Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Musical Watch: Call Me Madam (1953)

Watched:  12/30/2018
Format:  disc
viewing:  first
decade:  1950's

When we were kids Ethel Merman was still part of the popular consciousness, but I'm not sure what folks my parents' age thought of her (I can pretty much guarantee my dad found her annoying).  Merman was a Broadway performer with a brassy voice and who had a sort of streetwise persona paired with a self-deprecating wit.  I think. 

Call Me Madam (1953) was originally a Broadway show with music by Irving Berlin and starring Merman, apparently a Tony Award-winning show.  I only listened to about five minutes of the commentary, but the narrator was quick to leap on the notion "look, this was based on stuff everyone in 1953 would have just known from the news, but hasn't really remained in the zeitgeist".  Despite the fairytale-like story, apparently Call Me Madam is loosely based on a real person and events. 

Basically - the movie is about a wealthy, earthy widow (sort of an Unsinkable Molly Brown-type), who has become important in Washington D.C. social life and is a friend of Harry S. Truman and family, which lands her a post as ambassador to the fictional Lichtenburg (Luxembourg in the actual story).  Of course she knows nothing about being an ambassador, so she hires a plucky Donald O'Connor to be her press attache. 

The permanent staff more or less tries to bully her, not really counting on either her toughness nor her personal connection to Truman. 

Lots of jokes here that haven't dated well - did you know Truman had a daughter who tried to be a performer?  I had been told once in school and had totally forgotten in between (and haven't read that Truman biography I have on my shelf).  Most of the plot hinges on a passing knowledge of the Marshall Plan, which gave me an opportunity to re-read some Wikipedia on the topic. 

But whether you know about all of that real history or not, the musical still works as Americans in Europe, meeting nobility, finding love, etc...  Other cast members include George Sanders putting on an accent and Vera Ellen performing a few dance numbers with O'Connor, which are, frankly, terrific, and make you wonder what might have been if O'Connor hadn't been injured for White Christmas.   
Merman's voice is... something.  And while I won't say any of the songs were hugely memorable, they were entertaining numbers.  And you get to hear Sanders sing, which... who knew?

Not my favorite movie, but it is the final movie I watched in 2018.

So, thanks for following along.  If you read all of these posts this year, I owe you a drink. 

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