Who’d have dreamed that the 1960s were as dumb as the 1990s? And that Shirley MacLaine was the transitional figure between the serious 1950s and the brainless decade that followed?
For those who believe the dumbing down of American movies is a recent and unprecedented phenomenon, a reeducation is in order. During the period 1961 to 1967, the American movie industry largely abandoned serious themes and so-called message pictures, the kinds of prestige films that, while usually not blockbusters, lent a patina of nobility to a business otherwise reputed to be crass. Examples abound of Hollywood’s rejection of the downbeat and the downcast in favor of the inane. Musicals, whose heyday is generally considered the early 1950s, won three of the five Best Picture awards from 1961 to 1965, if the Oscars are any guide. Among established directors, Billy Wilder switched gears from the mordancy of The Apartment (1960) to the vulgarity of Irma La Douce and Kiss Me, Stupid (1964), and the Mad magazine-level satire of One Two Three (1961) and The Fortune Cookie (1966). Elia Kazan, whose thoughtful filmmaking set the standard for the 1950s, entered the ’60s with a glorified teen flick, Splendor in the Grass. Fred Zinneman, one of the ’50s most serious and prolific craftsmen, saw his output dwindle to one films between 1961 and 1965. Blake Edwards postponed his retooling for a couple of years, doing Breakfast at Tiffany’s in 1961 and Days of Wine and Roses in 1963. But by 1964 he was lost in the lucrative wilderness of The Pink Panther and in 1965 circus-mastered The Great Race. Even Stanley Kramer, whose name was synonymous with earnest, messagey movies, joined the party with 1963’s It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. And other, elder craftsmen like William Wyler, George Stevens, and John Ford were no longer even accommodated, the whole notion of a sensible sensibility being supplanted by something wilder.
Established actors were just as prone to the new irrelevance. Paul Newman, one of the few who might have withstood the trend, turned up in such unlikely fare as A New Kind of Love and What a Way to Go! Kirk Douglas wearied of the heroic and starred in the lone comedy of his prime, For Love or Money, for which he is not well remembered. Tony Curtis, after finally having earned respect as an actor with Sweet Smell of Success and The Defiant Ones, coasted through trifles like Goodbye, Charlie, Boeing Boeing, The Great Race, and Not with My Wife You Don’t. Sidney Poitier was the lone black actor of any renown, but even his vehicles during this period — The Long Ships, The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Bedford Incident — were oblivious to issues of color. He never had a female counterpart of comparable stature. Of female stars, Elizabeth Taylor helped the spectacle cycle breathe its last with Cleopatra (1963), then largely sat out the orgy. Audrey Hepburn maintained her popularity, but in undemanding tinsel like Paris When It Sizzles and My Fair Lady. In fact, the most popular female star of the time was Julie Andrews, a graduate not of RADA but of the musical stage.
This was the era when Hollywood tumbled into bed with Doris Day, James Garner, Rock Hudson, Natalie Wood, Dean Martin, and other breezy specialists in pseudosophisticated boudoir farce. The titles alone express the period’s infatuation with sex and money, ranging from the coy (Move Over Darling, Send Me No Flowers, and Do Not Disturb, all Doris Day vehicles) to the lewd (Who’s Got the Action?, Who’s Been Sleeping in My Bed?, What a Way to Go!, all featuring Dean Martin) to the vulgar (That Touch of Mink, I’d Rather Be Rich, The Yellow Rolls Royce). Performers who came into favor were veterans of variety shows and sitcoms: Robert Goulet, Andy Williams, Tony Randall, and Bobby Darin all savored fleeting screen stardom during this period. The particular skills of the lightweight, the obnoxious, and the ham were suddenly in demand. Jerry Lewis and The Three Stooges enjoyed an inexplicable heyday. Terry-Thomas turned up everywhere. Pamela Tiffin made of air-headedness a viable method of acting.
While the quality of movies (one hesitates to call them films) of this era varied with the talent involved, many shared certain characteristics. For one, the star-studded cast. Films such as the 1960 Pepe (a failed attempt to endear the Mexican comic Cantinflas to American audiences), How the West Was Won (1962), The Longest Day (1963), It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), Is Paris Burning? (1965), A Guide for the Married Man (1967) and Casino Royale (1967) among them cameo’d virtually every SAG member then in good standing. J. Lee Thompson’s What a Way to Go! (1965), while not equaling these others in terms of casting breadth, exceeded them in depth, featuring Shirley MacLaine and an unprecedented roster of marquee males — Paul Newman, Robert Mitchum, Dean Martin, and Gene Kelly — with two veteran TV stars, Dick Van Dyke and Bob Cummings, thrown in for the measure of overkill then seemingly required by the production code.
What a Way to Go is emblematic of the period’s excesses.1 In the screenplay by the able Comden and Green, Ms. MacLaine’s Louisa May is the product of a deprived childhood, and a skeptical convert to the homily that “money is the root of all evil.” Yet each time she marries a man of similar circumstances and outlook, she inadvertently alters his fortune. And each time the husband’s mounting greed brings on a sensational accidental death. She accumulates the wealth of her various deceaseds and then meets Robert Mitchum’s Rod Anderson, a tycoon infinitely wealthier than she. Here, rather than spur her husband on to riches, she encourages him to divest and return to the simple life he betrays a longing for in his dreams (asleep, he utters — no pun intended — the name “Melissa,” who turns out to be a dairy cow). But this plan backfires, literally, when Anderson is put into orbit, having mistaken the bull, Melrose, for Melissa at milking time. Bereft, Louisa returns to her home town, there finding true love at last in the person of Dean Martin’s Leonard Crawley, erstwhile millionaire playboy whose advances Louisa had once spurned but who is now a humble farmer.
Although it seems to possess all the prerequisites for successful camp (i.e., a game cast, knowing screenwriters, and, in J. Lee Thompson, a director with no pretensions to high art), like most comedies of the period it falls stunningly flat, a victim in this case of an apparently limitless bankroll (the movie even parodies its own extravagance in a montage of “Lush Budget” features in which Louisa May stars at Mr. Anderson’s adoring expense), and a script that substitute high-volume hysteria for good gags. To be fair, What a Way to Go! does have its moments, largely thanks to the charm of its male leads. Van Dyke comes on like Rob Petrie on a caffeine high. Dean Martin is breezily repulsive (he is at one point portrayed as, and by, a snake). Paul Newman for once seems to be enjoying himself. Even Robert Mitchum betrays a glint of mischievousness from beneath his mudflap eyelids. And Kelly is ever the trooper, even in the face of inferior material.
Marriage and the necessity thereof was an obsession of the period. In What a Way to Go!, Louisa May is wed five times, attaining the then real-life plateau of Elizabeth Taylor, America’s reigning empress of glamor, whose prodigious rate of husband turnover had nevertheless become an international joke. The frequency of treatment and inevitability of outcome of such films as A Guide for the Married Man, How to Murder Your Wife, Marriage on the Rocks, etc., suggest the urgency felt in redressing the moral imbalance wrought by Ms. Taylor on a public accustomed to having Hollywood validate society’s traditional values.
The fluffiest movies of the early to mid 1960s are also united in their almost complete disavowal of and disdain for “cinematic technique.” It was a parodistic, anti-intellectual movement in which nameless directors deployed the primitive visual language and spatial artificiality of cartoons. Synthetic, implausibly implausible, and heavy-handed (e.g., when in What a Way to Go!, Gene Kelly’s Pinky Pinkston, a fabulously popular film star, is stampeded by fans, the cut is to a charging herd of elephants), these movies revel in bashing the kind of symbolic and speculative cinema then prevalent in Europe (not uncoincidentally, Godard, Truffaut, Bunuel, and Antonioni all did their signature work during this period). Indeed, What a Way to Go! features, among other contemptuous gestures, a low-ball parody of the Godardian jump cut when Mitchum asks, “Have-I-Told-You-Lately-That-I-Love-You?” in the space of ten different, equally lavish sets.
Paralleling the Age of Fluff was the rise of the political thriller, which by 1963 had displaced film noir as the exorcisor of America’s newer, more insistent demons. Film noir had derived from a vague, intellectual conviction that superiority as a world power did not translate into an improvement in human character. But the political thriller took its cue from events whose immediacy everyone could understand. In John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962), democratic government comes within a heartbeat of a Stalinist takeover. Similarly, in the same director’s Seven Days in May (1964), it is a megalomaniacal general who nearly outfoxes an idealistic president. Other films, though not of this genre, touched on topical themes. Advise and Consent (1962) and The Best Man (1964) suggested that the nation was run by men ill suited to the demands of the nuclear age. In the early James Bond films, a British superman repeatedly comes to America’s rescue, intimating that our ingenuous nation was no match for duplicitous European “allies.” Both The Great Race and Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines concerned international competitions to claim technological superiority. Even a comedy as innocuous-seeming as 1965’s The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! played on anxieties that Fortress America was far from impregnable.
The aforementioned political thrillers tiptoed melodramatically around the possibility confronted head-on by Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1963): that positions of power were occupied by nuclear trigger-happy madmen. Strangelove’s impact was reinforced by the virtually simultaneous release of Sidney Lumet’s Fail Safe (1964). In its probity Fail Safe provided a plausible underpinning to Kubrick’s wild speculations, effectively nullifying Strangelove’s opening disclaimer of likelihood. The synthesis of the two films made nuclear Armageddon seem a matter of when and not if.
Was there a relationship between these seemingly disparate trends in American movies? To a degree, the hysterical abandon of films like What a Way to Go! (the title itself being the well-known response to news of a rapturous demise) is understandable when viewed against the fear of impending nuclear holocaust. In the same context, the overloading of films with leading actors in supporting and even bit parts suggests the movies as figurative lifeboats, affording the only kind of survival available — the immortality of the silver screen. The piling on of scenery and costumes was likewise a desperate act, an orgy of consumption before the final bell (witness the famous pie fight in The Great Race).
But while Hollywood may have been preaching “Eat, drink, and be merry,” it nevertheless took care to endorse marital fidelity. It was as though every film of What a Way to Go!’s ilk was composed of a Saturday night and a Sunday morning, in which excessive revelry was absolved in a cleansing sermon. One had to be prepared to meet one’s maker. In A Guide for the Married Man, for instance, Walter Matthau comes this close to consummating the affair whose meticulous planning comprises the film’s narrative. Instead, suddenly conscience-stricken, he hurries home to wife Inger Stevens, while his amoral mentor, Robert Morse, is caught in flagrante. Matthau’s return to the nest is musically accompanied by “There’s No Place Like Home,” in which the audience is encouraged to sing along by following a bouncing ball, no less.
Finally, the vulgar and philistine tone of these films, while inevitably partially attributable to the influence of television, can also be seen as a sarcastic thank you — or an unsarcastic fuck you — addressed to our European betters, the effete and in many cases dead philosophers over whose political theories (and territory, preferably) the Big One would finally be fought, spoiling everybody’s fun. To be sure, much of the strained tone of the films of this era can also be attributed to Hollywood’s not yet having broken the barrier of what it could depict onscreen. Sex, if it was addressed at all, was still presented in the customary wink-wink fashion. Even What a Way to Go!, for all its recklessness and its roster of heart throbs, was in fact utterly sexless. It remains the perfect dysfunctional family film.
If the period 1961 to 1967 attracts further scrutiny, Shirley MacLaine may emerge as its key figure. As a performer capable of Method-style underplaying and an entertainer/comedian adept at expressing comic hysteria, she was perfectly placed to bridge the transition from message movies (Some Came Running, Career, Two for the Seesaw) to massage movies (My Geisha, Irma La Douce, What a Way to Go!, The Yellow Rolls Royce). She even found time, in this the Age of Cameo, for a walk-on in that seminal rat-pack picture Oceans 11. (Ms. MacLaine was a charter member of Frank Sinatra’s Clan, giving her entree into the darker canyons of the New Frontier.) She would end this period with the long-forgotten John Goldfarb Please Come Home (1965), a would-be parody of Cold War machinations that did nothing for the careers of anyone involved with it. It was in fact an awful film, not even deserving of a cult following, but like What a Way to Go!, it is significant for having sounded the death knell of one of American cinema’s least disciplined and most telling episodes. Note: This article appeared in slightly different form in the April 1996 issue of Bright Lights.
- Excess was carried even to many of the titles: Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines or How I Flew From London to Paris in 24 Hours and 11 Minutes appeared in 1965 and 1963, respectively. Interrogative and “How to” titles were also oddly prevalent: Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, What’s So Bad About Feeling Good?, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, How to Save a Marriage and Ruin Your Life, How to Murder Your Wife, How to Stuff a Wild Bikini, How the West Was Won, etc. [↩]