Tuesday, February 26, 2013

What a Way to Go!

What a Way to Go! is airing tomorrow morning at 8:00 AM over on the Fox Movie Channel.

Shirley MacLaine stars as Louisa, a woman who at the start of the movie wants to donate all of her wealth to the US Government. The IRS thinks she's crazy, and send her to a psychiatrist, Dr. Stephenson (Bob Cummings) to have her head examined. (In real life, the government actually has an address for those who want to make donations to the Treasury. I don't think they would have turned her down. But then we wouldn't have much of a movie.) It turns out that she's a widow worth a good $200 million, left to her by a series of husbands who died. So, obviously, we're about to have a flashback to how Louisa became wife to all these men and how they left her that fortune....

Louisa spent her childhood in one of those typical for the movies Midwestern towns, with a mother (Margaret Dumont) who claimed to follow the Christian precepts about the love of money being the root of all evil and all that stuff. In fact, she was a hypocrite, berating her husband for not being financially successful and recommending that Louisa get married to the man pursuing her. That man is Leonard Crawley (Dean Martin), who owns the local department store and making a fortune because none of the other stores in town can compete. Louisa doesn't like him, and instead falls for Edgar Hopper (Dick Van Dyke), who owns a not very successful store but is happy with the simple life. That is, until he marries Louisa. For a while they live happily together, like in one of those old silent movies, but when he gets humiliated by Crawley one time too many, Edgar gets the idea that he needs to provide better for Louisa, and proceeds to start working. He works and works and works, which makes Hopper's a successful business to the point of driving Crawley's out of business, but it takes all of his time away from him so that he's only at his job and never with Louisa. In fact, all of this work will be the death of him, as he drops dead on the job, leaving Louisa with a couple million dollars.

Louisa puts the money in a bank, living off a small allowance which she uses to take a trip to Paris. There, she meets Larry Flint (Paul Newman), who doesn't do porn but is instead a starving artist who, like Edgar initially was, is happy with his station in life. Louisa, seeing this as a change from Edgar, makes Larry Husband #2. You can probably guess what happens next. A series of coincidences leads to Flint's art being shown at a fine gallery and made the toast of Paris, which means that Larry gets rich too, just like Edgar. However, it also means that he has to spend more and more time with his art and not with Louisa, which, as with Edgar, eventually leads to his untimely death, but also leaves Louisa with more millions.

At the airport on the way back to the States, Lousia meets the man who is about to become Husband #3, Rod Anderson (Robert Mitchum). Rod is already rich, which is obviously a turnoff to Louisa. But you know that they're going to get married anyway. In fact, once Rod and Louisa marry, Rod becomes less interested in his business and more in lavishing Louisa with whatever she wants. Of course all this backfires, and Rod eventually dies young too. Ditto Husband #4, Pinky (Gene Kelly) a failed nightclub actor who's only got a job because his act is a failure -- that is, until Louisa unwittingly does something to make it a success. Pinky then goes on to become a big success until he too dies, which takes Louisa to the present day, back to Dr. Stephenson's couch.

What a Way to Go! is advertised as a black comedy, and while there are certainly a lot of comic elements, both black comedy as well as parody, the movie is just as much a fantasy in that the lives with the four husbands are thoroughly unrealistic and presented that way. Louisa describes each of the four marriages as being idyllic, like a certain genre of movie. I mentioned the silent movie for Edgar; there's also a French movie for Larry, one of those lavish 1950s Technicolor dramas with Rod; and a musical (choreographed by Gene Kelly, of course) with Pinky. The movie-within-a-movie for her marriage with Rod is particularly fun, as Louisa is shown in dress after dress after dress, which are increasingly over the top in their frilliness and garish colors.

Does the movie work? For the most part yes, as long as you know what you're in for. There are times when the comedy is just a little too wacky. But if you know that there's parody coming in spades along with the homages to filmmaking of the past, the movie does a good job with those things. MacLaine and Van Dyke both do a good job acting in the silent movie style; Newman and Mitchum do well as a foil for all the comic stuff going on around him, while Kelly is more or less playing himself. There's nothing deep about the movie, but it's entertaining enough.

What a Way to Go! has receieved a DVD release, but I'm not sure if it's still in print.

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