In my last case file I discussed a phenomenon I call "the curse of bigness," wherein a bloated comedy's ginormous size works against it. This week I'll be discussing two more examples of the Curse of Bigness: 1964's What A Way To Go! and Steven Spielberg's infamous 1941. First up: What A Way To Go!
What A Way To Go! arrived at a transitional time for American film. Lew Wasserman and his battalion of black-hearted agents had killed off the studio system and transferred power from studios to deal-brokers and stars. The French new wave dramatically expanded the vocabulary of filmmaking and the seismic cultural explosion of Bonnie And Clyde and Easy Rider lurked just around the corner. Television posed a formidable threat to the popularity of movie-going and increasingly clueless studios struggled to keep up with the times.
In desperation studios rushed to give audiences what they couldn't get on TV: 3-D! Cinemascope! Cinerama! Giant stars parading through giant sets! Gaudy spectacle as far as the eye can see! What A Way To Go! epitomized this short-sighted and ultimately counterproductive more-is-more aesthetic. On paper at least it looks like one for the ages. How could a film with Shirley MacLaine, Gene Kelly, Robert Mitchum, Paul Newman, Dean Martin, Dick Van Dyke, a chimpanzee painting prodigy and a script by the duo behind Singing In The Rain,The Band Wagon, Good Times,On The Town and It's Always Fair Weather be anything other than awesome? What A Way To Go!'s screenwriters, cast, budget, sets and comically extravagant costumes and jewels all raised the stakes so high that the film had to be an all-time classic or a colossal failure. And not even What A Way To Go!'s defenders, of which I am one, herald it as a masterpiece.
Behind the gaudy production values lies a simple irony: Plucky small town girl Shirley MacLaine wants is to lead a simple, modest life uncomplicated by wealth or privilege. But fate keeps throwing untold riches into her lap until she's amassed a fortune of over 200 million dollars she's intent on delivering to an understandably flabbergasted and suspicious IRS. Accordingly, What A Way To Go is a celebration of the simple life characterized by the most ridiculous kind of excess. The film unfolds largely in flashback as MacLaine regales psychiatric Bob Cummings with the story of how she fell for a series of men killed, more or less literally, by the trappings of their success: small-time businessman turned overstressed mogul Dick Van Dyke, bohemian painter turned one-man art industry Paul Newman, tycoon Robert Mitchum and sad-sack song and dance man turned massive movie star Gene Kelly. [Spoiler alert] MacLaine ends the film in the arms of Dean Martin, who begins the film a spoiled son of privilege and ends the film a happily broke man of the soil, committed to the anti-materialist philosophy of Thoreau rather than the almighty dollar.
In one of the film's many goofy gimmicks, MacLaine sees each of her relationships in the style of a different cinematic genre: silent film, European neo-realism, and splashy musical. But the film's most revealing bit of genre parody presents the romance between MacLaine and Mitchum as a comically lavish production by "Lush Budgett," a none-too veiled spoof of production-values obsessed MGM kingpin L.B Mayer. It's telling that the faux-"Lush Budgett" production doesn't look or feel particularly dissimilar from the rest of the film: when an entire comedy is built upon giant sets, constant, elaborate costume changes and giddy excess ridiculing the extravagance of big-budget productions seems like a fairly perverse undertaking.
What A Way To Go! is Comden and Green's version of a Frank Tashlin movie. It's a goofy, giddy live-action cartoon with a decidedly cynical attitude toward capitalism, wealth, fame, upward mobility and show business. It's tempting to imagine what someone like Tashlin or Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen or Billy Wilder would have done with this material. Alas, Comden and Green were saddled with J. Lee Thompson, who directs with the leaden comic sensibility you'd expect from someone who spent the last several decades of his career directing Charles Bronson vehicles.
What A Way To Go! is a featherweight trifle weighed down by production values and star-power that make Gone With The Wind look like a one-day Roger Corman cheapie. According to the Internet Movie Database the film cost 20 million dollars and netted a worldwide gross of less than half that. Yet the sparkling wit and satirical bite of Comden and Green intermittently shines through the bloated excess.
The film rambles episodically from one leading man to the next but comes into its own in the Gene Kelly segment. Kelly's lovable as a content sadsack of a song-and-dance man and hilariously arrogant as an ego-mad movie star nicknamed "Pinky" who has his mansion painted pink, insists on playing all four horsemen of the apocalypse himself, subjects fans to five-and-a-half-hour long comedies and generally behaves like a gayer, more ostentatious version of Liberace. Perhaps the highest praise that can be lavished on Kelly's section of the film is that it lives up to the impossibly high standards set by previous Kelly/Comden and Green collaborations On The Town,Singing In The Rain and It's Always Fair Weather. Oh, and fans of warped psychedelic rock might be amused by the title of one of Kelly's bloated epics: Flaming Lips. Catchy title, huh?
Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success?: Secret success