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DVD Review: CALL ME MADAM (1953)

If I were using the old rule of judging a book by its cover, I shouldn’t be able to tolerate this movie.

For most of the studio era, Twentieth Century-Fox generated tons of awful musicals, with listless plots, sexless dancing, and brassy orchestrations.  When Veronica Lake told Joel McCrea in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS that “musicals hurt my ears,” I’d bet you five dollars she was talking about Fox’s output.

Compounding these insults, lots of Fox’s musicals were directed by Walter Lang.  The Memphis-born Lang quit movies in mid-career to be a painter in Paris; not succeeding in that spinout, he returned to Hollywood and became Fox’s premier musicals director.  As much as I’d love to embrace the body of his work, I find all but a couple of them to be severe butt-aches. 

Yet CALL ME MADAM, a Fox musical directed by Walter Lang, has become a movie I’ve gotten down from the shelf on many an evening when I’m too tired to do anything except mix and sip a righteous Manhattan and watch good, escapist Hollywood fare.

I can see 3 main reasons for my growing attachment to this film.

Around 1950, Twentieth Century-Fox recruited some interesting choreographers.  Jack Cole’s work on MEET ME AFTER THE SHOW and GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES, plus Paul Godkin’s dance numbers for HOW TO BE VERY, VERY POPULAR truly kicked Fox in the butt and brought up their overall level of quality.  Previously the dancing in Fox musicals was almost exclusively stand-and-deliver, razzmatazz tap dancing created by Nick Castle.  Most of his work has an earnest, sweaty enthusiasm but did nothing to energize the visual flow within the frame, or even break down the basic picture plane into interesting groupings and geometric forms.  By the 1950s, Castle was busy over at Paramount, fucking up the dance numbers in otherwise good films like RED GARTERS and ANYTHING GOESCALL ME MADAM was choreographed by Robert Alton, a rule-breaking dance director from Broadway who helped jumpstart the careers of Betty Grable, Charles Walters, Gene Kelly and MADAM‘s ingenue, Vera-Ellen.

Under Robert Alton, dancers Vera-Ellen and Donald O'Connor create flawless parallel lines with their bodies.

For MADAM, Alton built some serious dance numbers around the performer who is my second reason for liking this movie:  Donald O’Connor.  I had a dance/movement teacher in grad school who said Fred Astaire was the most balanced human who ever lived, but for my money it’s O’Connor.  Alton uses both O’Connor and the film frame to maximum impact:  e.g., just when you think the movement will continue in a left-to-right convention across the screen, dancers leap towards the camera, hitting the refresh button in your brain and producing surprise and delight in your intake of the visuals.

As Miles Kreuger states in the authoritative and entertaining commentary track for the DVD, Donald O’Connor’s vaudeville background and Vera-Ellen’s ballet training actually complement each other.  To me, the contrasting backgrounds in training actually stretch the expressive vocabulary of the dancers.

[BTW, Vera-Ellen’s singing was done by pro-dubber Carol Richards, whose main fame in front of the cameras was as the nightclub singer Roberta, whom Lucy Ricardo bribed to take her place for the opening of one of Ricky’s shows at the Tropicana.]

Unlike the Freed Unit at M-G-M, it seems that the studio dictum at Fox was to light each set with bright, flat lights and to use colors that look as if they were taken from a menu of obsolete Slurpee flavors.  MADAM‘s cinematographer, the multi-Oscar winner Leon Shamroy, was given little opportunity to sculpt with shadows in this film, but it’s still extremely watchable, which brings me to the final element of enjoyment:  the charisma of the film’s star, Ethel Merman.

Merman’s presence, due to years of projecting humor and personality to the back rows of Broadway houses, cut through the signature gaudy cotton-candy crap every Fox musical was wrapped in.  Additionally, for today’s audiences, this is probably the primo opportunity to totally get what made Merman so wildly popular.  It’s a textbook on getting a laugh with gestures and grimaces, bending the dialog for comedic effect, and what to do with your arms while holding a final note for several beats.

As for the DVD, the transfer is crisp and the colors are saturated.  The noise-free audio has a sweet amplification.  Even the trailers (usually in pitiful condition as DVD extras) are in top shape. And, as I already stated, the information you get from Miles Krueger’s commentary track is worth the price alone.

Once again, ‘Queen of the Extras’ Bess Flowers can be glimpsed in the back of the review stand after Vera-Ellen’s The Ocarina number.

Doug / PoMo Joan

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2 Comments to “DVD Review: CALL ME MADAM (1953)”

  1. Marilyn says:

    Thanks so much for bringing the raucous musical back to my mind with this terrific and very informative review. I think I might give a very slight edge to your teacher’s assessment, but O’Connor has one of the most solid, yet fluid midsections in the business. What did Alton do for Walters; I’m quite impressed with Walters’ output.

  2. Doug says:

    I know my choice of O’Connor is a little outre’, and I don’t blame you at all for choosing The Man himself as the best. Alton choreographed DU BARRY WAS A LADY on B’way, which featured Charles Walters. Word on the street is that Alton encouraged Walters to start choreographing instead of performing.

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