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The late 1960s was the twilight for Hollywood musicals reminiscent of the Golden Age. The times were changing Vietnam and the burgeoning Sexual Revolution would soon make films such as Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967) and its plot of a young woman trying to hook her rich boss in the 1920s, obsolete. The film, a light-hearted tribute to the silent films of the 1920s, starred Julie Andrews and Mary Tyler Moore, with theatrical veteran Beatrice Lillie as a "white slaver" and Carol Channing as a socialite. Andrews had been chosen by producer Ross Hunter after remembering her performance on Broadway in The Boyfriend more than ten years before. Unable to secure the film rights, he concocted his own take-off of the play. Mary Tyler Moore had become a star on television with five years on The Dick Van Dyke Show and Thoroughly Modern Millie would be her first co-starring film role. Thoroughly Modern Millie would be Beatrice Lillie's last film. She was beginning to show the signs of Alzheimer's and was having trouble remembering her lines. Julie Andrews would stand off camera and feed the lines to her.
Director George Roy Hill was making his first musical, determined that the film not be seen as a comedy, but a farce. "I wanted it to be a souffl. I knew it had to stay afloat by its own mindless nonsense." The plot was deliberately clich; if the audience already knew the plot, they could be drawn into the idea of it all being an inside joke. To help create an atmosphere, Hill deliberately chose colors that were associated with the era. "I wanted to reproduce the three-color scheme of the thirties when they had the first color plates in the national magazines." For a soundtrack, he added songs from some of the best composers of that era, including George Gershwin and Zez Confrey, and contemporary composers Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen. The original score was written by Elmer Bernstein and arranged and conducted by Andre Previn. Bernstein won an Academy Award to his own astonishment. "I lost with To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), I lost with The Magnificent Seven (1960), you know, and then I finally won with of all things, Thoroughly Modern Millie. There were lots of songs in it but there was also a score, a dramatic score that was about an hour and ten minutes long."
Hill ran into problems with his producer, Ross Hunter. Andrew Horton wrote in his book, The Films of George Roy Hill, "Both men are strong-willed, and each had his own view of what the film should be. If Hill wanted a light but delightful souffl, Hunter wanted a hundred pound wedding cake with all the trimmings. Hunter has specialized in slick commercial entertainment [...] He is, as Brendan Gill stated, 'the misguided champion of cinematic overkill.' Gill clarifies his remark by saying that for Hunter, 'twice as large is twice a good, twice as loud is twice as convincing, twice as long is twice as funny'. Hill could not have disagreed with Ross' philosophy more." Eventually Hill was removed from the film during post-production and Hunter added an intermission in the middle of the two hour and eighteen minute film, which Hill lamented, was "like taking a souffl out of the oven half way through and asking 'how's it doing?" Hunter went so far as to change Hill's original arrangement of Elmer Bernstein's score, causing Bernstein to later comment, "I had a wonderful kind of Paul Whiteman sound with no highs and no lows, like the old radio sound. It was a very tinny sound of the period that I worked hard to get; and Ross Hunter rescored it with Andre Previn and a thousand strings!"
Thoroughly Modern Millie made its premiere on March 21, 1967 at the Criterion Theatre in New York, with the West Coast premiere on April 13th with an all-star guest list including Lucille Ball, Maureen O'Hara, Carol Burnett, and Rosalind Russell, who were driven to the theater in vintage cars. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times loved the film, calling it, "a thoroughly modern burlesque of the manners and styles of flaming youth in the jazzy nineteen-twenties, of movie melodramas in the silent days, and moral attitudes that fit more closely in the era of high-button shoes. Accurate or not in its selections from the period it picks to spoof, it is a thoroughly delightful movie. So who's to care if it's sometimes off a few decades? [...] Miss Andrews is absolutely darling deliciously spirited and dry as she picks up the fashions of the period, the low-waisted dresses and the cloche hats, learns the latest dance steps (the Tapioca, which is very late, indeed) and sets out to catch her pipe-smoking, Arrow-collar-ad-faced boss. [...] But I really think it is Miss Channing who comes closest to taking the cake as the tangle-haired, headlight-eyed Muzzy, darling of the fast Long Island set, who can be blasted out of a circus cannon into a tumbling act at the Hippodrome as beamingly as she can belt out I'm a Jazz Baby at a midnight affair for several hundred guests at her Westbury mansion and top it off with a tap dance on a xylophone!"
Despite Hill's anger over Hunter's changes to the film, Thoroughly Modern Millie turned out to be the most successful film Universal Studios made up to that time. In addition to Bernstein's win for Best Music, Best Original Film Score, it was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Carol Channing for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design for famed designer Jean Louis, Best Original Song for Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn (Thoroughly Modern Millie), Best Song, and Best Music, Scoring, Adaptation or Treatment for Andre Previn.
Thoroughly Modern Millie was adapted into a play on Broadway in 2002, with Sutton Foster in the lead, winning six Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
Producer: Ross Hunter
Director: George Roy Hill
Screenplay: Richard Morris
Cinematography: Russell Metty
Art Direction: Alexander Golitzen, George C. Webb
Music: Elmer Bernstein
Film Editing: Stuart Gilmore
Cast: Julie Andrews (Millie Dillmount), James Fox (Jimmy Smith), Mary Tyler Moore (Miss Dorothy Brown), Carol Channing (Muzzy), John Gavin (Trevor Graydon), Philip Ahn (Tea), Anthony Dexter (Juarez), Cavada Humphrey (Miss Flannery), Michael St. Clair (Baron Richter), Lisabeth Hush (Judith Tremaine), Beatrice Lillie (Mrs. Meers).
by Lorraine LoBianco
Arntz, James, and Wilson, Thomas S. Julie Andrews
Bernstein, Elmer interview, MGM Archival Project
Crowther, Bosley "Screen: 'Thoroughly Modern Millie': Pleasant Spoof of 20's Opens at Criterion" The New York Times 23 Mar 1967Horton, Andrew The Films of George Roy Hill