Thursday, September 11, 2014

thoroughly awful

I thought enough time had gone by - yipes! nearly 50 years - that I'd give it a second chance.

I'm referring to George Roy Hill's dismal "Thoroughly Modern Millie," the 1967 pseudo-musical which Turner Classic Movies has disinterred and will air @ 11 p.m. on Monday, September 8th.

But, no, this disturbing curiosity has decidedly not improved with age.

In fact, it's now much worse, particularly considering that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, an outfit known for throwing away Oscars, once saw fit to hand it seven - count 'em - seven nominations, including one for Carol Channing's amateurish supporting turn. (There's a reason why some stage performers never make it as movie personalities.)

Aside from being a prime example of.•:*¨¨*:••:*¨¨*:•.forced fun•:*¨¨*:••:*¨¨*:•.
 "Thoroughly Modern Millie" remains jaw-dropping in its blatant racism.

The presentation of Asians here, as personified by the wince-producing performances of Jack Soo and Pat Morita, is unconscionable - almost as unwatchable as Mickey Rooney's notorious Oriental schtick in Blake Edwards' irrationally overrated "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (1961).

Of course, this brand of racist entertainment had been tossed off as innocent fun by Hollywood for years.  Consider the shameful and demoralizing "blackface" production numbers that mar both MGM's "Babes in Arms" (1939) and Warner Bros.' "My Wild Irish Rose" (1947).

Of course, it was a different culture 60-70 years ago when "Babes" and "Rose" were produced, but times had supposedly changed by the time "Thoroughly Modern Millie" was made.

What's disconcerting is that "Millie" was produced by Ross Hunter who presented Asians in such a fabulous light six year earlier in Henry Koster's film of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Flower Drum Song" (1961), a movie musical whose entire cast (except for one Caucasian in a brief supporting role - Herman Rudin, who played the vagrant who robs Benson Fong) is composed of Asian performers exclusively,  Soo among them.

In "Flower Drum Song," Hunter and Koster nudged the talented Soo towards a winning performance that's best described as Martinesque (as in Dean Martin). One can only guess why Hunter and Hill elected to diminish Soo (and Morita) in such a cruel way in "Millie." It remains unacceptable.

Anyway, it's still a lousy movie and its brand of casual racism simply exacerbates matters. And the same goes for "Babes in Arms" and "My Wild Irish Rose."

14 comments:

Alex said...

At least "Mille" gave Elmer Bernstein his one and only Oscar for Best Score. Granted, any one of his other 14 nominations was more worthy of an award, but at least he won one.

joe baltake said...

The Academy never fails to amaze.

Brian Lucas said...

Alex- This is another case of a talent winning the Oscar for the wrong film. It's inarguable that "Millie" is not the most representative of Bernstein's expansive work. He wrote much better stuff for his Hollywood dramas. But, as you say, at least he was finally honored for something.

pat said...

I completely agree with this post!

I first watched it on TV a few years ago, and I could hardly get through it (even now, I can't recall if I made it to the end or not)!

I am a huge fan of musicals, the crazier and more colorful...the better.

But, not so with TMM!

Besides everything you mentioned, I find the film, frankly just boring.

Great review!

Sonia M. said...

What I always found disconcerting is that "Millie" was considered a huge personal hit for Andrews, while Wise's ambitious and adventurous "Star!" was casually written off as an embarrassement in its day. That film is worthy of re-evaluation

joe baltake said...

Sonia- Absolutely. -J

John said...

What? You don't like Judy Garland in blackface?

wwolfe said...

Thank you for calling out this film's racism. I hadn't seen it since it was originally released, and the intervening years had allowed me to forget just how blatant and repellant this aspect of the movie is. I'd also note Mary Tyler Moore's mannered performance - I kept expecting it to pay off in some humorous way, but it never did - and the weak score, save for the title song from the fine team of Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn. I finally gave up and turned it off before it ended.

attmay said...

20th Century Fox did Star! no favors by cutting it. It is only because they cuts were made to the 35mm dupe negatives and not the 65mm negative itself that the uncut version survives. It seemed like musicals disproportionately got subjected to the post-production/post-release hack-and-slash treatment during this period, and that as much as anything else made the new breed of studio executives wary of musicals.

joe baltake said...

attmay: You are absolutely correct about the way the big musicals of the 1960s were mangled by the studios that made them. The roadshow musical was the primary victim - routinely cut down from its 2 1/2-3 hour running time to something more suited to continuous performances. And the cutting usually was done by a house hack, not the credited editor who originally worked on the film with the director. Both "Sweet Charity" and "Half a Sixpence" underwent such unnecessary cosmetic surgery,each losing about half an hour. Luckily, the roadshow versions of each film still exist on home entertainment.

Janet said...

You mention "Babes in Arms," which is a Turner staple, and "My Wild Irish Rose," which TCM showed just recently. I wish the station would declare a moratorium on both for the reason you give. Both have sequences that are terribly racist. A stand should be taken. I sincerely hope that I don't come off like a book-burner here. I've an open-mind about all things, except racism and sexism. Thanks for listening

joe baltake said...

No,Janet, what you say makes sense. There is a big difference between someone who wants to ban a book because it is provocative either intellectually or sexually and someone deeply concerned about and disheartened by the hatred inherent in racist and sexist depictions.

oliver p. said...

Adding to Janet's thought: There is a wealth of movies available for televising. There is no need to showcase those that demean a certain people, regardless of their status as "classics" (a description that is totally subjective, I might add).

attmay said...

Ross Hunter's cinematic waterloo was the musical version of Lost Horizon, which cast no actual Asians except the late James Shigeta. This was 6 years after Millie.