Not so fast Savant — with the help of correspondent input, CineSavant presents more information on David Swift’s adaptation of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying — correcting and modifying some assumptions in my first review. Don’t worry — it’s good reading.
A Savant article
This is an odd circumstance. I routinely update, modify, correct and de-stupidify DVD Savant reviews, but this time I’m taking a more radical step. My March 25 coverage of Twilight Time’s Blu-ray of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying made a big point of the fact that David Swift’s film adaptation had not made many changes. Several songs were dropped, but that would seem the right thing to do considering that the movie wasn’t planned as a Road Show — it’s only 121 minutes in duration and has no break for an intermission. The much missed “Coffee Break” production number would only have added three or four minutes to the show, so why it was dropped has been a minor mystery among musical fans.
Almost as soon as the review was posted, I got back a reasoned reaction from a trusted friend and correspondent. I saw the show on stage in the middle 1970s but personally don’t remember what the stage-only songs dropped for the movie were like. My friend did remember, and in his opinion David Swift not only changed the show, but altered it for the worse. My review noted that the Rosemary Pilkington character (Michele Lee) was rather odd, in that she didn’t do much except cheerlead J. Pierrepont Finch (Robert Morse), urging him on to greater feats of executive chicanery in the name of the noble ethos described in the song “I Believe in You.” My friend told me that most of the missing songs involved Rosemary. In them she expressed quite a different attitude about being marginalized, as a woman, in the wake of the Alpha Male’s all- conquering career. My friend even noted that Rosemary had been dropped from her own song “Rosemary,” which originally was a ‘he said/she said’ duet, where Rosemary voiced attitudes other than simple adoration. In other words, a shared spotlight had been trimmed to favor Finch alone.
So I took the step of consulting a second friend, one who has proven many times over that he’s an expert resource on film history, especially distribution and the politics of writers’ work being adapted. His letters have taught me a lot. I asked him about my How to Succeed in Business review boondoggle, and received back this eye-opening long note, which I’m about to present here. It didn’t feel right to revise my original review and pretend that I knew better all along. I’m instead taking the opportunity to print this ‘qualification-rebuttal’ review appendix instead.
The response note from ‘B’, March 26, 2017:
I don’t believe that you missed the boat on this one — it’s an excellent movie and a favorite around here — but the David Swift film does differ in many ways from the Broadway show. This is mostly because Swift was diligently trying to make a reasonably fast-moving picture that would come in at a more or less conventional length. Remember, Swift and the Mirisches weren’t producing a costly, epic length road show musical with overture, intermission, entr’acte and exit music; this was moderately budgeted and intended for general release. Focusing almost entirely on J. Pierrepont Finch’s character (and the captivating charm and wit of Robert Morse) was a logical way to pare the libretto and score a bit.
Swift is so successful in structuring the movie on and around Finch, some numbers like “A Secretary is not a Toy,” and the Teague, Vallee and Arthur reprise of “Been a Long Day” almost take a little getting used to… people are singing — where’s Ponty?
Since the movie is almost entirely about Ponty, Rosemary’s solo song “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm,” in which she wistfully envisions a life in the suburbs with a successful Finch, was likely one of the first songs to go. This was a major song in the show — a darkish, satirically complex “I Want, But…” song for the character, who has set her cap for the fast-rising Ponty. The song was originally reprised in the second act.
ROSEMARY: (approximate lyrics)
I’ll be so happy to keep his dinner warm / While he goes onward and upward.
Happy to keep his dinner warm / ‘Till he comes wearily home from downtown.
I’ll be there
Waiting until his mind is clear / While he looks through me, right through me.
Waiting to say
Good evening dear / I’m pregnant / What’s new with you, from downtown?
“Paris Original,” one of the best and funniest numbers from the show, in which Rosemary and other company women arrive at a party all wearing the identical ‘exclusive’ dress, must have been jettisoned early. It would have been nice to see the Fosse staging for this recreated on-screen, but it would likely have brought the narrative of the picture to a halt. [We do hear the orchestral music for the song in a few places in the film’s score.]
With these songs gone and the character’s part in Finch’s “Rosemary” song eliminated, the casting discussions with Michele Lee must have been interesting. These deletions probably prompted the significant change of having Rosemary sing “I Believe in You” to Finch midway in the film — otherwise, there’s not enough for a talented singer-actress to do here. [In the play, this showstopper isn’t heard until Ponty sings it in the executive washroom before his presentation of the “Treasure Hunt” idea; Finch and Rosemary later reprise it as a duet.]
I don’t know whether Swift and Lee ever solved the ‘inconsistency’ problem with the Rosemary character. With the cutting of her songs — and “Cinderella, Darling,” almost a marching ballad for predatory secretaries — it becomes less clear that the basis of her character is the active, conniving effort to nab the rising Ponty as husband and breadwinner. It’s almost coincidental that she falls in love with him. Maybe even as early as 1967, Swift felt this was a little much for a back story — although we do see Rosemary actively trying to trap Finch in the early part of the movie. So the movie Rosemary is sweeter and more benign; yes, mostly a cheerleader for Ponty. Fortunately, Lee’s performance has a lot of charm and she’s quite appealing in the movie.
There were other songs cut from the show. A short reprise of “The Company Way,” in which Bud and Mr. Twimble discuss Frump’s taking over the mailroom. There’s also “Love from a Heart of Gold,” in which J.B. and Hedy sort-of affirm their relationship. This song leaves J.B. determined to find something for Hedy to do — Finch’s “Treasure Hunt” plan arrives just in time! Early in the second act, in “Cinderella, Darling,” Smitty and the other secretaries reassure a worried Rosemary that her cherished dream of landing a successful executive is perfectly valid:
SMITTY: (approximate lyrics)
Oh, do not leave us minus / Our vicarious bonus,
We want to see His Highness / Married to Your Lowness.
On you, Cinderella, sits the onus / So when you name the happy day,
Please, phone us.
This witty but increasingly problematic satiric song is now frequently cut from productions of the play, sometimes replaced by a re-worked reprise of “How to Succeed.”
I don’t believe any of the cut numbers were actually filmed — except, of course, for the now sadly lost “Coffee Break.” It is historically true that the production of a great many movie musicals have included the staging, photography and editing of numbers eventually discarded for various reasons. Some label this as inefficiency, but I wouldn’t say that. As Arthur Freed is said to have put it, “You don’t want to waste money, but you also don’t want to limit your options; you don’t always know what’s going to work.” It’s a shame that “Coffee Break” was cut — it’s an even bigger shame that the footage was lost — and, as you can see, the extant stills from the number make clear that it was probably terrific.
Coffee Break: (approximate lyrics)
If I can’t take my coffee break / My coffee break, my coffee break . . .
If I can’t take my coffee break / Something within me dies.
Lies down and something within me dies.
If I can’t make three daily trips / Where shining shrine / Benignly drips
And taste cardboard between my lips / Something within me dies.
Lies down and something within me dies.
But the movie was running long in terms of what the studio had in mind. As you note, though the 1960s are remembered for many lengthy big-budget road show musicals, UA’s How to Succeed (like the studio’s ’66 A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) was neither planned nor intended as a super production. There’s a lot of plot to cover in How to Succeed, and even with five or six numbers cut, the movie runs 121 minutes.
I believe that Swift’s idea to center the picture almost completely around Ponty was a sound one, and importantly, kept the relatively modestly produced film to a reasonable running time. It’s worth noting that Swift is hardly the only filmmaker to refocus and restructure a successful musical play as a movie. Robert Wise and Ernest Lehman streamlined and de-musicalized the Baroness sub-plot in The Sound of Music, deleted several numbers and commissioned two new songs from Richard Rodgers. Ken Russell re-imagined Sandy Wilson’s The Boy Friend as a movie about a sleepy theatrical troupe performing the eponymous stage musical, with some of the numbers becoming elaborate fantasy sequences; the film features nearly all the numbers from the show, and even interpolates other vintage tunes. Less successfully, Bye Bye Birdie’s George Sidney and Irving Brecher added the ridiculous ‘Speed-Up’ plot device as well as eliminating five or six numbers (they did hire Strouse and Adams to write that enduring title tune specifically for the movie).
It wasn’t really until the 1950s that movie adaptations of stage musicals consistently began to resemble their theatrical incarnations. Before that, the 1936 James Whale Show Boat was exceptional for being mostly based on the show. Rodgers and Hammerstein personally backed the ’50s screen versions of Oklahoma! and South Pacific in order to retain control over the adaptations (though with mixed results). I give Warners high marks for more-or-less faithfully filming The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, The Music Man, Gypsy (many do have issues with Mervyn LeRoy’s casting in the latter) and My Fair Lady. The West Side Story film dynamically preserves the feel of the show. Jack Warner’s production of 1776 is also remarkably faithful to the Broadway original. There are other examples, but these really stand out.
Though Swift’s film is missing some great songs and the character of Rosemary is severely diminished, we owe the filmmaker and Walter Mirisch a great debt for recreating onscreen many of the show’s wonderful Loesser/Fosse numbers, smartly casting the movie with key members of the original Broadway cast (Vallee, Sammy Smith, Ruth Kobart; Michelle Lee and Maureen Arthur also appeared in the play during its long run) — and, best of all, preserving the brilliant performance of Robert Morse on film.
We are big fans of this show. We’ve owned this on VHS, laserdisc and DVD, saw the ’95 Broadway revival with Matthew Broderick (no Morse, sad to say) and ventured out to the Brooklyn Academy of Music a few years ago for a screening of the Swift film hosted by Robert Morse. He signed my one-sheet.
The picture opened well at Radio City and the reviews were pretty good. Maybe there was something about the style of the promotion that folks found off-putting, I dunno. I’ve attached an alternate British poster design (just below ↓) that I find sort of interesting. Why this didn’t perform better is a mystery. It did air successfully on NBC a few times; it was still an entertaining pleaser, even in pan-&-scan.
Was this helpful? Best, Always — B.
The incoming emails continue on the first How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying review. Correspondent Michael Bjortvedt thoughtfully rounded up all the “Coffee Break” images he could find, and I’ve used them to illustrate this second look at the movie.
(During our 1997 inquiry after the lost “Coffee Break,” John Kirk noted that the removal of the musical number unbalanced the film reels. Reel 2A was on the short side, and he conducted his search by checking the recorded reel length of prints held in distant vaults. So yes, it does look as if the scene had been dropped at the 11th hour, or during the first engagements.)
Both Gil Lamont and Stefan Anderssen inquired about where Twilight Time’s 5.1 mix came from — could it have been made from those original stereo mix elements? I have found the answer to that one: nope, the stereo mix on the new Blu-ray was made from a mono stem, in 2006 by Chace Audio.
Written: March 28, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson