Call Me Madam (1953)
Merman had recently wowed in another show by Berlin, Annie Get Your Gun, which opened on Broadway in 1946 and ran for a staggering 1,147 performances. She didn’t plan on starring in another show so soon, but when her friends, the married playwrights Howard Lindsay and Dorothy Stickney, suggested a musical based on real life DC society hostess Perle Mesta, Merman jumped at the chance.
Mesta was a powerful woman who became a fixture in Washington high society in the 1940s and ’50s. She was fabulously wealthy–when her husband died in 1925, she was the sole heir to his $1 billion fortune (in today’s money)–but plainspoken and funny, much like the character Sally Adams in the show. Mesta was appointed Ambassador to Luxembourg in 1949 by President Harry Truman, and served in that position until the spring of 1953.
Inspired by Mesta’s life and her recent ambassadorship, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse wrote the book of Call Me Madam, and Berlin provided the music. Fortunately, Mesta was delighted with the show and she and Merman became good friends. Merman wrote in her autobiography that “We took to each other at once,” and Mesta even threw parties in Merman’s honor. On the musical’s opening night, Merman asked Mesta if she wanted to take a curtain call, and “She shot back, ‘If I’m there, who’ll stop me?’”
The show opened in October 1950, won four Tonys (Best Score, Best Actress for Merman, Best Featured Performer for Russell Nype, who played Ken Gibson, and Best Stage Technician for Pete Feller) and played for 644 performances until May 1952. Fun fact: dancer Tommy Rall appeared as a “Principal Dancer” in the show. And Elaine Stritch was Merman’s understudy and later starred in the national tour.
Although Merman was a hit on stage, she had not enjoyed similar success on screen. Merman’s talent was almost too large for the silver screen and played better to the balcony. She’d made some musicals in the 1930s, though they weren’t the smash hits she experienced on Broadway, and her last appearance in a movie was 1943’s Stage Door Canteen. It’s telling that despite her success in Annie Get Your Gun on stage, for example, MGM cast Judy Garland in the movie version, though she was replaced by Betty Hutton.
So it wasn’t a given that Merman would star in the film adaptation of Call Me Madam. But thanks to Irving Berlin’s lobbying, Fox took a chance and cast Merman in the movie. The studio welcomed her back to Hollywood and even gave her Betty Grable‘s dressing room for the duration of filming. Fun fact: the only other cast member from the Broadway show to make the leap was Lilia Skala, who has a small role as the Grand Duchess.
Cast opposite Merman was George Sanders, who had never appeared in a musical before. But he did his own singing and won praise for his voice. The movie also starred Donald O’Connor and Vera-Ellen. O’Connor was one year removed from his most famous role in Singin’ in the Rain (1952), and Vera-Ellen was about one year away from arguably her most famous role in White Christmas (1954). The pair perform some wonderful dances together.
Although the transition from stage to screen often includes substantial edits, this musical made the leap mostly unscathed. The score is intact except for one song from the play, “They Like Ike.” In the two years since the play opened on Broadway, “They Like Ike” had become “I Like Ike,” and Eisenhower used it during the campaign for his 1952 presidential run. Fox deemed it too political, and replaced it with a 1913 Berlin song, “That International Rag.” And Berlin added another song, “What Chance Have I With Love?” as a solo number for O’Connor.
To the film! Informative titles take us back in time to 1951, which was most likely done to keep Harry Truman president. He held the office until January 1953.
Then we watch Sally Adams (Ethel Merman) sworn in as the new ambassador to Lichtenburg, a fictional country based on Luxembourg.
She sings “Hostess with the Mostest” to the assembled reporters, and we learn that she is an oil heiress from Oklahoma who has taken Washington by storm. Now, her friend “Harry,” President Truman, has appointed her ambassador to a small European nation roughly the size of Brooklyn. That evening at her farewell shindig, a newly unemployed reporter named Ken Gibson (Donald O’Connor) offers to be her press attache.
She accepts after he provides her with a speech to read to the newsreel cameras:
And then they’re off to Lichtenburg!
As Sally gets settled at the embassy in one of her many spectacular costumes and glittering diamonds…
…negotiations are underway between the Grand Duke of Lichtenburg and a neighboring kingdom over the marriage of the Duke’s niece, Princess Maria (Vera-Ellen), and Prince Hugo (Helmut Dantine). But Lichtenburg is too poor to pay the hefty dowry, and Hugo’s country won’t agree to the engagement without it.
Lichtenburg’s Prime Minister (Walter Slezak) is confident that the new American ambassador will loan them the 100 million dollars. But when he asks Sally, she refuses outright, just as Washington advised her to.
But when dashing foreign minister General Cosmo Constantine (George Sanders) arrives to introduce himself, Sally falls for him immediately. And then offers him any amount of money he might want. She emphasizes her point with the brassy song, “Can You Use Any Money Today?” One thing you notice early on in this movie is that it feels somewhat stagey. Except for O’Connor and Ellen’s far-flung dance numbers, the songs are mostly performed in one room without much choreography.
Anyway, to Sally’s surprise, Cosmo refuses the loan. Unlike his colleagues in the Cabinet, he doesn’t want any foreign aid, and believes his program of reforms can revitalize the country on its own.
While Sally is falling for Cosmo, Ken goes hat shopping for the evening’s formal presentation to the Grand Duke. His hat salesman is none other than Fritz Feld, whom you may recognize as the doctor in Bringing Up Baby (1938).
After he buys the hat, he wanders to the music section, and a lovely young lady mistakes him for a salesman. They sing “It’s a Lovely Day Today” and she helpfully displays the sheet music, which has Irving Berlin’s face on it!
Fun fact: Vera-Ellen’s voice was dubbed by Carol Richards in this movie. Richards was a popular radio and TV performer who recorded songs with Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, and Bob Hope, among others. She also dubbed Cyd Charisse‘s singing voice in Brigadoon (1954) and Silk Stockings (1957).
Ken falls for the woman before she reveals that she is actually Princess Maria, and therefore off limits. Ouch.
That evening, Sally wows the court at her formal presentation.
She has a wonderful time dancing with Cosmo until her charge de affaire, a stuffy man named Pemberton Maxwell (Billy De Wolfe), suggests that Cosmo is only paying attention to her for foreign policy reasons. Maxwell claims that Cosmo’s refusal of foreign aid is really reverse psychology: he wants the money, but by refusing it he hopes endear himself to Sally, and end up with millions and millions of American dollars. Or something.
Sally is bummed. But not too bummed to perform an old hit, “That International Rag.” This is the song that replaced “They Like Ike.”
Fun fact: if you look closely at the glamorous crowd, you might notice two gowns that were first seen in On The Riviera (1951), another Fox production. The green striped number seen on Corinne Calvet has some added rosebuds on the skirt, and the pink and purple tulle dress worn by Gene Tierney has a different top, but I’m pretty sure it’s the same skirt. Travilla designed the costumes for that film, though Oleg Cassini created Tierney’s outfits. I imagine Irene Sharaff, who was the costume designer on Call Me Madam, raided the Fox costume warehouse to dress extras in these big scenes.
After the song, Ken and Maria sneak off to the terrace and dance to “It’s a Lovely Day Today” in the moonlight. Robert Alton, who worked on The Harvey Girls (1946), Show Boat (1951), and White Christmas (1954), among many others, staged the dances in this movie.
You can watch the performance here:
It reminds me of “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing” number in White Christmas, down to the pink petticoat, though that came later.
Ken knows his romance with the Princess is forbidden. After all, she’s already engaged, plus she’s the heir to the throne and can’t marry some low level diplomat. But he’s still sad about it. Fortunately, Sally has some wise words in the form of the great duet, “You’re Just in Love.”
You can watch it here:
In between all of this drama, Sally has several phone conversations with “Harry,” President Truman. The scenes illustrate the pair’s close relationship, and also contain several jokes about the President’s daughter, Margaret. She was a singer and actress who famously received a bad review after a concert in 1950. Her dad wrote an even more scathing response to the critic, and when we hear Sally’s one-sided conversations with Harry, she always asks how Margaret’s show is doing, and generally gets a negative response. It’s highly topical, but audiences in 1953 would have gotten the jokes.
Soon it’s time for Lichtenburg’s famous fair. Sally attends, but the slimy Prime Minister tries to seduce her, so she doesn’t have a very nice time.
But Princess Maria wows with a dance performance. You might be able to pick out dancer Barrie Chase, famous for her “Mutual, I’m sure,” line in White Christmas, as well as appearances in tons of musicals. And look for George Chakiris, best known for West Side Story (1961), but also present in the “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me” number in White Christmas, and “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). Also look for John Brascia, who partners Ellen in the “Mandy,”, “Choreography,” and “Abraham” numbers in White Christmas. I wonder if Robert Alton got to hire dancers he liked, which is why there is overlap between this movie and White Christmas, even though the latter was a Paramount production.
You can watch it here:
Find them? White Christmas was two movies away for Vera-Ellen, but it’s fun to think of what was in store for her.
After her dance, Ken runs into Maria, but Prince Hugo warns him to stay away from her. Then Maria seconds the warning, knowing that they shouldn’t allow their infatuation to go any further. This sends poor Ken into a drunken tailspin which ends in a great dance at a bar. But he also destroys a bunch of stuff and gets arrested.
You can watch it here:
The next day, Sally covers for Ken with the embassy, and then arranges for him to meet the Princess in a wine cellar accessed by a tunnel running between the palace and the embassy. The pair express their love, and Maria explains that she might not have to marry Prince Hugo after all because the marriage is contingent on Lichtenburg securing the huge American loan. And it doesn’t look like that is going to happen.
Then they perform a joyful dance to “Something to Dance About.” Ellen and O’Connor are well-matched and a delight to watch. And costume designer Irene Sharaff wastes no opportunity for colored petticoats underneath Ellen’s full, danceable skirts!
You can watch it here:
Lest we forget the other romance in the film, we cut to the embassy where Sally is entertaining Cosmo at a private dinner. She is determined to stay strong and ignore his charms, but they almost immediately fall into each other’s arms and forget all about diplomatic strategy. They also sing the terrific song, “The Best Thing For You Would Be Me.” Although the plot is sometimes silly, this movie has a wonderful score.
Just look at Sally’s dress with the back brooch! I love these 1950s musicals where every scene is an opportunity for a show stopping costume.
Now that Sally is happily in love, she determines to secure the $100 million loan for Cosmo, even though he still claims he doesn’t want it. She doesn’t believe him and wants to help Lichtenberg, so at her request, three senators arrive from DC to investigate. (All of this loan business is a reference to Truman’s $13 billion Marshall Plan implemented to help rebuild Western Europe post-WWII.)
The senators are impressed with Lichtenburg and especially with Cosmo, and the Cabinet knows it. So they dissolve the government and name Cosmo Prime Minister, hoping that this drastic move will further encourage the US to make the loan.
It works, but when the senators give Cosmo the good news, he refuses the money! He really does want to avoid foreign aid and instead rebuild his country from within. But the senators won’t take no for an answer, so Cosmo resigns in protest, and then gets mad at Sally for pushing the loan in the first place. Oh, dear.
Even her chartreuse evening gown and hair sparkles can’t placate him. She sure has a consistent hair style in this movie.
Now that Cosmo is out of the government, Lichtenburg will definitely accept the American loan, thus enabling Maria and Hugo’s marriage. Ken and Maria meet once more in the wine cellar, and Ken asks the princess to renounce her claim to the throne and marry him, instead. Bold move! She cries and says she can’t do it, but I’m distracted by her complicated chartreuse blouse! Is that particular shade of green the color of heartbreak? Both women wear it when their relationships end.
So now Sally and Ken are heartbroken, though things get worse when President Truman learns that Sally has been interfering with Lichtenburg’s state marriage plans by helping Ken and Maria meet. Truman releases Sally from the ambassadorship and calls her back to DC.
Sally is upset, but everyone else in Washington is delighted that the “hostess with the mostest” is back! We even get a charming song about the invitations to her welcome home party, sung by three secretaries.
But Sally isn’t her bubbly self at the party, and her mood gets worse when Ken tells her that Cosmo has been named the ambassador to the US, and just arrived in DC with a female companion. But his female companion is Maria, who has renounced her claim to the throne and traveled to America to marry Ken.
I have a hard time with this development because Ken and Maria really don’t know each other, it’s unclear why they like each other, and marrying Ken is an enormous sacrifice on her part.
I don’t foresee a happy ending for this pair. Will she be able to adjust to life as a “normal” person, especially as the wife of a low level government employee? Will she miss home terribly? Will they realize they have nothing in common? Oh well. On the other hand, they dance beautifully together, and in musicals that usually means true love.
For now, just enjoy her strange, pleated cape dress with sparkly bow at the back of her neck and baby blue gloves. Also, the cherry blossoms are still blooming even though they were blooming at the beginning of the movie. So has only a few days passed? Or are these magical cherry trees? Don’t worry about it.
Soon Sally and Cosmo join the younger couple in bliss. Cosmo announces he loves Sally and gives her a medal from Lichtenburg. Time for the final song, a medley of “You’re Just in Love” and “Something to Dance About.”
The Broadway version of Call Me Madam closed its run in May 1952, and production began on the film adaptation that September. This movie was in production until the end of October, with about two weeks of filming at the end of November, too. It premiered in Los Angeles on March 4, 1953, and became a hit. Fun fact: Perle Mesta finished her almost four year stint as Ambassador to Luxembourg on April 13, 1953, about a month after the movie premiered!
Just as with I Love Melvin, which premiered on March 20, 1953, the relatively new medium of TV got in on the advertising for this movie. Ed Sullivan’s “Toast of the Town” show included previews of the movie, a promotion explained in the trade papers. Nowadays we are used to trailers on TV, but this was still a relatively new strategy in 1953.
Audiences enjoyed Call Me Madam, and critics were mostly kind, too. Variety wrote that “‘Call Me Madam’ has been picturized to the hilt in terms of cash values. Elaborate, bright and zesty, it can’t miss as an important b.o. click.” The review praised O’Connor and Ellen’s dancing, Sanders’ performance, and Merman, who “is at her robust best with a tune.” The only criticism concerns pace, a tricky thing given the movie’s 13 songs, but overall, “‘Madam’ is a competent job although in a few spots the editing could have been tighter.”
Motion Picture Daily raved that “If there were more pictures like this Ethel Merman starring production, there would be no need to worry over TV competition or the confusion resulting from the inroads being made by tri-dimensional films and panoramic screens. In short, ‘Call Me Madam’ is tops.”
The Irving Berlin music, the dance creations of Robert Alton, the color by Technicolor, the costume designs by Irene Sharaff, Arthur Sheekman’s screenplay, Walter Lang’s direction and producer Sol Siegel’s deft supervision, plus superb sets and a flawless cast, are combined to make this the fastest 114 minutes of entertainment to come along in many a moon.
The New York Times review was positive, too:
Whatever pleasure Ethel Merman bestowed in Call Me Madam on the stage – and the evidence is that it was plenty as she played it on Broadway 644 times – may be counted a minor fraction of the pleasure she is sure to convey as the boss-lady of this gay fandango in repeating it on the screen. For the sleek Technicolored movie version of the popular musical comedy…is an admirable duplication of the show as presented on the stage. And, in it, the wonderful Miss Merman is better than ever-in spades!
The film received two Academy Award nominations, one for Irene Sharaff’s Costume Design (Color) and one for Alfred Newman‘s Scoring of a Musical Picture. Newman won, but Sharaff lost to the Biblical epic The Robe. Fun fact: the Oscars ceremony was co-hosted that year by Donald O’Connor and Fredric March.
Call Me Madam reinvigorated Merman’s standing in Hollywood. The next year, she and O’Connor were reunited in There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954), which also starred Marilyn Monroe, Dan Dailey, and Mitzi Gaynor. Merman would appear frequently on TV, the stage, and in movies through the 1970s.
And enjoy these production plans for a clock number that didn’t make the final movie, and early plans for the “It’s a Lovely Day Today” terrace dance.