Anything Goes (DVD Review)28 Mar, 2011 By: Mike Clark
Stars Frank Sinatra, Ethel Merman, Bert Lahr, Sheree North.
“Modern sources” (a lofty way to put it) claim that Ethel Merman was married to Ernest Borgnine for 32 days — which is a personal revelation. Because when I worked on the AFI Catalog years ago helping compile info on feature film releases of the 1960s, my colleagues and I were all under the impression that the total had been 54 or 55. As a result of this common misinformation, the wall-to-wall wags on the staff regularly likened the Ethel-Ernie adventure to Nicholas Ray’s swansong theatrical feature 55 Days at Peking, the Charlton Heston epic about the Boxer Rebellion.
And yet, for all the delightful improbability of Merman’s quickly terminated real-life union, this great belter of standards once enjoyed an equally wild romantic pairing on live network TV as well — opposite Frank Sinatra. And the skinny, 1954 Sinatra at that.
Equal surprise: that the “Colgate Comedy Hour” presentation of Cole Porter’s perennial got good reviews at the time and still deserves them — even though by necessity, that weekly show’s already brief time slot (minus seven more minutes for commercials) meant that Porter’s original musical had to be trimmed to a buzz-cut degree. And this despite the fact that Porter standards not featured in the stage version got added here. So what we have in this most welcome release isn’t an Anything Goes for purists — yet taken as an AG revue that incorporates some of the show’s songs and situations, it ought to delight just about any non-grouch you know who has a taste for classic musicals. What’s more, the two feature film versions of the play (1936 and ’56; both with Bing Crosby; the first with Merman as well) aren’t exactly paragons of fidelity, either.
And now for some TV history. From 1950-55, “The Colgate Comedy Hour” broadcast every Sunday night at 8pm ET as NBC’s programming rival to “The Ed Sullivan Show,” whose competition eventually became too formidable once Ed’s willingness to book rock-and-roll acts iced its advantage. “Hour” was far and away my favorite show during my formidable TV years — and not just because it was the program on which Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis did all 28 of their NBC specials (which, by the way, usually killed Sullivan in the ratings). It also introduced me to Jimmy Durante, Eddie Cantor, Abbott and Costello and Donald O’Connor at a time before I started going to the movies with any frequency.
Very occasionally, the show presented an entire musical, and this one ran Feb 28, 1954 — one week after one of the series’ weirdest shows (skater Sonja Henie as nominal host, even though she was, if memory serves, always seen on the ice in medium shot). For Merman, it was a heady time. There’d been the hit 1953 movie of her stage success Call Me Madam — plus the same year’s legendary TV special with her and Mary Martin, which included a long M&M duet for the ages.
What’s more, Sinatra was just beginning his comeback, the most famous in show biz history, but he hadn’t taken it to completion. From Here to Eternity had been a critical/box office smash in theaters for about five months, but the Oscarcast that would win him the supporting actor award was still a month away. Sinatra’s two ’54 features (the most atypical Suddenly! and Young at Heart) were both more than half-a-year off — and his landmark debut Capitol album with Nelson Riddle (Songs for Young Lovers) was only just hitting.
Added to this and cast as the musical’s pretend “Public Enemy No. 13” was Merman’s old pal Bert Lahr, who before too long would be put on the yellow brick road to immortality when CBS started broadcasting The Wizard of Oz two-and-a-half years later. Plus dancer Sheree North, who had caused a minor scandal just seven weeks earlier when she’d gyrated provocatively on Bing Crosby’s TV debut special for CBS — and who was about five months away from her still incredible jitterbugging scene with Jerry Lewis in Living It Up. North’s contribution here is some intermittent flapper action, which represented another TV modification in the Goes scenario. The story still takes place on an ocean liner, but the setting is now the madcap ‘20s.
As heiress Reno Sweeney, Merman is 46 here to Sinatra’s 38, but it’s the difference in their physical statures (you can see from the slit dress she wears in one number that her frame has been underrated) that makes their pairing only a little less strange than Sinatra with Ethel Mertz. What matters is that the two have tremendous performing chemistry — and with close to a dozen numbers in just 53 minutes, it hardly matters that one can’t exactly imagine them as an amorous unit. The Porter tunes added to this presentation include a terrific “Friendship” (Merman and Lahr) plus “Just One of Those Things” and “You Do Something to Me” (both Sinatra). But this “Colgate” show’s standout is the Merman-Sinatra duet of “You’re the Top” at almost exactly the midway point — one of the most infectious sequences in all of ‘50s TV. You will almost never see Sinatra this loose or obviously enjoying himself as much. And Merman is superstar material all the way.
Incredibly, the show ended two or three minutes early, so (in addition to an opening where the stars appear in dressing room garb, about to go on), there is some delightful “fill” during the finale with the three principals. Sinatra apparently doesn’t know all the words (or even many) to the title tune, but he has a breezy time going with the flow.
Within the limitations of kinescopes, the copy utilized for this authorized “Archive of American Television” release is superb — as good a kinescope as I’ve ever seen (the commercials are missing). And it ought to be: it’s taken from Merman’s personal 16mm copy, an acquisition described with great charm by Stephen Cole, who provides super liner notes on the show’s history (but especially this rendering). The bootlegs I’d previously seen were incomplete and dupey. This one is a revelation, and Sinatra is in top voice, sounding much as he does on Songs for Young Lovers, which would figure.
This broadcast’s success must have had at least something to do with spurring on “Colgate’s” Nov. 21, 1954 production of Porter’s Let’s Face It, starring Gene Nelson, Vivian Blaine and Lahr. It, too, still exists — though only on (again) inferior bootlegs. The two things I remember about it are an unfortunate live-TV close-up of Nelson’s perspiring underarms during one strenuous dance number (at a time when the sponsor was pushing Veto Deodorant) and a surprise cameo show-up by Martin and Lewis at the end. Neither of these bonuses is exactly synonymous with the “Cole Porter Experience,” but the last had a little to do with showmanship. I wish It could get its own official release.