ANYTHING GOES (1956)
Running Time: 106 mins. Rating: x Stars/5 Stars
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Director: Robert Lewis
Cast: Bing Crosby, Donald O’Connor, Zizi Jeanmaire, Mitzi Gaynor, Phil Harris, Kurt Kasznar, Argentina Brunetti
I just read that the separation between the Triassic and Jurassic Periods took a blink of the eye in geologic terms, 10,000 years. So the transition from the end of the Golden Age of American Movies to its downfall and its reemergence as the present system wasn’t overnight but a ragged process of several decades. The absolute peak of American film going was 1946. It’s all been downhill since then.
There were a lot of elements in the breakdown of the studio system. The Paramount Consent Decree, itself a prolonged struggle, resulted in the big five studios being divorced from their theaters which denied them the advantages of practices like block booking. Now flop pictures could no longer be held afloat by the hits. An exhibitor could and had to buy their product from a number of sources. Television was beginning to enter the picture and that had a depressing effect on business, but it should also be noted that attendance had been slipping since the end of the war and television really hadn’t taken hold in America until 1952, having been a mainly urban recreation since circa 1948. Less discussed were the changing circumstances of the audience. The generation that found cheap entertainment in their youth during the Depression, and escape during the war, were now mating, marrying and reproducing and no longer regular movie attendees. If tv hadn’t been invented it would have had to be.
A changing audience also presupposes changing tastes. Technically the film industry countered with Technicolor™ and Cinemascope™, and later 3-D, supposedly the antidote to tv, which was a box with a small, poorly defined, black and white picture. It was not as if change was resisted, it’s just that there was some miscalculation. The 1960s and ‘70s are littered with misbegotten films from old timers supposedly aimed at the youth audience that were particularly awful. PRUDENCE AND THE PILL comes to mind. Nothing the kids would want to see more than David Niven in a movie about mistaking aspirin for birth control pills.
The musical was a genre that particularly suffered. Tastes in music seemed to point the way to a different sort of musical but the early ‘50s, before the dominance of Rock ‘N Roll, was a no mans land of ill-defined styles. While the celebrated Freed Unit at MGM was still turning out one super musical hit combining outstanding craftsmanship and superior filmmaking after another, everybody else seemed at a loss on just how to make a musical picture.
Anything Goes by Cole Porter was a hit Broadway musical of the 1934/5 season, running for a solid year. The 1936 film version starred Bing Crosby and Ethel Merman (who was in the Broadway show) and was notorious for cutting several of Cole Porter’s tunes and replaced them with forgettable ones from Friedrich Hollaender and Hoagy Carmichael, among others. Great writers who failed to come up with a solid tune to replace Porter’s. For the 1956 version, again Cole Porter tunes were dropped, this time for even more undistinguished tunes from Jimmy van Heusen and Sammy Cahn, again, both top men at the time. Some other Cole Porter tunes were interpolated into the score, a habit which has become standardized in revivals ever since.
Unfortunately all of the tunes, old, new and borrowed suffer from what must have seemed to be “hip” big band jazz arrangements which might have seemed futuristic and avant garde in 1946 but this was 1956, the year of Elvis Presley and Hound Dog. How is it possible to ruin Cole Porter? Even Swiss bell ringers couldn’t ruin Porter’s songs but this version of Anything Goes makes them virtually unrecognizable. Hint: most of Porter’s great numbers are used for dance production numbers, and arranged for the convenience of the dancers.
First of all, even though the basic farce written by Guy Bolton and P. G. Woodhouse has been revised many times, initially by Howard Lindsey & Russel Crouse just before opening after the Morro Castle disaster, the basic plot has always been retained: A boy loves a girl who is going to marry an English Lord to save the family business and he follows her to the transatlantic liner taking her to England and a couple of gangsters are going on the same boat along with a moll. One of the gangsters dresses up like a reverend and the other one misses the boat and the boy gets his passport identifying him as Public Enemy No. 1. Much hilarity and shifting of identities ensues. Almost all of the show takes place on an ocean liner. It’s not Shakespeare but it was a serviceable framework for Cole Porter’s great tunes.
The producer ordered a new story from a total hack, Sidney Sheldon, later auteur of “I Dream Of Jeannie” and “The Patty Duke Show.” I should say Oscar™ winning hack Sidney Sheldon. Sheldon actually won the 1947 Academy Award™ for THE BACHELOR AND THE BOBBY-SOXER. Just a brief digression here. If ever there was a mystery win in the Oscars consider that Sheldon’s competition that year included Abraham Polonsky for BODY AND SOUL; Charlie Chaplin for MONSIEUR VERDOUX; Sergio Amidei and Cesare Zavattini among others for SHOESHINE; and Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin for A DOUBLE LIFE. A mystery never to be solved, I guess.
Sheldon’s new story bears scant resemblance to the original. Bing Crosby (I won’t even bother with their screen names) is a Big Broadway Star whom Kurt Kaszner (in the ‘50s he was the stock vaguely wild Eastern European type cast as an impresario) wants to star in his next Big Production but he wants him to pair up with rising star, Donald O’Connor (all right their names were Bill and Ted). He introduces them at an after theatre party, hands them a piece of sheet music and an intricate duet and production number ensues (not a Cole Porter song). Solid they can work together. Rehearsals begin in 8 weeks but first they’re off to Europe to discover the perfect leading lady, separately, Crosby to London, and O’Connor to Paris.
It’s in London that Crosby sees Mitzi Gaynor in a show doing the title tune as a production number. The style of the production number was familiar to television viewers. Mitzi is in a bustier surrounded by 8 boys and 8 girls who dance around her in symmetrical formation, sometimes 8 at a time, sometimes all 16, in abstract geometrical patters sort of like a Jackson Pollock painting. The most obvious change in the lyrics was the famous opening couplet where “four letter words” has inexplicably been changed to “three letter words”. This was the mid-fifties after all. (Of course I Get A Kick Out Of You had a verse bowdlerized from “Some get a kick from cocaine” to “Some like their from perfume from Spain”, which had been previously used in a TV production starring Frank Sinatra and Ethel Merman). This version of Anything Goes however was severely attenuated and had rewritten verses alluding to TV wrestling and female hurricane names. The verses themselves are swallowed up by the choreography with the dancing breaks more than twice as long as the sung portions. The orchestration is very loud big band jazz circa 1946. The dancing bridges seem to have nothing to do with the original Porter melody. Its as if you’ve just sat through Anything Goes and you ask yourself: “What just happened?” Porter assassinated, but not for the last time.
Crosby signs Mitzi as the female lead. O’Connor in Paris signs Zizi Jeanmaire as the lead. She sings I Get A Kick Out Of You as part of a production number on a cabaret stage. Again Cole Porter is murdered as part of a production number. This time it’s a Roland Petit choreographed number with two verses and one chorus squeezed in between the dancing. Again there is the loud, brassy, big band arrangement, pumping out. This number actually ends with everybody doing jazz hands!
Well, all four of them are bound for New York aboard an ocean liner, with Mitzi Gaynor’s father, Phil Harris, along for the ride and visibly under some sort of legal strain which has prevented his and his daughter’s return to the US up until now. A faint, very faint, echo of the original pilot.
So there’s the set up. One twist is added; Crosby and Jeanmaire are attracted, as are O’Connor and Gaynor. Excluding the production numbers this is about the length of a TV sitcom, the Sidney Sheldon specialty. In a traditional farce, such as the original story written by a couple of old masters of the genre, Guy Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse, the comedy derives from multiple mistaken identities and meetings at cross purposes. Here everything is known by the first 45 minutes. There is nothing left but the unraveling to the inevitable ending. Not a chuckle on the journey, just the usual artificial roadblocks to keep the pot boiling for another hour or so. But you said… you like her more than me….blah blah blah.
I wondered who directed this mess. I was not familiar at all with the director, Robert Lewis. I found that he was an original member of the Group Theater and a co-founder of the Actor’s Studio. He played bit parts in Hollywood in the ‘40s in between the Group and the AS. How he wound up directing a big time Technicolor Hollywood movie is a mystery to me. I guess if Sam Goldwyn could put Marlon Brando in as the lead in GUYS AND DOLLS, then this Stanislavski guy might be just the ticket for a “modern” movie. Pure grasping at straws. This was his only film. I thought maybe he found some integrity in staging the musical numbers as logically upon stages as parts of shows, but there are the usual bursting into song in public scenes as well.
You’re The Top is cleverly staged as a double duet with Crosby and Gaynor and O’Connor and Jeanmaire in adjoining rehearsal rooms both visible from the same camera angle. Then the rigor breaks down and O’Connor and Gaynor have a duet on shipboard, the interpolated Porter tune It’s De-lovely (from Red, Hot and Blue). Then Crosby sings All Through The Night (a ballad done at a glacial tempo) to Jeanmaire and she imagines a big dance number, and O’Connor has a novelty comic dance number with some kids before it all wraps up with a production number (Blow Gabriel Blow) staged as part of the final form of the Broadway Show, (remember, the Broadway show this was all supposed to be about?).
The film was a dismal failure and the last film Bing Crosby made for Paramount, reputedly the second longest star contact in Hollywood history (after Robert Taylor’s at MGM). Robert Lewis returned to Broadway and never made another film. Why then, bother about a bad film that has justly been forgotten, really forgotten, and not merely obscure but remembered by film buffs and scholars? It’s because I think finding out the how and why of this film’s badness can give an insight into the fall of classic Hollywood especially the elongated process of that downfall.
It would be wrong to think that this was just some off-handed production with a bunch of old pros merely biding their time, turning out something, anything to keep on going. There were very talented people working and innovating on this picture. Very often I’ll settle into my chair as the opening credits roll and I see a list of people whose work I’ve admired for some time and watch the cinematic equivalent of Jell-O that hasn’t settled. When I lived in Britain the BBC ran a series of films that had never been released by famous filmmakers. They were certified stinkers. It happens.
The sets, especially those on the ocean liner, are spectacularly imaginative if stylized. The designer, J. McMillan Johnson, had a distinguished career that began as the sketch artist on GONE WITH THE WIND and doing special effects on THE WIZARD OF OZ. He worked with Paramount department head Hal Pereira. The costumes were by Edith Head, which says enough.
There is the Cole Porter score, reduced to four tunes, one grafted on from another show, yet butchered, or updated, whichever you prefer. Morphed into background music for dance numbers and scored in what was then the modern manner. I’m reminded of Sam Goldwyn when he was producing his Goldwyn Follies and Balanchine suggested they use modern dance. Goldwyn rejected the idea with a genuine Goldwynism: Modern dance is so old fashioned. The big band arrangements are the distillation of everything that had gone before, they are loud, fast and swinging but they were instantly superannuated. 1956 was the year Elvis Presley broke through.
There were three choreographers; veteran Nick Castle, Ernie Flatt who did Mitzy Gaynor’s Anything Goes number, and Roland Petit who did Zizi Jeanmaire’s big ballet. In addition they brought out the two hippest songwriters in the Brill Building, Jimmy van Heusen and Sammy Kahn, winners of four Academy Awards and members of the Frank Sinatra court. All of these efforts go for naught. It wasn’t for lack of trying. They tried to be clever at every step. But one can’t stop to compare what was going on back at MGM. Three years earlier the Cole Porter musical Kiss Me Kate was adapted to the screen without losing its essence and without being jazzed up except perhaps for being shot in 3-D. Two years later MGM made GIGI, which made no concessions to try and be hip, and was a huge hit and a record winning Oscar winner. So the form of the movie musical wasn’t quite played out yet. If there was any concession to modernization it was in the direction of naturalism rather than stylization. The aesthetic presented in ANYTHING GOES is now recognized as that of the Las Vegas stage show.
For several generations now it has been standard operating practice to have a lead Prima Donna as nude as possible surrounded by dancers even more naked with outlandish headgear featuring garish colors and sparkling adornments parading geometrically across the stage to loud and swinging big band music. That’s entertainment, only not cinematic entertainment. If anything, the idea of readjusting the musical was a good idea in theory, but was bungled by merely taking what was known about the form and extending it to using were thought were interesting contemporary ideas. In fact, except for LI’L ABNER, the next Paramount musical would star Elvis Presley, which would become the standard for the studio for the next generation.
The movie careers of most of the people did not survive long after ANYTHING GOES. Today it may be difficult to believe what a big movie star Bing Crosby was. He won the Oscar for GOING MY WAY in 1944 and was the number one box office star in the world for five years straight. He still holds the record for selling the most single records of one song, White Christmas, which charted 16 times and had to be re-recorded because the master was worn out. He was not only a movie star but also, incredibly enough, a sex symbol. Yet, to the younger generation, he was something of a relic and not a believable romantic lead. He went on to do HIGH SOCIETY, (a remake of THE PHILADELPHIA STORY) with his ex-lover Grace Kelly and a completely new Cole Porter score; artfully arraigned this time, and co-starring Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong, a successful approach to the problem of the music movie form, but a dead end, as there were not too many Cole Porter’s left. HIGH SOCIETY was a huge hit, one of the ten top grossing films of the year. Crosby’s business interests in frozen orange juice, audio and video recording, television production, more than made up for his fall from movie stardom grace.
Mitzi Gaynor was something of a one trick pony who suffered most from the disappearance of the movie musical. She was a nightclub act, singing and dancing in a narrow milieu. She was fired from 20th Century Fox when Irving Berlin’s THERE’S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS failed (though I saw it at least 4 times when it came out). After ANYTHING GOES she went on to co-star with Frank Sinatra in ALL THE WAY (with songs by Kahn and van Heusen) before her big hit, the lead in Roger and Hammerstein’s SOUTH PACIFIC (1958). She was in LES GIRLS (1957), a Gene Kelly musical. In fact it was Gene Kelly’s last film at MGM where he had been since 1942, and Cole Porter’s last film score. (Are you getting a theme developing here?) She made 3 non-musicals with male leads; David Niven, Yul Brynner and Kirk Douglas, all supposedly sexy comedies, all forgotten flops. Her career was in nightclubs, principally in Las Vegas, and annual television specials in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and most notably she was the act (in a remarkable dress that sent her boobs nearly up to her collar bone) on the Ed Sullivan Show that was sandwiched in between the two numbers by The Beatles on their American television debut. Another theme develops here, with Elvis and The Beatles being the real future, even if just temporarily, of the movie musical.
Donald O’Connor first appeared with Bing Crosby in SING YOU SINNERS at age 11 in 1938 at Paramount. He was supposed to co-star with Crosby in WHITE CHRISTMAS but became ill from Francis the Talking Mule, his co-star in a series of films, and was replaced by Danny Kaye. After ANYTHING GOES he next starred in the Sidney Sheldon scripted THE BUSTER KEATON STORY, which played on the bottom of double bills. In the meanwhile he was one of the biggest stars on TV in the early ‘50s, the persona he was introduced as in ANYTHING GOES. He didn’t make another film until co-staring in CRY FOR HAPPY, another of that era’s films set in Japan exclusively dealing with the topic of geishas; and starring as Aladdin in an Italian film of the same name. He had a featured role in the Bobby Darin/Sandra Dee THAT FUNNY FEELING in 1965 and then nothing until he played cameos near the end of his life.
Zizi Jeanmaire went back to France, starring in cabaret.
Really, the future for everybody was in television. The old stars’ lights were beginning to flicker. The new stars were not what the movie going public, skewing younger and younger, wanted, their talents no longer jibing with the new forms movies were adapting to. Their talents were such that they couldn’t survive in only a superficial medium. They were served by creative people who just weren’t that creative, not creative enough to get people to leave their homes and pay money to watch them.
Maybe its the career of Sidney Sheldon that most exemplary of the shifts in movie careers. He wrote Donald O’Connor’s last starring film, the next-to-last Martin & Lewis film, he saw out Doris Day’s last musical, as well as Busby Berkeley’s (BILLY ROSE’S JUMBO), the last in the line of MGM musicals. It was the next to last musical for Joe Pasternak. Sheldon went directly to tv developing first “The Patty Duke Show”, and then “I Dream of Jeannie”, and then “Hart To Hart”, over 300 episodes between 1963 and 1984. Pure drivel, but very popular with the tv audience. From the late ‘70s he published a series of seven best selling novels, all made into films. The books were more successful than the movies made from them. He was one of those guys who complained about rough handling from the critics but really, he was ignored by most serious critics.
The film musical would survive eventually reaching its apogee with THE SOUND OF MUSIC, one of the highest grossing films of all time and probably the highest grossing musical until MAMMA MIA! in 2008. There were a series of attempts to equal that huge historic success but the epic failures which followed: DR. DOOLITTLE; STAR; PAINT YOUR WAGON; MAME; HELLO DOLLY; ended the movie musical. There was a break in the continuity. I went to a critics screening of a re-issue of LES DEMOISELLES DE ROCHEFORT (THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT) in the ‘90s and everyone in the theatre below the age of 35 laughed nervously and conspicuously whenever one of the actors sang directly at the camera. Certainly MOULIN ROUGE by Baz Luhrmann, and to a lessor extent, CHICAGO, had the cultural creds to re-establish the idea of a movie musical to a younger generation, but it seems more like the result of some sort of cultural extortion and conformism and not any sort of affinity, understanding or affection.
While musical’s continued to be made they fell into two categories. There were the low budget rock ‘n roll musicals which also included Elvis Presley and beach blanket pictures, and eventually The Beatles, what might be called today jukebox musicals. Then there were the “event” musicals, from GIGI, to MY FAIR LADY, to FUNNY GIRL. These were mostly based on huge Broadway hits, pre-sold attractions that open as roadshows.
The maquette for the modern movie musical seems to be AMERICAN GRAFFITI, where the songs are already well known and have been dropped into the story; sort of pre-approved to an audience that expects to be pandered to and not experimented on. Don’t upset the kids; they go to the movies, but not indiscriminatingly. They want to see the films that reinforce their ideas of the planet they live on, and one of those premises is that no music that they didn’t like ever existed before them. The Old West; the Middle Ages; Gay Paree; its all Rock n’ Roll to me. Meanwhile, in the shallow grave beside the road, are buried misjudged efforts like ANYTHING GOES. Take my word for it, if you’re curiously attracted for one reason or another; don’t try to see this film. You’ll just be disappointed.
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