The 1954 Colgate Comedy Hour production of "Anything Goes" as a complete package is crushing disappointment, in fact almost a near disaster. For reasons that should both surprise and simultaneously not surprise viewers, the attempt to squash Cole Porter's hit musical into a 50-minute timeslot winds up being more a curious piece of television history as well as a fantastic archive of Ethel Merman's talents as a singer. From my brief research into the back-story of the production, only five of the musical's original songs make it into the show, with other numbers being culled from Porter's songbooks, and the plot, to put it nicely, is anemic at best.
The two biggest issues with the production as a whole is the limited time for storytelling, awkwardly shoehorning in a plot of romance between Harry Dane (Frank Sinatra) and Reno Sweeny (Merman), as well that of an on-the-lam crook named Moonface, played briefly but memorably by the legendary Bert Lahr. Just as the program gets going, setting up a thin thread of narrative, things switch to a song, which are absolutely the highlight and the sole reason for seeking this production out, but also trash all momentum. It's understandable that the production being a part of the Colgate Comedy Hour required writers to try and bring in some semblance of Porter's story, but had the 10 to 15 minutes of time devoted to this been axed for more musical numbers, the show would hold a well-deserved place in TV history. Only Lahr is memorable in the non-musical portions of the program, but with such a limited offering of material, even his performance comes off a little lacking.
The biggest sin of "Anything Goes" is the terrible on-screen chemistry between Merman and Sinatra, with the latter appearing so disgusted and disinterested in the project, that his musical numbers suffer. The historical word seems to indicate Merman had little use for Sinatra and it definitely shows. When a number or scene calls for Dane and Reno to be in each other's arms, Merman appears to show extreme tension, as if she wants nothing more to shove Sinatra away. Not once are they a believable couple, and the seven year age difference between the two doesn't help any with Merman looking almost like she could be her co-stars mother. Sinatra is largely vacant, merely going through the paces. His musical performances leave a lot to be desired with the "I Get a Kick Out of You" duet with Merman being the only highlight. On the flipside, when it's time for Merman to belt out a song or two, audiences definitely get their money's worth.
Merman is a consummate professional when it comes to the musical numbers of this production and her Broadway training shines through. It's a shame that this version, sourced from a kinescope copy found in Merman's own private collection, doesn't have higher quality audio, because you'll surely be humming the title song and "Blow Gabriel Blow" long after the disc has gone back into the case. Her performances are full of energy and in many cases a sense of fun and are reason enough to seek the disc out for at least one viewing. While I was familiar with her name, this was my first exposure to Ethel Merman as a leading lady and I can safely say, in spite of all the flaws surrounding this production, I have tremendous respect for the lady and desire to seek out more of her work.
As a coherent production "Anything Goes" is a resounding failure, but taken in pieces, it's well worth a viewing as both a stunning testament to the career of Ethel Merman and piece of television history. The Colgate Comedy Hour was a television fixture for five seasons, spanning well over 200 episodes. To try and put it in a modern perspective, try and imagine a weekly show where some of the biggest musicians and entertainers show up to put on a stage show, sometimes live. It's a thought that seems too impossible to happen, but 60 years ago it was no bigger deal than the evening news, and even now, this relatively poor episode, still runs laps around what we are fed week after week in the name of entertainment now.
The 1.33:1 original aspect ratio transfer is rough to say the least, given it's sourced from a kinescope. Print damage is evident, and the contrast is on the washed-out side. Still, I've seen vintage productions such as this in far worse shape.
The English mono soundtrack has at times a bit of hollow sound to it, and high-end distortion is not uncommon, but by-and-large the musical numbers have some decent life to them and dialogue is relatively clear and understandable. English subtitles for the hearing impaired are included.
The two extras featured consist of a roughly 30-minute interview with the production's musical director Buddy Bregman and a booklet written by Stephen Cole (from The Archive of American Television) containing historical information on the production and the source kinescope. These extras help cement this release's status as more of a historical piece than offering of top-notch entertainment.
"Anything Goes" is first and foremost a look back into a bygone era of television and second, an archive of a great Ethel Merman performance. Taken as complete program, it's bound to disappoint, but between the moments of mediocre writing and flat chemistry between the leads, there are some killer musical numbers. Understand this and that the source material is not vintage motion picture quality and "Anything Goes" will make a solid rental for most. Rent It.