Directed by J. Lee Thompson
Written by Betty Comden, Adolph Green, and Gwen Davis
The best way to approach What a Way To Go! is to recognize that it should be almost overdetermined to be a disappointment. When you look at its once-in-a-lifetime combination of individual constituent parts, it sounds like it might well be the very best damn movie ever made. If it isn't (and I wouldn't make that claim), then sadly it could not have lived up to the hopes you had every right to build up for yourself. But it correlates so many individually-delicious ingredients in a side-by-side buffet that I'd run out of breath before I told you everything that sounds amazing about it, and it's a good thing I'm writing this instead: so what we have in What a Way to Go! is a reverse harem comedy about an accidental black widow, arriving in the exact decade and maybe the exact year where that kind of comedy was at its likeliest to be perfectly balanced between the blatantly-metastable possibilities of its own zaniness, sexiness, and sharpness; this reverse harem comedy about an accidental black widow features—as the dearly departed—Dick Van Dyke (doing wacky), Gene Kelly (doing dancing), Robert Mitchum (doing romance with potentially his favorite sexual partner), and Paul Newman (Newman's usually some kind of value-add), and it stars Shirley MacLaine in half a million 1964 bucks' worth of costumes that are either the most flamboyant costumes Edith Head ever designed, or only fail to be so because they're too small and revealing to be "flamboyant" in a strict sense; meanwhile, it's shot by Leon Shamroy in my beloved DeLuxe Color, with a script by the screenwriting duo, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who had sometimes served as exceptions to the rule that musicals didn't deserve good screenplays (and it is, in fact, their final feature screenplay).
Well, having wisely approached it under the assumption it would not be as great as all this promises, you'll understand that I was pleasantly surprised to discover that, actually, it is the kind of movie where, at turns, I could let out a gasp and ask my television, "Wait, is this the best damn movie ever made?" It is, in any event, of the highest echelon of 60s comedy, a form I've grown increasingly appreciative of despite (or because of) the seeming lack of much gradient between "the awful, tedious ones," "the okay ones," and "the absolute all-timers." The only reason I might refrain from giving it masterpiece marks is because of a single lousy joke that it also runs into the ground, doing its level best to ruin a sequence that is otherwise a standout even amongst a film that's practically all standout sequences.
These elements were not the result of some grand design, but the random chaos of Hollywood, more pronounced in the early 60s than ever; like literally everything at 20th Century Fox at this time, you can trace its painful path into existence through the studio-consuming maelstrom that was Cleopatra. There are a lot of ins and outs, but the main thing is that it was the final film project to which Marilyn Monroe was attached prior to her untimely death in 1962. She never worked on it, though like the last film she did, Something's Got To Give, eventually rechristened Move Over, Darling for Doris Day, this one (itself originally titled I Love Louisa) was rebuilt around an actress who'd already taken Monroe's place once, in Billy Wilder's Irma la Douce, a major hit even if it was uncharacteristically shitty for both its director and its star. In the interval, novelist Gwen Davis's story was taken in hand by Comden & Green, and I Love Louisa found its superior, poppy title. I believe the only actor originally associated with the film who stuck around was the guy who'd once been looking to direct it, Kelly. (Certainly, the use to which What a Way To Go! puts Kelly made him the only actor who could not be replaced. Likewise, I presume it's no accident that Comden & Green entered the picture while Kelly directing it was still on the table. One may suppose that, like Jeanne Coyne, Kelly got to keep them following his and Stanley Donen's creative divorce.) It was chaos, then, but out of chaos, came order: maybe Monroe's version would have been good, but I can't imagine it not being worse. In every single case, the replacement actor was better and a better fit than the one they supplanted, including MacLaine. And because of Kelly (for I said there was dancing), she became as indispensable as Kelly. I could in fact wonder if there was no other A-lister exactly right for our heroine, and MacLaine, tasked with a figure who's more a storytelling device than a character, that she still has to make a strange, sympathetic mix of dumbness and intellectualism—I suspect Monroe would have flipped them around, while MacLaine doesn't need to fight through her screen persona to stress the latter—is exactly right.
So let's meet Louisa May Foster Hopper Flint Anderson Benson—just Louisa, thanks—presently attempting to perform the certifiably insane action of donating her fortune to the Internal Revenue Service. Accordingly, they certify her to the nearest psychiatrist, Dr. Victor Stephanson (Robert Cummings, the only principal in this film who was unknown to me, but if I accidentally credited him as Tony Randall, you might believe me; he possesses an exquisitely Randallian energy making him as valuable as anyone else here). Well, the analyst—so shocked he has to be revived with a face-full of cold water by his own patient—prompts Louisa to tell him how she could have come to such a point.
And thereon hangs the tale of how, in her youth, she was forcibly betrothed by her mother (Margaret Dumont) to the local yokel aristocrat of her hick town, shopping center owner Leonard Crawley (Dean Martin, whom I admit did not excite me, though he's also good). She does not love him, but upon a chance meeting with Leonard's main "competitor," intermittent shopkeeper Edgar Hopper (Van Dyke), she finds herself attracted to his do-nothing simplicity and propensity to quote Thoreau. Quickly studying the author herself via, by her own admission, pretty much just a copy of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations at the library—which I suppose he would appreciate as its own form of simplification—she sets herself to the task of snaring the poorest and laziest and, therefore, to her mind, most eligible bachelor in town. Edgar pledges to never make good, and they wed, but never is a long time, and doesn't survive a slight by Leonard, which sends Edgar into a vengeful spiral that takes him from hillbilly loser to international shopping magnate, destroying Leonard but ultimately destroying himself, when, in his hyper-stimulated, Van Dykey way, he overworks himself so thoroughly that, like the protagonist of Pink Floyd's epic ballad, Louisa finds him dead on the phone. Louisa, devastated but wealthy, grieves with the trip to Europe she and Edgar never took, but the pattern of her life is now fixed. In turn, she picks up husband after husband—Larry Flint, a proletarian American painter in Paris (Newman), Rod Anderson Jr., a fellow ultra-wealthy heir (Mitchum), and pink-loving Pinky Benson, a pathetic restaurant floorshow performer (Kelly)—all of whom promise their own brand of simplicity, before something snaps, they become try-hard strivers, get rich, and die.
Or, should I say, die hilariously—this is a tremendously funny movie, and you could mount an argument that all four of its best jokes are the horrible ends of its husband-stars. I don't see any way to argue that its very best joke could be anything besides one of those deaths. They're mostly broadly predictable on the basis of fitting ironic punishment, though usually not predictable in the details, and this one is altogether shocking, not least because this husband didn't even do anything to be punished for. I didn't see it coming at all until (in the way of great comedy) right before it happened. Turning upon a gag I would earnestly not have believed would have been permissible in 1964—a misidentified penis!—it only uses that as the foundation for the really funny parts, namely a dummy flying across the sky, Mitchum's stunningly flawless read of the line, "Melrose! Forgive me!", and the reaction shots of MacLaine and his murderer.
As I hope this makes clear, What a Way To Go! is nothing if not a live-action cartoon that's playing, in many cases, with well-honed tastelessness. It begins with a pre-credits scene that tells you what's what, albeit with a great deal of disorientation, with the preparations for Louisa's fourth husband's funeral, opening with the black-clad widow walking despondently down the stairs of a mansion that has, impossibly, been painted entirely in one strident, aggressive shade of orange-pink that Shamroy's exploiting the DeLuxe to make practically hum off the screen with aesthetic aggression. She is followed by pallbearers—I've seen this movie twice and didn't realize till now this isn't how funerals work, but it doesn't matter—who drop the casket down the stairs, kicking off an utterly surreal yaketty-sax style undercranking setpiece, wherein they all chase this pink casket bouncing around this pink room like a pinball.
I'm dangerously close to just describing jokes in full paragraphs now, but I use it to introduce the guy I didn't mention in my extended executive summary up top, its director, J. Lee Thompson. Thompson's a director who's popped up in my viewing history as often as anybody I never cared about as a filmmaker, and maybe that was a mistake, or maybe not: I know Thomspon for the two worst Planet of the Apes films, the longest and one of the dullest efforts of the whole 80s slasher movement, a decentish Yul Brynner (a)historical epic, a movie about Mitchum being extravagantly creepy rather than extravagantly funny, and a three-hour WWII movie you'd think I'd have seen by accident. He'd done comedies, like any working director, but nothing besides this that might show up on your radar; and nevertheless, there it sits, one of the most superbly-directed comedies of the 1960s. Comden & Green deserve credit for coming up with these jokes, but Thompson is the one responsible for selling these jokes. By God, he does, with an energetic visual diligence that barely feels like a single one of their script beats has been tossed-off, a single one of editor Marjorie Fowler's cuts has been indifferently-applied, or a single one of art directors Ted Hadworth's and Jack Martin Smith's sets have not been fussed-over to make it weirder and more applicable to goofy comedy; yet it doesn't resemble anything else I've ever seen from him. Maybe that's even the secret to his great success—I could wonder if he looked around and saw what was working in 1960s comedy, and more importantly, in 1964, what was not working, and built his zaniness-fest exclusively out of the best of the former.
So it's always pitched extremely high, but it's remarkable how much variation Thompson manages within that pitch, giving each sequence its own particularized, native feel that takes advantage of each star's strengths (Van Dyke's husband's demise being literally done at 1.5 speed and in canted angles, for example, while still granting the psychiatrist's framing device its own distinct flavor of high-strung physical comedy). He somehow manages to distinguish between a lower high-pitch for "real" scenes and an even higher high-pitch for the outright fantasies, and given how abrasively cartoonish it is even at its lowest setting, that's a true feat. He gets a lot of outright fantasy to do, Comden & Green having obliged him, with their usual jaundiced nostalgia, to provide each marriage its own special genre parody introduction, each spoofing a mode of filmmaking that each husband best represents. Naturally, then, Van Dyke gets his Chaplinesque silent comedy; Newman a parody of the French New Wave, with a crazed, editing-driven joke about bathtub sex that is my second-favorite thing here after "Melrose! Forgive me!"; Mitchum a parody of Old Hollywood glamor; and Kelly, obviously, gets a parody (if parody it be, and the assumption would be that Kelly directed it himself) that takes advantage of the houseboat Pinky lives on to encapsulate a major strain of the last thirty years of film musicals.
(And so as someone who often reviews Golden Age musicals, I should treat with some detail upon this sequence, Kelly's last credited choreography in an American film until Xanadu. MacLaine, we know, is a trained dancer. She would be, and has been, the first to admit she was never Kelly-level, but she's every bit good enough to keep up with the aging-but-still-athletic dancing superman. The number recapitulates the "sailor musicals" synonymous with Kelly's career, but neither he nor Comden & Green's lyrics assert that Kelly is therefore the subgenre's only proponent. And so the referencing extends well beyond Kelly—Anchors Aweigh is no more stressed than Follow the Fleet—and this is fully correct, with MacLaine's mouth opening up and someone dubbing in their best Kathryn Grayson vocal impression, the only part of the whole number that I would even tentatively identify as "actual parody" (and it's still quite genial), while MacLaine herself is doing her best to channel Ginger Rogers and Eleanor Powell, very successfully so within Kelly's finely-tailored choreography. That choreography even opens up into some more contemporary modes, arguably better-suited to MacLaine, and altogether, it's a wonderful thing. Plus, if one likes MacLaine's legs, and who doesn't, one could not be disappointed. Those "contemporary modes" include some overtly erotic filigrees, incidentally, notably a vignette in which they cut to a blacked-out stage, culminating in Kelly "pulling" MacLaine off of her knees by her hair. Oddly, overcooking the sexiness might be the one misstep: MacLaine's outfitted in a breakaway skirt, but the skirt was already hotter than the unitard underneath, because a unitard is just regular dancin' clothes, whereas you can agree to pretend—despite its approximately three-inch length—the skirt was "hiding" something you weren't "supposed" to see. But hell, my favorite bit is a moment with magical, levitating hats.)
Anyway: the film avoids the "best cast?" conversation because, besides Van Dyke and Martin, they don't interact whatsoever, but it deploys them exceedingly well individually. Weirdly, the two not-famous-for-being-funny guys have the best material. I have covered Mitchum. Newman, however, gets the most parody-ready character in the film in the person of Larry, a risibly pretentious piece of shit who only becomes moreso when, in his particular turn to the dark side of capitalism, he invents an even more dangerous form of AI art.
Mitchum, however, also benefits from having the funniest of the formalist parodies, which, above and beyond even the rest of the film which is already like this, is offered as a sexy/funny Edith Head fashion show, eventually throwing in jump-cuts just to fit all the sexy/funny clothes into the bit; MacLaine, for her part, does not exactly fit into all of the clothes, though the funniest one wouldn't involve "fitting" it at all. (Yet somehow this is also the scene that mars the movie as a whole: a parody of contemporary Old Hollywood and its breathless trailers, it is credited to "LUSH BUDGETT PRODUCTIONS," and, I'm sorry, that's the name of a porn outfit from a few years later and a few miles north. Repeating that name eight or nine times does not make it funnier. If you're going to use the Fox fanfare, just make it 20th Century Fox. Everyone knows you're making fun of Cleopatra by other means, anyway!)
And, Lord, I am just listing jokes—I've only gotten up to at most 10% of the jokes in the movie, though, a good sign of a pretty joke-packed screenplay. It's hard, anyhow, to name a movie more "made for me": if this actually were made for me, Comden & Green could scarcely have better-calibrated their sneers. It's a movie that disdains what I disdain (the Nouvelle Vague and twatty modern artists), loves what I love (musicals), and, somehow, even manages to merely roll its eyes affectionately at exactly what I sometimes roll my eyes affectionately at (and with the giddy sensation of getting away with something right under their old boss's nose, given that only when Kelly finally abandons—excuse me, "when Kelly's character finally abandons"—his lame vaudeville pretensions can he at last stop annoying everybody to become the beloved of millions).
The overriding weakness of the film, I suppose, is really just another strength; but it's probably the most "about nothing" movie imaginable. Looked at beyond the boundaries of any given sequence, even its otherwise-incisive satirical elements have no rigor. It has a happy ending that is basically "okay, movie, whatever." It doesn't have any real emotions, and this could be concerning, given that you suspect that it thinks it does (MacLaine is on record as saying it does). It threatens to treat feelings seriously occasionally, first with Van Dyke, mostly because the movie's just started and you assume romantic comedies should have feelings, and then a little bit with Mitchum, albeit possibly just as a function of he and MacLaine fucking so much in real life (I do not know if watching them together in Two For the Seesaw beforehand would help or hurt, but I only saw it after); and despite presenting an arc for Louisa, it barely cares, and I'm not sure MacLaine does, either, even though MacLaine is doing fantastic straightwoman as the cosmically-cursed anchor for her boys' shenanigans. Yet, on the basis of two viewings, I don't care. It signposts its theme constantly and posits a zealousness to its heroine that amounts to a whole ideology of po-folk laziness married to idle-rich security—and what could that be, but either joke or unhinged fantasy? Hey, give me a chance, I'm lazy as shit.