Ghibli's Little Sigh of Farewell: Timothy Brayton on WHEN MARNIE WAS THERE

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on what might be the final feature film release from Studio Ghibli, When Marnie Was There, was written by Timothy Brayton, first year Graduate Student in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. When Marnie Was There screens twice on Saturday, September 5 in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. The 2 p.m. screening will feature an English language soundtrack, and the 7 p.m. screening will feature the original Japanese soundtrack with English subtitles.

By Timothy Brayton

The future of Japan's beloved Studio Ghibli, the animation company responsible for such features as Grave of the Fireflies (1988) and Spirited Away (2001), is greatly in doubt. While carefully avoiding any language that outright confirmed that it will never again produce new animated projects, following famed director Hayao Miyazaki's latest retirement (which he's already broken to start work on a new short), Studio Ghibli has shut itself down as a production house for the moment, with no real indication that it will ever restart.

It thus makes tentative sense to call When Marnie Was There, based on a 1967 book by British children's author Joan G. Robinson, the last Studio Ghibli film. That would be a tremendous weight for any single project to bear, even ones as grand in ambition and grave in tone as Miyazaki's The Wind Rises (2013) or fellow studio co-founder Isao Takahata's The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013), both meant as their celebrated director's culminating artistic statements. When Marnie Was There has no such pretension to self-aware importance or career summation; it is only the second film directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, a Studio Ghibli animator who took on the job of providing the capstone to one of the most beloved studio filmographies in the modern world only through an accident of timing.

That's exactly as it should be, perhaps. The unifying characteristic of most of the studio's films, the one that separates it not just from the Hollywood animation industry but even from most of its Japanese competitors, is the smallness and domesticity of so many of its stories. Famously, Studio Ghibli's stories frequently contain no real villains, just misunderstood anti-heroes at worst, and this means that they are rarely driven by strong external conflict. Beyond the high fantasy of the Miyazaki "greatest hits" that have largely defined the American perception of the studio's work, their films are more often than not tiny humanistic stories set in a single close community, even just a single household: the country home and woods of Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro (1988), the quiet suburbs of Yoshifumi Kondo's Whisper of the Heart (1995) and Goro Miyazaki's From Up on Poppy Hill (2011), and not least the family home as infinite fantasy playground in Yonebayashi's own The Secret World of Arietty (2010).

Both of these traits - muted or even non-existent conflict; cozy little storybook settings - are on full display in When Marnie Was There, which can be roughly but fairly summarized as "a lonely girl reluctantly goes to a seaside town for her health, and makes her first-ever friend." There are complications built onto that slender frame, of course: it's clear early on that the film is some manner of ghost story, and must contain melodramatic elements ranging from a sudden storm to a shocking reveal in its final acts. Those things aren't the focus, though. This is above all things a character study of a very complex, well-realized young woman (another Ghibli trademark: psychologically detailed girls or young woman as protagonists, shaming not just American animation but the whole of the American film industry), suffering from without and within from the effects of social isolation. The lonely, sad-eyed Anna (voiced by Hailee Steinfeld in the film's English version, Sara Takatsuki in Japanese) is a penetrating enough depiction of childhood depression to make the film troubling and even upsetting in patches. She's strongly drawn in a particularly subdued version of the Ghibli house style that makes her shifting internal strife and happiness far more affecting than the slight-unto-inconsequential mechanics of the plot itself, taking her place proudly among the ranks of the studio's fullest, richest female characters.

As a piece of animation, When Marnie Was There is no less a worthy successor to the Studio Ghibli name than as a character study. The intense focus on realistic emotions translates into an equally realistic visual style, which to American eyes might seem like an odd fit for animation, but any doubt that When Marnie Was There uses the medium well is quickly dispelled. The film’s style, especially its lush backgrounds and summery lighting, resembles a series of oil paintings, right down to the preference for landscapes situating the characters as small objects in a larger world. The classical aesthetic draws out the nostalgia inherent in having such a quiet, old-fashioned story as the film’s spine, giving the film a reflective, timeless quality. Stylistically, the Studio Ghibli film it most resembles is Whisper of the Heart, but the focus on providing lavish backgrounds to envelope the human figures is common to many of the studio’s earlier works.

It may well turn out to be the case that history will regard When Marnie Was There as a disappointingly minor finale for one of the artistic giants in the world of animation. But in this moment, its quiet smallness feels exactly right; a little sigh of farewell, no big fireworks or grandiose statements, from a company that was never given to florid drama when a tiny gesture would work better.


Thursday, June 25th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on the screen adaptation of the Broadway musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967) was written by Cinematheque staff member Amanda McQueen. A 35mm print of How to Succeed in Business will screen on Friday, June 26 at 7 p.m. in the Cinematheque's regular location, 4070 Vilas Hall.

By Amanda McQueen

Hollywood musicals have always drawn to some degree from Broadway, but until the late-1950s, most adaptations bore only a passing resemblance to their stage originals. After the breakup of the studio system, however, as adaptations became a key strategy for reducing the risks of film musical production, fidelity became the order of the day. Musicals were expensive and complicated, and they often performed poorly in important foreign markets. But an adaptation of a hit Broadway show could be helped by the familiarity of its story and songs. Moreover, since Broadway musicals regularly spawned international casts, adaptations were also thought to have a better chance of succeeding overseas. Many filmmakers thus started bringing Broadway musicals to the screen relatively intact. Fidelity to the source material became a production strategy, and the adaptation of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is a particularly enjoyable example of this strategy at work.

When How to Succeed opened on Broadway in October 1961, it was an instant hit. Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert had first tried to mount Shepherd Mead's 1952 satirical instruction manual as a straight play in 1955, but with little success. In 1960, producers Cy Feuer and Ernest H. Martin took an interest in the project, and brought in the Tony-winning creative team from Guys and Dolls to retool it as a musical. Abe Burrows – who also directed – collaborated with Weinstock and Gilbert on the book, and Frank Loesser wrote the songs. How to Succeed ran on Broadway for an impressive three-and-a-half years. It won seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1962. Critics praised its tight integration of story and song, and raved about its sophisticated satire of corporate America. Walter Kerr of the New York Herald Tribune called the musical "crafty, conniving, sneaky, cynical, irreverent, impertinent, sly, malicious, and lovely, just lovely."

Given the splash How to Succeed was making on Broadway, it's not surprising that Hollywood took notice. The Mirisch Corporation was looking for a musical to follow their massively popular West Side Story (1961), and How to Succeed seemed ideal. United Artists, with whom Mirisch had a long-term distribution contract, agreed to the project, but stipulated that the budget should not exceed $3 million. After paying a hefty $1 million for the film rights to the musical in October 1964, Mirisch was left with a budget well below the average for this type of picture (West Side Story cost just under $7 million, while Funny Girl, also 1967, cost $14 million.) But UA was hedging its bets. How to Succeed was a satire, which made some in Hollywood wary, and the international market was always an uncertainty where musicals were concerned. In fact, UA decided to shoot special "dialogue bridges" that could be substituted for the songs in foreign prints, should the need arise.

To keep costs down, then, producer Walter Mirisch hired much of How to Succeed’s original Broadway cast, including Robert Morse, Michele Lee, and cultural icon Rudy Vallee. Thanks to how well these actors knew their roles, production went smoothly and wrapped a week ahead of schedule. But of course using the Broadway cast also brought to the screen the same tour-de-force performances that had garnered critical attention on the stage. This was particularly true in the case of Morse, playing ingratiating corporate ladder-climber J. Pierpont Finch. Morse had been working in film, television, and theater since the early-1950s, but it was his Tony-winning performance in How to Succeed that really put him on the map, and – except, perhaps, for his recent stint on Mad Men – it remains his defining role. Indeed, Life magazine's review of the film claimed that "generations as yet unborn will be grateful to have [Morse's performance] in permanent form," while Bosley Crowther of The New York Times insisted that "Seeing Mr. Morse in close-ups, as those wily expressions cross his face . . . is better . . . than seeing him on the stage."

According to director David Swift, then, who also wrote and co-produced the adaptation of How to Succeed, the decision to hire the Broadway cast was primarily artistic, and was part of a larger emphasis on fidelity to the stage musical. Walter Mirisch explained, for example, that it was the Broadway property that was the film's true star, while UA suggested that any so-called "improvements" made during the adaptation process would only be "gilding the lily." So Swift cut some songs for the sake of time, and trimmed some of the profanity at the request of the Production Code Administration, but otherwise kept the musical relatively intact. As director, moreover, Swift approached How to Succeed as "simply and straightforwardly as possible," using what he frankly described as "unimaginative camera work" and attempting to replicate certain theatrical techniques through staging and editing. Add in Dale Moreda's recreations of Bob Fosse's distinctive choreography, and How to Succeed looks much the same on screen as it did on stage.

Critical response to Swift's faithful approach was generally positive, although several reviewers did find his stylistic choices rather old fashioned. For most critics, however, the adaptation accurately captured the cynical tone of the stage version, even if it did lack "cinematic imagination." Commonweal, for example, noted that How to Succeed could have been a Richard Lester-esque "imaginative movie-kind-of-movie," but hypothesized that "Perhaps [Swift] was right. The original show was so funny that even the static movie is a laff riot and the satire on how men – and women – behave in business is just as biting on the large screen." Hollywood Reporter, moreover, praised the film's cinematography for capturing "the brassy quality of Broadway musical theatre at its best." 

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying resonated more with critics than with the public, and despite a strong opening weekend at Radio City Music Hall in March 1967, the film’s box office performance lagged. Nevertheless, it remains one of the most enjoyable Broadway adaptations of the 1960s (and one of the few with a reasonable running time). Some have criticized the film for being more "archival record" than movie musical, but in certain respects, this was David Swift's aesthetic goal. And even if one finds the director's choices uninspiring, Bob Fosse, Frank Loesser, and the incomparable Robert Morse are there to pick up the slack.

Here's a great jazz interpretation of one How to Succeed''s most memorable tunes:

BYE BYE BIRDIE, Hello Ann-Margret!

Thursday, June 18th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on the 1963 movie musical version of Bye Bye Birdie was written by Cinematheque staff member Amanda McQueen. A 35mm print of Bye Bye Birdie will screen at the Cinematheque on Friday, June 19, at 7 p.m. in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. The screening is free and open to the public.

In the early-1960s, the Hollywood musical was dominated by two trends. On the one hand, there were big-budget adaptations of popular Broadway musicals. On the other hand, there were low-budget musicals showcasing contemporary pop stars; these were aimed primarily at teenagers, the largest movie-going demographic. Columbia's adaptation of Bye Bye Birdie, which spoofs the drafting of Elvis Presley, is a delightful intersection of these two forms of the genre.

On the whole, Broadway was slow to respond to the rise of rock 'n' roll. Although some in the struggling theater industry recognized that this new style of music could help attract much-needed audiences, few made much effort to incorporate it. Those shows that did – such as Ziegfeld Follies of 1957, which included a song called "I Don't Wanna Rock" – tended only to mock the music and its teenage listeners. Bye Bye Birdie also poked fun, but it did so gently and did not make teenagers the sole targets of its parody. Moreover, Birdie was a huge hit with audiences and critics, making it the first commercially successful Broadway musical to incorporate rock 'n' roll.

Birdie debuted on Broadway in April 1960 under the direction of Gower Champion, who also choreographed. Michael Stewart wrote the book, and Charles Strouse and Lee Adams wrote the songs. This was Strouse and Adams' first musical, and many saw them as harbingers of a new direction in musical theater. For the most part, Birdie adheres to the typical Broadway sound, but Strouse does incorporate elements of rock 'n' roll, particularly in rock star Conrad Birdie's numbers, "Honestly Sincere" and "One Last Kiss." Birdie had a long and profitable New York run, spawned international and touring companies, and won four Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

Columbia purchased the rights to the show in August 1960 for $850,000 plus 10% of the profits. Initially, Champion was to direct and Stewart was to adapt his own book to the screen. However, Champion soon bowed out of the project, and George Sidney, who'd spent much of his career at MGM directing musicals like Anchors Aweigh (1945) and Kiss Me Kate (1953), was hired instead. Stewart was replaced with screenwriter Irving Brecher, another MGM veteran who'd specialized in comedies and musicals, including the Marx Brothers' At the Circus (1939) and Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). Brecher made a number of plot changes to Birdie, including adding Albert Peterson's biochemistry background and the climactic Russian Ballet sequence. Most significantly, though, teenager Kim McAfee was changed from a supporting character to the de facto lead when Ann-Margret was given the role.

In the early-1960s, Ann-Margret was just appearing on the entertainment scene. Thanks to well-reviewed live performances with George Burns in Las Vegas, in 1961 she signed a recording contract with RCA Victor, who marketed her as the "female Elvis" because of her rough, sexy vocal style. That same year, she made her film debut in Pocketful of Miracles, which was followed by 20th Century-Fox's remake of State Fair (1962), starring Pat Boone. Enamored with the young, multi-talented actress, Sidney cast her in Birdie and increasingly made her the film's focus. In fact, Strouse and Adams wrote a new title song at the last minute to allow her to open and close the film. Increasing Ann-Margret's part, however, meant cutting scenes and songs from other cast members. Dick Van Dyke and Paul Lynde, who were reprising their respective stage roles as Albert and Kim's father Harry, were particularly incensed at this, with Lynde quipping that they should have retitled the film Hello Ann-Margret!

But Sidney and Columbia knew that Ann-Margret also had the potential to attract that lucrative teenage audience. To this same end, they cast teen idol Bobby Rydell as Kim's boyfriend Hugo Peabody, and his part was also beefed up to give him more opportunities to sing. Elvis Presley was first approached to play drafted rock 'n' roller Conrad Birdie, who was, after all, based on Elvis himself (his name, however, riffed on Conway Twitty, one of Elvis's chief rivals). But Colonel Tom Parker, Presley's manager, refused. The role went instead to Jesse Pearson, who had played Birdie in the national touring company. (Ann-Margret did star opposite – and have an off-camera affair with – the real Elvis in Viva Las Vegas the following year.)

The movie of Bye Bye Birdie opened in April 1963, breaking box office records in New York and Los Angeles, and ending up as the 13th highest grossing film of the year. Reviews, however, were mixed. A number of critics felt the musical had lost something in translation from stage to screen, and a few found it garish and tasteless. Moira Walsh of America magazine actually used Birdie as an opportunity to write at length about the "deleterious effects of movies . . . skillfully tailored to appeal to teen-agers and giving tacit, uncritical approval to contemporary teen-age mores." Walsh argued that Sidney had filmed Conrad's "gyrations . . . in a deliberately suggestive fashion," thereby undermining the intended satire of Presley's "'below-the-belt' school of vocalizing." In fact, the Production Code Administration had repeatedly warned Columbia about Birdie's pelvic thrusts, claiming that the "bumps" described in the script were "in vulgar taste and ask[ing] that they be omitted." While the PCA must have found the final result relatively unobjectionable, as Birdie was granted a seal of approval, Moira Walsh did not agree.

Other critics, though, found Birdie quite enjoyable. Variety was especially positive, praising Sidney's direction, Onna White's unique choreography, and all the performers, particularly Ann-Margret. "Singer, hoofer and cutie-pie, all wrapped up into one," the reviewer wrote, "this is one of the most exciting fresh personalities to take the cinematic stage in some time. The magnetism of early-vintage Judy Garland is here." Even critics who disliked the film tended to agree that Ann-Margret was a star, and her career quickly took off.

Overall, Bye Bye Birdie is more Broadway than rock 'n' roll, but Strouse and Adams' innovative score and Columbia's casting decisions nevertheless make it an interesting attempt to fuse the two. At a time when musicals were risky for Hollywood, Columbia opted to combine two tried-and-true strategies: Broadway and pop. Birdie would have few imitators in this regard; musicals tended to be either one or the other until rock made its way more permanently to the American theater at the turn of the decade. Birdie is a unique and fun experience, and one that – as evidenced by the reference to Ann-Margret’s title song on Mad Men – has become iconic. 

Amanda McQueen on THE LONG, HOT SUMMER

Monday, June 15th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Martin Ritt's The Long, Hot Summer (1958) was written by Cinematheque Programmer and Project Assistant Amanda McQueen. On Thursday, June 18. a DCP of a recent restoration of The Long, Hot Summer will kick off the Cinematheque's summer season of movies starring Orson Welles, in honor of his centennial. The screening begins at 7 p.m. in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.

            When The Long, Hot Summer was released in April 1958, Variety concluded that although the film had some flaws, it was sure to be a "conversation piece." It had exceptionally broad marquee value, combining new faces with established screen veterans. It was shot on location in color and CinemaScope. It was based on prestigious literary source material. And it capitalized on the current vogue for racy content. By late-1950s thinking, Summer was exactly the kind of film that would help solve the financial problems confronting the American film industry.

With audience attendance down, filmmakers searched for strategies to attract people back to the theaters. Producer Jerry Wald believed the key was high quality adaptations, particularly those that took advantage of Hollywood's relaxing Production Code. So when the husband-and-wife screenwriting team of Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr. suggested a film of William Faulkner's The Hamlet (first published in 1940), Wald secured the screen rights – along with those for The Sound and the Fury (1929) – for $50,000.

However, Frank and Ravetch were not particularly concerned about fidelity to the source material, explaining, "In the end, we may salvage only one or two elements – a character perhaps, or a situation, or a few strong scenes – and on this we build a whole new drama." The Long, Hot Summer is thus a patchwork of elements taken from The Hamlet, Faulkner's short story "Barn Burning" (1939), and Tennessee Williams. Ravetch and Frank's version of wealthy patriarch Will Varner (Orson Welles), for example, is heavily influenced by Big Daddy from Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) – the film version of which was also released in 1958, starring Paul Newman. What the screenwriters sought to retain, however, was Faulkner's focus on class conflicts – particularly the new-money rednecks vs. the decaying Southern aristocracy – and his overall sensibility. Ravetch and Frank described the film as "a comedy about appetites, about love and sex, courtship and mating, ebullient young men and brainy young ladies, the yearning of parents for their children. It departs in fact, but not in faith from William Faulkner's attitudes." 

With a budget of $1.6 million, Summer went into production in September 1957. At Ravetch's suggestion, Wald hired Martin Ritt to direct. Ritt was relatively new to Hollywood – he'd met Ravetch while teaching at the Actors Studio in New York – and this was only his third feature film. To capture the right Southern atmosphere, Ritt selected locations in Clinton and Baton Rouge, LA. He also filled most of the leading roles with former Actors Studio students: Newman, Joanne Woodard, Lee Remick, and Anthony Franciosa. The participation of these four rising young stars helped garner extra critical attention, and it was chiefly because of these new faces that the Cannes Film Festival solicited Summer for its 1958 competition. But for Ritt, working with others well-versed in Method acting was ideal. "We understand each other," he explained. "Like orchestra players knowing the tastes of a conductor."

Ritt had a less harmonious experience working with Orson Welles. Welles had a reputation for being difficult – in his own words, "for being the Maria Callas of Character Men" – that often impeded his success in Hollywood. Indeed, it was for this very reason that 20th Century-Fox hadn’t wanted him for Summer, but Ritt had insisted that Welles was right for the part because of his "incredible persona." Later, however, he did admit that the actor had been "a pain the ass." Welles challenged Ritt on every aspect of the production, and he had a somewhat strained working relationship with the other cast members, partially because he was one of the few non-Method actors. At one point, Welles compared doing a scene with Newman and Franciosa to "trying to ride a bicycle through a barrel of molasses." But Ritt, too, was strongly opinionated, and rumors of Welles "snapping and snarling under [Ritt's] clever whip" began to circulate in Hollywood, ultimately earning the director the title of "the Orson Tamer."

Despite these on-set tensions, the film is full of strong performances. Variety called the decision to cast Angela Lansbury as Will’s long-time mistress "inspired," and the on-screen chemistry between Newman and Woodward was likely helped by their real-life romance. The two married a few months before the film was released. The only complaint was that Welles' heavy Southern drawl and often-emphatic delivery style sometimes made the dialogue unintelligible (a fair point). Overall, though, critics tended to agree with Variety that "What makes the picture are the full-bodied, full-blown characters."

The film also garnered attention for its adult subject matter. Fox's ads promised "scene-after-scene in the frankness of Faulkner!" and critics generally liked that the film was "steamy with sex and laced with violence and bawdy humor." However, most critics also felt that this frank melodrama gave way, somewhat abruptly, to a clichéd happily ever after. Some suspected that influential pressure groups like the Catholic Legion of Decency – which were unhappy with Hollywood's new adult direction – might have been responsible for the "soap opera" ending. Ritt agreed that Summer’s conclusion perhaps makes it "seem oversimplified and naïve." "But on the whole," he added, "it's good lusty fun and occasionally quite saucy and even momentarily touching."

Audiences seemed to agree. Summer was only a modest financial success, but it was one of the top grossing films of 1958, and the soundtrack of Alex North's sultry jazz-based score also sold well. Ritt and Wald received guild nominations for directing and producing, respectively, and Paul Newman won Best Actor at Cannes. Indeed, Summer was the most popular American film at the festival that year, leading Variety to assert that it was "the kind of picture the US should send to festivals."

Faulkner reportedly liked the film, too, and it's commonly regarded as one of the best adaptations of his work. As Time wrote, "Faulkner is as hard to kill as a Mississippi water moccasin, and his energy coils and snaps and hisses" despite Ravetch and Frank's loose approach. So although critics found fault with the narrative structure, they had to admit that The Long, Hot Summer was excellent storytelling. "It is melodrama frank and unashamed," Variety asserted. "It may be preposterous, but it is never dull."

Re-discovering Tay Garnett: The “Rowdy Vaudevillian”

Wednesday, May 6th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on director Tay Garnett and his early features, Celebrity (1928) and Okay, America! (1932), were written by Derek Long, Graduate Student and Teaching Assistant in the Communication Arts Department at UW Madison. 35mm prints of Celebrity and Okay, America! will screen in a double feature on Friday, May 8, beginning at 7 p.m. in our regular Cinematheque venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.  Celebrity will feature live piano accompaniment by David Drazin.

By Derek Long

William Taylor “Tay” Garnett (1894-1977) is nowhere near as well-known today as John Ford (born the same year) or Howard Hawks, and to a certain extent it is not hard to see why. His most famous film is undoubtedly The Postman Always Rings Twice (MGM, 1946), but most would be hard-pressed to name another Garnett film, despite his forty-year career in the industry. The truly knowledgeable might cite the romantic melodrama One-Way Passage (Warner Bros., 1932), in which William Powell and Kay Francis play doomed lovers enjoying a last bittersweet encounter on a transpacific ocean liner. But few of Garnett’s other minor classics—be it the Gable-Harlow adventure pairing China Seas (MGM, 1935), the studio system satire Stand-In (United Artists, 1937), or the Loretta Young B-noir Cause for Alarm! (MGM, 1951)—have entered popular consciousness the way that nearly any of Ford or Hawks’ films have.

This relative obscurity is not for lack of either talent or interest; rather, it is largely because Garnett was much closer to the archetypical “studio director” than his famous contemporaries. While a few French critics raised Garnett to auteur status, his films lack the usual clear signs of an authorial stamp. Andrew Sarris placed Garnett in “expressive esoterica,” his third-highest category of director classes, dismissing him as inconsistent—“and inconsistency can never be defined satisfactorily.” A more charitable reading of Garnett would characterize him as one of the most invisible practitioners of Hollywood’s “invisible style”—as well as a director of immense competence. Unlike Ford, he worked in a wide variety of genres, making musicals, westerns, weepies, adventure films, crime melodramas, and—his personal favorite—comedies. Garnett thus shared Hawks’ characteristic versatility, even if he lacked the latter’s clear interest in recurring themes and character types.

Where Garnett really shined was in the creation of well-structured Hollywood narrative. He nearly equaled Hawks’ talent for efficient and creative storytelling; his best films seamlessly integrate characters with their settings, and Garnett generally succeeded in avoiding the tendency to use generic plots as interchangeable vehicles for stars. Garnett’s talents as a storyteller were no accident, though its origins might seem surprising. In his youth, Garnett dabbled as a vaudeville acrobat, and during his Navy service in the First Word War, he organized a very successful series of amateur vaudeville shows to boost morale. This stint as a military impresario landed him a number of jobs once he left the navy in 1922, including touching up film scenarios for independent producer Alan Holubar and writing titles for Charley Chase and Will Rogers comedies released by the Hal Roach Studios. In 1924, Mack Sennett hired Garnett as a full-fledged scenarist, and throughout the mid-twenties he wrote (and eventually directed) two-reel comedies.

In an interview with Rick Fernandez for The Velvet Light Trap shortly before his death, Garnett spoke of the formative impact of his work with Sennett: “You learned use of the camera [and] story construction, strange as it may seem. It would be difficult to find construction in a Sennett comedy, but it was there. Most of the comedies would run 4 or 5 reels long when they finished shooting before they boiled it down to 2 reels. So a lot of the continuity was murdered in the process, but they kept the laughs.” Garnett’s narrative sensibility and skill was honed, fundamentally, through comedy; as Sarris put it, “[his] personality is that of a rowdy vaudevillian, an artist with the kind of rough edges that cause the over-civilized French sensibility to swoon in sheer frustration.”

Here's a clip that demonstrates Garnett's vaudevillian sensibility from the rarely screened Stand-In featuring Humphrey Bogart re-teamed with Leslie Howard after The Petrified Forest (1936):


Both of the Garnett films in this double feature—Celebrity and Okay, America!— also show off something of the director’s fine vaudeville-based comic sensibility. Celebrity was Garnett’s first and only silent feature; his second feature, The Spieler (1928), began as a silent but incorporated talking sequences and a synchronized soundtrack. Based on a Broadway play by William Keefe and released by Pathé Exchange (which would evolve into RKO by the end of 1928), Celebrity features Robert Armstrong as third-rate prizefighter “Kid” Reagan, whose manager Circus (Clyde Cook) hatches a scheme to publicize his client by passing him off as a poet. In many ways, Celebrity was perfect material for Garnett. The original play was so full of vaudevillian gags and wordplay that Variety’s review of the film was disappointed that the film was a silent: “what a talker it might have made.” Luckily for us, however, Garnett uses that silence to his advantage, delivering delightful visual gags and intertitles full of period slang.

Okay, America! was Garnett’s first feature for Universal, and was part of a spate of newspaper films kicked off in 1931 by Lewis Milestone’s The Front Page (United Artists) and continued in 1932 with Blessed Event, Love is a Racket (both Warner Bros.), and Is My Face Red? (RKO). In his performance as “Broadway Broadside” columnist Larry Wayne, Lew Ayres plays a thinly-veiled version of famed gossip columnist Walter Winchell (himself an ex-vaudevillian). Ordered to cover the kidnapping of a cabinet member’s daughter—a ripped-from-the-headlines plot point based on the Lindbergh kidnapping—Wayne soon finds himself wrapped up in a tangled web of drugs and corruption. Featured in the role of gangster “Duke” Morgan is character actor Edward Arnold, best-known to viewers as Boss Jim Taylor in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Columbia, 1939), in his debut talkie performance. The importance of vaudeville to Garnett’s command of sound cinema is in full evidence in Okay, America!, especially when it comes to the rapid pace of the dialogue. As Garnett stated to John Gallagher, “I have always very consciously striven for pace in every scene I ever shot…ninety percent of the time, if a scene has a pace problem, it’s because it’s too slow rather than too fast.”

Both of these early-career films force us to reconsider Garnett’s contribution to Hollywood cinema, and to take stock of the “rowdy vaudevillian” not as an uneven journeyman, but as a director who could find, at the core of every script, a great story to tell.

Eternal Life and Box-Office Death: Vincent Mollica on LIFEFORCE

Saturday, May 2nd, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This re-evaluation of the Dan O'Bannon-scripted/Tobe Hooper-directed Lifeforce was written by WUD Film Committe member Vincent Mollica A 35mm print of Lifeforce will be the first half of a double bill concluding our Cannon Fodder series on Monday, May 4 at the Marquee Theater at Union South, presented in collaboration with WUD Film. Lifeforce begins at 7 p.m., followed by a Cannon trailer reel and Death Wish 3 at 9 p.m.

By Vincent Mollica

Made on a budget of roughly $70,000 and distributed by Mafioso, Tobe Hooper’s 1974 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre became an unexpected hit of massive proportions. More than 40 years later Chainsaw is still talked about as a defining film of the horror genre. Despite this, Hooper’s post Texas output was fairly minimal making only two features before helming the 1982 mega-success Poltergeist. History, however, has more or less erased Hooper’s involvement on that film, crediting its success instead to writer/producer Steven Spielberg. In 1985, through the work of trickster god producers Golan and Globus, Hooper was given another shot at the big time: Lifeforce.

In August of 1983, Variety reported that Tobe Hooper had signed on to make three films with Cannon (Golan and Globus’s production studio). Two years later, they reported that Cannon would be bringing the first of those films with them to Cannes. The film was an adaptation of the sci-fi novel “The Space Vampires” called Lifeforce. At that point Lifeforce was Cannon’s largest production, with a budget of $25 million. This was far and away the most money that Hooper had ever worked with or ever would work with again. By all reports Cannon had a very hands off relationship with the film, allowing him to do whatever he wanted with the project.

Lifeforce’s insane plot centers on a race of humanoid space vampires who are brought to earth after being found comatose in a burnt husk of a space shuttle. Not only are these space vampires though, they’re naked space vampires, the leader of which (Mathilda May) often lures in her victims with raw sexuality. As these creatures destroy the earth it’s up to the astronaut who discovered them (Steve Railsback) and an army agent (Peter Firth) to stop them. Running with a generous budget and this wild premise, Hooper pulled out all the stops in production. He hired cinematographer Alan Hume (Runaway Train, Empire Strikes Back), used a score from Henry Mancini (The Pink Panther), and effects from John Dykstra (Star Wars). He also built six London blocks at EMI’s backlot and used the entirety of one of its stages for the interior of the vampire’s spaceship.

In a 1983 interview, Lifeforce’s co-writer Dan O’Bannon said “if you have a strong story and characters but lousy visuals, you still have a hit. If you’ve got strong visuals but lousy story and character, you’ve got a flop”. In Lifeforce, audiences and critics found none of the above. The $25 million film opened with a little over $4 million, dropping almost exponentially over the following weekends. In the end the film garnered little more than $11 million dollars in box office. The New York Times called the film’s style “shrill and fragmented” and Variety claimed that the “broad…performances” and “preposterous dialog” pushed the film to “camp and unendurability” (this heartbreakingly appeared right next to a glowing review of Back to the Future, which would later match Lifeforce’s total earnings in a matter of a weekend). Although far from perfect, Lifeforce is a weird, kinky, gem that has a lot to offer beyond a few cheap laughs, much of which can be credited to O’Bannon’s script and Hooper’s direction.

Dan O’ Bannon, who co-wrote Lifeforce with Don Jakoby, is an incredible writer who, like Hooper, was forced to live in the shadow of his first big success: Alien. Before Lifeforce O’Bannon had depicted space as a means of transcendence in films like Dark Star and Heavy Metal in which characters turned into magical asteroids and space zombies, respectively. Lifeforce looks at this same concept, tying together the idea of space and vampirism to explore the exhilarating pull and push of a desire for eternal life. Lifeforce refuses to have the absurdist optimism of Dark Star or the straight horror of Heavy Metal, finding an uneasy middle ground. O’Bannon, at once drawn to and horrified by the great beyond of space, shows us a path to transcendence, but asks: “at what cost?” Although Lifeforce is actually rather goofy in tone, O’Bannon’s anxious musings ground the film and give it a melancholic sheen. 

Meanwhile, Hooper’s direction juxtaposes the film’s massive spectacle with a strong undercurrent of sleaziness. Although Lifeforce looks beautiful, many scenes are driven by little more than copious nudity and extreme close ups of men’s sweaty faces. However, like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Funhouse, Hooper’s treatment of sexuality and violence is often meant to disturb rather than to excite. At its best, the film, with its operatic sets and colors, takes on the feeling of a male adolescent sexual fantasy gone horribly wrong. Hooper’s horrific evocation of sexual anxiety feeds right into O’Bannon’s reverent depiction of outer space, producing some of the finest sequences in either of their careers.               

Dropped by audiences and panned by critics, the gargantuan Lifeforce saw Hooper’s last real foray into the big time. He finished out his contract with Cannon on diminishing budgets making the solid Invaders from Mars and the excellent The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. Hooper had not even wanted to direct TCM2, but didn’t have the budget to get a director. Finally Hooper spent the rest of the 80s and 90s making what Sight & Sound has called “marginally released Stephen King films…and forgettable direct-to-video horror”. O’ Bannon had greater success after Lifeforce, both writing and directing his masterpiece Return of the Living Dead later that year and writing Total Recall in 1990. However, through the ‘90s he faded from film and in 2009 O’ Bannon, a truly endearing artist in need of serious critical reevaluation, passed away. In the end, Hooper and O’Bannon’s legacies will almost solely consist of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Alien, leaving their work on Lifeforce left behind as a bizarre footnote. However, in the end, history’s subjugation of the film to the realm of failure doesn’t make it any less of a treat.

Ben Reiser Prepares You for THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN

Friday, May 1st, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

These thoughts on Robert Wise's The Andromeda Strain (1971) were written by Cinematheque Programmer and Accounts Manager Ben Reiser. A 35mm print of The Andromeda Strain will conclude our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen: Universal '71 series on Sunday, May 3 at 2 p.m. in the Chazen Museum of Art.

By Ben Reiser

Corpses litter the streets of a small New Mexico town. Among those dead are children, some of them cut down mid-schoolyard basketball game. Crows pick at the flesh on these corpses. We linger on the dead body of a topless young woman. We linger on the visage of an elderly woman, she has hanged herself from a staircase banister. We linger on grisly flesh wounds and plucked out eye sockets. We linger on a surgeon slicing open a corpse’s wrist and watch as powdered blood spills out of the wound. An abandoned baby howls in desperation down a desolate hallway. A meat cleaver-wielding ghoul appears like an apparition and makes us jump.

Welcome to the first 30 minutes of The Andromeda Strain, rated G.

This slew of images and sequences that today would warrant at the very least a PG-13 rating if not an R are not the only elements that tell us The Andromeda Strain comes to us from a much different era. Featuring a conspicuous absence of sex symbols in the cast, or even a single main character under the age of 40, Andromeda Strain now plays like a time capsule treasure from a civilization that has not yet become locked into the demands of pandering to youth culture and puritanical tenets.

It also features a score by Gil Melles that is as abstract as anything ever recorded for a major studio release.

44 years after it first hit the big screen The Andromeda Strain, directed by Robert Wise (who, a few years earlier, gave us The Sound of Music) is a sci-fi thriller that in many ways feels even more forward-thinking now than it did then.

A HARD DAY'S NIGHT: "The CITIZEN KANE of the Jukebox Musical"

Tuesday, April 28th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Richard Lester's classic A Hard Day's Night was written by UW Cinematheque Programmer and Project Assistant Amanda McQueen. A new 4K DCP restoration of A Hard Day's Night will screen on Saturday, May 2, at 7 p.m. in our regular Cinematheque venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.

By Amanda McQueen

A Hard Day's Night holds an interesting place in the history of the film musical. On the one hand, it's simply a product of genre cycles. The concurrent rise of the teenage movie-going audience and rock 'n' roll in the mid-1950s had resulted in a steady stream of low-budget pop musicals. Spurred by the success of exploitation producer "Jungle" Sam Katzman's Rock Around the Clock (1956), starring Bill Haley and His Comets, filmmakers started churning out inexpensive vehicles to showcase contemporary musical fads, from calypso to jazz to surf rock. These musicals were almost guaranteed to turn a profit, while also offering the opportunity for ancillary revenue through soundtrack sales. A Hard Day's Night started as just another entry in this cycle.

The film was commissioned by United Artists' record division, which wanted a Beatles album to exploit in America. The lads from Liverpool were topping the UK charts and were poised to do so in the US as well. Signing the Beatles to a film deal with a tie-in album was just good business. Under the supervision of producer Walter Shenson, the film's budget was set at $500,000 – a mid-range figure for this type of musical; AIP turned out its Beach Party films for about $350,000 each, while Elvis musicals generally cost around $1 million. By the time A Hard Day's Night was released in the summer of 1964, the Beatles had made their famous appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, and UA was in a prime position to capitalize on the ever-growing Beatlemania. The soundtrack was released in advance, selling 1.5 million copies in the first two weeks, and the film was given a wide release of 1,000 prints. In the mid-1960s, such saturation booking was still a comparatively rare distribution strategy, but it was not an unusual one for pop musicals, which needed to reach their fickle target audience before the next passing fad arrived.

Yet although A Hard Day's Night was produced and handled like the majority of films in the pop musical cycle, its legacy has been radically different. Most pop musicals have been relegated to the cultural trash heap – the fate of many of the Elvis musicals – or else forgotten altogether – the fate, perhaps, of Richard Lester's first feature film, It's Trad, Dad! (1962). But A Hard Day's Night has sustained both its audience popularity and its strong critical reputation for an impressive fifty years. It has become, in critic Andrew Sarris' words, "the Citizen Kane of jukebox musicals."

There are a few reasons why A Hard Day's Night stands out from the dozens of other pop musicals produced during the same period. First, there is its screenplay by fellow Liverpudlian Alun Owen, which cleverly restricts much of the Beatles' dialogue to witty one-liners and thereby conceals their lack of acting experience. While many pop stars were noticeably uncomfortable or amateurish in their screen debuts (see Roy Orbison in The Fastest Guitar Alive [1967], for example), John, Paul, George, and Ringo seem natural and at ease. But it's the smart, comic satire at the film's core that earned Owen an Oscar nomination for his screenplay. The Beatles’ popularity was in keeping with the larger spirit of Swinging Sixties Britain; these were cheeky, working class boys from a northern shipping town, and their unprecedented success seemed indicative of the new generation's efforts to overturn class structures and authority figures. Director Richard Lester saw the Beatles as "revolutionaries in a goldfish bowl," and this is the view of the Fab Four presented in A Hard Day's Night. The musical fully embraces its stars as paragons of youth culture, worthy of our adulation – as was conventional for the genre – but it does so by pitting them against various institutions, including the very media industries that helped create Beatlemania in the first place. Owen's script is funny, gag-laden, pointed, and a bit surreal, resulting, as Variety put it, in "the kind of cinematic zaniness that has not been seen since the Marx Brothers in their prime."

What really makes A Hard Day's Night rise above the run-of-the-mill pop musical, however, is its visual style. In an effort to avoid the clichés of the genre – the boy-meets-girl, the putting-on-a-show, the tenuous excuses for song and dance – it was decided to conceive of the film as a semi-documentary: a day in the life of the Beatles. Although the film still concludes with the successful staging of a live concert, and although there are plenty of unmotivated musical numbers, by employing the visual techniques commonly associated with cinema verite (e.g. handheld cameras, loose compositions), Lester and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor (who also shot Star Wars) give A Hard Day's Night a rough, spontaneous feeling not found in the average pop musical.

Furthermore, Lester doesn't restrict himself to the look of docu-realism. As critic George Melly explains, Lester displays a "shameless magpie-like eclecticism," combining his knowledge of Surrealism, modernist filmmaking, avant garde experimentation, TV commercials, and popular music into a unique and overt directorial style. In A Hard Day's Night, zooms, both fast and slow, are prevalent. Lenses range from the very long to the very wide. The camera moves constantly and sometimes unpredictably. Striking and unusual compositions abound, from the bicycle wheel bobbing in the foreground during "I Should Have Known Better," to the low, wide-angle shots of Ringo rambling along the riverbank. The editing is quick and often disjunctive, evoking comparisons to the Soviet montage films of the 1920s. Lester's stylistic play may not have mattered much to the teenagers who simply wanted to see the Beatles in action, but it was a key reason why this particular pop musical was taken more seriously. Indeed, alongside A Hard Day's Night, a film like Looking for Love (1964), starring Connie Francis, appears downright pedestrian.

As Variety correctly noted, A Hard Day's Night was and is "the subject of much discussion." It continues to be cited as a major influence on the New Hollywood films of the late-1960s, and for many film musical historians, it's the only pop musical to employ a stylistic equivalent to the anarchy and rebellion of rock 'n' roll. The film is also central to the history of music videos, which adopted many of the techniques Lester used in A Hard Day's Night and its follow-up, Help! (1965). In fact, in 1984, MTV gave Lester a special award for being the "Father of the Music Video."

The pop musicals of the late-1950s and 1960s were designed to serve a specific purpose. Most were purely commercial products with little to no artistic ambition, but they made money for a struggling film industry and were enjoyed by the teenagers that watched them. A Hard Day's Night fulfilled this function and then some. And although it should not be seen as a typical pop musical, it nevertheless remains one of the most interesting and entertaining entries in that diverse and prolific genre cycle.

Stritch on Film! Matt Connolly on WHO KILLED TEDDY BEAR?

Thursday, April 23rd, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This appreciation of Elaine Stritch and her performance in Who Killed Teddy Bear? (1965) was written by Matthew Connolly, former Cinematheque staff member and Teaching Assistant in the UW Madison Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Who Killed Teddy Bear?, courtesy of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, will screen as the second half of a double bill of rare 1960s psychosexual film noirs on Saturday, April 25. An 8:30 p.m. screening of Who Killed Teddy Bear? will be preceded by a 7 p.m. screening of Leslie Stevens' Private Property (1960). Both screenings are free and open to the public.

By Matthew Connolly

Though she appeared in films by such famed auteurs as Woody Allen, Alain Resnais, and Blake Edwards, Elaine Stritch has never been much associated with the movies. This makes a certain amount of sense. Throughout a decades-spanning career on Broadway, she gave iconic stage performances in roles dramatic (Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance) and musical (Stephen Sondheim’s Company), as well as anchoring a solo show that has become increasingly legendary in the annals of contemporary theater. (That show, Elaine Stritch at Liberty, earned her a Tony award after four nominations throughout her career.) Her razor-sharp comic timing, singular stage presence, and nuanced renditions of some of musical theater’s richest songs have linked her indelibly to the Great White Way. As The New York Times wrote in their obituary for Stritch (who died last year at 89),  “the stage was her true professional home. Whether in musicals, nonmusical dramas or solo cabaret shows, she drew audiences to her with her whiskey voice, her seen-it-all manner and the blunt charisma of a star.”

Stritch may have never made the screen her home, but she could translate her stage charisma before the camera in a way that eludes some Broadway stars. Many contemporary viewers most likely know her from television, particularly her Emmy Award-winning work as Jack Donaghy’s domineering mother on 30 Rock. While movie roles rarely offered the dramatic complexity or comic firepower of her best stage and small-screen roles, certain films provide a glimpse at the range of Stritch’s talents.

Who Killed Teddy Bear? offered her such a role. Joseph Cates’s vivid look at the sexual underbelly of mid-60s New York City primarily focuses on Norah (Juliet Prowse) a would-be actress and discotheque DJ whose life becomes upended after receiving a series of obscene and threatening phone calls by a mysterious man. (The gravely voice on the other end turns out to be the club’s psychologically-warped busboy, played by Sal Mineo.) Stritch portrays Marian Freeman, the club’s manager and a confidante to Norah as she grapples with her increasingly unhinged stalker. When we first meet Marian, she’s entering the discotheque floor, puffing a cigarette and tartly reminding her maître d’ to keep up the phony French accent he adopts with guests. It’s the sort of role that one would expect Stritch to play—flinty, no nonsense, tough-yet-fair—and her seen-it-all attitude seems to flow directly from the city itself, captured by Cates in extended, quasi-documentary interludes. (Watching Nora’s sojourns in and out of Broadway theaters at one point, one cannot help but imagine Stritch walking past those same theaters as a young actress.)

As the film progresses, though, we begin to see the full range of Marian’s affections for Nora. This becomes particularly apparent in a painful scene in Nora’s apartment, when Marian comforts her after yet another ominous phone call. Marian tightly embraces Nora on her bed, rubbing her back and comforting her “baby.” Nora slowly realizes the intimacy implied by Marian’s words, pulling away and asking Marian to leave. The scene itself reveals both the ambitions and limitations of the film’s sexual frankness, allowing a lesbian character like Marian visibility for the price of rejection and humiliation. But watch how Stritch plays the scene. Note the salty dash of female camaraderie she gives her observation that every man has a bit of the dark impulses made manifest in Nora’s stalker. Observe the long-squelched tenderness shine in her eyes and warm her steely voice as she comforts Nora—and note how she deflects Nora’s rebuffing with a complicated mixture of embarrassment, insecurity, and a defiant lack of apology. Her fact slowly regains its knowing, weary composure as Nora insists that she will apologize if she “is wrong” about Marian’s intentions. “Oh, yeah?” Marian says flatly. “I’ll look forward to it.” In a film fairly obsessed with notions of erotic dysfunction and its psychological roots, Stritch refuses to turn Marian into a repressed closet case on the prowl. Her performance is a small master class in using the smallest vocal inflections and facial movements to suggest a lifetime of hard scrabble living and tenacious survival.

Such an affinity for tough, sharp women would remain with Stritch throughout her career, from the world-weary Joanne in Company to the slashing wit of Coleen Donaghy to the dramatization of her own struggles with fame, men, and booze in Elaine Stritch at Liberty. Who Killed Teddy Bear? offers a bracing and lovely reminder that this fondness can be found even in the early days of her long and storied career. “Oh, she was a terrific character,” Stritch told the Village Voice’s Melissa Anderson in 2010 when asked about playing Marian. “She was a hard-boiled dame working in surroundings that were the pits in New York. She was a good egg, as my father used to say.”

Merman Goes Hollywood!: Amanda McQueen on CALL ME MADAM

Wednesday, April 15th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on the classic movie musical Call Me Madam (1953) was written by Cinematheque Programmer and Project Assistant Amanda McQueen. A 35mm print of Call Me Madam will screen on Saturday, April 18, at 7 p.m. in our regular Cinematheque venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.

By Amanda McQueen

Ethel Merman is an undisputed icon of musical theater, but she never really made it in Hollywood. Though she appeared in a number of musical shorts and a few features in the 1930s, her subsequent film appearances were sporadic and often critical or financial disappointments. In this light, 20th Century-Fox's adaptation of the Broadway musical Call Me Madam stands out. Reprising her Tony-winning role of socialite-turned-Ambassador Sally Adams, Merman is on comfortable ground in this film and it shows. Her performance was praised by reviewers – The Herald Tribune called her a "double magnum of dry champagne" – and she was ultimately honored with a Golden Globe. But in addition to being the ideal vehicle to showcase Merman's signature belting mezzo and comedic timing, the film version of Call Me Madam has a great deal to recommend it to fans of the musical genre.

With a book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, and music and lyrics by Irving Berlin, Call Me Madam opened on Broadway in October 1950. Though its romantic comedy underpinnings are fairly standard, its topical political satire of United States foreign policy helped the show click. Merman's character was not-so-subtly based on Perle Mesta, a political hostess known for her lavish parties who served as Ambassador to Luxembourg from 1949 to 1953. Moreover, references to real-life political persons run rampant throughout the show, from recurring jokes about First Daughter Margaret Truman's mediocre singing skills, to the song "They Like Ike," about Dwight D. Eisenhower's potential nomination for president in the upcoming 1952 election. To keep the show up-to-date as it moved from Broadway to touring companies over the next two years, Berlin altered the lyrics to "They Like Ike" three times (Berlin also fashioned the version used as Eisenhower's official campaign song, "I Like Ike"). While critical reviews of the musical were not quite enthusiastic, with Variety noting that it was "hardly a great show, but it's plenty good enough," its popularity with audiences was undeniable. Even in Washington D.C. it was gleefully viewed by the very people it lampooned by name.

In late 1951, Fox entered into negotiations to bring the musical to the big screen. The studio agreed to pay $300,000 for the screen rights – the highest sum paid for a Broadway show since the mid-1940s – but Ethel Merman's participation was a key part of the deal. Merman had undisputedly carried the stage musical; in Variety's words, she was the one "scoring with every song, getting every laugh in the script, and providing the drive, animation, authority and magnetism to capture and hold the audience." And now, with a full year of sellout performances on Broadway behind her, Merman was in a position to demand a salary of $150,000 to appear in the film. Fox balked and negotiations stalled until the rights holders agreed to accept $250,000, freeing up the extra cash needed to secure Merman. The cast was then rounded out with Donald O'Connor as press attaché Kenneth Gibson, Vera-Ellen as the Princess Maria, and an off-cast George Sanders as Sally's love interest, General Cosmo Constantine.

With a budget just shy of $2.5 million – about standard for a top-tier musical at the time –Call Me Madam went into production in July 1952 under Walter Lang’s direction. Arthur Sheekman was hired to write the screenplay, with Irving Berlin on hand to deal with the songs. The show's book was brought to the screen pared down but mostly intact, while a few musical numbers were shuffled around or replaced with other Berlin songs. "Something to Dance About," originally a number for Sally and the ensemble, was repurposed into a duet for Maria and Kenneth as part of the effort to beef up Vera-Ellen's role. "Washington Square Dance" was swapped out for an updated version of the 1913 hit "International Rag," and "Once Upon a Time Today" was replaced by "What Chance Have I With Love?" from Louisiana Purchase (Broadway 1940). But while the film version retains the show's comic satirical core, "They Like Ike" was deemed too political and was dropped.

Sheekman's adaptation is less of a one-woman show than the stage version, and the strong supporting cast justifies this shift in focus. O'Connor and Vera-Ellen have great chemistry as the young lovers, particularly when partnered in one of choreographer Robert Alton's elaborate pas de deux. O'Connor also plays well off Merman, and their counterpoint duet "I Wonder Why (You're Just In Love)" is delightful. Though a relative newcomer to film musicals, Sanders did have professional singing experience (check out his album The George Sanders Touch: Songs for the Lovely Lady from 1958:

In Call Me Madam, you will see that Sanders more than holds his own alongside the others with his warm, lyrical bass voice. And, of course, the film still perfectly showcases Ethel Merman's unique brand of camp.

Call Me Madam premiered in March 1953 to positive reviews and strong box office. Variety praised it as "a literate musical [that] avoids most of the common clichés," and predicted that exhibitors would earn "Much moola with Merman." Though not a huge blockbuster, Call Me Madam was one of the top grossing films of the year, and it received award nominations for its screenplay, musical score, costumes, and direction, on top of Merman's Golden Globe win. 

The following year, Fox tried to duplicate its success with its first CinemaScope musical There's No Business Like Show Business, which also featured an Irving Berlin score and a strong ensemble cast including both Merman and O'Connor. But Show Business was a flop – it has started to gain a better reputation in more recent years, however – and Merman would not appear in another movie until her non-singing role in 1963's It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. So that leaves Call Me Madam: a musical presenting Ethel Merman at her brassy best. And with Sanders, O'Connor, and Vera-Ellen along for the ride, Call Me Madam is a charming and under-appreciated example of the type of film musical that would become economically unfeasible in just a few years' time.