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Archive for the ‘Robert Morse’ Category

If you can believe it, there was once a time when I disliked musicals. I’m crazy about them now, but back when I first started watching classics, I just didn’t get the point. Yeah, dancing and singing, big whoop. I say this with a bit of shame now, but it’s the truth. I just didn’t like them–or I didn’t allow myself to like them. A closed-minded film addict is the worst thing ever.

The movie poster for “How to Succeed…”So it was always a bit odd that one of my favorite movies was How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying (1967). It’s airing Saturday, March 8 at 10:15 pm on TCM as part of their “How to Climb the Corporate Ladder” nightly theme. I fell in love with it from the second I saw it. How to Succeed… (as it will be written throughout) is one of those films that doesn’t take itself too seriously and I’ve always recommended it to people as “a musical for people who don’t like musicals.” It has a very “modern” feel to it unlike the MGM spectaculars from the 40’s and 50’s or the Rodgers and Hammerstein epics. How to Succeed… is a satire of the business world, in which lowly window-washer J. Pierpont Finch amusingly schemes himself into a top level executive position, all thanks to a little paperback book he buys at the beginning of the film.

Finch reads the book for the first time

Since How to Succeed… started as an actual book, it’s transition to one of the most successful Broadway plays of all time is something of a miracle. Written by Shepherd Mead (an advertising executive at Benton and Bowels), How to Succeed… was a satire of the ups and downs of the 1950’s business world in the form of a self-help manual. The book proved to be so popular that the writing team of Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert bought the rights to it and adapted it for the theater. When it went unproduced for the next five years, they brought it to the attention of successful writer/director of many Broadway hits, Abe Burrows and composer Frank Loesser and the rest is history.

Robert Morse and Rudy ValleeFrom the start, Burrows and Loesser had Robert Morse in mind for the role of J. Pierpont Finch. Morse’s first notable role in both Broadway and Hollywood, was in The Matchmaker, where he played the role of Barnaby Tucker. It was on the opening night of another Broadway play, Take Me Along (1959, with Jackie Gleason and Walter Pidegon) that Burrows and Loesser sent Morse a telegram saying, “Have a good time. But in two years, when you get out of that show, we’re doing How to Succeed… and you’re playing Finch.” Morse was thrilled with the news. For the part of World Wide Wicket company president, J.B. Biggley, Burrows and Loesser originally sought the British comedian, Terry-Thomas, but when negotiations fell through, Rudy Vallee was cast instead. This was to be his first Broadway performance in 26 years, when he last appeared in George White’s Scandals of 1935. Charles Nelson Riley was to play Finch’s nemesis, Bud Frump, while Bonnie Scott was cast as Rosemary, the love interest.

A Playbill from the Broadway runThe cover of Newsweek from November 27, 1961Robert Morse with other Tony award winners
From left to right: the 1961 Playbill for How to Succeed…, Making the Cover of Newsweek and Robert Morse with other Tony award winners

Opening on October 14, 1961, the first Broadway performance of How to Succeed… was met with rave reviews. The cast was top-notch and critics were praising it’s smartly written script, catchy songs and exciting dance numbers choreographed by Bob Fosse. It became one of Broadway’s most successful shows, winning seven Tony awards — Best Musical, Best Author, Best Composer, Best Actor for Morse, Best Supporting Actor for Reilly, Best Direction, Best Conductor and Best Producer — and the prestigious 1962 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It’s quite a feat for a show that went unnoticed for five years! When it finally closed, How to Succeed had racked up 1,417 performances and became the fifth longest running musical of all time.

The cast of “How to Succeed…”

As with all successful Broadway productions, a movie version was inevitable. Of course there were some major cast changes. Since Michele Lee had taken over the part of Rosemary on Broadway, she was cast in the film version instead of Bonnie Scott. Taking the place of Charles Nelson Riley was Anthony “Scooter” Teague as Bud Frump, while Maureen Arthur, who had played sexy secretary Hedy LaRue on the road, would also appear in the movie. Otherwise Morse, Vallee, Sammy Smith (as Wally Womper) and Ruth Kobart (as Biggley’s secretary who has a soft spot for Finch) all reprised their roles for the 1967 film version. And If you happen to be a die-hard Monkees fan like myself, keep an eye out for Carol Worthington as the gawky secretary, Lucille Krumholtz. Worthington had just appeared as a tough biker chick on one of my favorite episodes, “The Wild Monkees”, that same year.

From the “I Believe In You” numberNot only were there cast changes, but some of the songs were dropped as well. All of Rosemary’s songs–“Paris Original”, “Cinderella Darling” and “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm”– were cut from the film. Instead, Rosemary sings “I Believe In You” to Finch, while in the Broadway version, Finch sings this song to himself in a mirror. Also deleted from the print was the musical number, “Coffee Break”, since it’s footage was deemed unusable. Some stills do exist, but it explains why there’s an abrupt cut right after the arrival of the coffee cart was announced.

A still from the deleted “Coffee Break” numberA still from the deleted “Coffee Break” number
Two stills from the deleted “Coffee Break” number

I love that How to Succeed… is really a product of the late 60’s. The sets are brightly colored, almost garish in their use of bold, strong colors. While David Swift did a wonderful job in both directing and adapting the film for the big screen, what I really love about How to Succeed… are the musical numbers, particularly the hilariously saucy, “A Secretary is Not a Toy”. Although another choreographer was used for the movie, Bob Fosse’s original style resonates throughout.

From the musical number “A Secretary is Not a Toy”From the musical number “A Secretary is Not a Toy”From the musical number “A Secretary is Not a Toy”
From the musical number “A Secretary is Not a Toy”From the musical number “A Secretary is Not a Toy”
Scenes from number “A Secretary is Not a Toy”

In “A Secretary is Not a Toy”, the clicking keys of a typewriter are used as a form of percussion, while the shuffling sound of shoes and numerous finger-snaps also add to the mix. The dancers move in a decidedly modern style, shuffling back and forth, shaking their hips and wiggling their heads. More than anything else, it draws from the world of jazz. “A Secretary is Not a Toy” also boasts one of the best lyrics ever: “Her pad is to write in and not spend the night in!” How can you not love a song that says that?

The panned version - UGH!From the musical number “A Secretary is Not a Toy”
To pan or not to pan: the answer is “NO!”

The final moments of “A Secretary is Not a Toy” also has one of the most unique set-ups–the dancers come into the picture from opposite ends of the screen. Because of this, it’s essential to watch How to Succeed… in it’s original letterbox format. I once saw this movie on the Flix channel in the panned-and-scanned version and nearly had a coronary. During this number, you see nothing but a completely empty space for at least ten seconds while waiting for the dancers to enter the picture! It’s infuriating to see the movie butchered like that. I’m getting angry just thinking about it!

From the “Brotherhood of Man” finale numberAnother musical highlight is the rousing finale number, “The Brotherhood of Man”. This really shows my age, but I first came to know it from an episode of “The Drew Carey Show “(remember how they used to do musical numbers?). I had no idea that “The Brotherhood of Man” was from a Broadway production, so I was more than surprised to see it in How to Succeed… Anyway, it’s the first song that I ever really loved from a musical–so much, that I went and bought the soundtrack after seeing the movie. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve lip-synched Ruth Kobart’s part in the mirror while getting ready for the day. Really. Now stop laughing at me.

Download: “The Brotherhood of Man” sung by the Original Broadway Cast – 5.6 MB (link will open in new window and download from there)

1967 Smirnoff Vodka Tie-in Ad for the Movie ReleaseEven with all the fantastic musical numbers, the real the star of How to Succeed… is Robert Morse as J. Pierpont Finch. By 1967, Morse had already racked up numerous movie credits (the biggest one at that point was the 1965 black comedy, The Loved One), so he definitely had screen experience. I’m so glad the powers that be allowed him to recreate the role of Finch on the big screen. So many times you hear that the original Broadway actor was passed over, because they weren’t commercially viable enough for the film version. Thank goodness they had enough sense, because Morse is absolutely perfect as Finch. I can’t imagine anyone else playing the part. He’s mischievous and sly in his slightly underhanded dealings, but still possesses a lovable boyishness that makes you root for him–especially when it comes at the expense of Bud Frump. One of my favorite scenes is when Finch rushes to work on a Saturday morning, runs to his desk, begins dumping cigarette butts, empty styrofoam coffee cups and other pieces of assorted trash all over it, and then collapses as though he had just pulled an all-nighter. Just as he finishes this routine, J.B. Biggley walks in, sees the “exhausted” Finch at his desk and compliments him on what a hard worker he is. Not only is it hilarious, but it also leads to the “Groundhogs!” duet in which Finch pretends to have attended the same alma matter that Biggley did.

Groundhogs!

I love you.I also love the sweet relationship between Finch and Rosemary. In her first film appearance, Michele Lee is as cute as a button and she’s a perfect match for Robert Morse. Rosemary’s love for Finch is earnest. I love when she sings, “I Believe In You” to him. The look in her eyes and the expression on her face says everything that the lyrics don’t. She *does* believe in him. And despite a mishap between Finch and Rosemary in the middle of the film, one of the sweetest moments occurs when he realizes that he loves Rosemary just as much as she loves him–and of all things, after being kissed by Hedy LaRue!

As I’ve gotten deeper into the classics, I’ve found other musicals to love and oddly enough, they’re the ones that I detested so much at the beginning: The Band Wagon, An American In Paris, Ziegfeld Follies, Top Hat, The Barkleys of Broadway and the one that really started it all, On the Town. I’ve come to love the MGM musicals that I once found so corny and silly. Rodgers and Hammerstein, not so much. But I still adore How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Yes, it’s a little kitschy at times, but it’s got a great story, strong acting and songs that will stick in your head for days. It’s a very well-made film and even though the business world has certainly changed some forty years later, How to Succeed… still stands the test of time. It’s great entertainment. Even if you’re a person who doesn’t enjoy musicals, I suggest you give How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying a chance. It’s different than any other classic musical out there. And who knows–like myself, it may start you down the slippery, addictive slope of watching and enjoying more musicals. And you know what? That’s not such a bad thing after all.

Note: A lot of the information presented here is from the liner notes and interview tracks off the Deluxe Collector’s Edition CD of How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. It’s a great listen.

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