What a Way to Go! (Blu-ray Review)20 Feb, 2017 By: Mike Clark
Stars Shirley MacLaine, Paul Newman, Robert Mitchum, Dean Martin, Gene Kelly.
Edith Head worked on 13 other pictures the year she received a “gowns” credit on this not infrequent stupefier, including The Carpetbaggers (an assignment you can bet she didn’t dust off with an afternoon at the racks in Woolworth’s), Elvis’s Roustabout and two Jerry Lewis vehicles including The Patsy — where, of course, Jer’s black tux and white socks had to co-exist harmoniously. In fact, there were likely people who went to see What a Way To Go! precisely because of lead Shirley MacLaine’s dizzying costume changes, which go in radical new directions each time her “Louisa” character gets married again (the story’s central gag). And not a few people did shell out because (somewhat to my surprise) the movie was one of the year’s bigger box office hits when I’d always kind of assumed that its lousy rep had carried over into its paying customer reception.
Just three years later, MacLaine would headline a comedy called Woman Times Seven, but in Go!’s case, it’s more like “woman-times-five” if you just count husbands and leave out a psychiatrist (Bob Cummings) who wouldn’t mind joining her on his couch — which, in this case, is a kind of levitating contraption. As with Bells Are Ringing, the screenplay here is by Betty Comden and Adolph Green — their last big-screen effort and one they probably didn’t tout too much on their resumés. But despite a heavy-handedness that’s tough not to blame on hot-at-the-time but numbingly miscast director J. Lee Thompson, the result isn’t a total loss. For one thing, it’s an instructively lavish artifact-of-an-age; for another, you couldn’t find enough authoritative male superstars today to even attempt a 2017 equivalent (not that Go! is too relevant in the first place to anything that’s happened in society since, say, 1970, aside from maybe Trump’s gaudy election). The picture may be hit-and-miss, but occasionally a joke or production number does come off, which can’t be said for the MacLaine-Thompson follow-up John Goldfarb, Please Come Home! It was such a colossal dud for a purely commercial endeavor that it’s still awaiting a VHS release.
Despite an array of male co-stars, Go!’s best laughs may come from the great Marx Bros. foil Margaret Dumont in her final big-screen appearance about a year before her death (she’d reunite with Groucho early in ’65 for a taped and posthumously broadcast appearance on ABC-TV’s "Hollywood Palace"). As MacLaine’s mother trapped in semi-poverty that her daughter never seems to mind, Dumont is always imploring the (presumably) burg’s comeliest damsel to sell her goods to the highest male bidder — which is funny by itself but also in the way that it goes against Dumont’s Marx-movie image. The shoo-in local for this title would seem to be the well-named Leonard Crawley (Dean Martin) from the family for which the town (Crawleyville) is named, which doesn’t make him any less of a creep. When, instead, Louisa/MacLaine marries an affable dirt-poor clod (Dick Van Dyke), we get one of the three or four greatest reaction shots of Dino’s screen career (even if it’s done with an unavoidable editing cut).
At this point, the laughs dry up for the longest time through her subsequent marriages to artist Paul Newman and business magnate Robert Mitchum — all of whom (like Van Dyke) die prematurely after attaining or sustaining financial success, a change of circumstances that leaves MacLaine so weighted down with bucks that she tries to give her fortune to the IRS. This last is the gag that’s ignited the movie in the first place, and I’m fairly sure that more than one critic has noted the irony of taking an blatantly anti-materialistic stance in a movie as overloaded in excess as this one. This said, there’s something of a rally of sorts when we get to husband No. 4 (Gene Kelly), an extended sequence that’s more fun than I’d remembered; credit the passage of time for making it something of a privileged experience to see Kelly and former chorus girl MacLaine tapping across a Panavision frame awash in Leon Shamroy photography (which always knew how to pour on the lacquer). And because Kelly’s character, once he gets to be famous, turns into something along the lines (but even worse) of the initial egomaniac he played in Singin’ in the Rain, there’s a little fun in watching Kelly-Comden-Green going back to that old glitzy homestead.
I love MacLaine — and, yes, she’s up to both the eveningwear and bikinis here — but she also had a tendency toward shrillness in this period, and Thompson wasn’t giving her any help here. The director was kind of on a roll coming off Tiger Bay, The Guns of Navarone and the original Cape Fear (though those who use it to bash Martin Scorsese’s remake never remember that it got some of the year’s worst reviews at the time). You couldn’t, though, call these movies light — and what’s more, Thompson’s one previous foray into color/widescreen musical vulgarity had been 1957’s The Good Companions, which I just saw on a handsome Region 2 DVD and is all but unbearable, no matter how cute Janette Scott was at the time. Despite Go!’s box office performance, I suspect that it and Goldfarb’s unadulterated flop-dom had a lot to do with MacLaine’s career shortly thereafter losing its box office rhythm for a lot of years (and the rest of her youth) until the one-shot smash-dom of The Turning Point and an all-out reinvention of herself with Terms of Endearment in 1983.
Kino’s Blu-ray definitely has some scenes to work with from a production design and, of course, costuming point of view — though for a Fox title from the ’60s, you can go to last year’s Criterion release of Valley of the Dolls to see how immaculately mounted trash can be ideally rendered. A couple scenes here are even totally bathed in pink, which can be visually striking on a large home screen if they don’t make you leap for the color calibration setting on your remote. I don’t recall ever programming Go! in my previous life at the AFI Theater, but these passages must have been something to see on an original studio print once the unstable De Luxe Color started to fade, which in those days seemed like maybe three minutes. So I’d be lying if I denied feeling a slight nostalgic tingle from seeing the picture adequately rendered and especially when Kelly and MacLaine dance.