What a Way to Go! is a film I cannot believe exists. When I first heard about it a few years ago, I’m 97% sure I lost my mind. There are so many things about this movie that boggles me. Let me just start with the biggest one: the cast. Oh my god, this cast. Shirley MacLaine, Paul Newman, Robert Mitchum, Gene Kelly, Dean Martin, Robert Cummings, Dick Van Dyke, plus very small roles for Margaret Dumont, Reginald Gardiner, and Tom Conway.
Directed by J. Lee Thompson (The Guns of Navarone, the original Cape Fear), What a Way to Go! is one-of-a-kind not only because of its cast, but also because of its story. MacLaine’s unlucky character finds herself consistently marrying men who rise to greatness thanks to her inspiration. Unfortunately, these men’s newfound fame and wealth leads to their demises, putting MacLaine in a vicious cycle.
With each new husband, the film spoofs a different genre that exemplifies that husband’s personality and makes the film a truly lavish production. These sequences are also part of what gives the film its endearing eccentricity. What other movie contains Dick Van Dyke and Shirley MacLaine adorably acting out a silent film, or Paul Newman speaking French as he and MacLaine drape themselves over one another with only a sheet to cover their modesty as they poke fun at European art films?
One of the more impressive sequences happens when MacLaine’s character remembers her life with Robert Mitchum’s billionaire as “one of those glamorous Hollywood movies all about love and what she’ll wear next,” which is basically the film winking at itself. The audience is treated to a visual feast as MacLaine wears one outrageously chic outfit after another (with elaborate hairstyles to match!). Legendary costume designer Edith Head completely outdid herself, creating over 40 incredible outfits for MacLaine that allowed her to transform into a range of personas, from simple farm girl to glamorous goddess. What a Way to Go! would go on to garner Oscar nominations for Best Art Direction and Best Costumes, losing both awards to George Cukor’s My Fair Lady.
While there are many, many things to love about this crazy film, I would say that the highlight of What a Way to Go! is MacLaine and Gene Kelly’s fantasy musical number, a charming affair filled with bouncy tap dancing, purposely silly lip-syncing, and tongue-in-cheek sensuality. The routine also functions as a kind of career retrospective for the 52-year-old Kelly as bits of his choreography reference his and Cyd Charisse’s erotic “Broadway Melody” number in Singin’ in the Rain, while some of the lyrics allude to his previous musicals Brigadoon, Anchors Aweigh, and On the Town. Considering that these lyrics were written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, the geniuses who worked with Kelly on Singin’…, It’s Always Fair Weather, and On the Town, I like the fact that they put in all of these lovely nods to their friend in this song. It’s an interesting, subtle way to recall Kelly’s long and beautiful career. You can watch the number here.
Originally a star vehicle for Marilyn Monroe before her tragic death in 1962, What a Way to Go! fits MacLaine’s kooky, vulnerable image like a well-tailored Edith Head glove. Remarkably, the actress has great chemistry with each of her leading men. For me, the film is unique in that I actually love every single cast member and I enjoy all of their characters. Van Dyke is darn right adorable as sweet Edgar; Newman clearly relishes playing eccentric artist Larry; Mitchum gets a chance to be a sophisticate; Cummings is fun as MacLaine’s slightly unhinged psychiatrist; Martin is just plain old brilliant as sleazy Leonard; and Kelly, well, he is simply perfection.
What a Way to Go! was a big hit and became the 11th highest-grossing film of 1964. It had plenty of things stacked in its favor. In addition to the cast, the set design, and the sumptuous Edith Head creations, the film has music by Nelson Riddle, a script from Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and songs written by Comden, Green, and Jule Styne. What a Way to Go! is my favorite kind of ’60s film: bright and funny with tons of style. It’s the type of movie that could have only been made in 1964. To miss an opportunity to see it is to miss a lot of laughs, a little bit of heartbreak, and some seriously unforgettable, unbelievable cinematic moments.
Michaela Owens is thrilled to be the editor of A Place for Film. An IU graduate with a BA in Communication and Culture, she is pursuing an MA in Cinema and Media Studies and has also been a volunteer usher at IU Cinema since 2016. She never stops thinking about classic Hollywood, thanks to her mother’s introduction to it, and she likes to believe she is an expert on Katharine Hepburn.
Michaela OwensMichaela Owens
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