By Mark Schuster
JOPLIN, Mo. —
These two movies are from arguably the last “golden age” of Hollywood. One is a comedy, one is a drama, but they are both loaded with entertainment value and are new additions to the Joplin Public Library’s DVD collection.
“What a Way to Go!” (1964-not rated)
This movie is zany, wacky, silly and brightly-colored. Luckily, it’s also funny, well-acted, and hugely entertaining.
A relic from the Hollywood era that occurred just before the counter-culture boom of the late ’60s made movies hip again, “What a Way to Go!” is a gentle “adult” comedy suitable to watch with the whole family.
The film details the endless travails of Louisa Foster (Shirley MacLaine, looking lovely as usual in an early role), a sweet girl and career widow. A romantic, all she wants is a simple life with a good man, but something about her drives each man she marries crazy with ambition and into an early grave.
The list of actors who play Louisa’s ill-fated parade of husbands reads like a who’s who of male talent from the era: Dick Van Dyke, Paul Newman, Robert Mitchum, Gene Kelly, Dean Martin and Joplin native Bob Cummings all do their fair share of scenery chewing before the end credits roll.
Each segment of the movie features an imaginative fantasy sequence staged like a different genre of film. The Paul Newman segment takes place in Paris, so the fantasy sequence is staged like an emotional (and ridiculous) scene from a French movie. And the Gene Kelly sequence (my personal favorite) is a throwback to the lavish, show-stopping musical numbers of the previous decades which made him famous, complete with corny lyrics and amusingly dressed chorus girls.
“What a Way to Go!” is a fun throwback to a gentler age in silver-screen comedy. The parade of stars is dizzying and the story is slight but amusing, Shirley MacLaine is gorgeous and winning, and Paul Newman sports a beard and speaks French! There are far, far worse ways to spend an evening.
“Bigger than Life” (1956-not rated)
Every day man Ed Avery has it all: a job he loves and a family who loves him. He also has a rare form of arterial inflammation that gives him only months to live.
Luckily, there’s a cure: an experimental new drug (Cortisone) which will prolong Ed’s life indefinitely. Potential side effects: mood swings, bewilderment, cold stares, sweating, machismo, delusions and Nazi-esque math tutelage.
Things go just fine for Ed until he starts to abuse the drug, which sends his world into a spiraling vortex of deliciously hammy dialogue and overwrought emotion.
There’s probably a reason “Bigger Than Life” wasn’t a critical or commercial success when first released. Directed by Nicholas Ray, it came less than a year after his immortal “Rebel Without a Cause.”
The film, which stars James Mason in a brilliantly crazed performance, is not in the same class as “Rebel,” although both films share a knack for providing queasy thrills and emotional chills.
Another reason could be the topic itself. Cortisone had been on the market just over five years at the time of the film’s production, and the general public may have been unaware of the drug. Or perhaps a movie about a nice man who turns into a picket-fence tyrant was too heavy and unappealing for the 1950s.
Whatever the reason, “Bigger Than Life” has only recently begun to receive critical reevaluation and to take its place not only within the works of Nicholas Ray, but as one of the great films of its decade and arguably the greatest performance of James Mason’s career. In a career positively loaded with classic roles, this is no light praise.
In the end, “Bigger Than Life” is massively entertaining in the best B-movie tradition, with a harrowing message which teeters on the brink of self-parody without ever falling completely over the edge. Loaded with extras in a gorgeous DVD presentation by the Criterion Collection, this film has never been more ripe for discovery.