One of the interesting quirks of renting movies online is that occasionally I'll get sent a movie I don't remember adding to my pick list. This isn't because the rental company has made a mistake, but instead because it has become my habit to add films to my list on whims so ethereal there's no way to prove they even existed by the time the film finally arrives in my mailbox six months later.A perfect example of this is the 1964 big-budget star-studded comedy What A Way To Go!, which arrived in the mail a few days ago. I can't remember why I ordered the movie, but its impressive credits offers up several distinct possibilities. Perhaps I added it to my list after I watched the excellent Blu-Ray director's cut of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and decided I wanted to see more of director J. Lee Thompson's ouevre. Or maybe I had just enjoyed another viewing of The Bandwagon and wanted to see another movie written by the great husband and wife team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green. I could have also been thinking of that great interview with Robert Mitchum on one of the Dick Cavett DVD boxed sets or was in the mood for some more Gene Kelly after writing about Xanadu. Then again it might have been because I had just finished reading Mark Harris' amazing book Pictures at the Revolution and wanted to see producer Arthur P. Jacobs' first mega-production.Whatever the reason for my adding it to my list, it just so happened to be exactly the kind of dated, light comedy Hollywood concoction I was in the mood for when it arrived. Having watched it I can report that there's a reason it's not as well known today as a production of its size should be. As a director Thompson's gifts lay in the construction of gritty and violent action scenes and his touch is far too heavy for what should have been a delicate cinematic souffle. Especially in the opening scenes, his apparent comedic insecurity causes him to grab a sledge hammer when what he needed was something with the heft of a feather.That said I enjoyed the film and watched it from beginning to end without once touching my remote control. And normally I would leave it at that, but there were things about the film that stayed with me and I was overcome with a compulsion to share them with the three of you who read this blog. For the past year this compulsion would have been easily quelled by my lack of time and energy, but having just been laid off from my job I now have no such excuse. I am free to bore you to my heart's content and so I shall.Pointless Observation #1An Old Joke Might Not Be An Old JokeIf It's In An Old MovieThe gimmick of the film is that it's a series of vignettes depicting the tragically funny love life of Louisa Mae Foster (Shirley MacLaine, who inherited a role originally developed for Marilyn Monroe), whose desire for a simple life is roadblocked by the fact that each man she marries is touched by greatness, only to then suffer a sudden and tragic demise. After marrying for love four times, she is left a four-time widow with a personal fortune of $211,000,000 and is forced by the government to visit a psychatrist when she stubbornly attempts to give all of it away to the IRS. Her therapy session with the doctor (Bob Cummings) serves as the narrative glue that holds the different vignettes together.Included in each vignette is an elaborate satire of the particular film genre that best fits the relationship being depicted. In the first one where she marries Dick Van Dyke--the unambitious owner of the only business in her hometown not owned by her arrogant former-fiance Dean Martin--their early days of bliss are depicted as a silent era comedy. In the second vignette, she goes to Paris and meets Paul Newman, a pretentious artist who uses robots controlled by soundwaves to create his paintings. Naturally their marriage is portrayed as a black and white foreign film, complete with subtitles:
I must admit that the montage featuring the rapidly diminishing bathtub did make me laugh out loud, but what made me stop and think about this short sequence is that it features a specific joke construction that has become so ubiquitous and expected today it's far more likely to elicit groans than chuckles. It's the old joke in which a long and obviously detailed piece of dialogue spoken in a foreign language is then summed up in the following subtitle in just one or two words. Depending on the sophistication of the material this is a joke that either satirizes the absurdity of other languages or the laziness of the subtitles' translators. In either case, it's the kind of gag even the most casual of viewers can see coming a mile away (which still doesn't mean it won't show up in a work as well-written and hilarious as 30 Rock, where it was seen in the memorable episode featuring Paul Reubens as the last living heir to the Hapsburg Dynasty), but as soon as I dismissed this film's use of it I had to stop and rethink my dismissal.When the film was made in 1964, foreign films were still somewhat novel and most folks outside of New York and California had probably never even seen one. Because of this, the film's satire of subtitles would have probably seemed fresh and original at the time. Perhaps (and feel free to suggest examples that prove otherwise) this might have been the first time this joke ever appeared onscreen. It's only in retrospect that the joke seems hacky, because we've seen it repeated so many times since then.This begs the question: Is it fair to dismiss a joke in a movie as unoriginal even if it was original when it was filmed?Pointless Observation #2Can A Sequence Be Accidentally PostmodernIf It Was Made By People Who Didn't KnowWhat Postmodernism Was?After Paul Newman is beaten to death by his robotic painters, Louisa finds herself swept off her feet by a captain of industry played by Robert Mitchum and their marriage is presented in a sequence entitled Imitation of Mink, which is a tacky, big budget extravaganza featuring dazzling couture courtesy of the legendary Edith Head. Beyond the one white outfit MacLaine wears that appears to have no top, what makes this satire extraordinary is that it is virtually no different than the rest of the film, which just happens to be a tacky, big budget extravaganza featuring dazzling couture courtesy of the legendary Edith Head.
By today's standards this sequence is the very definition of postmodern--insofar as it satirizes the absurd excesses the rest of the film unironically celebrates, indicating a self-awareness on the part of the filmmakers heretofor unexplored up to that point in the picture. But, in the same way that it seems unfair to criticize the film for jokes that have become cliches in the intervening decades, one has to assume that any resemblence between the Imitation of Mink sequence and the film it appears in is entirely unintended.The blame for this, I suspect, goes to its producer. Before he started making his own movies, Arthur P. Jacobs was one of the greatest ballyhoo men Hollywood had ever seen and his instincts for generating publicity kept him from doing anything on a small scale. Because of this he turned what was at heart a small film into a star-studded $20 million blockbuster. I'm sure that in Comden and Green's original screenplay Imitation of Mink truly stood out from the rest of the picture, but once Jacobs starting hiring Hollywood's most expensive leading men and most famous costume designer, its satire became lost admist the pagentry.This begs the question: Can a film be fairly considered ahead of its time if its innovation was completely accidental and only apparent in retrospect?Pointless Observation #3In 1964 Shirley MacLaineWas REALLY HotUnlike Marilyn Monroe, for whom the part of Louisa was originally intended, Shirley MacLaine has lived and worked long enough in Hollywood that for many people my age and younger, she is better remembered as a middle-aged matriarch (Terms of Endearment) or challanging senior citizen (Guarding Tess, Postcards From the Edge) than as a young hottie. For that reason watching What A Way To Go! can be a revelation even to someone not unfamiliar with her earliest work. You only have to watch this brief scene in which she wears a black bikini to understand what I mean:
This begs the question: Is it pervy to add a bunch of old Shirley MacLaine movies to your online movie rental list, if you're doing it just to ogle her hot bod?Okay, so I got that off my chest. My next slasher vlog should be up in the next few days or so. Until then, think fondly of the days when I was too busy to update more than once a month.