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The Furniture: Death by Excess in What a Way to Go!

"The Furniture," by Daniel Walber, is our weekly series on Production Design. You can click on the images to see them in magnified detail.

Any excuse to talk about What a Way to Go! is a good excuse. But the centennial of Ted Haworth is an especially excellent excuse. He was nominated for six Oscars, starting with Marty in 1955. He won for 1957’s Sayonara. Highlights from the rest of his career include Some Like It Hot, The Beguiled, and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid.

But none of those movies could hold a candle to the astonishing level of creativity on display in What a Way to Go! The epic 1964 comedy of love and loss stars Shirley MacLaine as Louisa May Foster, a many-time widow and heiress.  Each husband, with one particularly tragic exception, begins the marriage as a near-pauper who wants nothing but love. But their passion inevitably leads them on a wild pursuit of wealth, which tends to end in a coffin. It should be noted, of course, that Louisa herself has little interest in cash.

There are far too many brilliant design elements to fit into a single column...

Instead, I’m going to take a tip from My New Plaid Pants and steal the idea of Thursday’s Ways Not to Die. Here are the four deaths of Louisa’s husbands, murdered with style by art directors Haworth and Jack Martin Smith and set decorators Stuart Reiss and Walter Scott.

Louisa’s first husband is Edgar Hopper (Dick Van Dyke), a charming man who owns an unassuming little hardware store. Initially, he and Louisa are giddily content with their simple life. But the honeymoon period ends when his rival in love and business, Leonard Crawley (Dean Martin), gets under his skin. Edgar goes retail crazy.

His office becomes overwhelmed with evidence of what-a-way-to-go-1960s executive equipment, including an armada of memo recorders.

It’s only a matter of time until he quite literally works himself to death. The excess of business is his undoing, underlined by its ever-ridiculous accoutrement.

Distraught, Louisa heads to Paris. There she meets Larry Flint (Paul Newman), a painter living the bohemian lifestyle. They share a series of tiny bathtubs, eat baguettes and fall deeply in love.

But it happens again. Larry invents a machine that paints in response to sound. After feeding it some Beethoven, he makes his first major sale. All of a sudden he’s a man possessed, turning out canvas after canvas until he’s the most sought after artist in Paris.

In a moment of real frenzy, he turns on Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 – the one nicknamed “Fate.” It’s a commission for Neiman Marcus, they’re paying him $150,000. Spurred by the music, his orchestra of machines goes rogue. Soon they’ve got him surrounded.

And then, with one last boom, he’s gone.

So that’s one husband down to an excess of office supplies, another to an excess of contemporary art. The third husband, then, is a relief. Rod Anderson, Jr. (Robert Mitchum) is already filthy rich when he meets Louisa. He invites her to join him in the “Lush Budget Production” that is his life.

His heart isn’t in it, though, which she admires. He just wants to go back to his farm and the embrace of his beloved cows. This makes it even more cruel when he meets his demise at the hoof of a bull.

Which leads Louisa to husband #4, an unsuccessful clown who lives in a houseboat. Unfortunately, just before retirement, Pinky Benson (Gene Kelly) finally connects with the audience. He rockets to stardom and surrenders to ego and excess beyond imagining. Everything at the mansion is painted pink, from the walls to the rabbits.

The pool is pink, the patio is pink, even the plants are pink.

And when he gets trampled by his fans, his pink coffin is escorted down his towering pink staircase.

The moral of all this crazy design isn’t terribly complex, but it doesn’t have to be. What a Way to Go! is an irrepressible delight, a comedy of ever-escalating creativity and unstoppable charm. It’s as colorful a legacy as any production designer could hope for.


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Reader Comments (6)

I LOVED this movie as a kid...
The champagne glass bed!
Fabulous costumes!

September 25, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDO

This is probably my favorite guilty pleasure movie (along with The Parent Trap). I could watch the parade of costumes, hair and sets from the Lush Budgett sequence on a continuous loop.

September 25, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Hollywood

i have been meaning to see this movie for years due mostly to those ALL PINK stills. This article may finally convince me to do so.

September 25, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

This is a fun movie

September 25, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

This movie is insane and lovely, although the scene with the painting robots goes on too long. I think of this as one of the ultimate movies of the era when Hollywood was first feeling threatened by TV so went all-out to try and stand out. Wider screens, the biggest sets, brightest colors, the most stars...

September 25, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDave S.

This was first intended as a vehicle for Marilyn Monroe, but we all know what happened.
I watched as a kid and loved it. I'm not sure it will hold up, though. I'll give it a try.

September 26, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSeisgrados

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