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.”



When Marilyn Made Hot Dogs for Gene Kelly

Marilyn and Gene Kelly on the set of Let’s Make Love (1960)

Gene Kelly – the legendary dancer, choreographer and actor/director – will be honoured with a statue in London’s Leicester Square. Patricia Ward Kelly, who became his third wife in 1990 until his death six years later, has shared some of Kelly’s memories with Metro.

Kelly was a friend of Marilyn from her early years in Hollywood. His first wife Betsy Blair recalled seeing Marilyn with director Nick Ray during a 1951 party in their home, and Marilyn would meet Milton Greene for the first time in the same house, two years later. Kelly also had a cameo role in Marilyn’s penultimate movie, Let’s Make Love, and was considering a role in her upcoming film project, What a Way to Go!, when Marilyn passed away. (He took the part, and Shirley MacLaine replaced Marilyn.)

Ironically, Patricia’s story of Marilyn making hot dogs for Gene Kelly recalls a scene in The Seven Year Itch (1955), when Sonny Tufts asks Tom Ewell who the blonde in the kitchen might be, and Ewell retorts, ‘Maybe it’s Marilyn Monroe!’

“These were in the years before I met him, but his house, the front door was never locked and people would just come in at any hour of the day or night. There was one experience where the writer James Agee, and a famous director came in with a young woman in the middle of the night. Gene realised the men had quite a bit to drink, so he thought that he should rustle up some food for them. He went into the kitchen with this young woman to see what was in the fridge and found some hot dogs. He had her boiling hot dogs – which coincidentally was the first meal I had with him. He turned to this young woman and said, ‘What’s your name?’ She said, ‘Marilyn’. And it was Marilyn Monroe.”


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.

Paula Lane 1926-2015

The actress and Marilyn impersonator Paula Lane passed away in August this year, reports the Telegraph. Born in the same year as her idol, she played a bit part in What a Way to Go! (1964), in which Shirley MacLaine replaced MM. Some 25 years later, Lane starred in Goodnight, Sweet Marilyn (1989), a sequel to the 1976 exploitation movie, Goodbye, Norma Jean – alongside another lookalike, Misty Rowe, who reprised her role as the younger Marilyn.

With a low rating of 2.9 on IMDB, Goodnight, Sweet Marilyn is (perhaps too generously) described by one user as ‘offbeat, absorbing, but ultimately redundant.’

“In 1989 she appeared in Goodnight, Sweet Marilyn, a film which the director Larry Buchanan claimed would show what really happened on August 5 1962, when the star was found dead in her Bel-Air home of an overdose. ‘I play Marilyn at 36,’ said the by then 53 year-old lookalike. ‘It took a little doing, but I think I pulled it off.’

The critics were not so sure, one describing the film as ‘maybe the sleaziest movie of 1989, a perfect 100 on the Sleaze Meter’. Paula Lane, however, he suggested, should be given a ‘Drive-In Academy Award nomination’ for saying, ‘Do they have cameras in heaven?’

One Hollywood columnist described Paula Lane as ‘the girl most men would like to be stranded on a desert island with’. But by the 1970s acting and modelling work was proving irregular, so on the advice of an agent who suggested that she exploit her resemblance to Marilyn Monroe, she put together a song-and-dance act and took off on a three-week gig in Tokyo.

She had met the star on three occasions and as she recalled, ‘studied her every move, every gesture, every notion’. When she heard the news of her death on the radio, ‘I went to church to visit my priest. I needed answers. When my grief subsided and a couple of days later I stood in front of my bathroom mirror and felt this incredible force as if Marilyn was looking back at me. It was as if she had moulded herself in to my body! I started to cry. I hadn’t realised before just how much I looked like Marilyn. I was her.’

From the 1970s onwards Paula Lane performed as Marilyn Monroe in clubs from California to Las Vegas. Calling her act ‘The Super Star Award Show,’ she sang songs which Marilyn Monroe had made famous, including Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend and Heat Wave, and recreated the classic shot from The Seven Year Itch of Marilyn Monroe’s dress blowing up around her legs as she stands over a subway grating. To ‘do’ Marilyn, Paula Lane claimed, was ‘like a fix. To go out for a Marilyn job is an upper.'”

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.”