Hollywood Does Debt
The first woman I was ever in love with was Vera Ellen. It was love at some distance, sad to say. She was a Hollywood star, and I was a 9-year-old English schoolboy from an obscure and rustic English town. It was the real thing, though: I pined, I yearned. She was so b-e-a-u-t-i-f-u-l. I mean, really. She was beautiful. They just don't make beautiful like that any more …
What was I saying? Oh yeah, Vera Ellen. Well, the occasion of my falling in love with this woman was my having been taken to see the movie Call Me Madam. This movie isn't as well known as it deserves to be. The reproduction rights got tangled up in copyright law, so that no tape or DVD was available for 20-odd years. Things finally got sorted out in 2004, and you can — and should! — now rent a fine DVD, with better sound and color than usual for movies from the early 1950s, and an excellent optional voice-over commentary by showbiz historian Miles Kreuger.
Ethel Merman steals the show, of course, with that tremendous voice she had, her megawatt smile, and her subtle-as-a-hand-grenade body language. Vera Ellen is in there, too, preserved for all time in her sweet loveliness, though sporting one of the least convincing foreign accents you ever heard. She was, I'll admit, no great actress. Nor a singer, either — her songs were dubbed by Carole Richards. Her dancing makes up for all that, and the dance-duets with Donald O'Connor are easily up to Astaire-Rogers standard. Reading her up on the Internet just now, it seems that Vera Ellen had a pretty rotten life: two failed marriages, her only child dead of SIDS, she herself plagued by an eating disorder in an age when "eating disorder" was not a vocabulary item, and a superb movie dancer just as movie dancing was on the way out. I thought of the Chinese idiom hong yan bo ming — "pretty face, poor fate." Well, well, what does mere life matter, compared with art? There she is on the screen, lithe and beautiful, for ever.
To the degree that Call Me Madam is remembered at all, it is for these performances — best of all, the Merman-O'Connor song duet "I Hear Singing" which is as arresting and magical now as it was half a century ago. (Though I still don't get the import of that strange line about "a rub down with a velvet glove." What's up with that? Other than, I suppose, that Berlin needed a rhyme for "love.") But the movie is worth watching for something else: the politics.
The Broadway show that inspired the movie was itself inspired by Harry Truman's appointment of Washington society hostess Perle Mesta as U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg in 1949. In the movie Ethel Merman plays the Mesta role, sent off as ambassador to the tiny, poor, but fictional European statelet of Lichtenburg. The Lichtenburg parliament, for reasons not made clear, is keen to marry the nation's Princess Maria — that's Vera Ellen — off to the handsome but starchy Prince Hugo of neighboring statelet Mitteldorf. However, they can't afford the huge dowry — two million krobbles — that the Princess must take with her. Solution? Get an American loan! This is what drives the plot: the scheming of the Lichtenburgers to get this new U.S. ambassador to lean on her friend Harry Truman to lean on Congress to lend Lichtenburg two million krobbles. (The krobble is trading at ten to the dollar.)
When the Broadway musical Call Me Madam was being written, the Marshall Plan for European recovery had begun, with the U.S. eventually contributing $13 billion in loans and grants to 16 European nations, 1947-51. (Luxembourg got a niggardly $3 million.) The exact value and success of the plan in helping Europe's recovery was a matter of debate among economists from the start, and still is today. Now, of course you are not going to get deep historico-economic analysis from a Broadway musical. Call Me Madam does, though, tackle the moral aspect of foreign aid in a surprisingly direct way.
The Foreign Minister of Lichtenburg is General Cosmo Constantine, played in splendid old-world aristocratic heart-throb style by George Sanders, a fine actor who killed himself with a Nembutal overdose at the age of 65 because, he said in his suicide note, "I am bored." Our Madam Ambassador is wise to the machinations of the Lichtenburgers for a big U.S. loan, and assumes that Constantine is part of the plan. After falling in love with him, she no longer minds this, and calls Harry Truman to propose the loan.
Constantine, however, is at odds with his own government here. He doesn't believe in the loan. "I am convinced," he says, "that the people of Lichtenburg can and should help themselves without foreign aid."
Our ambassador takes this as bluff. So, not very plausibly, do the Lichtenburg politicians. When they realize that General Constantine has won the U.S. ambassador's heart, they make him Prime Minister in hopes this will further the loan project. A delegation of U.S. senators shows up to discuss the loan. Constantine patiently explains his views to them:
If my country is on the verge of bankruptcy it is because very drastic reforms are needed. Now, with [sic] outside help, these reforms would be impossible. You must not lend my country one penny!
The senators assume he is playing a deep back game, and so they double the size of the loan. The Lichtenburg parliamentarians rejoice, but … Constantine resigns in anger! "Lichtenburg is not for sale!"
Here we are 52 years later, with loans to struggling nations again in the news, and showbiz yet again chiming in with an opinion, though this time in favor of debt relief and more aid to Africa. Well, I offer a suggestion to the managers and producers of TV stations in that continent. Instead of broadcasting artistic atrocities like Live 8, try showing Call Me Madam to the folk down there. Who knows? — you might inspire some patriot of the Cosmo Constantine stripe to step forward and lift you up out of the moral pit of dependency, corruption, and guilt-mongering that you have dug yourselves into.
And even if not, well, at least your viewers will have learned that the West once had songwriters who could write songs, dancers who could dance a storm, singers who could sing, and movie producers who could whip up a light, happy, funny, cheering spectacle to make us forget our woes for a couple of hours.
Now, will someone please tell me where I can get a rub down with a velvet glove?
[As a musico-geostrategic footnote, may I just add the following. The movie's most famous song scene is that Merman-O'Connor duet "I Hear Singing." For the full Merman experience, though, I think — and Miles Kreuger agrees — that "The International Rag" is the real show-stopper. It includes the marvelous sentiment that:
All Harrys, Dick and Tommys
And someday even commies
Will dance around
To the sound …
A marvelous expression of fine American optimism and bumptiousness … which, after all, proved to be a true prediction, though made in the early days of the Cold War. This is a terrific performance, and brings forth a shower of superlatives from the normally restrained Mr. Kreuger: "The finest interpretation of her entire screen career … the number is really a knockout …" etc., etc.]