Thursday, January 26, 2017

A Thoroughly Pre-Modern Mary

On January 25, 2017, Mary Tyler Moore passed away at the age of 80. In both of her unforgettable TV roles, as adorable housewife Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show and as self-sufficient “woman on her own” Mary Richards on her eponymous Mary Tyler Moore Show, Moore radiated a persona of cheerfulness, optimism and determination despite a personal life with more than its share of challenges, including a lifetime managing Type 1 diabetes, a bout with alcoholism and the loss of a child. Small wonder we’ve loved Mary for more than 50 years—she truly was an all-American girl next door with “spunk,” as Lou Grant would say.

The 1967 film Thoroughly Modern Millie was Mary’s big-screen debut, after more than a decade of television work culminating in a five-year run with Dick Van Dyke. After Laura Petrie and before Mary Richards, Mary Tyler Moore seemed to be struggling to find a new career direction. During this awkward in-between period, she starred as Holly Golightly in a disastrous Broadway production of Breakfast at Tiffany’s opposite Richard Chamberlain, and even did a stint as leading lady to Elvis Presley in his last scripted film Change of Habit (she played a nun and he played a doctor, famously if not believably!).

Julie Andrews as Millie Dillmount: "The happiest star of all!"
Accepting a costarring role opposite Julie Andrews in a movie musical, playing a naive and virginal young woman of the 1920s, seemed to suit her squeaky-clean, girl next door image. (Born-again virgins must have been all the rage in the mid-1960s, with Doris Day handing her crown as the #1 Box Office Star over to everyone’s favorite nanny Julie Andrews who, incredibly, had played a beloved governess in not just one but two iconic blockbuster movies back to back.)

Thoroughly Modern Millie itself is something of an acquired taste if you’re not an aficionado of gay camp, but if you are, this one is a gem. The plot is silly and outlandish (and very politically incorrect), and the music is quaint and old-fashioned (indeed, many of the tunes were real 1920s hits, like “Jazz Baby” and “Baby Face”). Produced by the legendary Ross Hunter (Pillow Talk, Midnight Lace, Madame X), the production design is lavish and over the top, but its great cast is what makes this movie such good fun.  

Mary Tyler Moore as Dorothy Brown: "It's Miss Dorothy..."
With her clear-as-a-bell soprano (with its fabled four-octave range) and briskly efficient vitality, the brassy Dame Julie dominates the proceedings in the title role of Millie Dillmount, but generously shares the spotlight with her costar Moore, who plays the sweet and guileless Miss Dorothy Brown. (Next to the mannish, short-haired Andrews, the lovely Mary appears even more vulnerable and feminine.) Julie and Mary have good chemistry, especially in the scenes where they must tap dance together to keep the old elevator running in the Priscilla Hotel for Young Ladies where they both live.

Beatrice Lillie as Mrs. Meers: "So sad to be all alone in the world..."
A large part of the farcical plot, dealing with a Chinese white slavery ring that spirits away young women who are “all alone in the world,” is patently offensive today. In 1967, it was still socially acceptable to describe Asians as Orientals and paint them as suspicious, mysterious and “inscrutable” characters. In 2002, the film was adapted into a semi-successful Broadway musical, keeping the “Oriental” plotline.

As Mrs. Meers, the Chinese proprietress of the Priscilla Hotel (not to mention a human trafficking organization on  the side), rushing around in a kimono and high black wig adorned with chopsticks, British stage star Beatrice Lillie makes a wacky villainness indeed. But if you can get past the racial implications, Lillie’s expert clowning, deadpan delivery and unerring comic timing are nevertheless a marvel to behold, and the comedienne neatly steals every scene in which she appears. But there’s no way around the discomfort of watching the cringe-worthy stereotypes that Asian actors Jack Soo (Barney Miller) and Pat Morita (Happy Days, The Karate Kid) are forced to play here.

Carol Channing as Muzzy Van Hossmere: "Raspberries!"

If Miss Lillie were not enough to delight fans of camp styling, the film also stars the legendary Carol Channing as a freewheeling bon vivant named Muzzy Van Hossmere—looking like a glittering diamond-and-sequin studded Muppet, braying, croaking and lisping her way into an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress!  Having lost her iconic stage roles of Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly on film to Marilyn Monroe and Barbra Streisand, respectively, the character of Muzzy is basically a composite of Dolly and Lorelei and allowed Channing the opportunity to emblazon her uniquely zany charisma onto celluloid for posterity.

The cast is rounded out by the square-jawed John Gavin (Psycho, Imitation of Life, and a Ross Hunter favorite) who spoofs his own image as a handsome but wooden leading man, and British actor James Fox (The Servant, Remains of the Day) who dances well and sings with a perfect American accent, leading the slap-happy “Tapioca” number with vigorous, goofy charm. (Gavin, now in his mid 80s, went on to serve as Ambassador to Mexico under Ronald Reagan, and Fox has continued to work steadily in films and television well into his late 70s.) 

Dorothy and Millie with "Silly Boy" Jimmy (James Fox)
Miss Dorothy and her love interest Trevor Graydon (John Gavin)

"Tapioca, everybody!"
Old-fashioned musicals like this enjoyed their last gasp of popularity in the mid-1960s, with My Fair Lady named Best Picture of 1964. 1965’s The Sound of Music also won the Best Picture Oscar and occupied the spot of top moneymaking film of all time until Jaws and Star Wars supplanted it a decade later. (Millie, directed by George Roy Hill, garnered seven Oscar nods, including Miss Channing's; it won the award for Best Musical Score.)

But Millie, though the 10th highest grossing movie of that year, was the harbinger of the death of the Hollywood musical. The next year, Julie Andrews herself would tumble from her box office perch with the disastrous Gertrude Lawrence bio-musical  Star!, and Rex Harrison’s Dr. Doolitle would also prove an ignominious failure. Paint Your Wagon flopped miserably, and even Hello, Dolly starring Streisand and helmed by Gene Kelly, did not meet box office expectations. Yes, Oliver! did win the Best Picture Oscar in 1968 in a mediocre film adaptation that beat out the likes of the groundbreaking Rosemary’s Baby and Planet of the Apes, but the Academy then as now was slow to move with the times.

Mary and Julie in rehearsal
But appearing in a movie musical seemed just the ticket for Mary Tyler Moore, who had first come to prominence as a dancer on live TV commercials (as the spritely and aptly named Happy Hotpoint for the home appliance manufacturer), and had held her own in musical interludes with costar Dick Van Dyke (who, of course, also partnered brilliantly with Julie in Mary Poppins). Though Miss Mary sings nary a note in this film (maybe that’s one reason why her Breakfast at Tiffany’s was such a disaster?) she is obviously having a ball in Millie’s spirited “Tapioca” and “Le Chaim” dance numbers.

After the MTM show left the airwaves in 1977, Moore’s greatest film triumph was playing against type as high-strung midwestern mother who loses a child in Robert Redford’s directorial debut Ordinary People, for which she earned her only Best Actress Oscar nomination. But she retained a passion for song and dance, and in the late 1970s even hosted a short-lived musical variety show (with a cast of regulars that included, incredibly, Michael Keaton and David Letterman). In the 1982 film Six Weeks, she played a former dancer and showed off her balletic prowess and always-lithe figure.

Moore, Gavin, Andrews, Fox, Channing and Lillie

In Thoroughly Modern Millie, Mary acquits herself beautifully in the role of Miss Dorothy, proving herself a versatile entertainer and gifted comic actress. (She did after all learn the art of comedy from masters like Van Dyke and Carl Reiner). It’s a lark to see Mary having so much fun, doing what she loved to do, frolicking with a talented ensemble cast, in a soufflé-light film that has become a camp classic.


William said...

I remember seeing "Millie," but it was before I started my movie blog, so I don't exactly recall what I thought of it, but as usual, your excellent write-up makes me want to check it out again.

John Gavin was very good-looking but he really was a rather wooden actor, as you say. He was okay in "Psycho." [Working on a book on the movie years ago I wrote to him when he was ambassador and his reply consisted of mono-syllabic answers: "Yes," "No, Yes" -- great quotes for a book! I think he was sick of "Psycho" and Hollywood!]

MTM's first big role was as the secretary on "Richard Diamond" with David Janssen. All you ever saw was her legs -- and that great voice of hers! Fortunately she went on to bigger things.

Thanks for another great essay, Chris!

angelman66 said...

Hi Bill - what a funny John Gavin story...the strong silent type indeed.

This is the first I have heard about the Richard Diamond show with David Janssen...was he a private eye?

Thank you as always for stopping by. I have no idea whether you would enjoy Millie or not ... but if you watch it, I look forward to reading your opinion of it on your wonderful Great Old Movies blog.
- C

William said...

Janssen was indeed a private eye in "Richard Diamond." (Come to think of it, I think the full title was "Richard Diamond, Private Eye.") The show lasted three seasons, I believe, but Janssen had greater success with the long-running "Fugitive."

Ken Anderson said...

Hi Chris
It's been a while since I've been here and I've some catching up to do! So pleased to see you writing about one of my fave movies from my youth. I saw it when it came out (after it went from roadshow to "popular prices") and I always remember sitting in the balcony of the Embassy Theater on market Street in SF, and not really knowing what I was getting into.
At the time, the film's theme song was a staple on all those easy listening instrumental albums of the day, so I knew of the music but that was it. My older sister more or less dragged me to it and I wasn't expecting much.
Well, I was totally enthralled. This was my first Julie Andrews movie, the first time I ever saw Carol Channing, and my first time seeing mary Tyler Moore in color. We actually sat through the film twice that weekend , then came back the following weekend to see it two more times.

When I watch the film now it's largely nostalgia I'm coasting on, but I still get a kick out of the numbers and performances. It's only the plot that tends to drag for me. But I must say, even as a kid I thought that wedding sequence seemed to stop the film cold in its tracks.

Mary Tyler Moore has always been a favorite, so I'm glad you shed a spotlight on her sole musical outing. I suspect when I watch it again, I'll be a little melancholy the next time Miss Dorothy pulls out her checkbook.
Thanks, Chris, for a very fun read and marvelous trip down memory lane!

angelman66 said...

Hi Ken - thanks for visiting - I am thrilled that you find Millie as charming and winning as I do, and wish I had been there beside you in the theater on Market Street seeing it for the first time!

Funny comment about seeing Mary Tyler Moore in color...remember when the New Dick Van Dyke Show came to TV and in color, only his wife was no longer brunette Laura Petrie but a blonde? (Hope Lange, I think?) For me, Mary, like Lucy, was black-and-white in the afternoon and color at night (on MTM and Here's Lucy).

I agree with you totally that nostalgia has its's incredible how many Pinterest and Tumblr kids who are 20-21-22 years old and LOVE Elvis and Marilyn and Judy, just like me! (And Carol Channing too!) LOL

Cheers to you, ken, and see you soon over at Le Cinema Dreams! I can tell it is going to be a prolific year for you--you are already on fire!!

Quiggy said...

Carol Channing was in this? I've always liked her. She was frequently on TV back in the day when I was a kid, guesting on variety shows and the like.

angelman66 said...

Hey Quiggy - yes, Channing is great in this film and sings two songs! And yes, she was a ubiquitous presence in our childhood on all those musical variety shows, in particular a great and memorable appearance on The Muppet Show.
-Thanks for stopping by as always!!

Elaine @ Classic Movie Treasures said...

I have loved this movie since it was released! Don't remember if I saw in movie theater or not (it's possible). I have two favorite scenes, Beatrice Lilly and the squeaky laundry basket and the first elevator scene where they have to dance to make it go.

Thanks for submitting to The Classic Movie Marathon Link Party. I appreciate it.

angelman66 said...

Hi Elaine - my pleasure - I love your blog and have just started exploring it!
LOVE the idea of the link party! Genius!
Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting, too!