Fox // 1953 // 114 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // July 7th, 2004
This story of the past, 1951, takes place in two mythical countries. One is called Lichtenburg, the other the United States of America.
Sally Adams (Ethel Merman, Anything Goes), an ultra-rich and well-connected Washington D.C. socialite, is made U.S. Ambassador to the Grand Duchy of Lichtenburg. She and her press attaché, Kenneth Gibson (Donald O'Connor, Singin' In the Rain), arrive in the tiny European nation and are immediately confronted with a pain in the keester named Pemberton Maxwell (Billy De Wolfe, The Doris Day Show), the embassy's stuffy and scheming chargé d'affaires. Also troublesome is the Grand Duke, who is desperate for a loan to finance the dowry of his niece, Princess Maria (Vera-Ellen, White Christmas). The princess faces an arranged marriage of convenience with Prince Hugo of Mittledorf, but falls for Gibson when the two meet in a department store. Adams, meanwhile, is drawn to Lichtenburg's foreign minister, the handsome and upright General Cosmo Constantine (George Sanders, Rebecca, All About Eve), but puts their romance in jeopardy when she mistakes his refusal to accept a loan on behalf of the Duke for backhanded European negotiating.
Call Me Madam's subject matter seems odd for a Hollywood musical, but with songs by Irving Berlin and solid performances from all involved, it turns out to be an entertaining little affair. The plot hangs on a satire of the European tendency to show disdain for America while simultaneously falling prostrate before the almighty dollar. It proves a perfect set-up for witty dialogue, and the screenplay provides it in spades. It's also an ideal environment for Merman's brash persona. She's as gloriously uncouth here as the narrator of Mark Twain's Innocents Abroad. Her pushy naïveté ensures Americans and their culture (or lack thereof) is as much a target of the satire as the Europeans.
If Madam doesn't rise to the level of a top-notch musical it's because it doesn't feature any of Berlin's best songs, or any truly standout choreography. The closest we get is probably "The International Rag," a Berlin tune dating back to 1913, which Merman belts out in order to liven up the Grand Duke's stuffy formal ball. It's a swinging little number, followed by an elegant dance routine by Donald O'Connor and Vera-Ellen that's mostly charming because it provides an opportunity for O'Connor to break away from his typically comic/athletic numbers and into Fred Astaire territory. He acquits himself well. A later comic number, in which Gibson is drunk and despairing over Princess Maria's romantic inaccessibility, finds O'Connor in more familiar territory.
George Sanders is as debonair as anyone familiar with his work would expect, and actually does a decent job singing in an old-timey baritone, though his lip-syncing to the pre-recorded tracks is far less convincing than the other performers, who are more accustomed to working in the genre. Unfortunately, he and Vera-Ellen are handicapped by Eastern European accents that are corny when they speak and downright annoying when they sing.
The film was shot by cinematographer Leon Shamroy, whose career included musicals The King and I, South Pacific, and Porgy and Bess, epics The Robe and Cleopatra, and even the original Planet of the Apes. He does a fine job here, capturing the choreography with a simple precision that doesn't draw attention to camera movement and position. He shot Call Me Madam in Technicolor in the old Academy ratio of 1.37:1, which the DVD offers in a full screen transfer. Colors are vivid and detail is mostly sharp, doing justice to John DeCuir's (Cleopatra, Hello, Dolly!) opulent set design.
Audio is offered in two-channel mono and stereo. The stereo track is slightly fuller, but also emphasizes instances of source-based distortion. I found the original mono preferable.
Miles Kreuger, an expert in Broadway and Hollywood musicals, provides a commentary track that is highly informative even if it sounds like he's reading from note cards. The track is screen-specific, and he does a fine job of setting up musical numbers with relevant background information, then remaining quiet so we can listen to them.
Teaser and theatrical trailers are also offered on the disc.
Call Me Madam is a surprisingly good time. Sure, it's hampered by an absence of truly stand-out songs, but its zippy dialogue and quality cast make it worth a spin.
Review content copyright © 2004 Dan Mancini; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 114 Minutes
Release Year: 1953
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Commentary by Miles Kreuger
* Teaser Trailer
* Theatrical Trailer