Thursday, December 28, 2017

thoroughly awful

I thought enough time had gone by - yipes! 50 years! - and that I'd finally find it irresistible. But, no, this disturbing curiosity is definitely resistible.

I'm referring to George Roy Hill's dismal "Thoroughly Modern Millie," the 1967 pseudo-musical which has been disinterred and will air on TCM @ 12:30 a.m. Saturday and that has decidedly not improved with age.

In fact, it's now much worse and it remains an affront that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, an outfit known for throwing away Oscars, saw fit to nominate it for seven - count 'em - seven Academy Awards, including one for Carol Channing's amateurish supporting turn. (There's a reason why some stage performers never make it in movies.)

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 beloved "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).

I know - it was a different culture 60-70 years ago when "Babes" and "Rose" were produced. However, times had supposedly changed by the time "Thoroughly Modern Millie" was made in the enlightened late '60s.

What's disconcerting is that "Millie" was produced by Ross Hunter who presented Asians in such a relatively positive light six year earlier in Henry Koster's film of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Flower Drum Song" (1961), 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, Jack 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 "Thoroughly Modern Millie."

Its brand of casual racism remains unacceptable.

Ditto for "Babes in Arms" and "My Wild Irish Rose." And I could care less about the "iconic" people who directed and performed in them.

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* * * * *
 ~images~ 

~The poster art for "Thoroughly Modern Millie"
Universal 1967© 

23 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?

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.

Paul Gottlieb said...

There are also Jewish stereotypes in the film.

joe baltake said...

Oh, yes, I forgot about the cringe-worthy wedding celebration when Julie Andrews sings something called "Drink La Chaim." Pretty bad.

Kevin Barry said...

Isn't it ironic that 1967 was one of Hollywood's watershed years for honoring films about race relations (In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner), yet they were totally ignorant of the blatant racism against Asians? This was the year that the Oscar ceremony was delayed by two days due to Martin Luther King's assassination.

joe baltake said...

Kevin- Yes, ironic - sadly. -J

Kiki said...

I never saw T M Millie. It sounded awful and one time I was doing a chat show in Philadelphia Carol Channing was the guest. And I was thoroughly speechless Kiki. I couldn't take my eyes off her thoroughly extreme makeup. Joe, it is impossible to describe the brown and white clefts that were applied to what once may have been a human face. I rarely watch crime shows like CSI because you see the bodies at their worst. This was worse than those agents could imagine. Oh, I never saw Darling Lili either where Rock Hudson was madly in love with Julie. She should have quit with The Americanization of Emily. nuff said, kiki

Jimbo said...

As a 13 year old I was totally entranced by TMM. I loved it all from the Mod fluorescent orange posters to the hokey mugging by the cast. Today I can’t bear to sit through it! The overt racism is appalling, something that completely went over my head as a teenager. I hear it was quite a successful Broadway musical. Having no familiarity with it I can only assume changes were made to make it less offensive. Speaking of offensive, my favorite Black face is the “Bojangles of Harlem” number from “Swing Time.” The way Astaire is worshipped “Bojangles” is rarely mentioned among Astaire’s work but it’s every bit as offensive as any other Black face ground out by the Hollywood factories.

joe baltake said...

Yes, Jimbo. Fred Astaire. Very disappointing. -J

Tracy said...

You make no mention of Mary Tyler Moore. Why?


joe baltake said...

That was no accident, Tracy. She's pretty bad in the film, not through any fault of her own. We all know that Moore was a terrific actress, but the film sadly misused her, and the director, Hill, seemed to encourage her to give an annoyingly mannered performance. The movie, a musical, also failed to utilize her talents in that area. She danced a little but if my memory serves me (I've tried to block the film in my head), she has no songs. Saint Julie did all the singing.

"Millie" was her first film after Moore made such a huge impression on the Van Dyke show. Universal snapped her up but then did nothing with her. The studio put her in this and in the Elvis film, "Change of Habit," and in a faux Doris Day romcom, "Just Don't Stand There." It wasn't until Robert Redford came to her rescue and cast her against type in "Ordinary People" that Moore had a chance to impress on the big screen. Finally.

I've always felt that she would have been perfect for the role of Rosemary in "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying." While Michelle Lee is perfectly fine in the film, in my mind, I saw Moore in the role. A missed opportunity.

u.n. 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