Call Me Madam

"Very Good"

Call Me Madam Review


Broadway legend Ethel Merman is known more these days for badgering Milton Berle in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, that blunderbuss 1963 super-comedy that is replayed ad infinitum on cable TV. This is because her brilliant Broadway star turns -- Panama Hattie, DuBarry Was a Lady, Annie Get Your Gun, Gypsy -- are all lost to history, the film versions of her Broadway roles played by Ann Sothern, Lucille Ball, Betty Hutton, and Rosalind Russell, brilliant women all, but no Merman. The exception to the rule was Irving Berlin's Call Me Madam, the archetypal Merman star vehicle, for which Merman won a Tony Award. This was one performance where Merman was the whole show and, in 1953, a film version had to have Merman in the lead and Twentieth Century Fox did right by Merman in Walter Lang's breezy and brassy adaptation.

On the surface, Berlin's energetic Broadway show is extremely dated. The Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse book is a gentle satire of the Washington scene circa 1951, so there are a plethora of Harry Truman jokes that may have been hilarious in 1951 but in this post-history millennium may be greeted with obtuseness from viewers whose sense of history expired with Swing Vote. It is also an old-fashioned musical vehicle, the slim plot being a bald excuse to showcase Merman.

But what a showcase! Merman plays Sally Adams, a Washington hostess loosely based on the real life Perle Mesta, a Washington party-thrower whom Truman picked as ambassador to Luxembourg. In Call Me Madam, Luxembourg becomes the fictitious Lichtenburg. Taking along Kenneth (Donald O'Connor), her private secretary, Sally falls in love with a defanged George Sanders, singing in the then-popular Ezio Pinza style of light opera frog tones, while Kenneth pines for the royal princess (Vera-Ellen).

Merman sells her songs like a tobacco auctioneer -- she telegraphs her vocals so loudly that you can turn the volume all the way down and still hear her clearly -- and her blaring voice rides up and down your spinal column like quicksilver (during their numbers together, O'Connor purportedly wore earplugs). But her energy level is hotwired and electric and when she is on screen, attention must be paid. There is no one else that can be imaged singing "The Hostess with the Mostes on the Ball," "Can You Use Any Money Today?" and "The International Rag." Merman delivers constantly and, based upon her commanding performance here, one regrets the extreme loss of her presence in the film version of Gypsy.

O'Connor, in arguably his greatest post-Singin' in the Rain dance performance, ably holds his own against the Merman dreadnaught in the delightful "You're Just in Love" and cuts loose in a drunken solo turn in "What Chances Have I?" He is also smooth style while singing "It's a Lovely Day Today," crooning aggressively to Vera-Ellen.

Lang's direction is pedestrian and clunky, a particular stylistic bump for Fox musicals. But who cares? This is primarily a performance film and the performers are paramount. Particularly Merman. And with Call Me Madam, it is undiluted Merman at her "mostes."

Swami, how I love ya.



Call Me Madam

Facts and Figures

Run time: 114 mins

In Theaters: Wednesday 1st April 1953

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5

IMDB: 7.0 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director: Walter Lang

Producer: Sol C. Siegel

Starring: as Sally Adams, Donald O'Connor as Kenneth Gibson, Vera-Ellen as Princess Maria, as General Cosmo Constantine, Billy De Wolfe as Pemberton Maxwell, Helmut Dantine as Prince Hugo, as August Tantinnin, Steven Geray as Prime Minister Sebastian, Ludwig Stössel as Grand Duke Otto, as Grand Duchess Sophie, Charles Dingle as Sen. Brockway, Emory Parnell as Sen. Charlie Gallagher, Percy Helton as Sen. Wilkins, Bess Flowers as Lady Seated Behind Duchess, Oskar Beregi as Chamberlain

Also starring:

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