"What a Way to Go!" is such an entertaining showcase of vivacious star Shirley MacLaine's talents as a comedienne, dancer, and singer that it's hard to believe that the original script was far darker, and intended for Marilyn Monroe!
A tale of an innocent who dreams of a 'simple life', marrying progressively richer men who leave her an ever richer widow, is the kind of tongue-in-cheek farce that European filmmakers relish, but was unfamiliar to American audiences of the early sixties. Writer Gwen Davis' original story was written to satirically echo Monroe's own marital misadventures, and might have provided the star her best vehicle since "Bus Stop". But Monroe's career took a tragic nosedive, culminating with her death, at 36, in 1962, leaving Fox with a script, a director (J. Lee Thompson), and a film in preproduction.
Gifted songwriting team Betty Comden and Adolph Green, fresh from transferring their B'way hit, "Bells Are Ringing" to the screen, saw the script, and were invited to rework it as a comic vehicle for MacLaine. The talented actress, who had achieved major stardom in "The Apartment", was being given a major build-up by Fox, who wanted to showcase her untapped skills as singer/dancer, as well as in comedy. Thus a lighter, more dazzling "What a Way to Go!" was born.
Fox spared no expense on the production, with over 70 Edith Head costumes, choreography by Gene Kelly, and a new song by Jule Styne...but they balked over Frank Sinatra's salary demands, to play one of the husbands (he was replaced by Robert Mitchum). For MacLaine, it was a joy, working with two ex-lovers (Mitchum and Dean Martin), dancing with Kelly, doing comedy with Dick Van Dyke, Bob Cummings, and a surprisingly deft Paul Newman, and working with legendary Marx Brothers' foil, Margaret Dumont, in her last film.
The end result, while a 'mixed bag', has memorable moments; Newman's French sequence, with a chimp and a murderous painting machine, captures the 'essence' of the material very well; the spoof of Fox multi-costume extravaganzas, with Mitchum, is dazzling (and his death is the funniest); best of all, the giant musical production number with Kelly and MacLaine is a total joy, a homage to both Kelly and Busby Berkeley. While the Van Dyke and Martin sequences lack the same sparkle, and Cumming's scenes appear more contrived than funny, the overall result is wonderful eye candy, with MacLaine never sexier, or more energetic. That the film failed to become a big hit when released was certainly not due to it's star.
The new DVD edition deserves a commentary and 'making of' documentary (neither of which it has), but does offer some entertaining newsreel footage from the 1964 World's Fair premiere, as well as an amusing newsreel of the casting of the chimp for the Newman sequence.
"What a Way to Go!" may not be 'classic' cinema, but it is fun, and if you're a MacLaine fan, you'll be in for a treat!