Sunday, February 9, 2020

FAVOURITE MOVIES: Call Me Madam, 1953


Irving Berlin's Call Me Madam opened on Broadway on October 12, 1950, and closed on May 3, 1952. A hit with audiences and critics, the show won the Tony Award for Berlin for Best Original Score, for Ethel Merman for Best Actress in a Musical, for Russell Nype as Best Featured Actor in a Musical, and for carpenter Pete Feller for Stage Technician.

The Twentieth Century Fox film of Call Me Madam opened in March of 1953. Ethel Merman (Sally) and Lilia Skala (Countess) were the only members of the Broadway production cast in the movie. Alfred Newman won the Oscar for Best Music, Scoring of a Motion Picture and Irene Sharaff was nominated for Best Costume Design, Color. Ethel Merman was the recipient of the Golden Globe for Best Actress, Musical or Comedy. Walter Lang was nominated by the Directors Guild of America and the Cannes Film Festival.

The song Lichtenburg used in the film was truncated from the Broadway version. Broadway's Once Upon a Time Today was switched for What Chance Have I With Love? from the 1940 show Louisina Purchase, and the Washington Square Dance was omitted. Irving Berlin's deal at this time with Twentieth Century Fox called for two more films which would turn out to be two films recycling Irving's greatest hits,  There's No Business Like Show Business with Ethel Merman and Donald O'Connor from Call Me Madam and White Christmas.


The Hostess with the Mostes

Sally Adams, an oil-rich Oklahoman widow has become the most popular hostess in Washington, D.C. where all sorts of disparate politicians and movers-and-shakers gather to work out their issues in a neutral zone. Sally's parties and Sally's friendship with President Harry Truman lands the ebullient woman the post of Ambassador to the tiny country of Lichtenburg. Beyond that formidable personality, Sally is little qualified for the assignment and takes on an assistant, Kenneth Gibson played by Donald O'Connor.


Can You Use Any Money Today?

Arriving in Lichtenburg Sally is confronted by the hoity-toity Pemberton Maxwell, who is in charge of the Embassy. This is Billy De Wolfe playing his hoity-toity best. Sally is under orders from Harry to not loan any money to Lichtenburg. Lichtenburg is desperate for money to pay the dowry of Princess Maria played by Vera-Ellen. We know her intended, Helmut Dentine as Prince Hugo needs the money for his country but it is not made clear what Lichtenburg gets out of this deal. Princess Maria doesn't seem too excited for the marriage.

Two of Lichtenburg's fawning politicians, Prime Minister Sebastian played by Stefan Geray and the treasurer August Tantinnin played by Walter Slezak do their best fawning toward Mrs. Adams without shaking her resolve to follow orders.

Marrying for Love

However, when General Cosmo Constantine played by George Sanders puts in an appearance Sally melts. The suave Cosmo enchants the new Ambassador. She is willing to give him the entire treasury. Cosmo is honest when he says he does not want money for his country. He has a plan to make Lichtenburg self-sufficient. Hoity-toity Maxwell convinces Sally that it is a ploy on Cosmo's part and her romantic dreams are shattered.


It's a Lovely Day Today

Kenneth needs a high hat for the presentation at the palace and while shopping he meets a lovely girl interested in the newest things from America: music, and Kenneth. Sparks fly, singing and dancing ensues, and Kenneth is shocked to discover the lovely girl is Princess Maria. Will her title stand in the way of true romance, not to mention her engagement to Prince Hugo?


The International Rag

Sally wobbles her curtsy to the Grand Duke and Duchess, played by Ludwig Stossel and Lilia Skala, and is flustered by Cosmo's attentions which she has been led to believe are false. However, Sally breaks the ice with the tradition-bound Lichtenburgians with a rousing routine of Irving Berlin's 1913 hit The International Rag. Talk about a trunk song!

Kenneth and Princess Maria break their own ice with a dance in the garden much to the chagrin of Prince Hugo.


You're Just in Love

Sally and Kenneth commiserate over their apparently doomed romances with Irving's hit counterpoint number that saved the second act of Call Me Madam. The duet was recorded by Rosemary Clooney and Guy Mitchell, Perry Como, and The Fontane Sisters, Ethel with Dick Haymes, Dinah Shore with Russell Nype, Judy Garland and Bing Crosby, and Jane Horrocks and Ewan McGregor for starters. Irving's last great song.

The Ocarina

The annual Lichtenburg Fair is a big deal. Sally gets hit on by Tantinnin. The Treasurer is rebuffed perfectly. Sally is helpless in the face of Cosmo's attention. Princess Maria, who is very interested in singing, acting, and dancing performs The Ocarina to the delight of the fair-goers. Maria and Kenneth spend some little time together before Prince Hugo practically threatens a duel with his rival. Note: Julie Newmar, Barrie Chase, and George Chakiris are among the dancing throng.


What Chance Have I With Love?

Kenneth drowns his sorrows to the equally sorrowful sorrows of the publican who wants to close up and go home to bed. Kenneth will not leave before singing and dancing his troubles away in one of my favourite Donald O'Connor routines. He's drunk and there are balloons. Let your imagination go from there.

Something to Dance About

Sally arranges for Kenneth and Maria to meet (accidentally) in the not-so-secret tunnels between the Embassy and the Palace. The couple dances their affection in this peppy and endearing tune. The hopelessness of their fate leads to Sally and Kenneth reprising You're Just in Love.

The Best Thing for You Would be Me

A pretty love song speaks the truth of Sally and Cosmo's feelings. Sally, believing in Maxwell's insight into Cosmo's reverse psychology to get the money wants to do all she can for him. The money will put a crimp in Kenneth's aspirations and, knowing Cosmo's sincerity, he will be equally displeased. Sally has botched things royally and is recalled to Washington.


Mrs. Sally Adams

Naturally, Sally throws a party her first night back and surprises (not really surprises for fans of musical comedy) are in store.

Call Me Madam is a delight. The play was brought to the screen with a gorgeous color palette and wonderful performers handling the Berlin tunes with aplomb. The digs at the political world haven't changed one bit! Check out the Senators played by Emory Parnell, Charles Dingle, and Percy Helton.


Donald O'Connor and Vera-Ellen make a wonderful team, and it is a shame this was their only movie pairing.


What a treat to hear George Sander's musical talent! It is another shame that Hollywood didn't utilize that side of George more often.


With the exception of a bit in Stage Door Canteen, 1943 Ethel Merman's last movie role was in 1938. The above is from that year's release Alexander's Ragtime Band. Well, what do you know? Another Irving Berlin picture. Ah well, Hollywood's loss was Broadway's gain.

Of note:


The 1949 TIME magazine cover of Perle Reid Mesta (1889-1975), the socialite and political hostess who received an appointment as Ambassador to Luxembourg and was the inspiration for Call Me Madam book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, music by Irving Berlin.


Ethel Merman with her Broadway Cosmo Constantine, Paul Lukas.



A charming interpretation of You're Just in Love by Chet Atkins.












28 comments:

  1. What a trooper Ethel Merman was! Can you imagine playing the same role almost every night for 1 1/2 years? And then doing the film version, too! Amazing. It's been such a long time since my sister and I seen this but your review makes me want to rewatch it tonight ( a Berlin musical will top an Oscar ceremony anytime! ). I'm curious to spot Barrie Chase in the background, too.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Call Me Madam has been a favourite of mine since my teen years when I had to stay up late to catch it on TV, along with "There's No Business Like Show Business." Twentieth Century Fox influenced my ideas about show business!

      It is grand that we still have Julie, Barrie and George still with us. Those Lichtenburg costumes really disguise the background dancers. It will be a test for your sharp eyes.

      I haven't selected my movie viewing for tonight. Currently, I'm torn between "The Three Lives of Thomasina" and "The Late George Apley." I'll probably end up with something completely different!

      Delete
  2. DONALD OCONNOR did an ep of HIGHWAY TO HEAVEN with ERIC DOUGLAS in 1987. They played father and son actors. Eric, who died in 2004, was the youngest son of KIRK DOUGLAS. Kirk died last Wed. which was Feb. 5 at the age of 103. MICHAEL DOUGLAS is, of course, the oldest son of Kirk. Kirk had 4 sons-two from his first marriage to DIANA DILL and two from his marriage to his second wife Anne. Anne is now 100! Two movies that I liked Kirk in are ones that don't seem to be well-known. A western titled MAN WITHOUT A STAR with JEANNE CRAIN and WILLIAM CAMPBELL. It has some light-hearted moments in it and Kirk gets to sing. The other one is a comedy titled FOR LOVE OR MONEY with THELMA RITTER and MITZI GAYNOR who also worked with.....DONALD OCONNOR.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I hadn't seen Highway to Heaven. I guess it was during that time when the kids were young and kept us busy.

      I am particularly fond of Man Without a Star. Universal re-worked it for an episode of The Virginian as an origin story for the character Steve.

      For Love or Money has a terrific cast, and I would watch it just for the fashions alone.

      Delete
  3. LILIA SKALA was in the IRONSIDE TV-Movie(1967) as a nun. She later played the part again in an ep of the show in 1968(a 2 hour one). Also MISS SKALA played the mother of LISA DOUGLAS(EVA GABOR) on two eps of GREEN ACRES. GEORGE SANDERS was once the brother-in-law of EVA being he was married to ZSA ZSA GABOR.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. George's world seems a small one the way it involves the women in their life.

      My first thought of Lilia Skala is always Lilies of the Field. As the nun and the nurse in that movie and Ironside, she certainly didn't have the beautiful costumes she got to wear on stage and screen in Call Me Madam.

      Delete
  4. Wait a minute. What is this lovely, beautifully costumed film with Ethel Merman, George Sanders and all this fabulous music? Where has this been all my life!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You mean to say the two of you (hit show and film fan) have not crossed paths previously?! Life (with its capital L) can be so unfair.

      As someone wise once said "better late than never!" Personally, I hadn't been aware of George's recordings until working on this blog. Another case of where has this been all my life?!

      Delete
  5. Four of the people in the movie were later on the show BATMAN. GEORGE SANDERS, ETHEL MERMAN, WALTER SLEZAK and JULIE NEWMAR. I saw SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS in which Julie had a part. I saw it in 1987 and then I saw BATMAN probably later that year but I didn't know at the time that it was the same actress. Julie-to many people she IS CATWOMAN.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Batman is great fun. Julie is a great Catwoman giving her a very interesting and fun character. Lee Merriwether had a lot of grace in the role. Eartha Kitt was a ball of fire.

      Delete
  6. ETHEL MERMAN and JULIE NEWMAR were guest stars on THE LOVE BOAT. Ethel played the mother of GOPHER(FRED GRANDY). The husband/dad was played by BOB CUMMINGS. Ethel did several eps. Julie did one ep, her love interest was played by.....DON KNOTTS!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. When Ethel passed away in 1984 most of the people at my office only knew her from The Love Boat. I spent the day in the copy room with one fellow who was a theatre fan. We sang hits that Ethel sang and bemoaned our co-workers.

      Delete
  7. I saw ETHEL in THE ART OF LOVE(65) with JAMES GARNER, DICK VAN DYKE, ANGIE DICKINSON and ELKE SOMMER. Elke was also a guest star on THE LOVE BOAT. I saw something on TV years ago where there was some kind of feud between Elke and ZSA ZSA GABOR but I don't know anything about it. By the way, ZSA ZSA was the guest villain on the last ep of BATMAN. P.S. Did you see THE ART OF LOVE?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I saw The Art of Love once many years ago. I thought it was a clever premise but went on a bit too long.

      Delete
  8. Former child actor ERIC SHEA is 60 today-Feb. 14. He played one of the sons to LUCILLE BALL in YOURS, MINE AND OURS. He also guest starred on LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE, THE BRADY BUNCH, and GUNSMOKE-he did 3 eps of that show, always as a different character. In one he played the brother to PAMELYN FERDIN and in another one he played the son to JACQUELINE SCOTT. That one also guest starred R.G. ARMSTRONG, HENRY JONES and PERNELL ROBERTS(who the boy doesn't know is his father). The titles are THE MONEY STORE and STRANGER IN TOWN. The third one is titled THE INTRUDER(I think) and I believe the first and third ones also star CHARLES AIDMAN.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Eric was the middle of three brothers who worked as actors, leaving the business before adulthood.

      Delete
  9. The GUNSMOKE eps aired in this order-STRANGER IN TOWN(67), THE MONEY STORE(68) and THE INTRUDER(69). Charles Aidman WAS in those two-The Money Store and The Intruder. Eric Shea was in the comedy show ANNA AND THE KING which aired in 1972. It only aired for 13 episodes. Eric also did some DISNEY movies(mostly for TV) and was in THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE as the brother to PAMELA SUE MARTIN. Just think of all the big names Eric got to work with! Even in just that Poseidon movie and also in that one with Lucille Ball AND HENRY FONDA.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Like you, I got a kick of hearing George Sanders sing in this movie (I like his recording of "Some Enchanted Evening": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=71ohzOmIbls). Dana Andrews was also a trained singer (baritone, like George), but he never let anyone in Hollywood know it, apparently afraid it would typecast him. Even when he made the musical "State Fair," he allowed himself to be dubbed rather than sing!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ooh, Some Enchanted Evening. Thanks.

      Once a singer, always a singer. The movies didn't get Dana's scales and arpeggios but he did sing in a Beverly Hills choir that he organized with Alexander Knox. Surprising fellows!

      Delete
  11. This movie used to be on local TV all the time, but I haven't seen in years. It's the one that springs to mind whenever someone mentions Ethel Merman. As you wrote, it's too bad that Donald O'Connor and Vera-Ellen didn't make more movies together. I am a fan of each star individually and, like you, I thought they made a marvelous team.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Same here. I feel like I grew up with this movie and then "poof!", it disappeared. It was on a local Canadian classic film channel recently and I was so happy.

      Delete
  12. ETHEL MERMAN did two eps of THE LUCY SHOW. This next lady is very much associated with LUCILLE BALL. MARY JANE CROFT was born on this day-Feb. 15-in 1916. She was born the same year as OLIVIA DE HAVILLAND and KIRK DOUGLAS. MISS CROFT died in 1999 at the age of 83. According to imdb she did 7 eps of I LOVE LUCY, 39 of THE LUCY SHOW and 34 of HERES LUCY. She also did 75 eps of THE ADVENTURES OF OZZIE AND HARRIET. Mary Jane had played earlier characters and later she played MARY JANE LEWIS that knows LUCY CARMICHAEL(THE LUCY SHOW) and MARY JANE LEWIS that knows LUCY CARTER(HERES LUCY). In real life her married name was.....MARY JANE LEWIS. She was married to producer/director ELLIOTT LEWIS. One of the shows MR. LEWIS produced was THE LUCY SHOW. P.S. SHERRY JACKSON that I mentioned on the JAMES GARNER page is 79 today. She worked with DANNY THOMAS and Danny worked with.....LUCILLE BALL.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I remember Lucy teaching Ethel's character how to sing! Vivian Vance was Ethel Merman's understudy in Panama Hattie on Broadway. Desilu used that plot later on The Mothers-in-Law when Eve Arden tried to teach Marni Nixon how to sing!

      Mary Jane Croft is a favourite with her many television appearances. She is in the movie Kathy O' which I like to watch at Christmas.

      Delete
  13. I want to make a correction-SHERRY JACKSON is 78 today. Sherry was a HOLLYWOOD DEB STAR in 1959.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sherry Jackson was very pretty and very talented. A favourite from those years of entertainment.

      Delete
  14. I snatched this movie up at a thrift store and enjoyed it so much! I thought George Sanders was dubbed upon viewing and was pleased to learn later it was really him singing. Vera-Ellen and Donald O'Connor were so wonderful together and like you said, it is a shame that they weren't featured in more films together. P.S. I've tried subscribing to your blog but the computer gods must be against me as it doesn't seem to work :/

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. What a grand find at the thrift store. Bargain bins have provided me with many faves. I'm so glad you are another member of the Call Me Madam fan club.

      Darn old technology. I wonder if I've done something. I'll never know! We can still find each other.



      Delete

RAY MILLAND ON THE RUN, 1944: Ministry of Fear and Till We Meet Again

Ray Milland stars as Stephen Neale, a man who thinks his long personal nightmare may be over. On the night he is released from a sanitori...