“Everything today is thoroughly modern…” Well, not exactly, but that’s half the fun. A tongue-in-cheek musical spoof of the Roaring ’20s, THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE stars Julie Andrews, Mary Tyler Moore, James Fox, John Gavin, and the sublime Beatrice Lillie, the owner of a hotel for single women who just happens to run a white slavery ring on the side. Carol Channing mugs it up as a wacky, rich socialite. And though she’s campy fun, her lack of screen presence (Oscar nomination notwithstanding) probably cost her the opportunity to reprise her legendary stage role in the film of HELLO, DOLLY!
MILLIE is bright, colorful, tuneful, overlong, incredibly silly and pointless, and in the end utterly irresistible, thanks in no small part to Elmer Bernstein‘s Oscar-winning original score. Everything from ragtime and flapper jazz to melodramatic orchestral cues, faux Chinese music, and silent movie piano music accompanying the dialogue cards give the film an extra layer of charm. My favorite cue is a goofy, slapstick rescue scene that shows Bernstein switching from one musical genre to another, sometimes in a matter of a few bars. The Penelope-tied-to-the-tracks silent film piano adds to the silliness of the scene, and yet perfectly places it in its proper period and time.
Though Oscar voters probably thought they were voting for André Previn and Joseph Gershenson’s sparkling musical numbers (which were also nominated in the Adaptation category), Bernstein had no illusions about why he won. In a 1997 interview with Variety, Bernstein said:
The moment was a great thrill. I really felt that I was being honored for a body of work…I feel that my colleagues gave me the Oscar for all that I had done up to that point. It felt really good. I’m keenly aware that in our business-slash-art, that is the highest honor a co-worker can give you. I was very honored by that.
Bernstein’s music consistently entertains me every time I see MILLIE. Film music fans often lament that Bernstein didn’t win for one of his more famous dramatic scores such as THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN or HAWAII, but that short shrifts Bernstein’s contribution to the film. I remain hopeful that the original tracks are released someday and I can cross one of my holy grails off the list.
A 2002 Tony Award-winning Broadway musical stripped the film of every ounce of its charm. THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE as a film, however, is simply delectable.