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

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 25: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

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 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 153 of the first edition hardback, Ebert mentions that he lacks a formal film education and that he learned a lot about filmmaking as a craft by visiting sets as a journalist. He writes, “I spent full days on sound stages during movies like Camelot and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, watching a scene being done with a master shot and then broken down into closer shots and angles. I heard lighting and sound being discussed. I didn’t always understand what I was hearing, but I absorbed the general idea. I learned to see movies in terms of individual shots, instead of being swept along by the narrative.”

What Ebert had to say in his review: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid must have looked like a natural on paper, but, alas, the completed film is slow and disappointing. This despite the fact that it contains several good laughs and three sound performances. The problems are two. First, the investment in superstar Paul Newman apparently inspired a bloated production that destroys the pacing. Second, William Goldman’s script is constantly too cute and never gets up the nerve, by God, to admit it’s a Western.” -from his 1969 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

I often use the “I’m just not into Westerns,” excuse to avoid having to actually engage with films in the genre, but what am I supposed to do when a Western clearly just isn’t into itself? Arriving in the strange middle ground between the big budget Western and the small, ramshackle productions of New Hollywood, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is at war with its own nature. It wants to both please the old guard by revisiting a John Wayne era of Hollywood filmmaking, yet side with the existential rebelliousness of its contemporaries like Bonnie & Clyde. I suppose it found the right balance for a lot of people in consolidating those two sides, but I found it to be something of a bland compromise between two spiritually opposing filmmaking styles. Maybe if more of Butch Cassidy‘s sardonic, self-hating spirit were allowed to disrupt its outlaws-on-the-run premise I would have been won over as a modern, Western-ignoring cynic. As is, I found it to be kind of a middling choir.

Paul Newman & Robert Redford, pretty much the dual definition of Hollywood Handsome, star as two train-robbing bandits who find themselves on the run from ever-encroaching lawmen after a job gone bad. Katherine Ross (who’s been popping up in quite a few of these late 60s pictures) tags along as a lover & conspirator and the trio wind up mounting one final stand in South America. That’s a fairly reductive plot synopsis, I’ll admit, but it covers pretty much the entire arc of the film as long as you’re willing to disregard stray sequences where Katherine Ross teaches the boys rudimentary Spanish so they can rob Bolivian banks or flirts innocently with one of them on a bicycle to Bury Bacharach’s “Rain Drops Keep Falling On My Head,” (which was, bafflingly, written for the film). The real hook of Butch Cassidy, though, isn’t the strength of its story, but the then-refreshing casual banter of its two anti-hero protagonists. I’ll admit that aspect of the screenplay does help cut down on the film’s boring, idyllic tough guy Western aesthetic, but the exchanges are too few and far between to amount to much except brief reprieves from the otherwise oppressive stillness of the genre film they disrupt.

Ebert complained in his 1969 review that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid‘s production was too bloated and its pacing was too slow & labored to match the rebellious nature of the spiritually similar (but far superior) Bonnie & Clyde. I can’t disagree with either point. Just as one character remarks to Newman & Redford’s titular bandits, “It’s over. Your time is over. You’re going to die bleeding. All you can do is choose where,” the same feels true of the genre their characters are serving & lightly subverting. The Western genre is in some ways antithetical to the New Hollywood era, since it was such a routine mainstay of the old Studio System formula, especially in this film’s lavishly produced form. You can feel Butch Cassidy attempting to change with the times in its mid-gunfight quipping and its shrugging tagline, “Not that it matters, but most of it is true.” It could have pushed those tendencies a whole lot further, though. One version of the screenplay had Butch & The Kid watching a movie adaptation of their lives in a South American cinema, heckling & nitpicking its perceived inaccuracies. The idea was reportedly cut for being “too over the top,” which is a shame, because it’s the exact kind of blasphemous energy this film needed to be worthwhile as a genre update. I assume I’d get some backlash from more dedicated fans of Westerns as a genre for that stance, but that’s okay. I don’t speak their language.

Roger’s Rating: (2.5/4, 63%)

Brandon’s Rating (2.5/5, 50%)

Next Lesson: Batman (1989)

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 14: Cool Hand Luke (1967)

EPSON MFP image

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 Cool Hand Luke (1967) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 93 of the first edition hardback, Ebert recalls eating 26 raw eggs in order to win a contest during his college fraternity’s Hell Week, likening it to the egg-eating binge in Cool Hand Luke. His prize was a night of sleep.

What Ebert had to say in his reviews: “The movie hero used to be an inspiration, but recently he has become a substitute. We no longer want to be heroes ourselves, but we want to know that heroes are on the job in case we ever need one. This has resulted in an interesting flip-flop of stereotypes. Used to be the anti-hero was a bad guy we secretly liked. Then, with Brando, we got a bad guy we didn’t like. An now, in ‘Cool Hand Luke,’ we get a good guy who becomes a bad guy because he doesn’t like us. Luke is the first Newman character to understand himself well enough to tell us to shove off. He’s through risking his neck to make us happy.” -from his 1967 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

“Luke calls out to God at the end: ‘It’s beginnin’ to look like you got things fixed so I can’t never win out. Inside, outside, all them rules and regulations and bosses. You made me like I am. Just where am I supposed to fit in? Ol’ Man, I gotta tell ya. I started out pretty strong and fast. But it’s beginnin’ to get to me. When does it end?’ He gets his answer quickly enough, but what other answer could he have expected? The problem between Luke and God is nothing more than a failure to communicate. Having seen this powerful, punishing movie again freshly, I reflect than in 1967 I didn’t approach it with the proper pessimism. Today, it seems to be God does a fairly good job of getting his message across.” -from his 2008 review for his Great Movies series

EPSON MFP image

There’s a stubborn, tough as nails brand of masculinity that drips from every frame in Cool Hand Luke (sometimes literally, in the form of sweat) that I have a tough time connecting with. Paul Newman’s performance as the titular Luke injects young Brando bravado into a grown man’s physique (instead of whatever bizarre monster Brando himself evolved to become). Luke’s life imprisoned on a chain gang knows little tenderness as he struggles to stay strong in the face of knee-buckling manual labor & abusive authority. Just about the only thing I can relate to in Luke’s life is the oppressive sweat & dehydration leveled on him by the hellish Southern heat. The cigar chomping, shower fighting, smack talking, backyard boxing, poker game bluffing world that contains Luke’s prison sentence (imposed on him for robbing parking meters while blind drunk) are about as foreign to me as a Martian landscape or the lost city of Atlantis. Still, there’s a few touches of religious epiphany, delirious absurdism, pitch black nihilism, and political rebellion that manage to break through this chiseled veneer of braggadocio to reveal the the film has a lot more on its mind than just being the toughest guy in the room.

It’s easy to point out the moments when Cool Hand Luke reveals its hand & lets down the hyper-masculine guard to reveal something vulnerable underneath. A scene where Luke beautifully plays “Plastic Jesus” on a banjo to mourn his mother’s death comes to mind, as does a sequence where the chain gang feverishly digs a ditch while ogling a woman in a sundress who makes a show out of washing her car. That latter moment in particular reaches some bizarre, Russ Meyer-esque territory that plays onscreen like a live action cartoon. What really stands out as the film’s centerpiece, though, is a sequence in which Luke settles a bet by eating 50 hard-boiled eggs in a single sitting (50!). So much time & care goes into the egg-eating sequence that it completely shifts the course of the prison-life drama that precedes it. It initially amuses, then disgusts, then reaches some kind of transcendent religious sanctity that’s difficult to describe in words. After settling his egg-eating bet, Luke is laid out shirtless, bloated, and mimicking the stretched-out pose of Christ’s crucifixion. He is near death in his egg-stuffed state, but he emerges as a makeshift messiah in the eyes of the other prisoners (including a baby faced Dennis Hopper & Harry Dean Stanton among them) once he resurrects. It’s amazing that the film can turn something so seemingly trivial into something so essentially pivotal.

So much changes after the egg feast that Cool Hand Luke starts to feel like an entirely different movie. Instead of sizing each other up & jockeying for dominance, the prisoners form a tight camaraderie centered around their new, egg-chomping christ. Luke’s biggest bully (played with gusto by old-timer George Kennedy) in particular falls deeply, madly in love with him, calling him things like “my baby” and a “wild, beautiful thing.” They also rally around Luke when he’s unfairly locked in solitary confinement & subsequently makes several failed attempts to escape chain gang imprisonment. The strange thing about Luke’s deification is that he is far from messiah material. There’s no real rhyme or reason to his crimes or his stubborn defiance. He was arrested for getting drunk & destroying property. He takes delight in being a “crazy handful of nothing”, declaring that during a poker game, “Sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand.” There’s an emptiness & a nihilism to Luke’s refusal to genuinely engage with life in any significant way & when his fellow prisoners find a religious epiphany & devotion in that idea it plays as remarkably sad. It’s all over something as meaningless as a few dozen eggs.

There’s enough religious imagery & visual symbolism (including focus on signs that read things like “STOP” & “VIOLATION”) in Cool Hand Luke that it’s really tempting to read into its overall metaphor. You can can see Ebert’s struggle to nail down its exact meaning himself over the course of his two reviews, flipflopping between how Luke’s attitude & the film’s overall brutality are meant to be read. I think Ebert got closest when he called the film an “anti-establishment” work of rebellion. I don’t think reading any specific metaphors into its stance on the Vietnam War or the Civil Rights movement of the time would reveal anything more than a general disgust for authority & abuse of power, though. It’s “anti-establishment” in the same way that its contemporary Bonnie & Clyde was, except with a crucial difference in philosophy. Bonnie & Clyde felt wildly, dangerously celebratory in its displays of open rebellion, but Cool Hand Luke is decidedly empty, meaningless, a monument to nothing. You can see its cold, nihilistic view of the world reflected in the aviators of “The Man With No Eyes,” an especially cruel prison guard who serves as the film’s de facto Grim Reaper. You can see it in the way Luke lets down the prisoners who gave him all of their love & religious devotion in exchange for a big fat nothing. Perhaps the reason I “had a failure to communicate” with Cool Hand Luke‘s hyper macho posturing in the early scenes is that I read it as a glorification, a tribute to something to believe in. Once I realized the film believes in nothing at all –religion, masculinity, or otherwise– I was fully on board. Fifty hard-boiled eggs & a frivolous bet was all it took me to get there.

EPSON MFP image

Roger’s Rating : (4/4, 100%)

fourstar

Brandon’s Rating (4/5, 80%)

fourstar

Next Lesson: Citizen Kane (1941)

-Brandon Ledet