Black Comedy Comes in Many Colors in ‘What a Way to Go!’

A widescreen '60s splash of groovy death humor.

Sometimes a serious, impressive, well-made movie slips quietly from the memory while a trivial piece of silliness sticks in the mind. Only time provides the proof, which is offered here on a Blu-ray with eye-popping Deluxe color and shiny glorious Cinemascope of a quintessential ’60s trifle.

Like the similarly fluffy 1967 item Woman Times Seven, What a Way to Go! exists only as a vehicle to surround Shirley MacLaine with several big-name leading men. As poor little rich heiress Louisa May Foster, she spends the whole movie alternately hugging and sobbing over her co-stars while changing outfits. Her most common expression here is the gasping, eye-welling pout accompanied by a moan of comic grief.

Viewers may be afraid the color has faded, for the opening 20th Century Fox logo and credits have a washed-out pink look. Never fear; it’s part of the elaborate color design in a film nominated for Oscars in art direction and for Edith Head’s costumes, shot in widescreen by Leon Shamroy and scored with perk and swank by Nelson Riddle. Ah, high style, how it can make a movie.

The lachrymose La MacLaine, veiled in black, descends the stairs in a pink mansion while six pallbearers have trouble carrying the coffin. That oblong box (to mention another of the era’s death larks) ends up sliding down the stairs and swirling in an infinity pattern under its own locomotion to undercranked silent-film speed, thus introducing audiences to the promise of broad slapstick in a gorgeously designed black comedy.

Louisa May tells her story in flashback to a shrink (Robert Cummings), whose mod office includes a couch that raises to giddy heights on an absurd hydraulic lift. She’s afraid she’s a “witch” who jinxes and curses her husbands — all four of them, leaving her a monumentally wealthy widow. She began as a simple small-town girl dominated by a greedy shrewish mother (the great Margaret Dumont of Marx Brothers fame) who wanted to marry her off to the irresponsible playboy scion (Dean Martin) who owns the town.

Instead, she impulsively marries a poor-but-carefree rival (Dick Van Dyke) who’s abruptly possessed by the urge to prove his manhood by becoming a successful businessman who drives the other to bankruptcy. Louisa May is now a frustrated, sexually unfulfilled “grass widow” who never sees her husband, whose new bromide is “a little hard work never killed anybody”. In the movie’s first sour comment on success, he drops dead with the phone in his hand.

This sets the pattern for her marriages to a serious starving-garret artist (Paul Newman) in Paris and a convivial nightclub clown (Gene Kelly), though she tries to vary the pattern by hitching up with an already bored millionaire (Robert Mitchum). Each marriage has a blissful honeymoon period conveyed via parodies of movie genres: the silent comedy (Van Dyke), the pretentious and subtitled foreign film (Newman), the musical (Kelly, with MacLaine showing her dancing chops), and “the type of glamorous Hollyood movie all about love and what she’ll wear next” (Mitchum), of which this entire picture is a parody.

You could call this a forerunner to the “body count” type of movie where the plot exists for us to see how the next victim gets killed. It was a part of Hollywood’s ’60s emergence from the heavy hand of the studio era’s Production Code, which discouraged taking death lightly. Hollywood films adopted the black comedy of death and murder more easily and pervasively than they adopted carefree sex, although the James Bond movies were able to sell both as a package deal.

Since the shrink spouts glib Freudianisms, it’s fair to consider what this script by the great musical comedy team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green must be implying on a psychological level. Although the doc naturally assures her she’s no witch or jinx, Louisa May (may what?) must unconsciously wish for the deaths of her husbands as soon as they neglect her sexually by concentrating on the outside world of success and money, which becomes her rival. Her entire marital career, which she deprecates and condemns too much, may be judged by results that give her control.

Martin plays “the only man she ever hated” because he promised to dominate the relationship, and she can’t love him until she has all the power and money he used to possess. So the subtext could be a comment on and subversion of all those stories about poor girls who marry successful husbands and live happily ever after. In this case, the happiness can only be provided when the wife is in charge, as evidenced by the fact that the other marriages produce no offspring.

Very much of its time, this is a physically beautiful and memorable movie directed by J. Lee Thompson, a British specialist in suspense and action films whose hits included The Guns of Navarrone (1961) and Cape Fear (1962). After this swanky hit comedy with MacLaine, he re-teamed with her the following year on the much less successful John Goldfarb, Please Come Home. The latter part of his career was mostly spent on Charles Bronson movies. What a way to go.

RATING 8 / 10