Ethel Merman gives what is arguably the greatest one woman show in Irving Berlin’s Call Me Madam (1953); an exuberant musical comedy, thinly veiled, but accurately based on the life of Perle Mesta; Washington D.C.’s self-proclaimed ‘hostess with the mostest.’ A wealthy widow and socialite who became active in the Democratic Party, and a staunch advocate for Harry S. Truman, Mesta was well rewarded for her loyalties when Truman appointed her Ambassador to Luxemburg. She was a gregarious creature, imbued with a tactful sense of diplomacy and an unquenchable spirit of goodwill. Her famed and very lavish parties brought the crème de la crème from political and social circles together in a sort of glamorous potpourri that never failed to captivate or entertain. Hence, when Irving Berlin undertook to tell Mesta’s story as a Broadway show…well, sort of…he equally elected to leave Mesta out of it – partly – fabricating a fictional counterpart, Miss Sally Adams (which didn’t fool anybody), and superficially altering the Presidential appointment from Luxem’ to Lichtenburg – one of those ever-clever Ruritanian escapist principalities so often resurrected to fill in for Europe at large.
Call Me Madam was a critical and financial success for both Irving Berlin and his star, Ethel Merman who had just come off the colossal 1,199 performance run of another Berlin stage musical, Annie Get Your Gun. At 679 performances, Call Me Madam was not quite the zeitgeist that ‘Annie’ had been. On the other hand, it was no slouch either and its success prompted 2oth Century-Fox to bid for the rights to produce it as a film. On screen, Call Me Madam is a musical that desperately wants to be loved. The affair, however, infrequently toggles between genuine and forced. Ethel Merman reprises her role as Madam Ambassador Sally Adams; a role tailor-made for Merman’s inimitable force of nature; her Wagnerian-sized set of pipes, infused with a sort of nasally Brooklyn-esque charisma could start an avalanche. Merman is a bold presence; thunderous and irrepressible, manic, enigmatic and electrifying – in spots. But two hours of Hurricane Merman is like twenty minutes in a wind tunnel; it’s exhausting!
Yes, the Irving Berlin score (all but two songs surviving the transition from stage to screen, with two new songs added for good measure) are instantly hummable and a pleasure to hear herein. And yes, the supporting cast featuring an austere cum congenial Vera Ellen as the Princess Maria; ebullient, Donald O’Connor in his first major co-starring role as cultural attaché Kenneth, and, George Sanders, utterly magnificent and in very fine voice in his singing debut, cast against his usual ‘nasty’ type as General Cosmo Constantine are welcomed additions that immensely complement the star. The show, however, is mostly Merman and she delivers what may possibly be the most all-encompassing one woman showstopper of any year, devouring the scenery and generally living up to her dynamo stage presence; a female Bert Lahr manically sucking up the oxygen. Is she intoxicating? Suffocating is more like it. At one point, Merman, as Sally Adams, tells her stuffy and effete Chargé d'affaires, Pemberton Maxwell (Billy De Wolfe) “Yeah, well…I’m Chargé d’ whole works. So now that we understand each other, beat it.” It’s a telling bit of scripting, for Merman was well known to have her share of confrontations with the men she played opposite; something of a control freak whose desire to run everything often translated into tantrums on the set.
Yet Merman and co-star, George Sanders got on swimmingly throughout the shoot – he, apparently contented to play second fiddle and she delighted with his performance and respectful from start to finish. Sanders, whose career was successfully built on playing a series of British cads, was actually born in Russia, if to English parents. In the film, his affected Lichtenburg accent seems more Russian than anything else. And Sanders displays a mellifluous baritone in his solo, ‘Marrying For Love’ and later, in his duet ‘The Best Thing For You Would Be Me’ opposite Merman, who is uncharacteristically tender and affecting in this ballad. He is a surprising compliment and holds his own opposite her thundering vocals that otherwise dominate the score and damn near eclipse Donald O’Connor’s thinner – though no less melodic - vocals during their scuffling duet ‘You’re Just In Love’. This leaves the one handicap to Vera Ellen – a minor one at that. Ellen is one of the most proficient dancers ever to grace the movie screen. Regrettably, her way with a lyric never rivaled her terpsichorean prowess. On this occasion, Ellen is dubbed by Carol Richards whose deeper timber seems an awkward fit at best; too husky and full-bodied, creating a major disconnect at the beginning and end of each tune when Ellen’s own reedy voice takes over for the dramatics.
As for plot, Arthur Sheekman’s screenplay perfects the construction in Russel Crouse and Howard Lindsay’s Broadway original. The cleverness in Sheekman’s rewrite is it seems to mimic the stagecraft so completely the improvements are invisible at a glance. For example, on Broadway, Kenneth’s appointment as Sally’s cultural attaché was blindly predicated on nepotism; just a friendly favor to a kid from Harvard because Sally knew Kenneth’s father. On screen, Kenneth goes gunning for the job, intervening in what might have been a disastrous faux pas with the press for the newly appointed Madam Ambassador, thereby sparing her a great embarrassment as well as proving his worth as her cultural attaché, decidedly deserving of the appointment.
Throughout the story, Sheekman tightens the narrative and ever so slightly ‘opens up’ the action; the most obvious revision, his creation of a lavish ball given at Grand Duke Otto’s (Ludwig Stossel) palace; an impeccable amalgam of John DeCuir and Lyle Wheeler’s flawless art direction and matte paintings that extend the fantasy landscape to near mythical proportions. O’Connor and Ellen perform a stunning pas deux within these stately gardens; arguably, one of the most regal executions of dance par excellence and easily comparable to anything Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers ever did on the big screen. In retrospect, it is a genuine pity O’Connor and Ellen never worked together again because they are perfectly teamed herein; her pointed congeniality an intuitive counterbalance to his deliciously fresh-faced innocence. Call Me Madam succeeds not so much because of Merman’s galvanic ‘show must go on’ maxim (one senses she’d play any scene given with two broken arms and a cigar stuffed up her nose if asked), but rather, because Walter Lang’s direction helps bring the burgeoning romance between Kenneth and the Princess to the forefront, even as Merman would rather desperately prefer the action remain on her.
Our story begins in Washington where Sally Adams (Ethel Merman), newly appointed as goodwill ambassador to Lichtenburg entertains members of the press by regaling them with her obvious assets (The Hostess with the Mostest). She’s a sensation and captivates all but aspiring cub reporter, Kenneth Gibson (Donald O’Connor) who perhaps recognizes more than anyone else what the appointment requires to make both it and Sally a success. Kenneth makes a pitch to become Sally’s cultural attaché. It’s shot down quickly but not forgotten, particularly later that evening at one of Sally’s extravagant house parties where Kenneth manages to save the day by intruding on a press conference with well-written notes to cover for Sally’s lack of diplomacy.
So, it’s off to Lichtenburg, a principality is desperate need of financial aid. Upon her arrival Sally is besought by greedy politicos, Minister of Finance August Tantinnin (Walter Slezak) and Prime Minister Sebastian (Steven Geray) who believes that Sally’s arrival will mean a blank check to help shore up their national debt. Sally’s Chargé d'affaires, Pemberton Maxwell (Billy De Wolfe) attempts to explain the situation in his usual glib and condescending way. But Sally is well aware of how to handle the boys. Not so much when she is introduced to General Cosmo Constantine (George Sanders), a handsome militarist, good-natured and kind-hearted who has been appointed by Grand Duke Otto (Ludwig Stossel) to work his romantic charm on Sally. She’s hopeless and instantly smitten, offering him the entire U.S. treasury and damn near ever cent of her own (‘Can You Use Any Money Today’). But Cosmo is not about to take advantage of Sally, particularly since his own motives for their first meeting are far more altruistic (‘Marrying for Love’).
In the meantime while shopping for a hat, Kenneth meets the Princess Maria (Vera Ellen). She mistakes him for a department store clerk and he her as just another elegant patron shopping the thoroughfare. She asks him to demonstrate an American song (It’s A Lovely Day Today) and Kenneth obliges with a modicum of flirtation built into the lyric. Quickly, however, each learns about their respective case of mistaken identity. Regrettably, Maria is betrothed in a marriage of state to the middling heir apparent, Prince Hugo (Helmut Dantine); a stuffy and slightly jealous suitor, belonging to the neighboring kingdom of Middledorf. Sally’s debut at the palace ball is awkward at best. The Grand Duke and his wife, Duchess Sophie (Lilia Skala) placate Sally’s crass ‘Americanism’. She trips on the train of her dress, calls the citizenry ‘Dutch’ because Lichtenburg is a ‘Duchy’, and even interjects the rambunctious ‘That International Rag’ to shake up the dance floor. The song was a 1917 hit for Irving Berlin, but not in the Broadway show; nevertheless, cleverly feathered into the film’s score and not simply as a show stopper, but to suggest just how behind the times Lichtenburg has remained in the intervening decades. Afterward, Cosmo engages Sally in a waltz while Kenneth and Maria disappear into the garden for their elegant pas deux amid the cultivated plants, statuary and fountains.
Hugo is hardly impressed. But Kenneth has fallen in love with Maria. In the meantime, Maxwell confronts Sally about her romantic interests in Cosmo, quoting verbatim his lines of seduction applied to win Sally’s heart, merely to illustrate for her just how far the monarchy will go to procure an endowment of U.S. dollars to keep its faltering treasury afloat. Thus, Cosmo returns he finds Sally much changed, frankly aloof and unimpressed by his advances. That evening Sally is most interested in getting a jump on her own cultural diplomacy. But Kenneth hears music in the air and confesses to Sally he cannot rid himself of Maria’s elixir. She attempts to counterbalance his romantic angst with a bit of sound advice (‘You’re Just in Love’). The next day, Kenneth decides to clear his head by attending the annual Lichtenburg festival where he is once more seduced by Maria’s charms as she sings and dances ‘The Ocarina.’
There is a Student Prince-ish quality to the love affair between Kenneth and Maria; the roles reversed herein (Kenneth, the commoner and Maria of royal blood) as Kenneth contemplates his romantic fate (‘What Chance Have I With Love’) before managing to get Maria away from her entourage. The two descend into an expansive wine cellar where they share another spirited dance (‘Something to Dance About’), after which Kenneth works up the gumption to confess his true love to Maria. Unfortunately, she continues to deny him his feelings, despite the fact she is equally enamored. Narrowly averting a fist fight with Hugo, Kenneth instead decides to get haplessly drunk. Later, he is arrested for disorderly conduct. Maxwell uses the incident to try and get Kenneth fired. But Sally bitterly refuses to send Kenneth home, burying the report and warning Maxwell to butt out.
Next, Sally confesses her love for Cosmo; reciprocated in a poignant ballad (‘The Best Thing For You Would Be Me’). Later, she telephones Harry Truman to inquire if the U.S. can spare $100 million. In response to Sally’s query Senators Brockway (Charles Dingle), Gallagher (Emory Parnell) and Wilkins (Percy Helton) descend on Lichtenburg to investigate its feasibility. Sally does what Sally does best – give a party. Only this time the glamorous affair is an unmitigated disaster. Having been appointed Prime Minister by Lichtenburg’s cabinet – because they believe it will help push forward the surplus in foreign aid – Cosmo refuses the senators’ gracious offers. This, however, only fuels their desire to invest even more heavily in the country. Dismayed and wounded by Sally’s intervention, Cosmo tells her she has destroyed his life’s work to make Lichtenburg independent and storms off into the night. Worse, Maria has informed Kenneth their ‘affair’ must end. She will marry Hugo to spare the country its fiscal implosion. Having learned from Sebastian that Sally had been instrumental in bringing Kenneth and Maria together, President Truman recalls her back to Washington immediately.
The heart sore pair arrives in the nation’s capital where Sally quickly sets about throwing herself a ‘welcome home’ party. Brockway, Gallagher and Wilkins congratulate Sally on saving the U.S. from making a terrible investment. They also inform her Cosmo has been made Lichtenburg’s ambassador to the U.S. and has recently arrived with ‘a lady’ in tow. He plans to attend the party. But the lady turns out to be Maria. Having refused the throne, Maria has traveled with Cosmo to the United States to marry Kenneth instead. Cosmo and Sally rekindle their romance. He confers upon her the honor to be called a ‘dame’ and she vows never to let him go anywhere without her. Thus ends Call Me Madam on the predictably happy ending prescribed most musical/comedies.
Call Me Madam is a mostly charming affair; the comedy expertly played, the score soaring high. Arguably, this is one of Irving Berlin’s best. Ethel Merman sings the hell out of the songs with all the rakish aplomb of a seasoned Vaudevillian occasionally out of season in the Hollywood musical mélange. Merman is a force to be reckoned with. But she seems to be pitching her wares at the rafters rather than the front row patrons; perhaps a holdover from her years in live theater – her bombastic approach to all of the songs except one (her love ballad with Cosmo ‘The Best Thing for You Would Be Me’) overwhelming and yes, even slightly grating at times. Merman isn’t simply extroverted – she’s loud! This is part – but not all – of her magic as a performer and it serves her well - mostly. Miraculously, she can rescue a song or a moment in spite of herself.
To find Donald O’Connor and Vera Ellen at the top of their game as dancers extraordinaire is perhaps not a revelation, though their infrequent pairings throughout the movie are a wonderment to behold, particularly their sumptuous pas deux in the palace gardens. Here, their syncopation is beyond reproach, their feet and arms exquisitely positioned in a seamless poeticism; their unrequited amour as slick as glycerin as they slip past each other like two halves of the same sublime and uninterrupted self-expression of very classy sexual excitement. Arguably, the real revelation is George Sanders, his usual wickedness replaced by an appetizingly genuineness, revealing an astonishing range in his baritone articulations, but moreover, the perfect intonation to sell a lyric as only a dramatic star of his caliber could, given the opportunity to ply his finely honed craft to a song, instead of a soliloquy.
And then, of course there are the production values to consider. Fox has afforded Call Me Madam the A-list treatment. Walter Lang is a name fairly ignored in the popular consensus of great movie directors today, perhaps because his craftsmanship and attention to detail is often mistaken for mere workman-like precision. But Lang’s benign ‘style’ is far more than pedestrian. It illustrates his chameleon approach to the material he has been assigned on a picture by picture basis. He’s subtle, but oh, so effective. On Call Me Madam Lang’s camera fluidity is masterful to say the least; sweeping in closer to the action when necessary while allowing the dancers to whirl within frame, rather than frenetically spin his camera around them. This makes for some very glamorous and exquisite staging. It also shows off Lyle Wheeler and John DeCuir’s art direction for maximum effect.
DeCuir and Wheeler – veterans of design – give us plenty to look at and admire throughout Call Me Madam, filling the eye with one lavishly appointed visual spectacle after the next. Yet, the frothiness of this visualized ice cream sundae never detracts from the action and most certainly never seems out of place. Irene Sharaff’s costumes are exquisite examples of 1950s fashion-savvy pastiche meets classical European sophistication. Last, but not least is Leon Shamroy’s brilliant cinematography creating an almost dreamlike patina of color and mood; the Technicolor popping but never garish, the contrasting hues somehow applied in perfect register. In the end, Call Me Madam survives the tsunami that is Ethel Merman because of all these craftsmen compensating and complimenting the great lady in her decadence. The behind-the-scenes crew has created an escapist world of magic – glossy, surreal and stylish; a world one could never go out and find. Perhaps then, that is part – if not all – of the movie’s charm.
Call Me Madam is deserving of a Blu-ray release. For now we must content ourselves with the DVD. This is difficult to do, especially since Fox has given us a very bare bones offering with little restoration factored in to make the movie glow as it should. Fox junked all of their original 3-strip nitrate Technicolor in the mid-1970s – transposing their back catalog to a highly unstable and often poorly aligned acetate film stocks, since proven even more problematic. Call Me Madam seems to suffer marginally from these efforts. There’s some very heavy grain – in spots – and a mild implosion of color. The print starts off looking quite muddy but steadily improves after the first ten minutes or so. Colors are not bold or vibrant but mostly waffling between a mid-grade garishness that occasionally detracts. We know this isn’t how Technicolor – particularly, Technicolor via Fox - originally looked and it’s fairly disappointing to see what has become of all that ‘glorious Technicolor’ in the interim. Bottom line: this is a Fox catalog title in need of remastering and some digital wizardry applied to mimic the patina of the original theatrical presentation.
We sincerely hope someday soon this movie gets its just deserts. The audio could also stand with an upgrade; some tinkering to temper the grating decibels that leave portions of Merman’s songs with a screeching high register and also, possibly, a 5.1 remix using the stereo stems that mercifully have survived and are heard readily on reissues of the film’s soundtrack on CD. Fox pads out this disc with an audio commentary and theatrical trailers, but that’s about it. Not a stellar effort by any stretch. I am going to recommend this disc anyway – for its content rather than the transfer. The score is brilliant and the story remains a lot of fun. If only the transfer reflected all of the fine efforts put into the production we would really have ‘something to dance about!’
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)