ANYTHING GOES (Paramount 1956) Paramount Home Video
Few movie musicals from Hollywood’s silver age are as noteworthy for their utter dearth of joy and stupefying absence of charm as Robert Lewis’ Anything Goes (1956), arguably, Paramount’s badly bungled second attempt to pull off what, on Broadway, had been Cole Porter’s grand and glorious show of shows. The Broadway derivative, hailing all the way back to 1934, had been a bawdy, brassy and boisterous smash hit, featuring the likes of Ethel Merman as Reno Sweeney, an evangelist turned nightclub singer. There is no Reno in Lewis’ reboot. Indeed, the picture bears only a passing fancy to its Broadway roots, instead to regurgitate the very tired old yarn of a pair of bumbling American impresarios, played by Donald O’Connor and Bing Crosby, having signed two women to the same part in their proposed Broadway show. Whoops! The original idea for the Broadway stagecraft was set aboard an ocean liner and involved a bomb threat, shipwreck, and human trafficking on a desert island. Fate intervened when the SS Morro Castle was actually destroyed by an explosive device, making the original premise inadvertently reek of dubious taste. So, Anything Goes’ entire modus operandi shifted to Billy Crocker, a Wall St. broker, haplessly in love with a nameless girl he met at a party. Crocker’s employer, Elisha J. Whitney, orders him abroad on business, and Crocker reluctantly sets sail aboard the S.S. American. Also, on board, Reno Sweeney who quickly develops a crush on Crocker. Miraculously, Crocker and his gal/pal from the previous evening are reunited; she, being the heiress, Hope Harcourt, escorted by her mama for an arranged marriage to fiancé, Lord Evelyn Oakleigh.
Rather ingeniously, Porter’s original stagecraft inveigled this triumvirate of hapless and lovesick players in a twisted mélange of misdirection and mayhem; predictably, to emerge triumphant before the final curtain call. Rather idiotically, the screenplay for Lewis’ reboot, cobbled together by Sidney Sheldon and Howard Lindsay, all but jettisons any references to the original, while choosing – mostly – to retain its pop standards and smash hit singles – reconstituted as little more than filler for some interminably dull badinage between our four leads; Broadway producers, Bill Benson (Bing Crosby) and Ted Adams (Donald O’Connor), American chorine, Patsy Blair (Mitzi Gaynor) and Parisian nightclub performer, Gaby Duvall (Jeanmarie). Bill discovers Patsy in England, while Ted finds Gaby in Paris. On their return voyage to America each man, accompanied by the gal he has already signed as their leading lady, stumble and fumble through a series of harried misdirection. The Atlantic becomes stormy even as Bill and Ted grapple to keep their prospective women apart while trying, rather desperately, to figure out a way of letting the girls down easy.
Retaining Porter’s saucy Anything Goes (albeit, with rewritten lyrics to appease the Hollywood censors), You're the Top, I Get a Kick Out of You, It's De-Lovely, and Blow, Gabriel, Blow; the obfuscation of Porter’s smash hit is further disturbed by the excision of what were considered his ‘lesser songs’ – replaced by new – and not nearly as good – numbers written by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn (no slouches in the music department, though on this occasion, unable to hold even the proverbial ‘candle’ to Porter’s song-writing genius, with the largely forgettable (though expertly danced), You Can Bounce Right Back, and, Second-hand Turban. With the exception of the title tune, staged by Ernie Flatt, and Jeanmarie’s solo, choreographed by Roland Petit – her husband – the rest of the numbers were staged with flat-footed resolve by Nick Castle in precisely the sort of heavy-handed debacle that usually ends careers with a vainglorious thud.
As Paramount had already released a movie musical in 1936 (also starring Crosby) that more accurately followed the plot of the original stage show, the executive decision was made to deviate about as far as was creatively possible from that effort here. Regrettably, what should have been a joyous celebration of, at least, Porter’s musical prowess is, instead, transformed into an absurd and garishly disposable mess for the masses. Anything Goes effectively rounded out Bing Crosby’s tenure with the studio he had considered his alma mater for nearly 25 years. It was decidedly a sour note for Crosby to exit; Der Bingle’s usually laid-back charm, sideswiped into submission and swamped by some truly outlandish production values. Before setting sail, Bill’s agent and producer, Victor Lawrence (Kurt Kasznar) finagles an awkward introduction with the new kid on the block, Ted Adams. The two perform an impromptu soft shoe peppered in corny bits of Vaudeville that probably should have remained buried as part of that forgotten gem in the American theater as, in VistaVision, with a lot of Technicolor to make it sparkle, such campy homages were decidedly even more glaringly out of time, step and place with the more popular tastes of its day.
The picture’s plot – such as it is – continued to lumber and lag, first to England - where Bill signs American dancer, Patsy Blair to headline the show; then, to France, where Ted inadvertently hires Gaby Duval for the same part. The rest of the story basically drags this complicated foursome, further confused when Ted romantically falls for Patsy and Bill, Gaby. A subplot – or sorts – thinly, a homage to the stage show, involves Patsy’s father, Steve (Phil Harris), desperate to evade the tax collector and some jail time. As luck would have it, Steve gets a reprieve in the end and just in time to attend the artistic fiasco that is Bill and Ted’s opening night on Broadway. Joseph MacMillan Johnson and Hal Pereira’s art direction transforms virtually every moment in Anything Goes into a gaudy nightmare. Rather than lush, the various staging and sets meant to showcase these lavishly appointed production numbers are instead outlandish and glitzy – made even more unattractive by John F. Warren’s blundered and flat cinematography. In a threadbare plot wrought with possibilities, director, Lewis manages to make the least out of what he has been given, while Nick Castle, overly zealous to transform even a modest number into a showstopping zinger, results in both an ambition and an oversight from which the picture never recovers.
Mitzi Gaynor’s rendition of the iconic title track is virtually drowned out by a chorus of cavorting dancers (whose footwork does not match the taps heard on the pre-recorded soundtrack), tossing her about the proscenium like a rag doll. Worse, Gaynor is forced to warble a revised version of the song, even changing the reference from ‘four-letter words’ to ‘three-letter words’ (which makes no sense), as ‘four-letter’ implied obscenities the Hollywood censor would, quite simply, not tolerate. Jeanmarie’s thickly accented and fractured version of ‘I Get A Kick Out Of You’ sticks in the craw, its subtly erotic slink turned ghoulish by a pack of anorexic, leering male dancers, in top coats sans dress shirts. The whole crazy affair culminates in a wildly dull finale; ‘Blow Gabriel, Blow’; the most uninspired bit of super-kitsch in the piece, to unite Crosby, O’Connor, Gaynor and Jeanmarie for a bit of nimble-footed, if flatly executed narcissism, set against one of the ugliest impressionist backdrops in musical history. Ironically, Anything Goes became a film where anything and everything went – including all hope of achieving even a modicum of artistic sensibilities or chic good taste.
Paramount’s DVD is a mixed bag. Though the original VistaVision elements appear to be in reasonably good shape, there is a curious toggling of the image quality between bright and bouncy Technicolor and some brief shots, generally dark, under exposed and poorly contrasted. For the most part, colors are rich, vibrant and stable. Also, there are several instances where the image appears overly soft and slightly out of focus – hardly, living up to VistaVision’s claim in motion picture ‘high fidelity.’ Contrast is consistent throughout and age-related artifacts are not an issue. Neither are digital anomalies. The audio has been remixed to 5.1 Dolby Digital (original VistaVision lacked the ability to include anything but directionalized single channel ‘Perspecta-sound.’ Paramount has also included the original mono mix. There are no extras. Bottom line: Anything Goes bears no earthly resemblance to the Cole Porter show from whence its title derives. Those seeking a suitable reincarnation of that experience may wish to seek out Paramount’s 1936 movie instead. Although it too deviates from the hit-making stage masterpiece, the results thinly replicate a wan ghost flower of that experience. This movie is merely its bastard child. Judge and buy accordingly.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)