'What a Way to Go!': THR's 1964 Review
On May 13, 1964, 20th Century Fox unveiled the Shirley MacLaine-starring musical comedy What a Way to Go! in New York. The film went on to be nominated for two Oscars at the 37th Academy Awards, for art direction and costume design. The Hollywood Reporter's original review is below.
What a Way to Go! is hard to define but easy to recommend; the 20th-Fox presentation is a funny musical comedy, or comedy with music, with all the glamour that Hollywood can throw into one film, and a high-powered cast to light the marquee. The J. Lee Thompson production, produced by Arthur P. Jacobs, is a dazzler. It should be one of the year's most popular attractions. Thompson directed the pleasantly nutty shenanigans.
Shirley MacLaine is the central figure in the Betty Comden-Adolph Green screenplay, a charmer whose attractions include the Midas touch and the kiss of death. Every man who takes up with her is rewarded by fabulous success. Unfortunately, he doesn't live long to enjoy it or her. Hence the title. In the midst of wealth and endearing charms, he departs this life. Each time, Miss MacLaine is a rich widow, and each time, increasingly rich.
Story in Flashback
The story is told in the form of a flashback, with Miss MacLaine trying to give away some $200,000,000. She feels guilt. Rich, but guilty. Since the government won't take her money, she goes to a psychiatrist to rid herself of her anxieties about her fortune, good and bad. To do so she spins her sad story. Marriage to the village ne'er-do-well, Dick Van Dyke; carefree, penniless happiness until he gets the itch for success and wears himself into the grave scratching. She takes up with a Paris-based artist, Paul Newman, and gives him a blueprint for success which he makes into a machine for death. A rich man, Robert Mitchum, is her next husband, and Miss MacLaine's nuptial gift is a vast increase in his overflowing wealth. Proceeding from his demise, she meets a two-bit song-and-dance man, Gene Kelly, and inadvertently gives him the secret of success. It eventually kills him. At the end she is reunited with the one man she said she'd never marry, Dean Martin. Bob Cummings plays the psychiatrist who listens to this gaily macabre tale.
The Comden-Green script, inspired by a story by Gwen Davis, is only the thread on which are hung a succession of funny scenes and musical numbers. The production is mounted richly. Sets are big and splendid. Costuming for Miss MacLaine by Edith Head is a major item. Miss Head has designed a number of staggeringly sumptuous outfits and some that are done for fun, yards of fur, acres of chiffon. They tread that delicate line between burlesque and reality; the women in the audience know they aren't anything anybody could wear, but oh! how lovely if one could! In this and other areas, this is the kind of movie Hollywood once made its worldwide reputation on, scorned by the aesthetes, adored by the multitudes.
Leon Shamroy's CinemaScope-DeLuxe Color photography, with this cinematographer's distinctive lighting, captures the events faithfully. The plush settings by Jack Martin Smith and Ted Haworth, with set decoration by Walter M. Scott and Stuart A. Reiss, give the picture gloss and sheen, but with a tongue-in-cheek approach that hints it is in fun, not serious or pretentious.
Shirley MacLaine at Her Best
Miss MacLaine is at her best as the girl who succeeds in getting her husbands' businesses started without trying at all. She has the figure for the clothes and the sense of fun for the lines. She dances, she sings (on one occasion with another voice, dubbed for humor) and she generally cements the episodic frame. Mitchum is offhand and amusing as the super-rich tycoon. Paul Newman displays again a flair for comedy. Dean Martin is not as interesting as usual — perhaps the role doesn't give him a chance to get off the ground. Gene Kelly (who also did the bright choreography) clowns amusingly as a small-time operator who blossoms into the big-time. Bob Cummings is capable as the head-doctor. Dick Van Dyke is very funny, outstandingly so, as Miss MacLaine's first success.
Fine Supporting Cast
Reginald Gardiner has a brief scene to which he gives great humor; Margaret Dumont is funny as Miss MacLaine's strong-minded mother. Fifi D'Orsay makes a vivid impression in her time on the screen. Lou Nova, Maurice Marsac, Wally Vernon, Jane Wald and Lenny Kent head the able supporting cast.
Nelson Riddle's score, including the Comden-Green-Jule Styne songs, is a vital asset to the picture. Sound by Bernard Freericks and Elmer Raguse is proficient. Marjorie Fowler's editing, particularly in pointing the comedy, which is often comedy by implication, is very shrewd. A foot or more or less here and there and the jokes would have been flat. Mrs. Fowler makes sure they aren't. Altogether a promising bow for a new producer. — James Powers, originally published on March 31, 1964