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Broadway's greatest musical legend repeats her classic stage role!
In her 60 year career, Ethel Merman only made two appearances in musical versions of her Broadway hits. The first was a much altered version of Cole Porter's "Anything Goes" in 1936, and the second was this striking and colorful musical, "Call Me Madam", by the legendary Irving Berlin. Ann Sothern and Lucille Ball were cast by MGM in two of her other Cole Porter hits, "Panama Hattie" and "DuBarry Was a Lady", while Betty Hutton was a second choice after Judy Garland to play Annie Oakley in "Annie Get Your Gun!". Over a decade later, Rosalind Russell was given her role of Mama Rose in "Gypsy". Fortunately, 20th Century Fox saw fit to cast Merman in the film version of "Call Me Madam", giving her a rare leading film role after they had cast her in supporting roles in movie musicals of the late 1930's.
The Broadway hit had co-starred Oscar Winner Paul Lukas and Russell Nype, and for the film version, Oscar Winner George Sanders took over for Lukas, and Donald O'Connor, after his triumph in "Singin' in the Rain" and the "Francis the Talking Mule" films, replaced Nype. For the role of the Princess, originated on Broadway by Tamara Geva, Fox cast the pretty Vera-Ellen. However, the film is all Merman's as she sings, clowns, and bounces all over the fictional duchy of Lichtenberg. For the record, two small duchys of the time, Luxemborg and Lichtenstein, were combined into one to fictionalize the setting. The spoof of Pearl Mesta, American ambassador to Luxemborg, seemed appropriate for a musical, and Merman, after her triumph as Annie Oakley, was the perfect choice to spoof someone she actually knew. As Mrs. Sally Adams, Washington Hostess turned Ambassador, Merman turns the duchy upside down, and gets a charming lover in the process. George Sanders, usually cast as despicable villains (films such "Rebecca" and "All About Eve"), is cast against type, but is perfect with his suave charm. His villains also had charm in spite of their calculating manner. He also displays a fine singing voice, and does a remarkable job in spite of the fact that this is Merman's show all the way.
As the younger lovers, Donald O'Connor and Vera-Ellen have some nice dance numbers, most notably "Something to Dance About", but the musical highlight is O'Connor and Merman's duet, "You're Just in Love". Merman shines in "The Hostess With the Mostess" and the interpolated "International Rag" (which replaced "Washington Square Dance" from the original show), while O'Connor almost tops his "Make Em' Laugh" number with "What Chance of I With Love?", an Irving Berlin song originally heard in the 1941 musical "Lousiana Purchase". The very charming and colorful "Ocarina" number gives Vera-Ellen her chance to shine, and is well staged in the confines of a movie camera. Berlin's lyrics are just as good as his "Annie Get Your Gun" score, and the book by Russell Crouse and Leland Hayward delightfully spoofed America's constant gifts of money to poorer countries. In fact, Merman has several comical phone conversations with President Harry S. Truman (who actually had left office by the time this film was released), and while the comments about Margaret Truman's acting career may seem dated, they become funnier with each passing phone conversation.
In supporting roles are Billy DeWolfe as Merman's stuffy assistant, Walter Slezak as the Minister of Finance, Ludwig Stossel as the Grand Duke, and Lila Skala (later the head nun of "Lillies of the Field") who says not a word as his wife. Director Walter Lang did an outstanding job bringing the film to the big screen, and the dances by Robert Alton are outstanding as well. Every aspect of the film is done with care; costumes and scenery give the viewer a feeling of a more peaceful time in the world (even though it was less than a decade after World War II had ended), and some viewers might be reminded of the classic operettas being done on Broadway just a decade before. However, once Merman's vibrant personality takes over, there is no question that we are not in Sigmund Romberg territory; This is the Americana of Irving Berlin with brassy Merman, suave Sanders, rubber-legged O'Connor, and sweet Vera-Ellen.
I first saw "Call Me Madam" back in 1982 at a summer classic movie retrospective where the audience applauded as if they were seeing a live performance. It turned up a decade later on cable with tons of commercials, but until the introduction of the Fox Movie Channel, it seemed to be one of those rare movies unavailable for viewing. Now it has also made its way onto DVD. Merman deservedly won a Golden Globe for her performance, but was sadly overlooked for an Oscar Nomination. Perhaps, like Carol Channing, she is too big for the big screen, and comes across better on stage. Still, she was neglected in films, and "Call Me Madam" will remain a vibrant and colorful record of what this great lady did best-to entertain and make the world forget its troubles. In some scenes, she can even tear your heart out. While her follow-up Fox film, "There's No Business Like Show Business", is enjoyable for what it is, it is "Call Me Madam" that gives her the biggest chance to shine on screen.
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