Like many movie nerds, I frequently find myself wanting to champion oddball films that slipped through the cracks critically & financially in their time. Apparently, that urge to champion cinematic underdogs extends all the way up to major studio releases with enormous budgets and casts stacked to the ceiling with famous movie stars. The 1964 commercial & critical flop What a Way to Go! shouldn’t need any defenders. Its Old Hollywood brand of glitz, glam, and irreverent mayhem is staged on such an epic scale that its greatness is almost undeniable. Yet, it was met with a shrug in its own time and willfully forgotten in the half-century since, except maybe by the dorks who were raised on TCM & PBS re-broadcasts of studio classics. That lukewarm reception might have made sense in the cultural context of the mid-1960s, when audiences were hungry for the hipper, more stripped-down pleasures of The French New Wave and the still-percolating New Hollywood takeover. Watching it now, it’s difficult to fathom why it isn’t as fawned over as other titles from creative team Betty Comden & Adolph Green, who also penned The Band Wagon & Singin’ in the Rain. It has all the makings of a widely beloved classic, but none of the fanfare.
What a Way to Go! stars a young Shirley MacLaine as a frantic woman who’s desperate to rid herself of $200 million of inherited wealth. We learn in rigidly structured flashbacks (through a pointless therapy session framing device, the film’s one flagrant misstep) that she accidentally inherited these millions by becoming the widow of several absurdly wealthy men, each played by ultra-famous Old Hollywood studs: Gene Kelley, Dean Martin, Robert Mitchum, Paul Newman, and Dick Van Dyke. MacLaine’s cursed widow only desires these men for their love & companionship, but each die in greedy pursuit of wealth after only brief bursts of marital bliss. Thanks to the subjectivity of filtering these tales through MacLaine’s memories, the film illustrates these comically tragic vignettes with zany proto-ZAZ visual gags more befitting of a Looney Tunes short or a Mel Brooks farce than a Studio Era comedy. Runaway caskets, avant-garde chimpanzee painters, and straight-up vaudevillian clowning flood the screen with manic-comic energy from start to finish, never allowing the film to drag the way these bloated-budget Hollywood showcases often do. Its Looney Tunes goofballery also clashes spectacularly with its lush, Oscar-nominated costume & production design – most wonderfully in a sequence where everything in MacLaine’s Hollywood mansion is painted an eye-searing hot pink except her. Everything.
The most easily identifiable confluence of the film’s unashamed silliness and willingness to hurl mountains of money at the screen is a recurring gag in which MacLaine’s relationships with her departed husbands are represented in minutes-long genre spoofs. When married to a podunk fisherman in a one-room shack, the film spoofs silent-era comedies from Charlie “The Tramp” Chaplin, complete with a squared-off aspect ratio & dialogue intertitles. When married to an ex-pat beatnik painter in Paris, it spoofs the black & white arthouse pretension of The French New Wave. The commitment to this recurring bit is so thorough that the film even spoofs its own time & genre in a self-labeled “Lush Budgett” production with hundreds of unnecessary set & costume changes that amounts to the equivalent of burning piles of money onscreen. What a beautiful fire, at least. My favorite image from What a Way to Go! is a promo still where MacLaine poses on the all-pink mansion set with a small selection of the beautiful, outrageous dresses she wears through the film. The brilliance of the Lush Budgett segment is that the film is fully aware of how ridiculous & unnecessary all this pageantry is to tell an amusing story. The tragedy of the film is that not enough people saw it to realize that it had that playful sense of humor about itself.
The circumstances of What a Way to Go!‘s release were all wrong. The film was tailor-written for consistent hitmaker Marilyn Monroe, who died before production. It was released in a time where its old-fashioned lush-budget pageantry was gradually being replaced with more experimental, barebones art cinema – a racket even the major studios were soon to enter. Looking back, though, I think audiences failed the film instead of the other way around. Its zany physics-ignoring sense of humor and eagerness to spoof every era of mainstream filmmaking (including its own) point to the film being way hipper & more up to date than it was initially credited to be. Meanwhile, it also functions just as well as a straight-forward specimen of Old Hollywood glamour, a self-justifying indulgence that proves the inherent artistic & entertainment value of big-budget spectacle. Watching charming movie stars perform in fabulous costumes on lavish sets is its own kind of valuable cinematic pleasure, just as worthwhile of preservation as its barebones arthouse nemeses. And this is a picture where you get to enjoy both! Its greatest sin was arriving on the cusp between those two worlds’ dominance, which also turns out to be its greatest strength.
– Brandon Ledet