What a Way to Go!

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What a Way to Go!
What a Way to Go promotional poster.jpg
Directed by J. Lee Thompson
Produced by Arthur P. Jacobs
Written by Gwen Davis (story)
Betty Comden (screenplay)
Adolph Green (screenplay)[1]
Starring Shirley MacLaine
Paul Newman
Robert Mitchum
Dean Martin
Gene Kelly
Robert Cummings
Dick Van Dyke
Music by Nelson Riddle
Cinematography Leon Shamroy
Edited by Marjorie Fowler
Distributed by 20th Century Fox
Release dates
  • 1964 (1964)
Running time
111 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $3.75 million[2]
Box office $11,180,531[3]

What a Way to Go! is a 1964 American black comedy directed by J. Lee Thompson and starring Shirley MacLaine, Paul Newman, Robert Mitchum, Dean Martin, Gene Kelly, Bob Cummings and Dick Van Dyke.


In a dream-like pre-credit sequence, Louisa May Foster (Shirley MacLaine), dressed as a black-clad widow, descends a pink staircase in a pink mansion. As she reaches the bottom, she is followed by pall-bearers carrying a pink coffin. As they round the bend in the staircase, the pallbearers drop the coffin, which sleds down the stairs, leading into the opening titles.

Louisa tries to give away more than $200 million to the U.S. government Internal Revenue Service, which believes it an April Fools' Day joke. Louisa ends up sobbing on the couch of an unstable psychiatrist (Robert Cummings). Louisa tries to explain her motivation for giving away all that money, leading into a series of flashbacks combined with occasional fantasies from Louisa's point of view.

In the first flashback, we meet Louisa as a young, idealistic girl. Her mother (Margaret Dumont in her final film role) fixated on money, pushes for Louisa to marry Leonard Crawley (Dean Martin), the richest man in town. Louisa instead chooses Edgar Hopper (Dick Van Dyke), an old school friend who is inspired by Henry David Thoreau, and lives a simple life. They marry and live a poor but happy life, shown through a silent film spoof with the underlying motif, "Love Conquers All". Their life is idyllic until Hopper, hurt and angry by a visit by Crawley in which he ridicules him and how they live, decides to attempt to make his small store a success. Neglecting Louisa in order to provide a better life for her, he builds his small store into a tremendous empire, running Crawley out of business, and literally working himself to death.

Now a millionaire, Louisa vows never to marry again and travels to Paris, where she meets Larry Flint (Paul Newman), an avant-garde artist who is driving a taxi. Louisa falls in love with Flint and they marry, living an idyllic bohemian lifestyle in Paris, shown through a foreign film spoof. Flint has invented a machine which converts sounds into paint on canvas. One day, Luisa plays classical music into it and it produces a beautiful painting which Flint sells (his first sell). Buoyed by success he starts to create more and more paintings through his machine, becoming hugely successful. Obsessed with success, he builds more and larger machines to paint. Consumed with his painting and the money it produces, Flint relentlessly produces art until, one night, the machines turn on their creator and beat him to death.

Even richer but more depressed, Louisa decides to head back to the United States. However, she misses her flight, but meets Rod Anderson (Robert Mitchum), a well-known millionaire tycoon on the runway. He offers her a lift on his jet, Melissa. At first she thinks of him a cold and calculating, but she sees his softer side on the flight back to the United States, where they are married shortly after landing. They live a lush and idyllic life, depicted through a fantasy sequence spoofing the glamorous big-budget films of the 50s. Fearful of losing him like her first two husbands if he threw himself back into his work, Louisa convinces Rod to sell everything and retire to a small farm. However, while he never neglects her, he mistakenly attempts to milk his bull, who kicks him through the wall of the barn, leaving Louisa a widow again.

Now fantastically wealthy, Louisa wanders the United States. In a café in a small town, she meets Pinky Benson (Gene Kelly), a performer at the bar across the parking lot, who does musical numbers in clown makeup and costume. Management loves him because his act never distracts the customers from eating and drinking. Once again, Louisa falls in love and the two marry. They live an idyllic life on Pinky's run-down houseboat, which is shown through a film sequence spoofing big Hollywood musicals. One evening, on Pinky's birthday, Louisa suggests that Pinky perform without make-up, to save time. Never noticed before, all of a sudden the customers take note of Pinky. Virtually overnight, Pinky becomes a Hollywood star. He neglects his wife in his pursuit of fame. Everything in his life is pink. Eventually, Pinky's adoring public trample him to death after the premiere of one of his films (the funeral we see at the beginning of the film).

After relating her story to the psychiatrist, he proposes to Louisa, who turns him down, after which he suffers an accident and is knocked out. The janitor comes in, who Louisa recognizes as Leonard Crawley (Martin). Leonard and Louisa marry, and live poor but idyllic life on a farm with their four children. The film ends when Leonard apparently strikes oil with his tractor. Luisa becomes distraught, thinking her curse has struck again, until oil company representatives show up and inform them that Leonard has damaged a pipeline.



Originally intended as a Marilyn Monroe vehicle, it was recast after her death.[4]

Shirley MacLaine was quoted as saying that she was happy to work with "Edith Head with a $500,000 budget, seventy-two hairstylists to match the gowns, and a three-and-a-half-million-dollar gem collection loaned out by Harry Winston of New York. Pretty good perks, I'd say."[5]

Robert Mitchum's role was originally meant for Frank Sinatra but Sinatra suddenly wanted several times more money than what the other male leads received. The studio refused Sinatra's demands; Gregory Peck was sought but he was unavailable. Shirley MacLaine recommended Mitchum to director J. Lee Thompson who recommended him to the studio.[6]

Johnnie Davis and William Tracy had previously starred together in Brother Rat.


This film marked the last performance for two well known Hollywood performers: Tom Conway (George Sanders' brother), best known for his roles in The Falcon series; and Margaret Dumont, best known as a foil for Groucho Marx in several Marx Brothers Films.


Box office performance[edit]

The film grossed $11,180,531 at the domestic box office,[3] earning $6.1 million in US theatrical rentals.[7] It was the 11th highest grossing film of 1964.


What a Way to Go! was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Art Direction (Jack Martin Smith, Ted Haworth, Walter M. Scott, Stuart A. Reiss) and Best Costumes by Edith Head and Moss Mabry,[8] a BAFTA Best Foreign Actress Award for Shirley MacLaine, a Laurel award for Best Comedy and Best Comedy performer for Paul Newman, and an American Cinema Editors Eddie award for best editor for Marjorie Fowler. It won a Locarno Film Festival award for Best Actor for Gene Kelly.[9]


  1. ^ "Turner Classic Movies". 
  2. ^ Solomon, Aubrey. Twentieth Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History (The Scarecrow Filmmakers Series). Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1989. ISBN 978-0-8108-4244-1. p254
  3. ^ a b Box Office Information for What a Way to Go! The Numbers. Retrieved 2013-04-30.
  4. ^ "Forgotten Hollywood". 
  5. ^ "Shirley MacLaine on her experience with What A Way To Go!". shirleymaclaine.com. Retrieved 2015-05-04. 
  6. ^ p.377 Server, Lee Baby, I Don't Care 2002 St. Martin's Griffin
  7. ^ Solomon p 229. See also "Big Rental Pictures of 1964", Variety, 6 January 1965 p 39.
  8. ^ "NY Times: What a Way to Go!". NY Times. Retrieved 2008-12-26. 
  9. ^ "Awards for What a Way to Go!". IMDb. Retrieved 2013-05-05. 

External links[edit]