“Forgotten Hollywood”- July Review / What a Way to Go (1964)

Posted on July 1, 2011 by raideoman1 | No Comments

(#1 in a 12-part series to be printed at the beginning of each month)

Manny P. here…

what a way to goWHAT A WAY TO GO – The script parodies the curse of a frustrated widow (by four husbands) searching for a thrifty, humble life. She succeeds in inheriting gobs of money by offering seemingly innocent suggestions which lead to each spouse’s demise. The story is told as an amusing episodic  flashback, with every marriage presented as a homage to a Hollywood genre including Silent Film Comedy, European Imports, and MGM Musicals. It’s an epic black comedy that was equally doomed with a problematic production history.

Back Story

   20th Century Fox yearned for a hit after the debacle of Cleopatra. The movie studio wanted a big-budget success without having cost overruns, overpaying their stars, and provide a splashy comeback for Marilyn Monroe. However, the actress suddenly died of a drug overdose, leaving a promising script without a lead. Enter Shirley MacLaine, fresh from her triumph in The Apartment. Casting six male leads also became a major issue. Frank Sinatra wanted Elizabeth Taylor-type cash; Gregory Peck was unavailable; and Paul Newman requested top billing despite appearing in only 25% of the film.

Robert_Mitchum   Robert Mitchum was adroitly chosen to replace Sinatra… Paul Newman accepted second billing… Gene Kelly, Dean Martin, Robert Cummings, and Dick Van Dyke followed.

   Unfortunately, critics would be less than charitable, citing the length of the motion picture as a main concern. The result:  Despite a star-studded effort, What a Way to Go didn’t dig Fox out of its budgetary woes.


   Shirley MacLaine capably carried the motion picture. And, Paul Newman and Robert Mitchum were surprisingly funny, showing great depth as comedians.

   Dick Van Dyke was more than able to mix pathos and humor, practically stealing the movie from the other cinematic stars. Add his co-starring role in Mary Poppins, the television icon solidified his weekly sitcom’s popularity.

Inherit_the_wind_trailer_5_Gene_Kelly1-300x174   Gene Kelly really shined in this picture. For years, the hoofer was miscast in a variety of dramas, including Inherit the Wind. Also, he was known as a diva (of sorts). This chance was a boost to the latter phase of his career. The musical number featuring Gene Kelly and Shirley MacLaine reminds us of his work in Singing in the Rain and An American in Paris.

   Edith Head deservedly received an Oscar nod for the seventy-two costumes she placed on MacLaine. Had it not been the year of My Fair Lady, Head surely would have won another statuette for her work.


   The opening sequence of What a Way to Go was weak. Dropping a coffin down a flight of stairs was, quite frankly, not funny. I also didn’t buy the manner in which Paul Newman was dismissed. But these are brief moments in a film loaded with believable slapstick humor.

   Dean Martin proved to be a wooden anti-hero. He seemed to lose interest in the project once Sinatra was replaced. Martin’s comedic delivery abandoned the singer-turned-actor. If Robert Mitchum and Dean Martin traded assignments, I believe this picture might have been more satisfying, since Mitchum nurtured his career by playing enjoyable scoundrels. Unfortunately, he was the last actor cast, and it is unlikely this switch was ever considered.

   Also, Robert Cummings is given little to do as the recipient of each story told. His role as a psychiatrist seemed predictable and totally unworthy of his talent.

Supporting Actor Spotlight 06 Margaret Dumont_The Big Store

   Margaret Dumont is an upcoming female subject in the second of my  Forgotten Hollywood Forgotten History series of books. This fine character actress found steady work as a foil to the Marx Brothers. Her final screen role was as Shirley MacLaine’s greedy mother in What a Way to Go. Despite being eighty, this was a demanding part for Dumont. She honored us with an outlandishly wicked performance. The film title really captures a fitting finale for Margaret Dumont.


   What a Way to Go was finally released on DVD in 2004, forty years after its initial release. The wildly cynical approach of the plot suits the mature nature of a baby boom audience that had to endure Watergate, the fall of Soviet Communism, and the Wall Street explosion of the 1990’s. Next to It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, this is my favorite comedy of the decade.

Until next time>                               “never forget”

This entry was posted on Friday, July 1st, 2011 at 12:11 am and is filed under Blog by Manny Pacheco. You can follow any comments to this post through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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