What a Way to Go! (1964) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

What a Way to Go! (1964)

Danny no longer writes for Can't Stop the Movies, and can be reached at his fantastic site Pre-Code.com

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Danny INDIFFERENT"There's a pink Roles-Royce! There's a big jetliner! Complete with orgies!" the trailer for What a Way to Go! promises. It cuts to a shot of Robert Mitchum enjoying the company of a bounty of buxom bikini clad babes.

For a studio picture from 1964, this all too uncannily reflects the turbulent desperation that had begun to set in. Television had encroached, Cleopatra had proven nearly disastrous for Fox, and the loosening of the strict moral censorship of the Hays Code that had regulated the studios for three decades was unraveling.

From that time you'll start to see some brilliant, mature films emerging in a freer world. Billy Wilder's The Apartment kept springing to mind, a film that read like a typical romantic comedy for the beginning before taking wild and dark turns, desperately trying to find where the line is drawn between ambition, money, and love.

It doesn't help that Shirley MacLaine starred in that movie as well as What a Way to Go. Watching her mince through this film as an ingenue with an unfortunate habit of enriching her husbands and then seeing them fall pray to a morbid demise is mildly embarrassing.

Don't get me wrong, though, 'mildly embarrassing' is pretty much the best and worst I can say about the movie. With costarring roles from a half dozen of Hollywood greats, this is a movie made more for the marquee than for any artistic goal.

The opening credits revolve around MacLaine walking with the pallbearers of her fourth and latest husband. They lose control of the casket and it rolls down a set of stairs. They begin to give chase but, oh ho, what's this? The casket seems to be outrunning them, dodging in circles, and whirling about.

And that's precisely what you'll keep getting this movie: comedy so broad and cheap you could slap a wig on it and have it turn tricks on the corner of Market and Main. You'll get scenes of the old 'foreign people talk a lot but we only toss up one brief subtitle' gag, you'll see an egotistical star rave about himself, a drunk man try to milk a bull,  etc, etc.

Between this inoffensive (and dull) comedy, you get a moral pasted on your forehead about how money corrupts. There is constant reference to Henry David Thoreau, and every husband of hers begins with a phase that was 'just like an old movie', ranging from silent to lush studio film to an old musical. Each of these sequences could have set up a satire or paid homage but they're so simple minded they do nothing but continue the inane antics of the rest of the movie with a small variation.

Three of MacLaine's five husbands in the film, whose characters were so bland I couldn't remember them five minutes after they'd left the screen, follow an identical pattern: they fall in love and marry MacLaine before striking it rich and forgetting their wife before a morbid death. Dick Van Dyke is a store owner who works to death, Paul Newman is a painter who is turned on and murdered by his own painting robots (which sounds like it could be funny, but sadly isn't), and Gene Kelly is a hoofer who gets trampled by his fans in a moment of egotistical showmanship.

That leaves two other husbands. Robert Mitchum is rich when he meets her and she decides to work this to her advantage, talking him into selling off his business and starting a farm. On the first day, though, he gets wasted on moonshine (as a side note, the difference between Robert Mitchum acting and acting 'drunk' is negligible) and soon meets his fate at the horns of a bull. I'm not sure how this fits in with the rather blase narrative about money corrupting, and the only reason I imagine it made it was to try and shake up the proceedings a little. That and to get Robert Mitchum milking a bull. I'm sure there's someone somewhere who always thinks that is funny.

Her last husband is Dean Martin, a man who started off rich and was engaged to her at the beginning of the film. He ends up broken and a janitor, which is exactly what she wants in a man. I am nowhere near the world's biggest Dean Martin fan, so I was pretty thankful that we barely got a glimpse of him.

I'm sure there's a technical term for it, but this movie seems to mimic in many regards the bland Disney family comedies that were popular during that period; lots of mugging, facial reactions, and throwbacks to a more glorified era.

However, the inclusion of the racier elements, like Newman and MacLaine making out in a tub or Robert Mitchum's bikini orgy, or even the conceit of a woman with multiple husbands, are all evocative of writers pushing their material to try and seem racy. It's all fairly disposable, nothing for better or worse than you would have seen in a surfing movie from the same time.

All in all, it's not terrible. It looks decent and the actors, especially Newman and Mitchum, seem to be having a good go at it, though Bob Cummings, as MacLaine's psychiatrist, is just embarrassing. And to be quite honest, I simply can't get passionately worked up at a movie that I won't even remember in a week.

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 What a Way to Go! (1964)

Trailer | IMDB
Directed by J. Lee Thompson
Written by Adolph Green and Betty Comden
Starring Shirley MacLaine, Paul Newman, Robert Mitchum, Dean Martin, Gene Kelly, Bob Cummings, and Dick Van Dyke

Posted by Danny

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