How to Make Me Smile

March 28th, 2017 by Max Allan Collins

As you may have gathered, if you’ve stopped by here at all frequently, I am a collector of movies on Blu-ray and DVD. Many of my favorite films have made it onto Blu-ray, like Kiss Me Deadly and Gun Crazy (though I had to get that from Germany). And a fairly short list of my favorites remain on DVD only, like the Chinatown sequel, The Two Jakes, and the great film version of the Broadway musical, Li’l Abner.

One of my favorites, poorly represented with a terrible transfer on DVD, has finally made it to Blu-ray, in a limited edition of 3000, from Twilight Time, the boutique label that has brought us any number of terrific films, from The Big Heat to the Hammer Hound of the Baskervilles, from a Sinatra Tony Rome double feature to Pretty Poison.

But this time – and my birthday month yet – they have given me (and Barb and for that matter son Nate, who also loves it) a film I could watch once a week – How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

There are those who can find reasons not to like this movie, just as there are people who can find a reason not to like ice cream. They are to be pitied. How to Succeed features a brilliant, witty, acid but not hateful score by the brilliant Frank Loesser. A Pulitzer Prize-winning musical (yes, Pulizter Prize-winning musical) in 1961, the Broadway version skewered the shallowness of big business in an up-to-the-moment manner. Unfortunately, the timing of the film’s release – 1967 – made How to Succeed’s cutting-edge satire seem dated, a lot having happened since ‘61.

Fortunately, time has been kind to this early ‘60s musical, with its bright Batman TV colors and cartoon images come to life (cartoonist Virgil Partch – VIP – was a consultant) and Bob Fosse choreography that is as witty and biting as the original play itself. (Fosse is not the actual choreographer of the film, but he’s credited as the source.)

A number of players from the Broadway show are retained, including Michelle Lee (who was the second Rosemary Pilkington in the original cast), the very funny Rudy Vallee, Ruth Kobart, and Sammy Smith, with Charles Nelson Reilly’s Bud Frump M.I.A., though decently replaced by Anthony Teague. Maureen Arthur – a live-action Little Annie Fannie – was in the national company of the musical and joined the Broadway run later.

I saw the national company in Chicago when I was in high school and fell in love with the musical then. The cast included Dick Kallman as Finch (later star of Hank on TV), who was excellent, with the second Great Gildersleeve, Willard Watterman, in the Rudy Vallee role. And of course the eye-popping Maureen Arthur was Hedy LaRue (“O.K. Charlie!”).

Two things make this film one of the best transitions of a Broadway hit to the big screen. First, director/writer David Swift – with credits like Pollyanna and Under the Yum Yum Tree enough to make one doubtful – had the surprising sense to film faithfully a show that had won seven Tony Awards, the New York Drama Critics Circle award, and the 1962 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

The other thing is Robert Morse.

His J. Pierrepont Finch is my favorite performance in any musical film. He shamelessly recreates the Broadway role with only the slightest concession to movie technique. He understands, as does the rest of the cast (though not on this level), that he’s appearing in a cartoon. His character, who climbs from window washer to the chairman of the board in a few days, following a self-help book that provides the film’s narration – should be unsympathetic. He’s manipulative and dissembling and is never seen really working (not really trying, remember?); but the boyishness of Morse himself smooths the edge off.

Morse brings a remarkable energy to his songs and his loose-limbed dancing brings James Cagney to mind. In the ensemble, “Brotherhood of Man,” in the midst of a sea of Bob Fosse choreography, brilliant scene-stealer Morse knows just how to draw the viewer’s eye, chiefly by lagging like a jazz player behind the melody just enough to seem improvisional among all the precise dancers. He alone seems spontaneous.

Does he mug? Almost constantly. His performance is basically Jerry Lewis Goes to Graduate School. Somehow, playing a ladder-climbing nogoodnik, he seems joyful – the perfect conveyer of Loesser’s lyrics, with their hidden dark side.

Famously, the big hit love song from How to Succeed is sung by Morse’s Finch…to himself in a mirror. Few scores rival this one, though like Sondheim, Loesser writes to the story. The songs that were left out (“Paris Original,” “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm”) are the weakest in the show. The only loss, besides Charles Nelson Reilly, is the great “Coffee Break,” which was filmed but cut for time. Too bad it doesn’t seem to have survived to be a special feature.

Morse and Reilly, by the way, were so successful on Broadway that they made an album together, “A Jolly Theatrical Season,” in 1963.

If the name Robert Morse seems vaguely familiar to smart younger people, he played Bertram Cooper on Mad Men, a role he was cast in, in tribute to his star turn in How to Succeed. Toward the end of Mad Men’s run, Morse was given a lovely song-and-dance farewell.

Morse’s career on Broadway was a stellar one, particularly his roles in Sugar and his one-man play, Tru, in which he played Truman Capote, winning his second Tony. But his film legacy is, largely, How to Succeed. No other film caught his magic, and a few really did him no favors – Honeymoon Hotel; Quick, Before It Melts – though The Loved One and Guide for the Married Man are worthy credits. I used to feel sad that this great talent had only one film to do him justice.

But with How to Succeed finally on Blu-ray, and with Mad Men as a wonderful, Emmy-nominated coda, I can only smile.

Nice modern-day (separate) interviews with Morse and Michelle Lee are special features. No “Coffee Break,” alas.

Buy it here.

* * *

The Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa gives its mystery-writer black sheep some nice recognition.

And here’s a lovely look at Road to Perdition the film.


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9 Responses to “How to Make Me Smile”

  1. Linda Donaldson Grim says:

    Totally agree with your movie picks. I love a variety of genres. People look at me like I am crazy when I tell them I love movies like Chinatown and musicals. My all time favorite black and white oldie is Laura. Saw it for the first time when I was in high school and still love it. Had a big crush on Dana Andrews and wanted to dress like Gene Tierney but couldn’t find the vintage clothing in Muscatine. I have seen a couple of Broadway musicals, Music Man (I remember when you starred in that in high school) and Sound of Music. Enjoy reading your blog. Hope all is going well with your health. Joe is recovering slowly from his heart surgery but gaining every day. Did you see that Doug Watters is having some heart issues? Praying that he gets along well.

  2. Mike Doran says:

    “Long ago, and oh so far away …”

    In 1967, I was a teenager, which at that point meant I wasn’t supposed to appreciate How To Succeed ….

    Fortunately, I hadn’t yet heard the word “demographics”.

    I had a ball.

    I had wondered about David Swift, whose last credit that I recalled then was Camp Runamuck.
    When the movie was about to come out, Robert Q. Lewis appeared on a game show and mentioned that he’d just gotten back from The Coast, where he’d been filming HTSIBWRT.
    RQL was hugely enthused about the whoe deal, and so I thought I might enjoy it, yada yada yada …

    Anyhoo, when it came out, I went; some things I noticed:

    – The “junior execs” who serve as a chorus were played by older actors, familiar to me from much TV: people like Paul Hartman, Dan Tobin, John Myhers, the aforementioned Robert Q, and some others I’ll remember right after I hit Submit.

    – Robert Morse was a revelation, as was Rudy Vallee (in slightly different ways, of course).

    – The somewhat less-than stark realism of the production design, I just found funny as hell.
    Likewise the (for ’67) “adult language” (people said damn and hell and all that – and they actually let kids like me into the theater!)
    Damn-damn-double-damn- ding-dong-hell! (Hope I got that in the right order.)

    Moving to the present day:
    Do you suppose that Millenials (God, I hate terms like that!) will have to have the final gag explained to them, given the passage of fifty years?
    The gentleman who figured in the Gag was an assistant director named Ivan Volkman, who had also made an appearance on Johnny Carson’s show as the Public Figure in question, whom he resembled to the nth degree.
    (OK, I’m showing off – sue me.)

    When (not if) the Powers-That-Be get around to remaking this in whatever medium –
    – well, if I were They, the obvious move would be having Robert Morse on board.
    In what role?
    To me, it’s a lock:
    Robert Morse in Sammy Smith’s roles: Twimble the mailroom boss at the start, and COB Wally Womper at the finish.
    *unless I’m wrong*

    In passing, over the weekend I was at a celebrity show, where I was finally able to procure a “collector” DVD of Richie Brockelman (hooray for me!).

    Hoping all is more-or-less well at your end.
    Augie Aleksy tells me he hasn’t heard from you lately. He sounded lonely …

  3. Glen Davis says:

    I just watched a live performance of this a couple of weeks ago. They served special cocktails called “It’s Not Coffee.”

  4. Thomas Zappe/St. Louis, MO says:

    For any Jazz fans in our audience, there was a terrific Jazz version of How to Succeed that featured Clark Terry and Phil Woods as well as a whole host of all the best studio players in New York of that era. They were [friendly] monsters, each and every one.

  5. Tim Field says:

    I have to ask, since Linda Donaldson Grim alluded to a part of your resume I was unaware of, what plays were you involved with in high school and what parts did you play? Who knew the creator of Nate Heller and the member of Cruisin’ was also a song and dance man?

  6. Max Allan Collins says:

    Thanks for the lovely words, Linda. I understand Doug is doing fine. By the way, I did not appear in THE MUSIC MAN in high school (or anywhere), but I played King Arthur in CAMELOT and Henry Higgins in MY FAIR LADY. Also wrote and had the lead in two junior high musicals, one satirizing western TV shows, the other satirizing doctor shows.

    Thomas, I’ll try to track down that jazz version of SUCCEED. Thanks for the lead.

    Tim, see my answer to Linda above. I think I might have gone into musical theater, at least on a local or regional level, but after MY FAIR LADY in my senior year (which we did at the early part of the year), I started playing rock ‘n’ roll with the Daybreakers/Crusin’. The rest is history, or at least the history of me.

  7. Max Allan Collins says:


    Lots of fun comments. I landed a Richie Brockelman set not long ago, including the pilot movie, which I’d never seen.

    I think Morse might make a fun J.B. Biggley.

    I spoke to Augie the other day (if e-mail is “speaking”) and we spoke about Barb and me coming to C & S later in the year.

  8. Mike Doran says:

    Back atcha, MAC:

    Have you read (or even seen) Steven Bochco’s memoir, Truth Is A Total Defense (self-published)?
    That title should give you the tone of the whole work.
    As co-creator (with Stephen Cannell) of Richie Brockelman, Bochco attributes its short run in toto to the fact that Universal-TV honcho Frank Price (aka Roy Huggins’s son-in-law) disliked him personally.
    Bochco’s book is really something – self-serving as all get out (what autobio isn’t, comes to that), but snarkily entertaining.
    You find out things you never knew – in a few cases, more than you probably wanted to know – about your favorites.
    I got it from Amazon.

    Bobby Morse is a better fit for the Sammy Smith twofer: he gets two big songs (“Company Way” at the start, “Brotherhood Of Man” at the end), and since you’re supposed to know going in that Twimble and Womper are the same actor, it’s a fitting tribute to Morse.
    Anyway , Biggley should be a large-size guy – say Alec Baldwin or John Lithgow, like that. (My opinion, of course …).

    Good luck with a C&S appearance – but please, don’t make it at night; our Chicagoland public transit is on its own Road To Perdition.
    Until That Time …

  9. Bill says:

    Morse also had a weekly mid ’60’s ABC series, That’s Life. Chapters in the lives of newlyweds, done as Broadway musicals.