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Call Me Madam

Call Me Madam
Fox Home Video
1953 /Color / 1:37 flat full frame / 114 min. / Street Date April 20, 2004 / 14.98
Starring Ethel Merman, Donald O'Connor, Vera-Ellen, George Sanders, Billy De Wolfe, Helmut Dantine, Walter Slezak
Cinematography Leon Shamroy
Choreographer Robert Alton
Art Direction John de Cuir, Lyle R. Wheeler
Film Editor Robert L. Simpson
Original Music Irving Berlin
Written by Arthur Sheekman from the play by Russel Crouse, Howard Lindsay
Produced by Sol C. Siegel
Directed by Walter Lang

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

No, it's not about Heidi Fleiss. (wait for reaction) This slightly Cold-War inflected diplomatic comedy gets no more serious about politics than Harry Truman's daughter Margaret's singing career, which is a good thing: Most Americans could imagine Ethel Merman solving the Berlin Crisis by appearing at the Wall and blowing it down with her enormous singing power, like The Big Bad Wolf.

Irving Berlin's Broadway hit becomes a lightweight but fun musical from Fox. It's a bit long in the home stretch but Ethel Merman fans won't mind. Prior exposure to her talent before It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World isn't required but is recommended - she's loud, brassy and takes a bit of getting used to. This is also a great opportunity to see Donald O'Connor in top form ... no stupid talking mules here.


Harry Truman appoints Washington social hostess Sally Adams (Ethel Merman) as ambassador to a small European country desperate for a big American aid package. There she's shocked to meet the handsome Cosmo Constantine (George Sanders), an eligible and charming bachelor diplomat who's more interested in her than the loan Harry's told her not to promise. Sally's press secretary Kenneth (Donald O'Connor) has romantic problems of his own: he immediately falls in love with Princess Maria (Vera-Ellen) who is already engaged and isn't even supposed to talk to him.

Some movie stars either send you or they don't. I imagine Ethel Merman isn't a favorite or even well-known to that many people under 40 or 50 or so, and I don't necessarily blame them - the power to fill a hall or a stadium with an unamplified voice isn't appreciated the way it used to be. I was won over by Merman in a couple of silly Eddie Cantor movies from twenty years before this. She's just an irresistable musical powerhouse, and it's easy to imagine her in Annie Get Your Gun making any other star look like a poor second choice. Yes, she looks like your Aunt Mitzi - but then again, so does Mae West.

The politics are so light in Call Me Madam, there really aren't any. The inference that generous Americans are being bilked through foreign aid isn't laid on too thick (aid was always extended in exchange for valuable influence) and the jokes don't go any deeper than light protocol, with Merman making a fool of prissy Pemberton Maxwell (Billy De Wolfe) as a disloyal charge d'affaires in her embassy. Three senators show up, but as explained in the commentary by musical historian Miles Kreuger, they no longer are designated as Republicans or Democrats, and their song We Like Ike is absent - by this time Eisenhower had been elected, with the song used as his theme tune!

What we have is a very thin double romance supported by some charming if mostly unfamiliar songs. The one ringer is You're Just In Love, which is actually two tunes sung in sharp counterpoint. It's just fine. The one large dance number is a Alpine-type folk thing that doesn't impress, but the wonderful O'Connor has several duets with Vera-Ellen and they're a fine dancing match. This is of course one year after Singin' in the Rain and Donald handles the romantic and acting chores with ease. I'm thoroughly convinced he could have done just about anything.

George Sanders is almost scary when he starts singing, but the voice is apparently really his and he began as a stage singer in London, so more power. He's quite the smoothie here, with a sincere and completely un-cynical character that may have made him feel more interested in his work than usual.

Most of the other players go through stock motions. Helmut Dantine is offensively cold and Walter Slezak broadly sleazy. Percy Helton still squeaks like a mouse as one of the senators.

This is a Fox Technicolor picture and has that studio's house "look" - lots of blues with red highlights, like O'Connor's glasses. It's a colder feel than any other studio's color. It's accurately rendered here.

Fox'es DVD of Call Me Madam is a fine budget disc. The color is good and the audio better; only one stockshot seems to have wildly misaligned Technicolor matrices and the rest of the picture hangs together well.

There's a teaser, a trailer and a fact-packed commentary on board, from Miles Kreuger. He's enthused about the subject and dispenses a lot of info about the play source, how Merman got connected to it, etc. He also dispels the notion that Merman only knew how to "belt out" songs, and repeats testimony of how she used her voice to fill theaters with quieter tunes as well.

Call Me Madam hasn't been available on home video and was apparently kept out of circulation by the Irving Berlin estate, just like Annie Get Your Gun. I remember it being shown at UCLA in the 70s, and being told it was available nowhere else ... although I seem to remember it listed in the TV guide, don't remember when. It's really for Ethel Merman fans - most accounts list it as her best movie because it closely recreates her expansive personality the way it was on the Broadway stage.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Call Me Madam rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Very Good
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: teaser, trailer, commentary
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 5, 2004

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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