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Call Me Madam

Call Me Madam(1953)

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In the delightful musical comedy Call Me Madam (1953), Broadway legend Ethel Merman recreates her Tony award-winning role as Sally Adams, a wealthy but down to earth widow known as "The Hostess With the Mostess" throughout Washington D.C. society. When President Harry Truman appoints Sally as a U.S. Ambassador, she and her bookish press attach Kenneth (Donald O'Connor) travel to the tiny Grand Duchy of Lichtenburg where Sally promptly falls for handsome foreign minister Cosmo Constantine (George Sanders) and Kenneth falls for the beautiful Princess Maria (Vera-Ellen).

Following her triumphant run in Irving Berlin's Broadway sensation Annie Get Your Gun, Ethel Merman was reportedly looking to take a break from musical comedy and do a more dramatic role as a change of pace. However, a split second inspiration from writer Howard Lindsay changed her mind. Lindsay and his wife Dorothy Stickney were vacationing in Colorado with Merman and her family in 1948 when Lindsay reportedly came across an article on Perle Mesta, a renowned Washington hostess. Mesta, a colorful wealthy widow famous for her society parties, had recently been appointed Ambassador to Luxembourg. Lindsay immediately saw the potential for creating a show based on Mesta's life with Ethel Merman as the lead and Merman loved the idea.

Lindsay immediately pitched the scenario to his collaborator Russel Crouse, and the two began working on the book for what became Call Me Madam. Irving Berlin agreed to write the songs, eager to repeat the success he had recently enjoyed with Merman in Annie Get Your Gun.

Call Me Madam opened on Broadway in October 1950 and was an immediate smash. It played for 644 performances and won three Tony awards including one for Irving Berlin's score and one for Ethel Merman as Best Actress in a Musical. It took a light, good-natured approach to its political satire and took care not to offend the real Perle Mesta by running the following tongue-in-cheek disclaimer in the theater's Playbill: "Neither the character of Miss Sally Adams nor Miss Ethel Merman resembles any person alive or dead."

The team behind Call Me Madam needn't have worried as Perle Mesta loved the show. Columnist Leonard Lyons arranged for Mesta and Merman to meet face to face at a dinner party, and the two hit it off immediately. "We took to each other at once," recalled Merman in her 1978 autobiography. "I asked if she'd take a curtain call on opening night, she shot back, 'If I'm there, who'll stop me?'" Mesta quickly added Merman to the guest list for her famous parties and even gave a few in Merman's honor.

Even though Ethel Merman had made the show into a smash, it was a risk for 20th Century Fox to have her star in the film version of Call Me Madam. Merman was a powerhouse box office draw on the Broadway stage, but film success had so far eluded her. She had appeared in a few movies during the 1930s including an adaptation of her hit Broadway show Anything Goes (1936), but Hollywood had never been able to successfully translate her immense talent to the silver screen in a way that did her justice. However, Irving Berlin helped convince Fox studio chief Darryl Zanuck to allow Merman to reprise her role in Call Me Madam. It was a role that would showcase her at her very best, argued Berlin, and if anyone was born to play the role of Sally Adams, it was Ethel Merman.

Zanuck agreed and rolled out the red carpet for Merman to welcome her back to Hollywood. Call Me Madam would mark Merman's first film appearance in a decade - she had last appeared on screen performing one number in 1943's Stage Door Canteen. Zanuck secured Walter Lang (State Fair [1945], The King and I [1956]) to direct and gave Merman the full star treatment to make her feel at home at Fox, including giving her Betty Grable's plush dressing room to use for the duration of the shoot.

George Sanders was hired to play Merman's love interest, Cosmo Constantine. The Academy Award-winning actor (All About Eve [1950]) had never before appeared in a musical. However, Sanders did his own singing and surprised everyone with his impressive rich baritone voice. He and Merman worked well together, though Merman admitted that they were not close. "George was sweet and believable and warm as toast as Cosmo Constantine," she said in her autobiography, "but he was a strange man, very hard to get to. Between takes he locked himself in his dressing room and that was it. He didn't seem to want to bother with anybody. Obviously he was a very unhappy man even then or he wouldn't have done what he did," she said referring to Sanders' 1972 suicide.

The delightful Donald O'Connor, fresh off the success of his 1952 film Singin' in the Rain, was cast as Merman's press attach Kenneth. He was paired with lovely Vera-Ellen as Princess Maria, the duo performing several elegant dance numbers throughout the film.

Call Me Madam remained remarkably true to its original stage source. However, there were a few small changes made for the film version. "They Like Ike," a song that was written for the Broadway show and was eventually adopted as Dwight D. Eisenhower's famous campaign song that helped win him the 1952 presidential election, was dropped from the film for being too political. The number was replaced with an old 1913 Irving Berlin song called "That International Rag." In addition, a new number called "What Chance Have I With Love?" was added to showcase the singing and dancing talents of Donald O'Connor.

With a host of gushing reviews, Ethel Merman's return to the silver screen in Call Me Madam was a triumph. "Call Me Madam...has become a handsome, hilarious, surefire hit movie," raved Time magazine. "...At its Technicolored best - with Walter Lang's zestful direction, Robert Alton's dances and a topnotch supporting cast - the movie is a bouncier, better show than it was on the stage...But best of all the movie captures on film the special talents of Ethel Merman...From the opening scene, she sparkplugs the picture with a powerhouse personality."

The New York Times said, "Whatever pleasure Ethel Merman bestowed in Call Me Madam on the stage - and the evidence is that it was plenty as she played it on Broadway 644 times - may be counted a minor fraction of the pleasure she is sure to convey as the boss-lady of this gay fandango in repeating it on the screen. For the sleek Technicolored movie version of the popular musical comedy...is an admirable duplication of the show as presented on the stage. And, in it, the wonderful Miss Merman is better than ever-in spades!"

Call Me Madam was a solid hit at the box office and was nominated for two Academy Awards. Irene Sharaff, whose sumptuous gowns helped feature Merman at her best, was nominated for Best Costume Design, and Alfred Newman was nominated (and won) for Best Musical Score. The songs in the film include "The Hostess With the Mostes' on the Ball," "Can You Use Any Money Today?" and the showstopping duet between Merman and O'Connor "You're Just in Love."

Producer: Sol C. Siegel
Director: Walter Lang
Screenplay: Arthur Sheekman; Russel Crouse and Howard Lindsay (musical "Call Me Madam")
Cinematography: Leon Shamroy
Art Direction: John De Cuir, Lyle Wheeler
Film Editing: Robert Simpson
Cast: Ethel Merman (Sally Adams), Donald O'Connor (Kenneth Gibson), Vera-Ellen (Princess Maria), George Sanders (General Cosmo Constantine), Billy De Wolfe (Pemberton Maxwell), Helmut Dantine (Prince Hugo), Walter Slezak (August Tantinnin), Steven Geray (Prime Minister Sebastian), Ludwig Stossel (Grand Duke Otto), Lilia Skala (Grand Duchess Sophie), Charles Dingle (Sen. Brockway), Emory Parnell (Sen. Charlie Gallagher), Percy Helton (Sen. Wilkins)
C-115m. Closed Captioning.

by Andrea Passafiume

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