Um, yeah. Then, when I took another crack at the film in my jaded Blockbuster Video 20s, it became an example of why you should never revisit childhood favorites. The first reel was still bouncy fun, then it seemed to bog down in its own relentlessly arch jollity.
In my mature dotage, my appreciation and estimation fall somewhere between these extremes. I now see the picture as an artifact of its social history, sometimes delightful and sometimes instructive, and also part of the temperament of George Roy Hill. The film may today seem intrinsically nostalgic (especially for those who saw it when), but it was created to serve a specific brand of nostalgia.
The late ’60s in American and world history were marked by domestic and international strife, the Vietnam war and demonstrations against it, revolutionary political movements, civil unrest and social protests, assassinations, long hair, short skirts, and other phenomena spelling the end of civilization. In fact, we’re currently navigating a nostalgia for the youthful engagement of that era, to judge by such meticulously designed Oscar-bait as Judas and the Black Messiah (Shaka King, 2021), The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Aaron Sorkin, 2020), and One Night in Miami (Regina King, 2020).
At the same cultural moment came Hollywood’s freefall from the dying studio system’s Production Code into a New American Cinema (as critics called it) under the transition to the MPAA rating system. Thus, we have here a squeaky-clean musical where Mary Tyler Moore says, “Bitch!”
Now, every era has its own nostalgias, which can be roughly divided into nostalgia-sentiment, nostalgia-revisionist, and nostalgia-let’s-make-fun-of-it. Each era tends to focus on its peculiar distant spot of living memory. In the late ’60s, that spot ranged from the Roaring ’20s through the Depression ’30s, with the upper limit being the WWII ’40s, the 20th anniversary of which caused a welter of WWII movies and TV series throughout the decade.
It’s no coincidence that the same year as Thoroughly Modern Millie, two of the biggest and most controversial and shockingly violent hits were Robert Aldrich‘s The Dirty Dozen, which re-imagined WWII through a semi-revisionist anti-authoritarian lens allowing misfits and malcontents to do their part for a “dirty” war effort of state authority, and Arthur Penn‘s Bonnie and Clyde, in which misfits and malcontents get mowed down by state authority for being criminal folk-hero “protesters” against the status quo.
These films had their attackers and defenders, but they were taken seriously. Thoroughly Modern Millie, a fluffy expensive musical, has never been taken seriously. Even so, by holding up for mockery the conventions of 1920s pop culture, and the web of assumptions supporting flappers and bootleggers, the film does its own version of the anti-authoritarian, anarchic-chaotic thing, albeit in a different key.
This film was quite a hit at the box office, despite an impression among the clueless that it was a flop, or at least “disappointing,” which simply means it wasn’t the colossal blockbuster for Julie Andrews that The Sound of Music (Robert Wise, 1964) had been. It deserves to be taken seriously as part of its cultural moment in the era’s nostalgia wave. It may sound odd to compare it to Bonnie and Clyde, but they’re simply two prongs or approaches to the same trend. The way serious critics compared them if they did, was along the lines of “Why waste time and money on mindless trivia when we have significant films from young upstarts turning the old Hollywood on its head?”
That is, Hill’s film would have been classed by detractors as old backward Hollywood as opposed to progressive Hollywood, never mind that both express themselves via nostalgia or that Hill, in his 40s, was New Hollywood. He’d just directed Andrews in the nostalgic epic Hawaii (1966) and would go on to finish the decade with one of its New American Cinema blockbusters, the nostalgic-revisionist western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). He’d cast its stars, Paul Newman and Robert Redford, in the ultra-nostalgic ’30s lark The Sting (1973), winning a bunch of Oscars. Then he’d star Redford in another period Americana, the more melancholy The Great Waldo Pepper (1975).
Much of Hill’s career is period reconstruction and much is heavily music-conscious, as witness the crucial music of Burt Bacharach in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Scott Joplin in The Sting. These impulses were present in Hill’s apprenticeship on TV and stage. His acclaimed live TV dramas included the two-part Titanic re-creation A Night to Remember (1956) and The Helen Morgan Story (1957). His Broadway plays include the ’20s nostalgia of Look Homeward, Angel (1957), and the warm, homey musical Greenwillow (1960), both with Anthony Perkins.
Thoroughly Modern Millie belongs not only to Hill’s sensibility and the impulse of its time but to a general trend in expensive, nostalgic period musicals that many critics derided for dinosaur-ism. While most of these films had certain defenders, the general receptions ranged from mixed to hostile. They were often held up as examples of wasteful, out-of-step Hollywood in opposition to modern darlings of “realism” and boldness.
These alleged scandals include Dr. Dolittle (Richard Fleischer, 1967), Finian’s Rainbow (Francis Ford Coppola, 1968), Oliver (Carol Reed, 1968), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (Ken Hughes, 1968), Star (Robert Wise, 1968, another Andrews vehicle), Goodbye Mr. Chips (Herbert Ross, 1969), Hello, Dolly (Gene Kelly, 1969), Song of Norway (Andrew Stone, 1970, also now a Kino Lorber Blu-ray), The Boy Friend (Ken Russell, 1971), Mame (Gene Saks, 1974), and another Ross Hunter production, the remake of Lost Horizon (Charles Jarrott, 1973).
For example, there are those who will go on about how the clueless Academy voted for Oliver for Best Picture instead of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which wasn’t even nominated, and how this is symptomatic of something or other. Sure, Kubrick’s sci-fi film would have been a great winner too, but Oliver was easily the best of the nominees. This musical remains popular, so we can’t say it hasn’t stood the test of time. For that matter, there are people who gripe about The Sound of Music as if nobody watches that record-breaker today.
Two period musicals to received consistent acclaim then and now were Funny Girl (William Wyler, 1968) and Cabaret (Bob Fosse, 1972). Well, we might add Fiddler on the Roof (Norman Jewison, 1971) but that’s a different kettle of shtetl.
The legacy of this anti-musical critical hipsterism persists and must be roundly dismissed, for all these films are worth your attention despite or because of whatever problems they may have. At least two or three are magnificent, and you’ll have to watch them all to figure out which. The Blu-ray’s commentary by musical historian Lee Gambin and art historian Ian McAnally discusses some of these issues, with Gambin refuting some of the common carps and discussing the careers of Hill and other participants.