Shirley MacLaine is Lucky in Money but Unlucky in Love
DIRECTED BY: J. LEE THOMPSON/1964
STREET DATE: FEBRUARY 7, 2017/ KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS
1) A Cast That Could Charm the Birds Out of the Trees
The leads were all at the height of their powers when they appeared in What a Way to Go!, and the movie is a vivid reminder of how nimble and childlike Dick Van Dyke could be on screen; of how effortlessly sexy Paul Newman was; of Robert Mitchum’s swagger, and Gene Kelly’s million-watt charisma. Even Shirley MacLaine, who has an odd and not especially interesting character, is fresh faced and lovely to look at.
A bonus for Marx Brothers fans is seeing Margaret Dumont in her last role, still formidable as MacLaine’s money-hungry harpy of a mother.
2) Those Costumes, Those Costumes, Those Costumes!
The most respected, most awarded, and most famous costume designer in film history (she has a Pixar character based on her, for crying out loud!), Edith Head had a budget of half a million dollars to work with in the production of What a Way to Go!, almost all devoted to dressing Shirley MacLaine (the men’s wardrobes were handled by another costumer, Moss Mabry). In the story of a woman who goes from rags to riches, to being the wealthiest woman in the world, the costumes are perhaps the film’s strongest enduring selling point. Some of MacLaine’s costumes are beautiful, some are scandalous, a few are absurd, but all are unique and inspired. Edith Head was a genius, and in What a Way to Go! she gave free reign to her imagination.
3) Set Design and Art Direction That Almost (But Not Quite) Match the Costumes
What a Way to Go! is a brilliantly colored confection of a movie (or aspires to be – see the cons). Art Directors Ted Haworth and Jack Martin Smith don’t bother with restraint, and the movie is the better for it. Jack Martin Smith, in particular, worked on a number of movies with a garish, trashy-chic aesthetic (Myra Breckenridge, The Pleasure Seekers, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls). It’s a bit more subdued in What a Way to Go!, but not much.
Some of the costumes are beautiful, some are scandalous, a few are absurd, but all are unique and inspired. Edith Head was a genius, and in “What a Way to Go!” she gave free reign to her imagination.
4) Fantasy Sequences Made for Cinephiles
Shirley MacLaine’s character, Louisa May Foster interprets each of her four marriages in light of a film genre – silent comedy, French New Wave, A glossy Rock Hudson/Doris Day style romance, and a big budget musical. The first three of these fantasy scenes are fun, affectionate tributes to movies. The last, the musical number, is the only disappointment.
1) The Story
Louisa May Foster is a simple girl who wants to marry for love, not money, and chooses accordingly. Somehow this backfires repeatedly, leaving her widowed for times and richer each time that a husband dies. It’s a strange story, and might have been shaped into a clever black comedy. But What a Way to Go! won’t commit to going dark: it wants to be colorful and sweet and light, while also knocking off a procession of central characters. It doesn’t work.
2) The Slapstick
What this movie lacks in wit it tries to make up with unconvincing physical comedy. A casket dropped down a flight of stairs, an inexperienced farmer kicked through the air by a bull, an artist strangled by his own invention – none of it is convincing or clever. Just broad.
3) The Shameful Waste of That Cast and Crew
Ultimately, What a Way to Go! is not a good movie, and the critics said so back in 1964. It’s almost been forgotten by the passage of time because it’s forgettable (except for those costumes – I’m certain I’ll remember those costumes). The film’s failure came despite a large budget, that star-packed cast, and a script by the great writing/songwriting team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Sometimes a movie has all the right ingredients and the finished entrée is still tasteless. That’s the story of What a Way to Go!
Kino-Lorber’s Blu-ray beautifully renders the sound and striking visuals in What a Way to Go!, even if they’re in a service to an inferior story. This release is short on special features, although it includes trailers for three films (Paris Blues, Foreign Intrigue, and The Honey Pot) that seem to have passed out of memory like What a Way to Go!