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.”



Marilyn, Shirley and ‘Irma La Douce’

Irma La Douce, Billy Wilder’s 1963 comedy starring Shirley MacLaine as a sweet-natured Parisian hooker and Jack Lemmon as the hapless gendarme who falls for her, is being released on Blu-Ray for the first time. The lead role is said to have been rejected by Marilyn, although it’s easy to imagine her as Irma, and she had loved working with Lemmon on Some Like It Hot.

She may still have harboured a grudge against Wilder, who had spoken harshly about her in the past; but he was also considering her for his next movie, Kiss Me Stupid (which was released in 1964, starring Kim Novak.) In fact, nearly all of Wilder’s subsequent movies feature a character who could conceivably have been played by Marilyn.

Although some say Marilyn refused to play a prostitute, she had previously performed a scene from Anna Christie at the Actors Studio, and was still hoping to star as Sadie Thompson in Rain. In any case, in 1962 she was focused on working off her old contract at Fox. And by the time Irma La Douce opened, Marilyn had passed away.

Although Shirley’s persona was more kooky than sex goddess, both she and Marilyn excelled in tragi-comic roles. Some Came Running (1958) and Can-Can (1959) were offered first to Monroe, and in 1964, MacLaine would star in What A Way To Go!, which Fox had planned as Marilyn’s next picture.

Shirley MacLaine: The Understudy

Actress Shirley MacLaine was honoured by the Kennedy Center this week for her ‘exemplary lifetime achievement in the performing arts.’ She began her career on Broadway as understudy to Carol Haney in The Pajama Game, and made her screen debut in Hitchock’s The Trouble With Harry (1955.)

Among MacLaine’s most famous films are Some Came Running, The Apartment, Sweet Charity and Terms of Endearment. Recently she reached a new audience with her role in TV’s Downton Abbey.

In They Knew Marilyn Monroe, Les Harding notes that ‘after Marilyn’s death, MacLaine took over several projects which had been earmarked for her.’ And in recent years, MacLaine has shared some surprising (to say the least) anecdotes about MM.

In 2011, MacLaine claimed that Marilyn attended a preview of The Apartment nude under her fur coat, although photos from the event appear to show her wearing a dress. MacLaine has also claimed to have ‘shared’ Yves Montand – Marilyn’s Let’s Make Love co-star who accompanied her to the screening – with Monroe, implying that she also had an affair with him.

In her 2012 book, I’m Over All That, MacLaine added fuel to the fire of the MM-JFK rumour mill:

“I never had any proof that the Kennedy brothers had intimate relations with Marilyn Monroe, but it wouldn’t be beyond the realm of probability. Once at Arthur and Mathilde Krim’s house in New York, I joined an impressive gathering of movie stars and politicians. Marilyn was there. I saw her go into a private room with Jack. They stayed awhile, until he came out another door. Immediately, Bobby entered the room and stayed until the song that Jimmy Durante was singing was over. I have a picture of that night on my Wall of Life. Of course, the Kennedy brothers and Marilyn could have been talking about world affairs and comparing notes, but most of us thought it was the other kind of affairs they were interested in.”

This appears to be a reference to the party held after Kennedy’s birthday gala on May 18, 1962, which Shirley also attended. In a recent interview – broadcast on CNN – she talks about the gala itself, claiming that Marilyn refused to go onstage and Shirley was asked to stand in for her.

Of course, Marilyn was prone to stage fright – and given her unreliable reputation, it wouldn’t be surprising if a last-minute replacement was considered. However, Marilyn had already defied orders from Twentieth Century-Fox to perform at the gala. In fact, her later dismissal from Something’s Got to Give was partly related to this matter.

Also, Marilyn’s appearance at the very end of the gala was pre-planned. Peter Lawford introduced her as ‘the late Marilyn Monroe’ as a pun on her reputation for unpunctuality. Throughout the evening, her appearance was announced, only for her not to appear. In fact, she performed on schedule.

Interestingly, the sole occasion when Monroe and MacLaine were allegedly photographed together – on Dean Martin’s yacht in 1961 – has been disputed by Shirley herself. Upon writing to MacLaine, a member of Everlasting Star was told that she was not in the photo. It has also been suggested that the mystery woman is French cabaret star Zizi Jeanmaire.

Photo by Bernie Abramson

 

Rediscovering Marilyn’s Movies

Filming ‘Monkey Business’, 1952

Thanks to the continuing Marilyn! season in Brooklyn, some of Marilyn’s lesser-known movies are being reassessed. AltScreen devotes an entire post to critical analysis of Monkey Business, while over at Slant, Joseph Jan Lanthier compares Marilyn’s portrait of a disturbed young woman in Don’t Bother to Knock (1952) to the character played by Catherine Deneuve in Roman Polanski’s classic 1965 chiller, Repulsion.

“I remain touched most indelibly by a single theatrical gesticulation of Marilyn’s—at the end of Don’t Bother to Knock, when she timidly hands over her concealed blade to an avuncular Richard Widmark. She appears truly frightened by what harm she could manage with such an innocuous, household object in a manner that predicts the predatory nature of her iconolatry. She seems, in that moment, to be reaching out of the screen, across that divide between her and her audience, in order to surrender a token of her desire to melodramatically entertain. It was the last time she would give up anything in the movies.”

‘Forgotten Hollywood’ reviews What a Way to Go, the 1964 movie starring Shirley MacLaine that would probably have been Marilyn’s next film if she had completed Something’s Got to Give.

And finally, Jose Solis Mayen writes for PopMatters about Insignificance, an unusual, Marilyn-inspired movie from 1985, now available as a Criterion DVD:

“As the characters meet, the film subtly plays with their well known back stories. We see how the Actress longs to be a mother (an ominous Picasso painting seen throughout the film reflects both this yearning and also the film’s own cubist structure) but has had enough of her brute husband: the Ballplayer.

The film’s melancholy and fear is best summed up in an exchange between the Professor and the Actress. As she points out her image in a huge billboard outside the hotel, the wise man says ‘I prefer to look up,’ as he points to the stars. ‘They make me feel sad and lonely,’ replies the Actress. ‘All who look up feel small and lonely,’ he says. A movie star talking about feeling lonely with other stars? It’s absolutely no coincidence.”

Marilyn, Shirley and ‘The Apartment’

The photo above shows Marilyn attending a preview of The Apartment with Yves Montand in June 1960.

There has been some debate over what dress Marilyn wore that night. To me, it looks a little like the grey halter-dress that she had also worn at a press conference that year, and would wear again in Reno that summer.

Eve Arnold, 1960

However, Shirley MacLaine, star of The Apartment, told guests at the LA Film Fest Q & A last week:

“I’ll tell you a story: I came out of the first screening of The Apartment, and it was at some little screening room here in town. I left before the lights went up, and I walked out of the door and there, up against kind of a bar because they were serving food and drinks, was a woman — a blonde swathed in a white mink coat. I walked over to her just to talk, and she said [whispering], ‘You were so wonderful! Just brilliant!’ She opened up the coat and she had nothing on. Marilyn.”

I find it a little odd that Shirley has not mentioned this detail on her website:

“I remember Marilyn Monroe was at the screening. She had no makeup on and was wrapped up in a mink coat. In her low whispery voice she said… ‘The picture is a wonderful examination of the corporate world.’ My mouth flew open! She got it!”

Also, the fur coat in the photograph is dark, not white. However, Montand – Marilyn’s co-star in Let’s Make Love, with whom she had an affair – told biographer Anthony Summers that MM had once entered his hotel room wearing nothing but a fur coat. And so, whether true or false, the rumour is not unprecedented.

Shirley’s co-star in The Apartment was Marilyn’s friend, Jack Lemmon (her co-star in 1959’s Some Like it Hot.) Both movies were directed by Billy Wilder, with whom Marilyn had fallen out. However, Marilyn was seen embracing Billy at the screening of  The Apartment, so it seems that they must have made up their differences.

While Marilyn has often been criticised for her ‘difficult’ behaviour on film sets, Shirley also found Wilder hard to please. ‘He was un-empathetic,’ she recalled. ‘We looked at a scene in front of everyone, and he stood up in front of everybody and said, “I tried.”‘

Marilyn considered several roles that were ultimately played by Shirley MacLaine: in Some Came Running, Wilder’s Irma La Douce and What a Way to Go! Also, both actresses were friendly with Rat Packers Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.