It’s Valentine’s Day and like every other critic and movie blogger my mind has turned to celebrating this holiday with a write up about a romantic comedy. But instead of mining the familiar ground of the classic Meg Ryan flick I have opted to write about one of my favorite comedies of all time. What A Way To Go! (1964) is criminally underrated, under seen, and worthy of popular rediscovery. It’s an irresistible film with an all-star cast, incredible production design and an inspired wit. How could What A Way To Go! not be a favorite with everyone?
The film is told in a series of flashbacks as Shirley MacLaine recounts her troubles to her psychiatrist Bob Cummings. MacLaine’s character has been married to “Mr. Right” four separate times, and each time her husbands have met an unlikely end. MacLaine’s husbands include Dick Van Dyke, Paul Newman, Robert Mitchum and Gene Kelly (Dean Martin is husband number five and is living as the credits roll); some of the greatest stars of all time. Each man meets MacLaine and changes themselves so as to be worthy of her only to be savagely and hilariously killed by the endeavor. There’s a sadistic streak of nihilism that undercuts the light comedy of this farce at every turn.
Every husband gets a flashback and within each flashback is an idealized fantasy that MacLaine has about the marriage. Each fantasy is inspired by a particular type of film. These fantasies may be executed as painfully accurate pastiches but they, as a whole, speak to how the cinema informs our inner life, our imagination. With husband number two, Paul Newman, MacLaine’s fantasy duplicates the “scandalous” French films that Brigitte Bardot made with hubby Roger Vadim (complete with censor bars). Husband number three, Robert Mitchum, gets the bloated budget treatment of an Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton epic where the dialogue is always the same and only the sets and costumes change. Then husband number four, Gene Kelly, gets the Arthur Freed treatment and a houseboat built for two.
What A Way To Go! celebrates the spectacle of fantasy that is unique to the cinema. But even as it does this, it highlights the discrepancy between MacLaine’s daydreams and reality or our own imaginations and reality. The slapstick deaths of these leading men also demonstrate, through their implausibility, the inevitability of a romance’s end or of change in general. The antics and laughs may be juvenile or silly, but the message and meaning of What A Way To Go! is serious and mature.
This balance between the madcap and the reality of human emotions is adeptly handled by journeyman director J. Lee Thompson. Thompson, best known for testosterone filled pictures such as Cape Fear (1962) and The Guns Of Navarone (1961), seems an odd choice as director but ultimately the right choice. What A Way To Go! was in development for two years before the cameras finally rolled on a cast that was neither the studio’s first nor second choice. The result, however, could not have been better.