Sunday, February 1, 2009

THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE (Universal 1967) Universal Home Video

In 1967, director George Roy Hill’s Thoroughly Modern Millie must have seemed like foolhardy folly at best: the rather bizarre and featherweight slapstick tale of a scatterbrain 1920s flapper who, with her equally obtuse friends, foils a white slavery ring in New York’s old China town is a strange amalgam of stylistic elements and movie genres. Yet, the screenplay by Richard Morris never wanes in its conviction of selling this claptrap as legit.

Better still; the entire cast seems to believe the essence of the story, putting forth the most remarkably implausible assortment of narrative bits like a great jigsaw puzzle of utter hilarity with complete conviction. As a result, the film scores on almost every level. It is a great piece of escapist entertainment.

Fresh from Kansas, Millie Dillmount (Julie Andrews) is renting a room at a hotel for 'women only' run by the treacherous Mrs. Meers (Beatrice Lillie). Although a farm girl at heart, Millie’s eye is on the prize of snagging herself a wealthy husband. To this end she bobs her hair, raises her skirt and takes up employment in an insurance office run by Trevor Graydon (John Gavin) – a handsome potential suitor. Millie is instantly smitten with Trevor although he is somewhat of a stuffed shirt who fails to take advantage of her obvious charms and even more obvious advances.

New arrival to this homestead, Dorothy Brown (Mary Tyler Moore) is presumably an orphan, utterly green in the ways of the world and quickly taken under Millie's wing. At a hotel dance party the two women are introduced to spunky Jimmy Smith (James Fox); a rather forward fellow who delights the entire room by inventing a dance called the Tapioca. Millie is attracted to Jimmy from the start. But she resists her own feelings to pursue Trevor, all the while oblivious to the fact that Trevor and Dorothy have fallen in love.

Jimmy invites Millie and Dorothy for a weekend at the fashionable Long Island home of a wealthy socialite, Muzzy (Carol Channing). When Millie tells Muzzy about her plans to marry rich, Muzzy forewarns that a marriage without genuine passion is no life at all. Millie agrees. Recognizing that she is in love with Jimmy – and not Trevor – Millie makes plans for a midnight rendezvous in Jimmy’s bedroom.

However, upon sneaking down the hall toward Jimmy’s room, Millie witnesses Jimmy take Dorothy by the hand in her negligee and lead her into his bedroom instead. Heart sore, Millie goes back to her job and pursuing Trevor until Jimmy, thoroughly confused and jilted, scales the office building and climbs into Millie’s window to demand an explanation.

In the meantime, female roomers continue to come and go – or rather, disappear - from Mrs. Meer’s hotel. Unbeknownst to everyone, Mrs. Meers and her two accomplices (Jack Soo and Pat Morita) are running a white slavery ring; drugging unsuspecting boarders in their bedroom and shipping them off to a brothel in the Far East. A pit stop along the way is a fireworks factory in Old China Town.

After Dorothy suddenly breaks their engagement, Trevor becomes suspicious and encourages Millie and Jimmy to go undercover and learn what has become of the girl he would like to marry. In drag, Jimmy is drugged by Mrs. Meers, stuffed into a trunk and hauled off to the fireworks factory. Millie, who has managed to tail the laundry truck used in the getaway, accidentally discovers the whereabouts of Jimmy and Dorothy when she tosses a lit cigarette through an open window at the factory, thereby setting off a chain of events leading to the complete evacuation of the brothel.

Thoroughly Modern Millie is a sublime screwball comedy with musical numbers thrown in for good measure. The score is hardly trend-setting but it is highly enjoyable. Julie Andrews is given the bulk of the songs to sing and does so in perfect pitch. Despite the fact that we rarely get to see complete musical numbers from start to finish (most are usually interrupted with bits of dialogue or simply end abruptly) the choreography is swift and brilliant at capturing the ‘who the hell cares’ attitude of the flapper ‘20s. Jean Louis’ costumes strike just the right note of garish decadence with Howard Bristol’s set decoration a winning compliment. In the final analysis, Thoroughly Modern Millie offers us a thoroughly enjoyable good time.

Universal Home Video’s anamorphic DVD leaves something to be desired. Although the image is generally bright with bold colors, many scenes contain more grain than expected. When the image is smooth it is very smooth with nicely realized flesh tones. Unfortunately, these are not always consistently rendered. Under the main title, skin appears as very pasty beige. Elsewhere it is sometimes pink and at other moments quite orange.

Dissolves, fades and other transitions between scenes exhibits a decided downgrade in visual quality with muddy colors and a lot of grain resulting from the dupe processing. Finally, Universal’s chapter index inexplicably leaves no listing for the very first scene in the film. One either has to sit through the preceding Overture or flash forward to the Main Title sequence – omitting the first abduction sequence in the film. The audio is Dolby Surround but very strident in spots. There are NO extras.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)