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Laramie Movie Scope:
Call Me Madam

An oldie surfaces at last

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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July 1, 2005 -- “Call Me Madam” is a 1953 romantic comedy musical film which had been lost to the public for years because of disputes over film rights. It finally emerged from legal limbo last year and I got a chance to screen the DVD recently. It is a typical 1950s Hollywood treatment of a Broadway musical: Lush color, elaborate sets, big song and dance numbers, thin plot, indifferent acting. There are, however, three reasons to see this one, a rare film appearance by Broadway legend Ethel Merman, magical song and dance numbers by the legendary Donald O'Connor (“Singin' in the Rain”) and some snappy, politically savvy dialogue.

This ultralight piece of fluff is actually partly based on fact. Perle Mesta, a wealthy Washington socialite, held the post of U.S. minister to Luxembourg from 1949 to 1953. Although the movie makes it look like she got the job because she threw great parties, it had more to do with the fact she served on the finance committee of President Harry S Truman's successful campaign. In the movie, Perle is represented as the character Sally Adams, played by Ethel Merman, who played the same part in the hit broadway play of the same name.

Merman lights up the screen with her larger-than-life personality. The part was written specifically for her during her heyday as the most dominant star on broadway. Legendary songwriter Irving Berlin wrote the music for the play. Berlin's music, as well as additional music by another gifted musician, Alfred Newman, is heard in the film. The DVD features a fine Dolby® Digital 2 soundtrack. The dance numbers are choreographed by the innovative Robert Alton. The film features a couple of great dance scenes with Donald O'Connor. In one, he energetically and drunkenly dances alone through a fanciful restaurant set, smashing everything to bits and popping balloons with his sharpened shoes. In another, he gracefully dances with the lovely Princess Maria (Vera-Ellen of “White Christmas”) around and across a courtyard pond.

The film also has several other good musical numbers, including Merman's performance of “Hostess With the Mostess.” She has one other big musical number in the film where she belts out a tune as only Merman can (she was famous for making herself heard in the back row of the biggest theater without the need for amplification). There is also a sweet duet with O'Connor. It is one of those numbers you only see in musicals where two people are singing two different songs at once, but it works anyway. The film is incredibly lighthearted. There are some sly digs at Washington politics and the critics who dogged Truman's daughter's troubled singing career. I did not catch some of these veiled political and show business references in the first watching since all this Truman stuff happened when I was just a child. The dialogue is pretty snappy with some good one-liners.

Mostly, however, this is a starring vehicle for Merman. When she's on the screen, you don't notice anyone else. She's like a million watt light. Next to her, nobody shines. When she belts out a tune, you can't help but smile. This film rates a C+.

This Twentieth Century Fox Home Video was released in April of last year. In addition to the regular soundtrack, there is a commentary track by Miles Kreuger, an expert on musicals. This is not your usual off-the-cuff commentary. Krueger recites a huge volume of material about the film, including exhaustive background information on just about every actor. He notes, for instance that Ludwig Stössel (the Grand Duke), who appeared in many films, is best remembered for a 60-second uncredited cameo in Casablanca (“what watch?”). Krueger doesn't just chatter away for the whole soundtrack. He stays quiet during the big musical and dance numbers, letting them speak for themselves. If there are any questions you have about this film, Krueger's thoroughly-researched, voluminous commentary will likely have an answer for you. The print looked flawless to me and the sound quality was good, with a very wide dynamic range. The film was originally shot in the old 1.37:1 (4.11:3) cinema academy format, so it doesn't need the widescreen treatment since the standard 4:3 television aspect ratio is very close to the original. This DVD rates a B.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in video and/or DVD format, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2005 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)