Hill: Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967) | featured image

The Way They Kiss in ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’

Julie Andrews’ 1960s musical Thoroughly Modern Millie does its anti-authoritarian, anarchic-chaotic thing in a different key.

Thoroughly Modern Millie
George Roy Hill
Kino Lorber
24 August 2021

Mary Tyler Moore won Emmy Awards for two TV series that defined the sitcom sophistication of their eras. She went from the glamorous if restless Camelot-era housewife of The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-66) to the single career woman of The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77). In between these milestones, she tried the big screen in four films. This experience convinced her to stick with TV for the time being.

Now available from Kino Lorber are Blu-rays of two of these Universal films, including one that’s never previously seen the light of home video. We now have the complete roadshow edition, restored in 4K, of George Roy Hill‘s musical Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), and George Seaton’s long-elusive comedy-fantasy What’s So Bad About Feeling Good? (1968). Moore’s very good in both, displaying physical dexterity and personal charm. Let’s indulge.

As scripted by Richard Morris and produced by Ross Hunter with his typical lavishness, Thoroughly Modern Millie takes place in an aggressively artificial incarnation of 1920s New York, a world of silent movie conventions and shopgirl romances. During the opening credits, we witness button-down, long-skirted, un-hip Millie (Julie Andrews) instantly giving herself a consumer-society, advertising-driven makeover. Looking at the fashions around her and gazing into shop windows, she realizes that modern women bob their hair, show their legs, tie-down their busts, and smoke. Is this liberation or brainwashing?

As Andrews’ voice-over sings in the words of Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen, reworking an idea in Cole Porter‘s 1934 hit “Anything Goes”,  it’s all about changing fashions and values, specifically relating to women. “Have you seen the way they kiss in the movies?” she trills. What some people think is adorable is to others “Sodom and Gomorrah-ble”, so now it’s “goodbye, good-goody girl”, she’s “thoroughly modern Millie now!”

Two points here. First, in the context of Andrews’ career, it’s as though we’re seeing the dowdy fashions of Mary Poppins and novice nun of The Sound of Music‘s Maria give way to the sexy and modern. Second, although the song announces that “this is 1922”, the short hair and flat bust is also the up-to-minute Twiggy look of 1967, so the sequence feels like it’s commenting on women’s changing fashions and roles in both eras. As it is.

At the Priscilla Hotel for Young Single Ladies where she resides, Millie just as instantly bonds with Dorothy Brown (Moore), a clueless orphan fresh to the city, as the two of them perform a charmingly synchronized tap-dance up and down the “steps” of Dorothy’s baggage in the elevator. I’ll go to my grave declaring this is how life should be.

Oh drat and alas, wouldn’t you know landlady Mrs. Meers (1920s comedy star Beatrice Lillie) is kidnapping orphan maidens and selling them into “white slavery” via her Chinatown henchmen (Jack Soo, Pat Morita), in a subplot that the film could and probably should have done without. The best we can say about this angle is that the women rescue themselves since all the men are useless pretty boys.

This is part of the film’s send-up of far-fetched melodramatic conventions of the ’20s, along with “stenogs” who marry the boss, or not realizing your beau is a millionaire. The story will drop references to the sexual politics of Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik (George Melford, 1921) and the building-climb in Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last (1923). Millie’s character is also marked by mugging to the audience and having her thoughts presented on silent-movie title cards. It’s all very aren’t-we-clever.

Both the 1967 film and the 2000 Broadway musical remake catch some flak for making fun of the “white slavery” trope that featured prominently in stage, film, and pulp tales of the 1920s, when the threat of miscegenation was part of Fu Manchu-esque “yellow peril” melodramas. Perhaps optimistically, the film expects its viewers to understand why this subplot is stupid and dated, as it handles this element with all the campiness of the era’s Batman show, implicitly proclaiming “Can you believe anyone ever took this seriously? Aren’t we all so much smarter than this nonsense now?” This pose touches on the tiresome before the literal pyrotechnics are set off.

In this case, the villain seems to be the hypocritical propriety symbolized by Mrs. Meers, who polices proper behavior among young ladies while pushing capitalist commodification and female exploitation to their logical extreme.

Carol Channing shows up for some reason as a wacky socialite named Muzzy, who’s highly sexed and good at self-defense. Well, we know the reason she shows up: like Lillie, Channing was a living icon of nostalgia. She sings “Jazz Baby” and dances on a xylophone. Later, she’s fired out of a cannon into a family of acrobatic brothers while shouting “Razzberries!”

Oh yes, there are also the useless boyfriends played by James Fox and John Gavin, with the latter presented frankly as a sex object. “Beautiful!” exclaims a wilting Millie. Fox, who shows surprisingly spry dance moves, at one point dresses in drag to resemble Tony Curtis or Jack Lemmon in Billy Wilder‘s Some Like It Hot (1959), another Prohibition-era send-up.

“I don’t want to be your equal anymore. I want to be a woman!” exclaims Millie at the end, voicing an all-too-common sentiment in Hollywood films that toy with the theme of modern independent women. While other films present such lines with a straight face, this one’s mocking facetious tone remains intact, the same tone with which everyone exclaims “Swell!” and “Terrif!” and “Banana oil!”

Is Thoroughly Modern Millie‘s rescue of standard sexism no more serious than its rescue from white slavery? Maybe the two plotlines on the perils facing “single young ladies” are closer than we think. Let’s leave it to the deconstructionists.

Please understand. When your omnivorous reviewer first saw this film on TV as a precocious tyke (your reviewer, not the film), it struck him as one of the glories of cinema in a class with, oh, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (Stanley Kramer, 1963), or Kisses for My President (Curtis Bernhardt, 1964) with Fred MacMurray as blushing First Concubine to America’s first woman chief executive (Polly Bergen), or Hello Down There (Jack Arnold, 1969) with Tony Randall moving his family to the ocean floor, or even the lofty pinnacle of Walt Disney’s Million Dollar Duck (1971) starring the dazzling Sandy Duncan and Dean Jones as owners of a fowl that lays golden eggs.

RATING 7 / 10
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