The Journey So Far

A chronological stroll thru the history of Broadway Musicals as they came to be recorded by Hollywood--the summation of a lifelong vocation, and a journey of self discovery. Equal parts cultural history, critique and personal memoir. Coming next: Nine

Friday, February 11, 2011

Call Me Madam

March 25, 1953   Fox   114 minutes

“I’m the Madam, and you’re just one of the. . . boys,” says Ethel Merman to a prissy Billy De Wolfe in Call Me Madam; her intonation all but putting quotation marks on the final word. The line on Bway was “...one of the girls,” but the bordello allusion on top of the queer-baiting was a bit too much for 20th Century Fox at the start of the Eisenhower era—and in fact its meaning was intact from her line-reading. As it stood, we were all just “one of the boys” in Merman’s band—for who could deny she was the undisputed Queen of Musical Comedy—no matter our individual levels of worship. As a child, I would hear her clarion voice on my friend’s mother’s hi-fi blasting Gypsy in the early 60s. But Merman cemented her image for me in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, as a loudmouth tornado who never once opened her mouth to sing, only to bellow. Ironically, this “old bag,” as she’s called in the movie, was my real first acquaintance with the gal. She didn’t seem much less matronly when I saw her two mid-50s movies on TV in the late 60s, or later on Bway in Hello Dolly!  My point here is that now, at age 57, I’m watching a Merman who’s a good dozen years younger than I. Having followed a similar brassy, bawdy siren, Bette Midler, from our mutual youth into middle age and beyond, I can now look at Ethel here as someone once young-ish, and at the peak of her talent—and not some old broad from prehistoric (at least to me, then) days. Aging is illuminating and strange.
 I was excited to see Call Me Madam again, because I recall it with great affection. I can still feel the impact it had on me the first time I saw it on the NBC Saturday Night Movie in January 1968. But much as I was enjoying it now (and this project has greatly heightened my interest and focus in seeing these films again), I wasn’t loving it as much as I remembered.  So what was it that had clung to me in a perfumed cloud of memory? It sounds crazy, I know, but I think it’s simply the musical scoring, the dance arrangements,   and the lush and generous  underscoring,  by Fox head musical director, Alfred Newman (who justifiably won an Oscar over Kiss Me Kate, The Bandwagon, & Calamity Jane that year). The film nearly bleeds music, and when the songs are by Irving Berlin they can slither into the bloodstream, like heroin. I distinctly remember just how impressed I was with his tunefulness that long ago Saturday night. Even then at age 15 I recognized the genius and sophistication that went into Berlin’s “simple” melodic lines. I’ve had disagreements with colleagues about his later works (as well as those of Rodgers & Porter), but I will defend Call Me Madam forever as among his best scores. Jerome Kern’s oft-quoted line that ”Irving Berlin has no place in American music-he is American music,” is usually taken at face value for the sum of his musical talent. But Berlin was no less a genius at business and promotion than P.T. Barnum. Early on, he pioneered methods of recycling his catalog. Wasn’t he the first, way back in the 30s, to license his songbook to “jukebox” movies?—a practice he continued well into the 50s, with greater muscle. The 60s, alas, did him in.  How could it not? A long aborning extravaganza called Say it With Music went thru a dozen changes and promises, but was finally shelved for good. (Hugh Fordin reports that Arthur Laurents concocted a screenplay in which Robert Goulet has romances with girls in 4 countries: Ann-Margret (US), Julie Andrews (GB), Brigitte Bardot (France) & Sophia Loren (Italy).  This all set to Irving Berlin tunes? Sounds so wacky I wish it were so.)

There’s an amusing bit of self-promotion thru the scene of the song “It’s a Lovely Day Today.” It begins with a record playing in the music section (“Musik Deparschion” reads the sign in the film--a faux Lichtenbergian language. We’re in “Das Haus of Fascion” incidentally--a department store.) Vera-Ellen asks Donald O’Connor if that’s an American song? But of course! American songs sound like Irving Berlin, remember. Yes indeed, he replies, “It’s a hit from a show that ran a couple of years on Bway.” That show, of course, was Call Me Madam. After he sings the lyrics, upon her request, while  the  record continues, she picks up the handy sheet-music, with Berlin’s face and name plastered on the cover—but the show title handily missing. Rodgers & Hammerstein virtually took over the universe in the 50s, but you’d never see something that sly from them. Later at a foreign palace ball, Merman asks the orchestra conductor if he has anything “hot,” and is handed sheet music for “International Rag” by Irving Berlin, circa 1913—as Merman makes sure to tell us. In the early 30s Berlin turned his attention more to Hlwd than Bway, tho he never abandoned either. He was of course in highest demand and wrote classic original scores for Astaire & Rogers, but early on he saw the value in pillaging his trunk, and made an industry of re-introducing songs from his catalog in periodically new movies, beginning in 1938 with Alexander’s Ragtime Band thru the 40s: Holiday Inn, Blue Skies, Easter Parade; and 50s: White Christmas & There’s No Business Like Show Business (which bizarrely opened two months within each other in ’54—to no adverse b.o. affect)Usually he would also write a new song or two, which Berlin being Berlin would be of equal merit or even better than the standards revived. As an addition to Holiday Inn “White Christmas” would become its own classic—among the most lucrative songs of all time—and later its own movie title—which a half century later would still be remembered well enuf to be adapted for the stage as a holiday spectacle with the still-brand-name Berlin as the main draw. On Call Me Madam his clout was such that Fox dispensed with the usual trumpet fanfare over its opening logo, and instead plunged into a burlesque vamp of “Hostess with the Mostes’,“ coming to a halt for Merman’s voice to sock the title over, then resuming an overture thru the remaining credits.

The film dropped only 3 songs from the show; the weakest and most obvious excision being “Once Upon a Time Today,” the only song in the show I never remotely liked. “They Like Ike,” which was hugely popular on stage, was by then yesterday’s fish: Eisenhower was already  president,  and  the  song  had  been used in his campaign. Still a scroll at the movie’s start tells us the time is 1951; a concession made, I think, only to keep the running gag of phone calls from “Harry”—President Truman (so completely dated now that only those with long memories or political history buffs get the references of daughter Margaret’s bad press for her singing career.) I confess even I didn’t get the brief scene of Merman shushing her partygoers for a recital of “Missouri Waltz” played by an unseen Truman—until Miles Kreuger pointed it out. The third omitted, but joyful number, “Washington Square Dance” is actually played by the orchestra during the opening send-off party, but not sung by Merman here. Another song of hers on Bway, “Something to Dance About” is given to O’Connor & Vera-Ellen for a more logical rendition as a dance number. But even Merman’s other numbers; “Hostess With the Mostes’, “Can You Use Any Money Today” and the truly fabulous and underrated ballad, “The Best Thing for You,” are all cut down a verse or two, throwing the balance of the show—which on Bway was a Mermanpalooza—into a three-ring circus. (You can’t really place George Sanders into contention, tho he  does sing a bit in his Ruritanian baritone and looks maturely dashing, speaking in an accent much closer to his native Russian than his adopted English.)

Arthur Sheekman’s screenplay stepped back from much of the political humor in Lindsay & Crouse’s original stage version. Perhaps because of my early affection for the film, I’ve seen a number of different productions on stage over the years, beginning with an enchanting postage-stamp version at the old Equity Library Theatre in NY in the mid-70s.  The humor isn’t exactly acerbic, but there is at least a bit of bite, but the movie goes out of its way to avoid the words Democrat or Republican.  And of course, “They Like Ike” with all its mild political barbs is out. Added to the film score is the aforementioned “International Rag” which Miles Kreuger in his lively commentary-track nominates as Merman’s best ever song performance on film.  I can’t say that it struck me that way, but she does pretty much show off her famed and unique talent in the song. The second interpolated song was taken from Berlin’s other political satire, the unjustly forgotten 1940 hit, Louisiana Purchase, (a satire of Huey Long before Robert Penn Warren got to him, and a rollickingly clever and typically tuneful score.) Unfortunately “What Chance Have I With Love?” is not a great song but the performance of a drunk O’Connor in a beer garden filled with balloons makes it almost worthy. Alfred Newman, if indeed it was he making musical decisions—perhaps with input from Berlin—wisely minimized the lesser numbers; “Lichtenburg” a quick choral throwaway over establishing postcard views; “Marrying for Love” a quick verse and out. “Mrs. Sally Adams,” a charming trill for three is used but once, unlike on Bway, where it also opened the show.  And even most of The Merm’s solo numbers were trimmed a verse or two. The show’s two chart-toppers were wisely and prominently featured. “You’re Just in Love” was bumped up from the show’s eleven o’clock number, to mid-way thru the movie; which allows for a reprise later when Merman & O’Connor hit bottom; and also for the finale, natch. It’s a surefire crowd-pleaser.

But in my estimation, “It’s a Lovely Day Today” is the show’s finest jewel; a melody that trips smoothly along a surprising road, but once heard resonates as inevitable perfection.  (Here’s one worm in my head I can stand to hum all day.) We hear it first in department store, sung by O’Connor, followed by a long scene of introduction and mutual attraction, in which the song ceaselessly plays in a many splendored arrangement; and then a verse sung by Vera-Ellen (who never sang in her own voice on screen, but mastered lip-synching better than Merman, who, you may notice, in “Hostess” is quite visibly off.)  It’s capped off by a coda from O’Connor, a full meal served. Even so the song merits an encore, and returns for the film’s most romantic dance; a dance routine and setting—to say nothing of the music—worthy of Astaire & Rogers—but then Berlin wrote for all of them.

Aside from Singin’ in the Rain I don’t think I’ve seen Donald O’Connor in better form. He fills the role perfectly, and even dons, and looks adorable in, the large-frame glasses that defined Russell Nype on Bway.
Vera-Ellen is back rolling her eyes in trademark fashion, and here she adopts a pseudo-bohemian accent every bit as coy.  But the part doesn’t call for much more really, and where it counts, her dances with O’Connor and her festival solo are among the very best moments in her 14 film career. Her porcelain doll looks were very appealing to me as a child—I remember liking her a lot.  But aside from her dancing, now I find her presence almost a vacuum. I guess I should mention Billy De Wolfe, as the nasty embassy charges d’affaires.  Here’s one stereotype that lodged itself into my adolescent brain: the arrogant, entitled, and prissy queen. Hlwd gave good building blocks to internalized homophobia. And then there’s Merman…

Poor Ethel: a Star on Bway, but a bridesmaid in the movies. Aside from Anything Goes in 1936, all her Bway roles were recast in Hlwd; (Ann Sothern in Panama Hattie, Vivian Blaine in Something for the Boys; Lucille Ball in DuBarry Was a Lady, Judy Garland and Betty Hutton in Annie Get Your Gun) until Fox took her back for Call Me Madam. And kept her, at top-billing for the all-star There’s No Biz Like… the following year. She also revived a much abridged Panama Hattie for CBS in November of 1954, with Art Carney, Ray Middleton & Jack E. Leonard in support. But that was the  last hurrah on film. When she returned, after even more success on Bway, in Mad, Mad World it was the start of her caricature years; the big-mouthed broad from Bway: making lasagna on That Girl; playing Lola Lasagna on Batman; guesting on Tarzan—belting her death notes on Airplane. That’s how many of us knew her first and best. Call Me Madam was the turning point. Here you can see her still vibrant, gutsy youth melting into middle-age, with a new layer of glamour but also that brass with the sass that would be taken to extremes playing Milton Berle’s (!) mother-in-law.

As a performer Merman was inarguably tops, but as an actress she was said to be limited if not wooden. I found her engaging here—surprisingly present and a great listener to those around her; my eye would often be drawn to her reactions, often unexpectedly subtle—certainly better than Vera-Ellen’s.  She wasn’t much of a looker (she has a bit of a goofy face not unlike Bette Midler’s) and could even kid about it. Complimented on her beauty, she ripostes, “an optometrist could clean up around here.” Two decades ahead of the “feminist” reading so many gave to Streisand’s flip with Redford as the love object in The Way We Were, Merman took a back-seat to Sander’s sex appeal in Madam, melting into instant infatuation upon meeting him. (Similarly in Annie she goes moonstruck in a loony gush upon meeting Frank Butler). They’re the love object, not her. For most of her career Merman’s costumes were very much character statements; or at least blowsy. Here she’s been graduated to glamour. Couturier Mainbocher designed her wardrobe on Bway, but Irene Sharaff went to town in Hlwd, providing Merman with an entire collection (the best, I think, a chic white coat with scarlet lining she wears on arrival to Lichtenberg,) Sharaff’s dresses are exquisite, whether on Merman or flowing in the film’s dances. Vera-Ellen’s gown in the “Lovely Day” dance has so much sheer fabric, it flies around in layers when she spins; a garment that’s part of the choreography itself. This is design genius and Sharaff deservedly earned the film’s only other Oscar nomination.

Strange to think how much the art-direction stayed with me since I first saw the movie on b&w TV. These sets are truly elaborate, but they don’t overwhelm somehow.  In fact I had to go back and really absorb how plush and detailed are the many parquet floors, gilded moldings, marble columns, flounces, sconces, and drapes; to say nothing of the backdrops of Alpine peaks, and Washington monuments. Without a doubt this is the most scenically varied and elaborate of all the films so far, including that gingerbread fantasy, Hans Christian Andersen. The Lichtenberg palace ballroom is especially plush, but the adjacent terraced garden, under the night sky is pure enchantment and gives a nice boost to the dance reprise of “It’s a Lovely Day Today” with O’Connor and Vera-Ellen (a very nice pairing, even if her height keeps her in flats thru-out). His tap and her ballet training blend together splendidly in Robert Alton’s dance routines. Alton pre-dates Agnes DeMille & Jerome Robbins as a Bway stager, and tho mostly forgotten today he was quite the innovator of his time.  He got into film work in the 40s, eventually responsible for such goodies as The Harvey Girls, The Pirate, Good News & The Barkley’s of Bway, as well as the previously discussed Show Boat and Annie Get Your Gun. The dances here easily surpass those last two Bway hits on screen. Alton does well by large ensembles too. The native festival number, “The Ocarina,” corny tho it may seem on the surface, is utterly delightful in its exuberance. Alton moves the dancers in a constant frame around Vera-Ellen. At the end they are whirling dervishes in a ring around her, the skirts flying high in rainbow colors. (Tho here is one place where Sharaff faltered--in creating a “national costume,” she pulls bits and pieces of various European influences, which only add up to an overly fussy mishmash.)

The film was directed by Walter Lang, a Fox mainstay who helmed many Betty Grable, Alice Faye and Carmen Miranda pics, as well as R&H’s State Fair, On the Riviera and With a Song in My Heart. There are wonderful parts in many of these films, as there are in Call Me Madam, but if  Lang has a discernible signature I’ve yet to see it.  His next film would also star Ethel Merman (for the final time) in a multi-star showcase by Berlin, There’s No Business Like Show Business. Lang would later tackle another two musicals from Bway, and earn an Oscar nod for one.

Call Me Madam opened March 25, 1953 at the Roxy in New York. It was a modest hit, 23rd in the year’s top moneymakers. On Bway the long doldrums of ’52 were starting to subside; tho The Big Street wasn’t quite crackling yet. There was a new Arthur Miller drama, The Crucible and William Inge’s Picnic was fresh, as well as Dial M for Murder and The Seven Year Itch all of which would wind up on the screen in short order, and become staples of 50s iconography—and the films of my youth (at least on TV.) The one new musical hit was at the Winter Garden where Rosalind Russell was taking My Sister Eileen around for a new spin as a Bernstein, Comden & Green show called Wonderful Town.  OK, so the first new Bway hit in my lifetime is about dreamers coming to make it in New York. I’m just saying…

Next Up: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Report Card:     Call Me Madam
Overall Film:      B+
Bway Fidelity:   B+
Songs from Bway:  10
Songs Cut from Bway:  3
New Songs:       2  from Berlin catalog
Standout Numbers: “The Ocarina”
          “It’s a Lovely Day Today” (both versions)
Worst Omission: “Washington Square Dance”
Best Addition:   “International Rag”
Casting:                Hlwd replacments better than Bway
Cast from Bway: Ethel Merman,
                              Lilia Skala (grand duchess)
Standout Cast: O’Connor, Merman
Direction:          Unnoticeable
Choreography:   Lovely, classic Hlwd dances
Ballet:                 None
Scenic Design:  Varied, lush, but inviting
Costumes:         Merman never dressed better
Titles:        Studio caricatures on blue & gold.
Standout Sets:  Lichtenberg palace ballroom
                          Adjacent palace garden
                      Dept. Store: Das Haus de Fascion
Oscar Nominations: 2; 1 win: scoring

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