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 Night of the Hunter (1955)

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The Night of the Hunter startlingly opens with heads floating against a starry sky. A few of them are children and one is an old woman. The old woman is giving a bible study lesson about Jesus. I’m not quite sure what I expected from this movie, but I don’t think I was anticipating anything this strange. But it’s actually a really perfect intro into what the movie is: a fairy tale- not the Disney kind, but the true dark kind of fairy tale where people die and children get eaten.

This movie has an otherworldly quality, which is not just from the floating heads. One part of that is the strong expressionistic influence. There’s a lot of monstrous shadows being cast on walls. Nosferatu-esque shots of creeping up stairs. There are sharp black and white angles. The nighttime of this world is strongly opposed to the daylight, which is idyllic and warm. The day feels safe and reassuring. The night is all around eerie.

In the middle of the Great Depression, two children John and Pearl are playing in the yard when their dad, Ben, rushes in with a gunshot wound. Fed up with his children having to live in squalor, he’s robbed a bank. Before the cops catch up with him, he hides the money inside of Pearl’s doll and makes both children swear not to tell anyone where the money is hidden. He gets arrested and sentenced to death. While in jail Ben meets the big bad wolf of this story, Reverend Harry Powell (played by Robert Mitchum). Harry Powell manages to marry the children’s widowed mother while in search of the money. John and Pearl soon after have to flee the murderous Reverend, as he gets increasingly violent towards John while asking about the money.

Reverend Powell is an iconic villain, right down to his knuckle tattoos, which read “LOVE” and “HATE,” that are referenced time and time again. When he displays these tattoos, his hands resemble terrifying, gnashing jaws as he makes them play wrestle each other. Perhaps most terrifying of all is his charisma. He summons up a whole town to his cult-like fire and brimstone sermons. He can flash a disarming smile and get his way almost every time. It’s terrifying to watch a villain with so much self righteous evil gain so much control.

I like the way this movie is scary. Yes, it feels like a fairy tale, but all the reasons to be afraid are very real. It’s scary because the town the kids live in is very judgmental and single minded while posing itself as idyllic. This town is susceptible to a charismatic stranger changing all of their views, and it’s scary because small towns often function this way. It’s scary because there’s no witchcraft or magic. This is just a regular man, which realistically there are few things scarier than a bad man. It’s scary because John is a kid isolated and no one believes him as he’s pursued and there’s few things more frightening than having bad things happen to you and having no one listen.

The Night of the Hunter tells the classic tale of good versus evil, love versus hate. The black and white cinematography drives home the point with it’s sharp dynamic lighting. It’s chilling, uncanny and even ruthless at times, but it also has so many makings of a good fairy tale: lost children, evil step parents, and even a fairy godmother in the end.

-Alli Hobbs