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Call Me Madam


Call Me Madam
Ethel Merman was one of Broadway's biggest stars, creating several classic musical comedy heroines from Annie Oakley to Mama Rose Hovick. The only time Merman was allowed to recreate a role on film that she originated onstage was the 1953 film version of Call Me Madam, a lavish and colorful confection which features one of Irving Berlin's most famous scores and a talented cast backing up the star.

Merman recreates her stage role as Sally Adams, the Washington DC hostess who is appointed by President Harry Truman to be the US Ambassador to a fictional country called Lichtenburg, accompanied by Kenneth Gibson (Donald O'Connor), a former reporter who talks Sally into letting him be her press attache. Upon arrival in Lichtenburg, Sally wants to negotiate a loan to the financially struggling country which forces her to deal with the country's foreign minister, General Cosmo Comstantine (George Sanders), but their mutual attraction muddies their negotiations. Meanwhile, Kenneth has fallen in love at first sight with the country's Royal Princess Maria (Vera-Ellen) even though she has been promised in marriage to another in order for her to someday inherit the throne.

In 1953 MGM still ruled in making the best musicals in Hollywood, but 20th Century Fox did give them a run for their money with films like this and There's No Business Like Show Business. This film has all the elements of a classic musical that you expect, including a somewhat complex story that tends to occasionally get in the way of some terrific song and dance numbers. It was a pleasure seeing Merman actually being allowed to recreate a role onscreen that she created on Broadway, even though, if the truth be told, Ethel Merman pretty much played Ethel Merman in every role she did, but with those pipes nobody really ever cared.

This splashy musical features one musical highlight after another. Merman's opening number "The Hostess with the Mostess" is a winner as is her plea to the General "Can You Use Any Money Today", Donald O'Connor's silky vocal on It's a Lovely Day works beautifully into a dance with Vera-Ellen as does another song, "Something to Dance About" Vera-Ellen also has a lavish production number called "The Ocarina" staged by Robert Alton which I think might have been an inspiration for his "Mandy" number in White Christmas. Needless to say, the musical highlight was the melding of two songs "Wonder Why" and "You're Just in Love", flawlessly performed by Merman and O'Connor. Mention should also be made of a terrific dance solo from O'Connor called "What Chance Have I with Love" where a drunken Kenneth destroys an outdoor cafe.

I have never seen the show onstage, but I would like to think that this movie is pretty close to the stage show. Walter Lang's direction is very structured, if a little self-indulgent. There are a couple of slow spots that make the film a little longer than it need be. Fox poured a lot of money into this film, evidenced by the elaborate sets and the breathtaking costumes received an Oscar nomination. Alfred Newman did win an Oscar for the scoring, but it is the rare chance to see Broadway's greatest Diva strut her stuff onscreen that makes this one worth checking out.