Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Call Me Madam (1953)

Ethel Merman and Donald O'Connor

When 20th Century Fox lost the music rights for Irving Berlin's score to Call Me Madam, the film was withdrawn from public exhibition for twenty years. Consequently, it is not as well known as other big production musicals of the day, such as The Band Wagon, Kiss Me, Kate and Brigadoon, though it can comfortably stand alongside these better-remembered films. Thankfully, it resurfaced on DVD in 2004, and can now reclaim its place among the finest musicals of the 1950's.

It only takes one stellar performer to make a film, and Call Me Madam has four: George Sanders, Donald O'Connor, Vera-Ellen, and most especially, the incomparable Ethel Merman. However, There's No Business Like Show Business, made only a year later, falls flat on its face despite the fact that it re-teams Merman and O'Connor alongside Mitzi Gaynor and Marilyn Monroe. Although the songs are exceptional and the stars are likable, the story is stale and uninteresting. But then, vaudeville biopics always move a bit slow for me, even the highly-rated Yankee Doodle Dandy. It's a great film, just not my cup of tea. Call Me Madam, however, most assuredly fills my proverbial cup.

Ethel Merman plays Sally Adams, the perennial Washington hostess recently appointed Ambassador to Lichtenburg, a country she knows virtually nothing about. Filling in the gaps in her knowledge is her charming young press attache, Kenneth Gibson (Donald O'Connor). Both find love in the fairy-tale land of Lichtenburg--Kenneth with an honest to goodness princess, played by Vera-Ellen--but politics, as usual, threaten to get the better of them. Much like Slyvania in Ernst Lubitsch's The Love Parade, Lichtenburg is desperate for an American loan, and will do most anything to get it. They don't really need it, though. In both films the national leaders must realize that the stronger and more honorable position is to scale back expenses and balance the budget without a loan. Do I detect a message here?

Probably not the way the designer meant this dress to be worn.

Merman is spectacular as the brazen, out(way, way out)spoken Ambassador, and it's no wonder. She created the role on Broadway in 1950, and carried it through a whopping 644 performances. She brings to the film a sparkle and comedic clarity that is positively a joy to watch, combining brash wit and Hollywood glamor like no one else. Practicing her curtsies while waiting to be introduced to the Grand Duke, she catches sight of General Cosmo Constantine (George Sanders), a man she met earlier that day and can't wait to see more of. She unceremoniously pulls the train of her gown up between her legs so it will be out of her way and carries it bunched up around her waist to rush over and greet him, grinning like a school girl. And yet, the gown is sleek and elegant, and she looks like a million bucks in it, dripping with diamonds and class. Her enthusiasm is such that even a breech of decorum like this can't shatter her aura of confidence and sophistication, of belonging. Everything she does is right, even when it's wrong, just because she does it.

Donald O'Connor is also in fine form, in what may be his best ever performance. It's unusual to see him as a leading man, but he pulls it off with style and grace. He wears a pair of clumsy looking glasses for most of the film, presumably so that he can take them off at strategic moments and look more handsome without them. Although extremely good-looking, O'Connor never seemed to grow past the dorky twelve year old stage, so it's a bit of a challenge to make him debonair enough to romance a woman with the polish and beauty of Vera-Ellen. His likability quotient is off the charts, though, so it all seems believable enough. Let me rephrase: nothing in this film is believable, but once you are immersed in its charm and wit, you just don't care.

Vera-Ellen and Donald O'Connor dancing to "It's a Lovely Day Today"

The real treat, though, comes at the Grand Ball, when Kenneth and the princess sneak off into the garden for a private dance. Vera-Ellen's pink ball gown really deserves its own listing in the credits. At one point or another, every little girl dreams of being a fairy princess, and when they do, this is the dress they're wearing. Layer upon layer of filmy pink and white material float about her legs like vapor, and the skirt seems to have a life of its own. The music is Berlin's "It's a Lovely Day Today," not to be confused with his "Isn't This a Lovely Day?" which you may remember Fred and Ginger dancing to in Top Hat. Both are great melodies, but I think I like this one better, and believe it or not, I like the dance better too. It is lyrical and romantic, and the music is just up tempo enough to keep the pair moving. They glide around the garden and across the pond with an old-fashioned sweetness that is fresh and endearing. Vera-Ellen was one of the best dancers in Hollywood at the time, with the strong, clean lines of a seasoned professional, and O'Connor surprises everyone as a perfectly elegant Prince Charming. It's a side we don't see in him often enough, and further evidence that he was one of the most under-utilized actors of his day.

And the hits just keep on coming. In case you miss O'Connor's zany exuberance from Singin' in the Rain, he does a delightfully comic tap routine, dead drunk, to "What Chance Have I With Love?" that is just as memorable. O'Connor and Merman sing together in "I Hear Music/You're Just in Love," and Vera-Ellen does the polka. The chemistry between all four leads is exceptional, and the relationships between the characters--particularly between Merman and O'Connor--are touchingly real.

Hollywood was changing fast, with the decline of the studios and the rise of television, and big budget musicals would soon fall to the wayside. In the meantime, though, the musicals of the early 50's were some of the best that had ever been made (think An American in Paris, Singin' in the Rain, and The Band Wagon) and Call Me Madam, though seldom watched today, can hold up its head with the best of them.

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