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 reportedly have been her next film after the ill-fated Something’s Got to Give.
In the week before she died, Marilyn was said to have 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.”
Lyricist Leo Robin, who co-wrote two songs that would bookend Marilyn’s career, is profiled in Variety today.
“The centerpiece of Scott Ora’s cluttered San Fernando Valley apartment is the 1939 Oscar his step-grandfather, the late lyricist Leo Robin, was presented for co-writing ‘Thanks for the Memory.’ Sung by Bob Hope and Shirley Ross in the film The Big Broadcast of 1938, the trophy sits proudly on the piano where Robin worked on some of his biggest hits.
Over the course of 20 years, from 1934 (when the best original song category was introduced and he was nominated for ‘Love in Bloom’) through 1954, Robin, a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame who died in 1984 at the age of 84, earned 10 Oscar nominations (two in 1949 alone).
By 1949, a Hollywood success, Robin returned to Broadway with Jule Styne to create the score for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a vehicle for Carol Channing and later a movie starring Marilyn Monroe, whose [secretary], ironically enough, was Leo’s third wife Cherie Redmond, Ora’s maternal grandmother. The song became an enduring pop culture staple when Madonna borrowed its imagery for her ‘Material Girl’ video, while Monroe did the same for ‘Thanks for the Memory,’ when she tacked it on to her steamy birthday salute to President John F. Kennedy at New York’s Madison Square Garden.”
Carol Channing, the legendary Broadway star who originated the role of Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, has died aged 97.
Born in Seattle in 1921, Carol and her parents moved to San Francisco when she was two weeks old. Her mother Adelaide was of German Jewish descent and her father George was part African-American (on his mother’s side.) A newspaper editor by profession, George was also a Christian Science practitioner and teacher.
At sixteen, Carol left home to major in drama in Bennington College in Vermont. In 1941, she won her first Broadway part as Eve Arden’s understudy in a revue, Let’s Face It! That year she was married for the first time, to writer Theodore Naidish. They divorced after five years.
In 1948, Carol won a Theatre World Award for her featured role in another revue, Lend An Ear. Stacy Eubank noted in Holding A Good Thought For Marilyn: The Hollywood Years, that on June 16, a little-known starlet, 22 year-old Marilyn Monroe, attended the opening night at the Las Palmas Theatre in Hollywood, where she was photographed with director Bill Eythe and actor Bill Callahan.
Illustrator Al Hirschfeld published a caricature of Carol as a flapper in the show, the first of many portraits to come. She even credited his artwork with helping her win the part of Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
Jule Styne’s musical adaptation of the 1926 novel by Anita Loos opened at the Ziegfeld Theatre in December 1949, running for almost two years. In her 2002 memoir, Just Lucky I Guess, Carol wrote that Loos had told Styne, ‘That’s my Lorelei!’ after seeing Lend An Ear in New York. Styne promptly wrote a new song for Carol, ‘Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend.’
In January 1950, Carol made the cover of Time magazine. She was married again that year, to footballer Axe Carson, and they had a son, Channing Carson. After her third marriage to manager and publicist Charles Lowe in 1956, he was renamed Chan Lowe and went on to become a successful cartoonist.
Darryl F. Zanuck swiftly acquired the film rights to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes for Twentieth Century Fox. Carol was duly invited to Los Angeles for a screen test, but it was generally assumed that Betty Grable, the studio’s reigning blonde star of musical comedy, would get the part. In any case, Carol had already decided to take the show to London after the Broadway run ended.
In mid-June of 1951, Marilyn Monroe flew to New York, where she spent several days. Columnist Dorothy Manners would report that she had been given tickets by Fox to see Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – perhaps as a warning to Grable, who was then on suspension. ‘Physically, Marilyn fits the bill,’ Manners noted, ‘but whether she is experienced enough to take on a top comedy performance remains to be seen.’
In her autobiography, Carol claimed that Marilyn was instructed to see the play every night for a month, which is doubtless an exaggeration given Marilyn’s busy schedule. Chronically shy, Marilyn never ventured backstage. “Our orchestra never saw anyone that beautiful before,” Carol recalled. “For the first time they were all looking at Marilyn instead of our conductor…”
That November, after Blondes finally closed, the New York Post‘s Earl Wilson reported that Marilyn hoped to play Lorelei on the screen. In his 1992 biography of Monroe, Donald Spoto wrote that Fox informed Marilyn the part was hers on June 1, 1952 (her 26th birthday.) Nonetheless, the studio kept up the intrigue for several weeks before announcing it to the press, still claiming that Grable would star, with Marilyn turning brunette to play Lorelei’s friend Dorothy.
When the news broke on June 23, Hedda Hopper wrote that Carol had responded with a 200-word telegram to Fox, while Grable denied asking Zanuck for the part. Marilyn was now the studio’s rising star, but as Stacy Eubank observes, she was still on a standard contract and would cost Fox far less than either Grable or Channing.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was a golden opportunity for Marilyn, and a huge success when it opened in 1953. “I was heartsick over the whole thing, of course,” Carol admitted, and she also felt that Jack Cole’s flamboyant choreography “completely upstaged” the lyrics.
“I do think it was one of her best movies,” Carol reflected on Marilyn’s performance. “Not funny, however. They didn’t use one word of Anita’s original book, which was hilarious and which was what constantly kept the stage musical on a higher level. Anita didn’t write the musical’s book. So where they didn’t insert the original book it was mundane. It was the stock formula for a dated Broadway musical. I followed Anita’s original Lorelei character ferociously…”
“You can cast Lorelei two ways,” Loos explained. “With the cutest, prettiest, littlest girl in town, or with a comedienne’s comment on the cutest, prettiest, littlest girl in town. I wrote her as a comedy, and Broadway is attuned to satire.” Carol’s broader interpretation was perfect for the stage, whereas Marilyn brought a softer, more innocent quality to Lorelei.
During the 1950s, Carol replaced Gracie Allen as a comedy foil to George Burns. “Finding roles that suit the strange and wonderful charms of Carol Channing has always been a problem to Broadway showmen,” a 1955 cover story for LIFE read. “She looks like an overgrown kewpie. She sings like a moon-mad hillbilly. Her dancing is crazily comic. And behind her saucer eyes is a kind of gentle sweetness that pleads for affection.”
Her next great role was in Hello, Dolly! (1964.) She befriended Broadway newcomer Barbara Streisand, only to lose out again when the younger actress was cast in the film adaptation. A registered Democrat, Carol campaigned for Lyndon B. Johnson and was a favourite of his wife, Lady Bird. In 1966, she won the Sarah Siddons Award, and finally achieved movie stardom alongside Julie Andrews in Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), winning a Golden Globe as Best Supporting Actress, and an Oscar nomination.
In 1970, Carol became the first celebrity to perform at a Super Bowl halftime. Three years later, she was revealed to have been on disgraced president Richard Nixon’s Master List of Political Opponents – which she quipped was the highest accolade of her career.
The 53-year-old revisited her early success in Lorelei (1974), a reworking of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes featuring songs cut from the original play, and broke box-office records by selling out for six consecutive days in just 24 hours. She also frequently appeared on television, including a 1987 Jules Styne special in which she performed ‘Little Girl From Little Rock.’
In 1998, Carol separated from her husband of forty years, Charles Lowe. He passed away shortly afterwards. She would marry once more in 2003, after rekindling her romance with high-school sweetheart Harry Kullijian. He died in 2011. Carol maintained her faith in Christian Science, followed a strict organic diet and swore off alcohol.
A much-loved resident of Rancho Mirage, California, Carol had a star dedicated to her on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars in 2010. She returned two years later to honour Marilyn Monroe, praising her “brilliant and unique” performance in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Carol also attended a farewell party for Seward Johnson’s giant sculpture, ‘Forever Marilyn‘, when it left Palm Springs for the East Coast in 2014.
Ron Fassler, author of Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, has written an article, ‘A Sprinkling of Sugar‘, about the musical theatre adaptation of Some Like It Hot. Written by Peter Stone, with music by Gentlemen Prefer Blondes composer Jule Styne and lyrics by Bob Merrill, Sugar was first produced at the Majestic Theatre on West 44th St, NYC, running for 505 performances from 1972-73, and has since become a firm favourite in regional theatre and with amateur dramatics societies everywhere.
“David Merrick, a producer with an enviable track record, as well as a talent for alienating close to everyone he ever came in contact with, was the man behind figuring out a way to bring a musical version of Some Like It Hot to the Broadway stage — and it wasn’t easy …
Merrick optioned Fanfaren de Liebe, the German screenplay upon which Wilder and Diamond based Some Like It Hot. Unfortunately, this wouldn’t allow for Merrick to set the show in the Roaring Twenties, perfect for a musical, as that was an idea of Wilder and Diamond’s … But with Merrick not being the type to give up without a fight, he eventually nabbed the rights from United Artists to use Wilder and Diamond’s screenplay as the source for his musical.
When Sugar opened on Broadway forty-six years ago tonight at the Majestic Theatre, it featured a relative unknown, Elaine Joyce in the title part, the one first created by Marilyn Monroe in the film … Yet the show remained a bit of a disappointment creatively, even though it did good business.
As a teenager, I saw Sugar early in its run, and though intermittently entertaining on its own merits, the show was really all about the comedic skills, dazzling energy and one-of-a-kind charisma of Robert Morse. As Jerry and his female alter-ego, Daphne, Morse was the real deal.
With Some Like It Hot’sstatus as a film classic not only undiminished over the years, but continuing to grow, there have been numerous attempts to revive Sugar’sfortunes, in hopes of it maybe one day finding its way back to Broadway. One was a 1992 London version with British favorite Tommy Steele, and another was a U.S. touring production in 2002 with Tony Curtis, this time in the Joe E. Brown role of Osgood, the randy millionaire.
Of course, both productions took on a new title: Some Like It Hot.”
The Unremarkable Death of Marilyn Monroe(pictured above)is a new play at this year’s Edinburgh Festival next month, after Bedford and St Albans in July. It is one of several Marilyn-related plays being staged this summer in the UK and USA.
Across the pond, Sugar – the popular musical based on Some Like it Hot, with songs by Jule Styne (who also wrote ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’) – will be revived at the Wells Fargo Pavilion in Sacramento, from July 23-28.