What a Way to Go! (1964)

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

The Pirate (1948)

Being introduced to Gene Kelly’s artistry through late-career titles like Xanadu & The Young Girls of Rochefort, I had come to associate him with nostalgic meta commentary on Hollywood past, assuming that he had become an artifact of the era only in the years after his prime. I’ve since learned a couple things about Gene Kelly’s career by returning to the older titles that made him a star. The hit musical Singin’ in the Rain, for instance, taught me that nostalgia for Hollywood’s past had always been an essential aspect of the actor/dancer’s career. As his strengths as a performer have a kind of vaudevillian undercurrent to them, he tends to play performers in his movie roles, giving both an excuse for him to sing & dance directly to the audience and for meta commentary about Hollywood’s past. I feel like I learned an even more important lesson from 1948’s The Pirate, however: not all Gene Kelly movies are good. The Pirate once again features Kelly playing an actor, allowing him to perform directly to the camera and Put On A Show. It even has an open air of nostalgia for the swashbuckling past of stars like Errol Flynn, positioning the film as yet another Gene Kelly Old Hollywood Throwback. What I discovered is that those virtues are not nearly enough on their own to save a sinking ship. The Pirate is garbage so wet & so rotten that not even Gene Kelly’s singing, dancing nostalgia schtick could save it.

I can at least admit that The Pirate‘s failure is anyone but Gene Kelly’s fault. The entire production seemed doomed from the start, going through ten separate creative team re-writes in its journey from romance adventure to movie musical. Kelly himself was freshly returned from the horrors of serving in World War II, but wasn’t even close to the most disruptive or dysfunctional personality on set. Director Vincent Minelli (Liza’s father, naturally) feuded loudly on set with his then-wife Judy Garland, whose erratic total-meltdown behavior extended the shoot from weeks to months in an ever-ballooning expense. The Pirate‘s financial failure has often been blamed on the public not being ready to see Garland transition from her girlish Wizard of Oz roles to the more adult material she’s asked to command here. What’s a lot more likely is that her on-stage nervous breakdown (which eventually led to a suicide attempt & sanitarium hospice) made the film difficult for audiences to stomach as an expression of joy. Garland’s presence in The Pirate mostly amounts to a frantic, pilled-out mess, a tragic culmination of years of personal & professional abuse. Her onscreen rapport with Kelly is more violent yelling than it is passionate yearning and the end result is physically upsetting to behold. That’s not even to mention the casual, pervasive sexism & racism that corrupt the film’s casting & narrative, two scourges that have only made an already unlovable film less appealing over time.

Judy Garland stars as Manuela Alve, a wealthy young Carribbean woman, which had to be one of Hollywood’s all-time worst miscastings. Ignoring the (times-indicative) racism of that whitewashing, Manuela isn’t an inherently awful character. Raised inland on her Carribbean island home, she’s never seen open water & fantasizes about the adventure offered by tales of pirates, which is a tale common to other notable pirate properties like Peter PanCurse of the Black Pearl. In particular, she lusts after the infamous pirate Mac the Black DeMarco. This is a source of great frustration to both of her would-be beaus: a smooth-talking actor played by Gene Kelly and a monstrous plantation owner who disgusts her despite, unbeknownst to everyone, actually being Mac the Black in disguise. The discomfort in this scenario is in watching Kelly’s thespian woo Garland’s confused damsel heart away from her pirate-in-disguise betrothed. He hypnotizes her in a pivotal scene, gathering information to sway her heart & eventually convincing her that he himself is Mac the Black. He also pesters her endlessly, infantilizing her with chiding like, “Stepping into the sight of other men is too much of a provocation,” sealing the predatory rapist vibes of his character. To Manuela’s credit, she’s allowed to buck against the actor’s early infantilization, snapping back, “Don’t call me ‘pure soul.’ It irritates me,” asserting that there are “depths of emotion” to “romantic longings” under her “prim exterior.” She is eventually wooed into a relationship built on a lie, however, which works out fine for Gene Kelly’s actor/predator . . . until he has to prove to the authorities that he is, in fact, a singing, dancing, vaudevillian clown and not a cutthroat thief.

There is exactly one scene worth watching in The Pirate. When Manuela first imagines her thespian beau to be a famous pirate, the movie dives into her BDSM fantasy where he wields a giant sword & sings to a big band production while she’s a helpless bunny who has to watch from the sidelines. The song in this scene is not better than any other tune Cole Porter churned out on autopilot for the production, but it’s still worth watching for Manuela’s intensely sexualized vision of a pirate: Gene Kelly in short-shorts. Watching the typically sanitized token of nostalgia show off his muscular gams in a horned up pirate number is a three minute pleasure almost blissful enough to make the wet pile of garbage festering around it worthwhile. Almost. Gene Kelly’s charisma & sexy man-legs are powerful opiates, but not powerful enough to ease the discomfort of The Pirate‘s many apparent flaws: racist casting, sexist dialogue, a near-death Judy Garland, and a god awful set of Cole Porter songs with inanely repetitious lyrics like “Be a clown, be a clown, be a clown” & “Niña, niña, niña” (which he dared rhyme with “schizophreeñia”). Even as a staunch defender of the little-loved Xanadu & a spineless sucker for Technicolor, I couldn’t allow Gene Kelly’s charms overpower The Pirate‘s cultural toxicity & the genuine harm it did to one of his visibly shaken costars. Like many pirate ships in an age old storybooks, this one’s irrevocably cursed.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 33: Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Signin’ in the Rain (1952) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 158 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “Of the other movies I love, some are simply about the joy of physical movement.”  One of his examples includes “when Gene Kelly splashes through Singin’ in the Rain.”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): Singin’ in the Rain has been voted one of the greatest films of all time in international critics’ polls, and is routinely called the greatest of all the Hollywood musicals. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. There are other contenders–Top Hat, Swing Time, An American in Paris, The Band Wagon, Oklahoma, West Side Story–but Singin’ in the Rain comes first because it is not only from Hollywood, it is about Hollywood. It is set at the moment in the late 1920s when the movies first started to talk, and many of its best gags involve technical details.” -from his 1998 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

“There is no movie musical more fun than Singin’ in the Rain, and few that remain as fresh over the years. Its originality is all the more startling if you reflect that only one of its songs was written new for the film, that the producers plundered MGM’s storage vaults for sets and props, and that the movie was originally ranked below An American in Paris, which won a best picture Oscar. The verdict of the years knows better than Oscar: Singin’ in the Rain is a transcendent experience, and no one who loves movies can afford to miss it.” -from his 1999 review for his Great Movies series

I’ve become so used to seeing Gene Kelly function as a talisman of big budget musicals of cinema past in throwbacks like Xanadu & The Young Girls of Rochefort that it was exciting for me to finally see him star in an example of The Real Deal, a musical he co-directed himself in his prime. It was strange, then, to see that picture participate in the exact Old Hollywood nostalgia I’d already come to associate him with. Recalling recent films like The Artist & Hail, Caesar!, Singin’ in the Rain is a movie about the storied past of movies as an artform. A comedy about a fictional movie studio’s struggles to transition from the Silent Era to talkies, Singin’ in the Rain takes great pleasure in staging Technicolor recreations of old forms of entertainment like black & white silent romance pictures & traditional vaudeville acts. Hollywood’s favorite subject in general has always been itself, echoing an even more ancient tradition of art about art, and Gene Kelly’s career seems to be an essential part of that introspective self-indulgence.

The biggest hurdle Singin’ in the Rain had to clear in its path to greatness is that its first act is so immaculate that it’s difficult not to feel a little let down once the dust settles. Gene Kelly stars as a Gene Kelly-type star from the 1920s. We meet him on the red carpet at the premiere of his latest silent picture, where he addresses the pandemonious crowd cheering for his presence with an oral history of his life on the big screen. As he gloats about his past as a trained thespian of great prestige, we’re visually treated to his real past in bars, pool halls, vaudeville stages, and dangerous stunt work in a humorous montage. After the screening of what’s sure to be another smash hit (in an old-fashioned theater very similar to The Orpheum, where we watched this picture), Kelly’s handsome hero escapes the roar of his fans by crawling on top of a speeding streetcar and leaping into the passenger seat of a complete stranger’s car in a real life application of his on-screen swashbuckling skills. This passing stranger, played by (the recently deceased) Debbie Reynolds, is an aspiring actress herself, but pokes fun at Kelly’s leading man with verbal jabs like, “Movies are entertaining enough for the masses,” and “Once you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all.” Their flirtatious sparring as they trade cruel embarrassments at each other’s expense is one of the film’s great pleasures, so much so that it’s somewhat of a letdown once they wholly join forces to save a movie studio from the unavoidable disaster of adapting to talkies.

The industry-specific nostalgia about The Rise of the Talkies has its charm, even if it struggles to stack up next to Kelly & Reynolds’s first act attraction/animosity. Singin’ in the Rain is a much cleaner version of 1920s Hollywood than you’ll find in a harsh, gossipy exposé like Hollywood Babylon, but it does have its critiques. Spineless studio executives, closeted queer performers, and actresses whose shrill voices were never meant to interrupt the reverie of Silent Era pantomime color the changing world around Kelly & Reynolds. As much obvious affection as the picture has for the past, it also no qualms with poking fun at the medium’s early limitations, as well as drawing direct comparisons to 1950s studio musicals’ own reliance on blatant pantomime & vaudeville style entertainment. In the end, a return to simple vaudeville pleasures like singing, dancing, and rigidly structured one-liners is what saves the fictional not-ready-for-talkies movie studio from going under. It’s also the exact formula Singin’ in the Rain relies on for its basic entertainment value. The movie is both a critique of and a nostalgic participation in an artform that never really died, but more or less mutated instead.

Within that sense of vaudeville tradition, the song & dance numbers of Singin’ in the Rain more or less float independent from the plot in a vacuum. I can’t honestly say the songs themselves were my favorite aspect of the film. They’re mostly fine. What’s stunning is the spectacle of the production design that supports them: intensely artificial dream spaces packed with high fashion, glitter, an army of extras, and intensely colored lights. A few straightforward numbers were entertaining for their own sake. Watching Gene Kelly joyously splash about in puddles during the titular song (despite an intense fever he was suffering from during the shoot) has an infectious self-amusement to it. The Jim Carrey-esque best friend character played by Donald O’Connor (who was as undeniably queer as any best friend character I’ve ever seen onscreen) perform a “Make Em Laugh” number that’s initially funny in its basic indulgences in pratfalls, but then crosses into chillingly creepy as the pratfalls become an endless purgatorial loop of eternal punishment and the routine involves a headless female doll as a dance partner (*shudder*). It’s the larger than life Busby Berkeley throwbacks that overwhelm in their sheer enormity, though, allowing for surreal, glamorous imagery to elevate the film from movie industry comedy to fine art. Disembodied gams float in a florescent green void of Technicolor glitter. The high fashion runway walks of The Women are extended into an ultimate reality dreamscape of superb set design. Singin’ in the Rain is just as gorgeous as it is silly & self-indulgent.

It doesn’t seem as if Singin’ in the Rain was especially fun to make. Gene Kelly was reportedly cruel to Debbie Reynolds on-set for her perceived shortcomings as a dancer and the movie was only a modest financial success upon its initial release. You can feel a strain to convey joy despite the technical demand of the production seeping in from the corners of the frame, which might explain why its early adversarial flirtations are its most rewarding exchanges. Still, the film’s love & criticism of Hollywood as an industry & a tradition are powerful opioids even for a modern viewer. In an early scene where Kelly is strolling across a studio lot in conversation with his gay bestie, the pair pass several genre-variant film shoots in a ridiculous display later echoed in one of my all-time favorite films, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. That kind of gleeful enthusiasm for movie magic far outweighs any energy lost after the pleasure burst of the glorious first act and the movie overall feels timeless despite its obsession with the present & the past of its own medium. That seems to be a recurring theme within Gene Kelly’s overall career, not to mention an obsession of Hollywood at large.

Roger’s Rating  (4/4, 100%)

Brandon’s Rating (4/5, 80%)

Next Lesson: The Wizard of Oz (1939)

-Brandon Ledet

Cross-Promotion: Xanadu (1980) on the We Love to Watch Podcast

I was recently invited back as a returning guest on an episode of the We Love to Watch podcast to discuss the ELO-scored disco musical Xanadu. In our recent Movie of the Month discussion of Cool as Ice, the rap-oriented Vanilla Ice reimagining of the Marlon Brando classic The Wild One, I rambled loftily about the beautifully absurdist space where art & commerce collide in the precious few cult classic movies that actually live up to their “so bad it’s good” designation. Xanadu is a perfect example of the exact dynamic I was getting at in that conversation, the sublimely strange accidents where cinema is nakedly exposed to be both art and commerce, cynically so. Instead of selling Vanilla Ice as a tough guy leading man material, however, Xanadu is tasked with marrying the spectacle of Old Hollywood musicals (represented in the film by Gene Kelly) with a then-fresh sense of disco futurism (represented by Olivia Newton John & ELO). As you’ll hear in the episode, the results aren’t consistently cohesive or competent, but they are always memorably bizarre. More importantly, they also point to a very specific kind of movie magic where blatant commercialism accidentally stumbles into the territory of fine art.

Besides having the chance to further explore this idea of cinema’s dual role as art & a product, it was super fun to return as a guest to a show I listen to regularly. Aaron & Peter were incredibly kind to invite me back after we discussed The Fly (1958) last October. Their podcast is wonderfully in sync with the sincere & empathetic ethos we try to maintain on this site (especially when covering so-called “bad movies”), so I highly recommend digging through old episodes & clips on the We Love to Watch blog & YouTube page. And, of course, please start by giving a listen to their episode on Xanadu below.

-Brandon Ledet