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What A Way to Go!

Producer Arthur P. Jacobs isn’t known for “going small”. His take on “Doctor Dolittle” famously bankrupted 20th Century Fox. Rarely has he gone as big as in 1964’s WHAT A WAY TO GO! It’s a fantastic showcase for Shirley MacLaine as Louisa May Foster, a widow trying to avoid wealth but finding more of it with every husband.

What a group of husbands it is!

Dick Van Dyke is simple farmer and store manager Edgar Hopper, bitten by the bug to go up against a huge competitor. Riches pour in, but he works himself to death.

Paul Newman is Larry Flint, a mad painter who often shares his brush with a chimpanzee. The purest definition of a starving artist in Paris, Newman is an absolute blast, loading plenty of laughs into his part of the story. Newman is literally eating something in every scene he’s in, a measure of the film’s subtlety in reinforcing his “starving artist” status.

Robert Mitchum is Rod Anderson Jr, one of the wealthiest businessmen on the planet. Louisa wants nothing to do with him…at first. Mitchum plays it to the hilt, showing off comic timing I’ve never seen in his classic detective films.

Gene Kelly is Pinky Benson, a small-time club singer/dancer doing the same show every night for an unappreciative crowd that forgot he was there years ago. Louisa’s advice turns him into a matinee idol with an ego the size of Hollywood.

Dean Martin is Lennie Crawley, the perennial playboy who’s all wrong for Louisa when they are both young, but as the years go on, people change, right?

Rounding out the cast is Bob Cummings as Dr. Stephanson, the analyst listening to Louisa tell her life story. She approaches him at the beginning of the film telling him she wants to get rid of all her money, and the film then flashes back to each husband as she tells her life story.

It’s all very gaudy, lathered in slapstick and an early sixties feel.

Director J. Lee Thompson (The Guns of Navarone, Cape Fear) knows how to stage spectacle and he pulls out all the stops shooting fantasy sequences for each marriage. Kelly and MacLaine burst into full MGM musical song and dance during theirs and Mitchum/MacLaine drip diamonds and cash in theirs. Newman’s fantasy sequence is a sexy foreign film, Van Dyke’s is a silent movie that brought back memories of his underrated 1969 film “The Comic”.

Famed costume designer Edith Head is at full power, lavishing $4 million in diamonds on top of her half million-dollar costume design budget. That’s a lot of bucks in 1964.

A black comedy at heart, it was developed as a Marilyn Monroe movie, then an Elizabeth Taylor film called “I Love Louisa” with Sinatra, Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas as the husbands. MacLaine makes it her own; she’s excellent. One of her biggest box office hits, it was the 7th biggest film of 1964.

Dated but a lot of fun, it’s the ultimate showcase for a 30-year-old Shirley MacLaine, who rockets this all the way to a solid, goofy B.

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