WHAT A WAY TO GO!—-star Shirley MacLaine recalled “Everyone on the film thought that it would be a blockbuster! Unfortunately,we were all wrong.” While not a blockbuster, the 1964 absurdist comedy did churn bread, $11,181,000 just in the States, the years 11th strongest performer, with a worldwide take of $19,816,000, on a price tag of at least $3,750,000. It picked up Oscar nominations for Art Direction and Costume Design.*
But beyond a top-loaded cast and the 72 gowns & get-ups Edith Head whipped up for the leading lady (complimented by $3.5 mil worth of diamonds loaned by Harry Winston) it’s a loud, labored dud. Directed by J. Lee Thompson, it had script pedigree from Betty Comden & Adolph Green, but the gags, spun off the films running-joke premise, fall flat, with laughs few and far between in 110 minutes that soon tick from passive star-gazing to active clock-watching.
MacLaine—who sets a record for screeching here—plays a cartoonish small-town gal who yearns for simplicity but has a knack for marrying guys who strike it rich and are then undone (to death) by greed and excess, dying in slapstick fashion, to make room for the next husband/segment/repeated joke. It seems a lock for fun, since MacLaine had proven ability with comedy—given the right director–which Thompson is not—and the line-up of men: Paul Newman, Robert Mitchum, Dean Martin, Gene Kelly, Dick Van Dyke and Robert Cummings. They do what they can, (or feel like) but it’s strained, garish and the noise level grates, with every other bit tagged with a “have Shirley scream here” moment. High point is a pretty good dance number with Kelly that shows off MacLaine’s killer legs. Mitchum has the best exit.
With Margaret Dumont (81 in her last role), Reginald Gardiner and Burt Mustin. Hoofing in the crowd somewhere is 26-year-old hopeful Teri Garr, logging one of five movie gigs that year (Kissin’ Cousins, Viva Las Vegas, Roustabout and Pajama Party). Also smiling in one of a quintet of background flashes she made in ’64 is starlet Barbara Bouchet. Tom Conway, once well-known as ‘The Falcon’, is ignominiously demoted to a bit part, in the last of his 77 credits.
*The Internet Movie Data Base gives the budget as a giant $20,000,000, but that’s way off base. The figure mentioned above seems too low, as well. It’s clearly an expensive film, but beyond its dulled wit, this may have just been a cursed project, like one of those locations that changes restaurants every year and never clicks. It had been intended for Marilyn Monroe, as a follow-up to Something’s Got To Give, also with Dean Martin, but her death ended that one, which devolved into the bland Day-Garner flog of Move Over, Darling. MacLaine’s next comedy was also directed by the deaf-to-tone J. Lee Thompson, and it was another turkey, John Goldfarb, Please Come Home!—slapping exclamation points at the end of his comedie’s titles didn’t bring in the laughter.