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.