a bit.)

Actually, this would be a great film for little girls with all the pink & sparkly & fancy.
Well, little girls who can find the humor in death, anyway.

We start with the young Shirley flouncing around the family home with drawn-on freckles and a giant lollipop. Her mother rants about the importance of "money success money success"--even for what's basically a 90-second role, they got Marx Brother foil Margaret Dumont. We immediately get the heavily parodic tone of the movie, but somehow it feels forced, not funny. Perhaps Frank Tashlin or a Billy Wilder could have gotten it right but, instead, one gets the feeling that What a Way to Go is waiting for a punchline that never comes, which is actually sort of is--it's a comedy with virtually no jokes, just a jokey tone. I mean, if you're already making a comedy predicated on multiple deaths, why are you playing everything else vanilla?

"You turned out real beautiful! You have something to sell!
Take a mother's advice and sell it now!"

(Yes, we're all told this is bad advice. But, frankly, as someone who's been there, I wish i'd sold it when i still looked like a damn Barbie doll. Prince Charming ain't coming, sweet cheeks, and it's better to wind up with something than nothing. If I could go back in time and tell myself one thing, it would be this. So i'm telling you in case you can use it. Or, if find yourself back in time and run into me, pass on the message.)

Here we meet Dean Martin as the town rich asshole--Shirl's boyfriend, even though she hates him. We're supposed to hate Dean, but it's hard to hate Dean. We also get Dick Van Dyke as some kind of general store-owning, Thoreau-reading proto-hippie, who becomes Mr. MacLaine #1.

Her time as Van Dyke's bride is rendered as a silent movie with her as Mabel Normand and him as
Buster Keaton. This conceit of rendering each romance in a different style will continue--Paul Newman's New Wave art film, Robert Mitchum's big-budget epic, Gene Kelly's flashy musical--but it never quite lands. It may be because the film never quite abandon's its own 20th Century Fox production values to embrace those of the style it intends to inhabit.

So Dino insults Dick, so Dick decides to make his general store into Wal-Mart and run local scion Dean out of business. Doing so makes him rich, but deprives Shirley of his company and eventually he dies from counting his money too hard or something...

Sad Shirl arrives in Paris, where she meets boorish beatnik Paul Newman, who is weirdly like some kind of post-millennial hipster with his machines that paint and his being a dick to the locals and his beard. But Shirley is happy in her Parisian garret with her bullet bra and Paul Newman. Who wouldn't be?

(Few invoke as much of a universal "I'd hit that" as young Paul Newman. I still recall sitting in Lucy's bar on Avenue A sometime back in the 90s, watching The Long Hot Summer with my friend Denise and Lucy, the little Ukranian babushka who owned the place. When Paul first appeared shirtless and sweaty, Lucy poured us all a shot of whiskey and we drank to his hotness...)

Anyhow, What a Way to Go. So, Paul Newman become a famous painter (thus giving Edith Head reason to design Shirley some dope outfits that match his paintings and look great with her Anna Karina wig) but this means he has no time for his lady. We're supposed to be charmed by the fact that Shirley wants a man who spends his every waking minute with her but, frankly, it seems kind of clingy and needy... or maybe she's a nymphomaniac and needs a man who has no job but giving her some D every 20 minutes. Add in the fact that she seems to have no personality characteristic besides a love for pretty clothes and the need to latch onto a man (Hey, it's Jupiter Ascending!) and we have a lead character with no character. Which would be fine if it were obscured by a nonstop barrage of jokes, but it's not. Oh, believe me, it's not...

So, anyway, Newman buys it at the hands (brushes? rollers? poky sticks?) of one of his steampunk painting machines (see, told you he was a hipster) but sales of his paintings have left Shirley, once again, a rich widow....

The widow runs across the Millionaire Playboy, played by Robert Mitchum. As always, Mitchum is a welcome presence and he and MacLaine have a nice chemistry--probably because they had it in real life in the form of a multi-year affair... anyway. He's a fabulously wealthy captain of industry.

The "Lush Budgett Production" joke is funny the first or second time. By use #9 they've pretty much torn it and are you seriously telling me that, with all the drunken, bitter, overeducated screeenwriters in Hollywood, you could only come up with ONE pun on a movie mogul's name. Anyway, we do at least get the most magnificently glamorous costumes. Bow down to Edith Head!


So there's that and then there's Mitch and Shirley repeating "Remind me to tell you that I love you" a few dozen times. It is literally a 20-minute sequence that hangs on two jokes repeated over and over again. A large part of the problem with What a Way to Go is that it is one of the most lazily written films ever made--in scenes like this, you get the feeling that Betty Comden and Adolph Green didn't even finish it. The wit that made Singin' in the Rain and Auntie Mame is nowhere here apparent. But, still, the outfits...

Mitchum dies when they go back to the farm he grew up on--he's been fixated on the cow he had as a boy, Melissa, throughout the film. It makes you sorry they didn't include any if the many bestiality jokes Mitchum must've made off-camera. Especially since he dies trying to milk a bull...

Husband number next is Gene Kelly, a struggling hoofer. We get a nice dance number starring Kelly and MacLaine and then some more non-comedy as Kelly, of course, becomes rich and famous. Since his name is Pinky, he demands that everything be painted pink, which leads to some really great lewks, both is set and in costume, if nothing else (and there is pretty much nothing else)...

But, again, we have our lazy screenwriters who come up with no other joke other than "everything's pink!" Kelly becomes an unbearable stereotype of a narcissistic Hollywood star and comes off as an asshole, not a comedian. Maybe because he doesn't have any funny lines. Everything's pink! Geddit? He's a jerk! Geddit? Anyway, he dies too when his fans swamp him Day of the Locust style. So funny!

Which brings us back to the present, and you can guess whether Shirley decides to go with the psychiatrist, go back to a now-broke Dean Martin or strike out on her own to find her own purpose in life beyond obsessive devotion to a man. Well, I'm sure you can guess which one is not happening...

Apparently the first choice for the lead role in What a Way to Go was Marilyn Monroe and one cannot help but thinks she would have been better--MacLaine was a professional dancer and a skilled comedienne, but somehow she didn't have the aptitude for physical comedy nor the innocent deadpan that Monroe possessed. Few played the straight woman as well as she did and if What a Way to Go had let its male leads go to town with a sort of reverse Lorelei Lee at its center... that might have worked. Or Comden & Green could have just gotten off of their asses and written some jokes.

Still, the costumes--72 of them, if you're counting--are to die for. If you own a hair salon or boutique or a bar that does brisk sales in rosé, you should consider putting What a Way to Go on your screens just for the visuals. Just be sure and turn the sound off. No one wants to hear that "remind me to tell you that I love you" joke again....

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