Appellate Judge James A. Stewart is Public Enemy No. 300,000,000.
Our review of Anything Goes (1956), published February 17th, 2006, is also available.
"From here in, Reno Sweeney is a lady, and I'll rap the first guy who says I ain't."
When this 1954 version of Anything Goes was made, the people who put it together really meant it. About half of the musical is gone to fit an hour time slot for The Colgate Comedy Hour, and they went ten years backward in time, moving the action from the Thirties to the less-Depressing Twenties. They kept—or brought back—Ethel Merman, who had played Reno Sweeney in the Cole Porter musical twenty years earlier.
The changes aren't unusual for Anything Goes. The booklet accompanying the DVD outlines a long history of changes in the musical, including some hasty alterations to the original book by P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton after a ship disaster just before the Broadway debut.
On this voyage, Merman sings duets with Frank Sinatra. Now that's a welcome change.
The DVD is a special presentation from the Archive of American Television, which brings some rare vintage TV finds to modern audiences. The DVD cover claims it's "newly transferred from Ethel Merman's personal kinescope copy."
Facts of the Case
Reno Sweeney (Ethel Merman, There's No Business Like Show Business) is setting sail on the Luxembourg, and she's planning to become Lady Oakley. Her ex Harry Dane (Frank Sinatra, The Tender Trap) doesn't like that idea, so he hops on board at the last minute. The ex-lover meets an ex-public enemy (Bert Lahr, The Wizard of Oz), who is posing as a missionary to elude the authorities long enough to rise from thirteenth on the public enemy charts. That could lead to trouble when Harry is mistaken for Public Enemy No. 1.
That's about as much of the plot as you need to know, and about as much as you're going to get in this condensed version of Anything Goes. That leaves more time for singing, and you'll hear some great work on "Anything Goes" (it goes without saying), "You're the Top," "I Get a Kick Out of You," and "Just One of Those Things." As it turns out, the production is condensed a little too much, and Frank Sinatra, Ethel Merman, and Bert Lahr fill out the time slot with an extra round of "Anything Goes."
Even with the time limitations, Sinatra and Merman build the two lovers into believable characters, even if the situation's absurd. Lahr provides comic relief as Moonface Mooney, the public enemy in disguise, delivering a lot of daffy lines laced with the occasional brilliant observation.
Viewers will be aware at all times that they're watching a stage production on TV, from the opening in which an audience member is seen reading Playbill to the closing curtain. The set design and staging are heavy on the theatrical, and song and dance are constantly breaking out. I'm guessing that the extra theatricality was the production's way of making it an event instead of just another TV show. I'm also guessing that duets with Merman and Sinatra will impress modern viewers more.
As you'd expect, the picture isn't so great, with all the lines, flecks, and scratches that are common to kinescopes from the Fifties. The sound comes through decently, though.
As a bonus, musical director Buddy Bregman talks about the production and his Hollywood life. Actually, he talks mostly about his Hollywood life, but that turns out to be more interesting than Anything Goes. After all, the guy had some hit records, worked regularly with Ethel Merman, and went out with Elizabeth Taylor on his first date. There's also a booklet with an essay by Stephen Cole.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
To modern eyes, the poor picture and truncated show might be disappointing, but it's got some great music, and it undoubtedly was the event intended for Fifties viewers.
If old-time live TV intrigues you, this is one of the best examples I've seen. If you're looking for the perfect adaptation of Anything Goes, this isn't it. Of course, the booklet's outline of changes over the years suggests that you won't find any perfect version of the musical. Thus, you'll enjoy it a lot more if you look at this Colgate Comedy Hour event as just a chance to hear Frank Sinatra and Ethel Merman getting together to sing some favorite Cole Porter tunes in an old-time variety show. On those terms, it's the top.
Not guilty, but then anything goes.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: E1 Entertainment
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