Easily the most traditional film of the Asheville Film Society’s month of musicals, Call Me Madam (1953) isn’t a whole lot more than a solid film version of Irving Berlin’s Ethel Merman stage show. But it doesn’t really need to be. Fox’s old warhorse house director Walter Lang does a good job of presenting the material, but it’s not exactly inspired. The screenplay by old Marx Brothers writer Arthur Sheekman, on the other hand, is inspired — and some of the asides he gives to Merman (“A good optometrist could clean up around here,” she quips when someone enthuses over her beauty) would have done Groucho proud. But really what this is, more than anything, is the only film to effectively capture what made Ethel Merman a huge stage star. Here she plays Mrs. Sally Adams — a very thinly veiled version of Democratic Party fundraiser and hostess Perle Mesta — whose friendship with a never-seen Harry Truman has landed her a post as ambassador to a postage-stamp sized country called Litchtenburg. (Some of the Truman gags — like daughter Margaret’s badly reviewed stint as a concert pianist — are likely to be lost on modern audiences.) This plunges her into a world that can, of course, not withstand the sheer force of her Americanness. The film is simply overflowing with Irving Berlin songs — including the show-stopping counterpoint duet “You’re Just in Love” (performed here with Donald O’Connor). All of the show’s score made it to the screen (though “Washington Squaredance” is barely there) with the addition of Berlin’s 1913 “International Rag” and “What Chance Have I with Love?” from the show Louisiana Purchase (reasonable since it didn’t make it into the film of that show). This may not be great filmmaking, but it’s sure a lot of tuneful fun.
The Asheville Film Society will screen Call Me Madam Tuesday, July 23, at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.