by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
After Alexander’s Ragtime Band TCM played Call Me Madam, also produced at 20th Century-Fox, also starring Ethel Merman and also featuring songs written by Irving Berlin — though this time based on a stage musical and reversing the ratio of old songs to new from the previous film; whereas Alexander’s Ragtime Band had had just one new song and a score otherwise drawn from Berlin’s back catalog, Call Me Madam had mostly songs written especially for the stage version and just one oldie Berlin shoe-horned into the film version, “The International Rag” (which had been performed by Alice Faye in Alexander’s Ragtime Band — and Merman’s rendition here, with an added lyric to key it into the mild political satire of Call Me Madam, is predictably less musical but more electrifying).
It was Merman’s first movie since Straight, Place and Show 15 years earlier, during which time she’d suffered the indignity of seeing her great stage hits go to other performers for the movie versions: Lucille Ball in DuBarry Was a Lady, Ann Sothern in Panama Hattie and Betty Hutton (ironically, Merman’s co-star in Panama Hattie on stage) in Annie Get Your Gun. By this time Merman’s voice had lost just about all the traces of subtlety, musicality or phrasing it had still had when she made Alexander’s Ragtime Band — in Call Me Madam Merman can be heard hitting notes squarely off pitch and then trying to bend them back to where they should be; her high notes are heat-seeking missiles but they rarely land where either the composer or (probably) Merman herself intended them to; and her overall presentation is so butch it justifies the famous Bob and Ray joke in which a man being interviewed by a person-on-the-street broadcaster says, in a deep, butch voice, “My name is Ethel Merman Strunk,” and when the interviewer asks why, if his parents wanted to name him after a famous person, they didn’t pick a man, he says, “Because when I was born, my parents had only heard Ethel Merman sing on the radio, and they thought she was a man.”
The play ran on stage for 665 performances and Merman got screwed out of being on the original-cast album — it was on RCA Victor and her label, Decca, wouldn’t loan her out for it; instead they did an album of their own with Merman, Dick Haymes and Eileen Wilson (and on the album Merman performs one of the stage show’s most charming songs, “Washington Square Dance,” which is heard in the film only as instrumental background during the opening scene at a party in Washington, D.C.). Call Me Madam premiered on stage in 1950 and was based on the career of Washington hostess Perle Mesta, who in 1949 was appointed by President Truman to be the U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg — and the controversy surrounding an ambassadorial appointment to a woman whose principal qualification seemed to be that she gave great parties attracted the attention of veteran playwrights Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. They drafted the script for a musical based on Mesta — though they called her “Sally Adams” — in which she wins an appointment to be ambassador to the fictional country of “Lichtenburg” (a name formed from two genuine postage-stamp countries in Europe, Lichtenstein and Luxembourg).
She brings along Kenneth Gibson (Donald O’Connor), a former reporter who talks himself into a job as her press attaché, and when they arrive in Lichtenburg they’re advised on correct protocol by the supercilious Pemberton Maxwell (Billy DeWolf), the chargé d’affaires at the U.S. embassy — who expects to be running the show and allowing the political appointee to go through the motions. Instead Mrs. Adams takes charge, helping facilitate the budding romance between Gibson and Lichtenburgian princess Maria (Vera-Ellen) while falling in love herself with Lichtenburg’s secretary of state, General Cosmo Constantine (George Sanders, who gets a rare opportunity to play a sympathetic character full of genuine wit and charm, and who also warbles some choice Berlin songs quite pleasantly — it’s a voice that would have been well suited for operetta and it’s a pity this is Sanders’ only musical).
The Lindsay-Crouse book was adapted for the screen by former Marx Brothers screenwriter Arthur Sheekman, and one gets the impression that with his experience as one of Groucho’s gagmen behind him he could have come up with something zippier, zanier and far more mordantly satirical than this film turned out to be — but the script is quite good enough to set up the numbers and the songs, while awfully derivative of things Berlin had written before (and written better), are certainly charming and lots of fun. Most were written for Merman, and Berlin was savvy enough to emphasize her strength — which was essentially just that, brute strength — and minimize her weaknesses (only on the ballad “The Best Thing for You,” which she sings as a duet with the surprisingly subtle and evocative Sanders, do we wish we were hearing someone with more vulnerability and a more sensitive sense of phrasing).
There’s also the great contrapuntal duet “You’re Just in Love,” which became one of the show’s big hits — and was done superbly on a 1950 radio broadcast by Bing Crosby and Judy Garland, both far more musical than Merman and her partners (Dick Haymes on records and Donald O’Connor in the film — indeed, O’Connor complained that even on a pre-recorded playback Merman’s voice was so loud and overpowering that when they shot the scene he had to wear earplugs) — though Berlin had pioneered the device of writing a contrapuntal song with two singers doing different melody lines in 1914 with “Play a Simple Melody” (also a hit in 1950, for Bing Crosby and his son Gary) — and “It’s a Lovely Day Today,” which is indeed a lovely song and is presented beautifully in an Astaire-and-Rogersish vocal/dance duet by O’Connor and Vera-Ellen (with Carol Richards as her voice double), though the basic idea was done even better by Berlin in 1935 with “Isn’t This a Lovely Day?,” danced so memorably in Top Hat by the real Astaire and Rogers.
If you can stand (or at least accept) Ethel Merman’s stridency and let yourself be entertained by her sheer over-the-topness, Call Me Madam is a great movie, efficiently directed by the reliable Walter Lang and vividly photographed (in one of the last gasps of three-strip Technicolor) by Leon Shamroy -— maybe the primaries clash a bit too vividly on screen, but it’s still a lot of fun to see such bright, luminous, overwhelming colors on the screen in an era in which dull greens and browns dominate all too many movies. It’s the sort of film that could never get made today — and yet that’s a big part of its charm!