Shirley (and Marilyn’s) Way to Go

From Some Came Running to Irma La Douce, Shirley MacLaine played several roles previously considered for Marilyn.What a Way to Go! was first offered to Marilyn by Twentieth Century Fox and would have been her next film after the ill-fated Something’s Got to Give.

In the week before she died, Marilyn attended screenings of films by J. Lee Thompson, who was set to direct. But the main attraction of this vehicle – then titled I Love Louisa – was undoubtedly that it would have rounded off her old studio contract.

Released on this day in 1964, What a Way to Go! featured several of Marilyn’s friends and associates, including former co-stars Robert Mitchum, Gene Kelly and Dean Martin, plus Gentlemen Prefer Blondes songwriter Jule Styne (who spoke with Marilyn in her final days), cameraman Leon Shamroy. The film also marked the producing debut of Arthur P. Jacobs, who headed up Marilyn’s team of publicists.

This musical extravagaza, with costumes by Edith Head, seems today like the last hurrah of a beleaguered studio system, but at the time it garnered a very favourable review from the Hollywood Reporter.

“What a Way to Go! is hard to define but easy to recommend; the 20th-Fox presentation is a funny musical comedy, or comedy with music, with all the glamour that Hollywood can throw into one film, and a high-powered cast to light the marquee. The J. Lee Thompson production, produced by Arthur P. Jacobs, is a dazzler. It should be one of the year’s most popular attractions. Thompson directed the pleasantly nutty shenanigans. 

Shirley MacLaine is the central figure in the Betty Comden-Adolph Green screenplay, a charmer whose attractions include the Midas touch and the kiss of death. Every man who takes up with her is rewarded by fabulous success. Unfortunately, he doesn’t live long to enjoy it or her. Hence the title. In the midst of wealth and endearing charms, he departs this life. Each time, Miss MacLaine is a rich widow, and each time, increasingly rich. 

The story is told in the form of a flashback, with Miss MacLaine trying to give away some $200,000,000. She feels guilt. Rich, but guilty. Since the government won’t take her money, she goes to a psychiatrist … At the end she is reunited with the one man she said she’d never marry, Dean Martin. Bob Cummings plays the psychiatrist who listens to this gaily macabre tale. 

The Comden-Green script, inspired by a story by Gwen Davis, is only the thread on which are hung a succession of funny scenes and musical numbers. The production is mounted richly. Sets are big and splendid. Costuming for Miss MacLaine by Edith Head is a major item … In this and other areas, this is the kind of movie Hollywood once made its worldwide reputation on, scorned by the aesthetes, adored by the multitudes. 

Miss MacLaine is at her best as the girl who succeeds in getting her husbands’ businesses started without trying at all. She has the figure for the clothes and the sense of fun for the lines. She dances, she sings (on one occasion with another voice, dubbed for humor) and she generally cements the episodic frame … Mitchum is offhand and amusing as the super-rich tycoon. Dean Martin is not as interesting as usual — perhaps the role doesn’t give him a chance to get off the ground. Gene Kelly (who also did the bright choreography) clowns amusingly as a small-time operator who blossoms into the big-time.”



In the News: Marilyn’s Last Goodbye

As so many outlandish conspiracy theories have arisen in the 53 years after Marilyn’s death, it is instructive to look back at how the tragic event was covered in the days after the news broke. Firstly, an extract from Time magazine’s obituary, which focused on the ill-fated production of Something’s Got to Give, claiming that only a few minutes of usable footage were shot. This myth persisted until 1990, when Marilyn’s impressive, if unfinished work was shown in public for the first time. (Headlined ‘The Only Blonde in World’, Time‘s obit inspired a painting of the same name by British pop artist, Pauline Boty.)

“She had always been late for everything, but her truancy was never heedlessness. Beset by self-doubt and hints of illness, she would stay alone, missing appointments, keeping whole casts waiting in vain. In the past year, her tardiness was measured in weeks instead of hours … She seemed euphonic and cheerful, even while 20th Century-Fox was filing suit against her in hopes of salvaging $750,000 damages from the wreckage of Something’s Got to Give.”

The New York Times noted the gulf between Marilyn’s ‘golden girl’ image and her sad demise, echoing the shock felt by many fans:

“The life of Marilyn Monroe, the golden girl of the movies, ended as it began, in misery and tragedy.

Her death at the age of 36 closed an incredibly glamorous career and capped a series of somber events that began with her birth as an unwanted, illegitimate baby and went on and on, illuminated during the last dozen years by the lightning of fame.

Her public life was in dazzling contrast to her private life.

No sex symbol of the era other than Brigitte Bardot could match her popularity. Toward the end, she also convinced critics and the public that she could act.

During the years of her greatest success, she saw two of her marriages end in divorce. She suffered at least two miscarriages and was never able to have a child. Her emotional insecurity deepened; her many illnesses came upon her more frequently.

In her last interview, published in the Aug. 3 issue of Life magazine, she told Richard Meryman, an associate editor: ‘I was never used to being happy, so that wasn’t something I ever took for granted.’

Considering her background, this was a statement of exquisite restraint.”

Writing for The National, Lincoln Kerstein – co-founder of the New York Ballet – praised Marilyn’s comedic gifts and unabashed sexuality:

“Marilyn Monroe was supposed to be the Sex Goddess, but somehow no one, including, or indeed first of all, herself, ever believed it. Rather, she was a comedienne impersonating the American idea of the Sex Goddess … When people paid their forty millions to see Monroe, it was for an aesthetic performance, not a simple provocation. And she, perhaps even consciously, exemplified a philosophy which had come to her pragmatically, and which a lot of American women don’t like very much—a philosophy at once hedonistic, full of uncommon common sense, and, even to some intellectuals, deeply disturbing. Her performances indicated that while sex is certainly fun, and often funny, it is only one of many games … Marilyn Monroe’s life was not a waste. She gave delight. She was a criterion of the comic in a rather sad world. Her films will continue to give delight, and it is blasphemy to say she had no use. Her example, our waste of her, has the use of a redemption in artists yet untrained and unborn.”

The Los Angeles Times gave a detailed report about Marilyn’s final days, and the still-disputed circumstances of her death, under the headline ‘Marilyn Monroe Dies; Pills Blamed’…

“Two motion pictures executives were bidding for her services at the time of her death. One of them was reportedly J. Lee Thompson, director of the film The Guns of Navarone, who planned to meet with her Tuesday.

Producer Sam Spiegel also wanted her to star in a picture for him, it was reported.

Miss Monroe had received an offer of $55,00 a week to star in a night club appearance in Las Vegas recently, but she turned it down.

Further evidence that her career was on the upswing was indicated by a typewritten message on a table in her home.

It was from a representation of Anita Loos, creator of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and said:

‘Dear Miss Monroe: On behalf of Anita Loos, now in Europe, we would like to know if you would be interested star role new musical based on French play Gogo. Book by Anita Loos, lyrics by Gladys Shelley and enchanting music by Claude Leville. Can send you script and music if you express interest. (signed) Natalia Danesi Murray.'”

Finally, The Guardian‘s W.J. Weatherby published a personal tribute to Marilyn (click to enlarge.) He would later write a book about their friendship, Conversations With Marilyn.