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What a Way to Go

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What a Way to Go starring Shirley MacLaine, Dick Van Dyke, Paul Newman, Robert Mitchum, Gene Kelly, Dean Martin, Bob Cummings
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What a Way to Go (1964) starring Shirley MacLaine, Dick Van Dyke, Paul Newman, Robert Mitchum, Gene Kelly, Dean Martin, Bob Cummings

Synopsis of What a Way to Go

What a Way to Go is a black comedy.  It opens with Louisa Foster donating a multi-million dollar check to the IRS. The tax department thinks she’s crazy and sends her to a psychiatrist. She then discusses her four marriages, in which all of her husbands became incredibly rich and died prematurely because of their drive to be rich.

Review of What a Way to Go

In short, What a Way to Go is an entertaining comedy, depending on your tastes.  It stars Shirley MacLaine as a beautiful woman, who wants a simple life.  But every time she marries, he husband attempts to become rich, and dies in a comedic way.  She believes herself cursed, a “witch”.  Her various husbands are frankly more entertaining than Shirley, but that’s due to the story.  If there’s a negative about the movie, it’s putting Shirley in ever-more-revealing outfits.  Along with the conceit that every man who meets her falls madly in love.  And wants to marry her in minutes.  Even her psychiatrist.

What a Way to Go does poke fun at a variety of societal things along the way.  Ranging from hypocrisy to “modern” art, to the American “greed is good”, to how the rich supposedly live.  And each husband gets his own dream sequence of “what their marriage was like” – at first.  These may be the funniest parts of the movie.

Cast of characters in What a Way to Go

  • Louisa Foster (Shirley MacLaineThe Yellow Rolls-Royce). The beautiful young lady, who begins the movie engaged to the wealthy Crawley son that rules their hometown.  But she doesn’t love him, and instead marries:
  • Edgar Hopper (Dick Van DykeThe Comic).  A laid-back fellow, who quotes Thoreau and whose motto is, “Simplify, simplify.”  Until his marriage to Louisa.  She unwittingly plants the idea of beating Crawley at his own game.  Which he does – neglecting his wife and working himself to death.  Literally.
  • Larry Flint (Paul NewmanThe Cincinnati Kid).  Trying to cope with her grief, Louisa travels to Paris, France.  Where she meets this American as a cab driver.  But who wants to create “modern art”.  With a contraption that turns sound into painting.  Until Louisa makes the fatal mistake of playing a record of music to it.  With that, the paintings become huge hits, and Larry is consumed with a desire for money.  Not for art, or even Louisa.  And is unfortunately strangled by his own contraption.
  • Rod Anderson, Jr. (Robert MitchumHoliday Affair).  Her third husband is already wealthy – nothing can go wrong!  Until she convinces him to give it all up, and live the simple life.  As a dairy farmer, who mistakenly tries to milk a bull …
  • Pinky Benson (Gene KellySingin’ in the Rain).  Husband #4 is a minor entertainer, who’s already refused to become big time.  So, this time nothing can go wrong!  Until Louisa encourages him to go on one night without his clown makeup and costume … and goes from a mediocre performer to a great one.  This leads to a hilarious send-up of Hollywood, ending with Pinky’s untimely death.

Other characters

  • Dr. Victor Stephanson (Bob CummingsMy Geisha).  The psychiatrist whom Louisa has been telling the whole story to … and he falls in love and proposes to her as well.  But this time, she has the common sense to say “no”.
  • Lennie Crawley (Dean MartinThe Caddy).  That spoiled Crawley heir … who lost everything when Hopper took over the town.  And was reduced to becoming a janitor.  And found himself becoming happy with the simple life.  As Louisa said, “You’re the only man I never loved.”  And so, they marry and have several children …
  • Mrs. Foster (Margaret DumontDuck Soup).  A minor, but important, role.  Louisa’s hypocritical mother, who preaches against greed and worldly goods.  But covets them so much she pushes her daughter to marry Lennie Crawley.

Editorial review of What a Way to Go courtesy of

People who cherish the post-Terms of Endearment, post-reincarnation phase of Shirley MacLaine’s career might be surprised to discover just how sexy and kooky she was in a past life–that is, the first few years of her movie career. After the triumphs of Some Came Running and The Apartment, MacLaine had a run of starring roles, including this elaborate comedy vehicle. What a Way to Go! cast MacLaine as an unlucky bride whose husbands meet early deaths, leaving her wealthy but unhappy. Gimmick casting of the hubbies adds a bit of dash: Dick Van Dyke as a simple country storekeeper, Gene Kelly as a two-bit entertainer, bearded Paul Newman as a Brandoesque, bohemian painter in Paris. In the movie’s best turn, Robert Mitchum gets to play a Howard Hughes character, and Dean Martin and Robert Cummings are around for the ride.

A flabbergasting parade of Edith Head outfits keeps MacLaine hopping, and each segment has a Hollywood fantasy based on MacLaine’s vision of her passing marriages (silent comedy, sexed-up foreign flick, splashy musical). Typical of a certain kind of super-production of the era, the film is impressive rather than entertaining, busy rather than funny. Perhaps hiring J. Lee Thompson, who directed The Guns of Navarone, was not the best idea for this Comden-Green script. It snuck in as one of the top ten box-office grossers of 1964, and it has one great surrealist sequence where Gene Kelly orders his house and grounds to be painted entirely pink. –Robert Horton

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