What a Way to Go (1964)

Shirley MacLaine is a one-woman show in this goofy, dark comedy about a lady whose four husbands can’t help but make loads of money and then abruptly die. Edith Head had full reign and a limitless budget, it seems, creating exotic, costume ensembles–some of the best of her career. Though she was nominated for an Oscar for Best Costume, I’m surprised one of her eight golden statues wasn’t for this film. Rarely will you find a film where the costumes speak for the character and take on a life of their own. The more outrageous the lifestyle, the more outrageous the outfits and wigs. Whether she went to the bank, lounged at the pool, or wore her furs, Shirley looked fabulous. Love gushing colors and opulent production sets? Love wacky comedy and a cast of Hollywood A-listers that rival the costumes? Then you’d like J. Lee Thompson’s, What a Way to Go. 

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Zany films take time to get into them. If you approach it as a Greek Comedy, it is easier to swallow the farce that borders on the absurd. What a Way to Go features stereotypes, the woes of relationships, and should not to be taken seriously. There’s a prologue, five acts, a deus ex machina at the climax for a happy ending. It is in line with the 1960s trend for big budget, sexy, wacky plots that wear thin.

Shirley MacLaine plays Louisa May. She is her own narrator who confesses about her curse to a shrink played by character actor, Robert Cummings.  She has $218,000,000 dollars she is trying to give back to the IRS because she thinks she bewitched and caused the death of four husbands. Always wanting the simple life, she thinks she has found her perfect mate. Unfortunately, they are corrupted by greed and attacked to death by the instruments of their obsession.

There’s a pattern to Louisa’s storytelling. After she gets her husband, there’s a sub-play giving homage to a genre of the film industry. The mega-star matches perfectly with the character he represents. This repetition is clever even if it chops up the story line into bite-sized morsels, and it begins to feel more like a variety show. I think it’s subjective whether you like the format or not. It’s different, and few films can boast of the star power of the cast.  What fun Shirley MacLaine must have had with these gents!

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Dick Van Dyke has always been a slap-stick, vaudevillian actor, so he plays the goofy first husband to perfection. Louisa asserts their marriage felt like being in a silent film, and this cues the black and white tribute. Ironically, Love Conquers All is their motto, and it proves fatally wrong.

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Paul Newman, as husband # 2, represented the spirited American bohemian in France espousing the definition of the artist with avant-garde approaches to creating real art. Larry Flint and Louisa pay tribute to French cinema. With their vignette, I smiled throughout as camera angles mimicked all that is stereotypical of sexy French cinema. The parody continued with the corruption of Larry Flint when he rubs elbows with the elite of the art world. Andy Warhol said, “Art is anything you can get away with” and it’s relayed here in the ludicrous costumes Louisa wears. They are works of art created by her husband. His demise is fitting, and by this point, I’m buying into the film and enjoying it.

Robert Mitchum played Rod Anderson, Jr., the maple syrup tycoon, who had already earned his fortune, so Louisa thought she couldn’t ruin his life. This segment of the film pokes fun at Old Hollywood’s grand pictures that featured the super-wealthy and their exotic lifestyles. The parody was fantastic, from the couple sleeping in a champagne glass to the arrival of Louisa in another over-the-top ensemble. I loved it. However, nothing compared to the next marriage with her fourth husband, Pinky Benson.

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Who knew Shirley MacClaine could dance? She stepped in line with Gene Kelly and looked as graceful as any previous partner. Since the film was a farce in the first place, you can’t really call Shirley MacClaine’s melodramatic performance (whenever she cried) as well acted, but when you consider all she had to do as the central character, I thought she was magnificent. Her dancing really blew me away.  No wonder she was offered a few year’s later with her dancing musical, Sweet Charity (1969).  Gene Kelly–sigh–this was the one act where I thought the male actor acted instead of acting ridiculous. I cared for him as the salt-shuffling clown whose demise was predictable.

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Dean Martin plays his iconic self. He’s a playboy with a drunken smirk on his face. Louisa hates Lennie Crawley. It’s a powerful emotion. That’s all I’ll give away in case you haven’t seen this crazy, beautiful film.

53 thoughts on “What a Way to Go (1964)

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  1. Man, am I dating myself with, “I saw this first-run as a kid!” You’ve captured why this forgotten Shirley MacLaine vehicle was such a delight, Cindy. Kudos.

  2. “Who knew Shirley MacLaine could dance?” If memory serves me well, MacLaine was a trained dancer. I believe her first gig was in a musical on Broadway (Pajama Game? Not sure). She had a successful variety act in the ’70s. She was good friends with Bob Fosse and she was supposed to be in All That Jazz but not sure what happened. Anyhow, I think this is a very cute show. Like a live-action cartoon. As you said, the costumes and sets are fantastic. Love the cameos too. My Favorite? Newman’s egocentric artist. Nice review!

    1. Hi Eric! This was the first time I saw Shirley dancing and I don’t know much about her dancing career. She had to be trained to look so graceful next to Gene. Wow, that would have been cool to see her in All That Jazz. Maybe she was too old by then. Anyway, now I want to revisit ATJ and read a biography on Shirley. Newman is my favorite actor–it was a treat to see him here! Thanks, Eric.

      1. I recommend you Shirley’s “My Lucky Stars: A Hollywood Memoir” — very, very entertaining and informative. I know she has a reputation for being “eccentric,” but in the book she comes across as honest and very intelligent.

    2. Eric,Shirley MacLaine played the lead in bob fosse’s first film as a director, Sweet Charity,which was based on Felliini’s Nights of Cabiria. although he was choreographer on Pajama Game, 12 years earlier) he had little say on casting in his early days, .

        1. He did plenty of stage work though. I saw his final play, Big Deal, based on the Italian crime comedy, Big Deal on Madonna Street. the visual depth of his choreography doesnt translate well to film, I think his best film directing was in Star 80, where he brought an intense musical rhythm to the scenes between Eric Roberts and Mariel Hemingway.

  3. One I have never seen Cindy. I like the way the relationship with each husband plays as a tribute to a cinema style/genre, seems like a great idea. Other than the presence of Dick van Dyke (who I could never abide) I think I might enjoy this one.
    Best wishes, Pete.

      1. Maybe it was his attempt at that London accent in ‘Mary Poppins’ that did the damage Cindy…That and ‘Diagnosis Murder!
        I would still watch the film though.

      1. I like the sequence with Pinky! Gene Kelly was great in the role, and I loved how everything was in pink.

        I’m glad she ended up with Dean Martin at the end of the film.

        I liked Robert Mitchum’s sequence as well.

        My least favorite husband? Dick Van Dyke. I’ve never much cared for him as an actor or a comedian.

    1. I love Mitchum in Night of the Hunter. In this one, he is simply tall, dark, and handsome with that gorgeous voice. It’s utterly silly–you have to be in the right frame of mind–couldn’t be more removed from the eerie, psychological thriller that is Night of the Hunter! The first hour it was hard for me to get through. It’s hard jumping stone cold back into a 60s movie sometimes. Then you get used to the water and by the time Mitchum arrives, I enjoyed the film a lot.

          1. HaHa. Oh, I’m glad you found the time to watch it. She was 30 years old in 1964. She’s been around forever in the industry. I haven’t seen her in Downton Abbey, but I’d like to. I was pleased to see her in The LIfe of Walter Mitty, shuffling around in her slippers, and I would like to read a biography about her Hollywood stories. I think she’s fascinating.

  4. I haven’t heard of this but I can totally see Shirley MacLaine in this role. I really should see this just for the cast, esp the gorgeous Paul Newman 😉

      1. Oh really? I didn’t know he speaks French!

        Speaking of which, hope you stop by my latest post and check out the trailer and deleted scene of the movie where I discovered my French crush 😉

  5. Hi, Cindy:

    You can sure pick ’em!

    An excellent cast of solid pros each having their time to do what each does best around the marvelously talented Ms. MacLaine. Dick Van Dyke and Gene Kelley own their characters like a tailored suit. Paul Newman tries to brood and chew scenery around Ms. MacLaine (Not humanly possible!). While Robert Mitchum takes on a subtle comedic turn. And Dean Martin is Dean Martin!

    And Ms. MacLaine is beautiful throughout. A lush and lovely comedy fetchingly backstopped and highlighted by Edith Head, that could not be made today.

    Very well done!

    1. Knowing your taste for 60s films, you will no doubt find it amusing. Especially the Robert Mitchum segment when Shirley parodies Hepburn with her black dress and hairdo and cigarette holder.

  6. I loved this when it came out,and have seen it several times since,but you are right,Cindy. It is a little thin. Another picture in the same vein is Vittorio de Sica’s 1967 film, Woman Times Seven, featuring macLaine playing seven different women in seven short tales.

    1. Hello! Wisdom comes when you can laugh at yourself. Parodies illuminate the ridiculousness of our lives and the wasted energy and our false gods. I love them, don’t you?

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