Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967)

One of my biggest failings when it comes to cinema viewing is the naive belief that an actor or actress whom I’ve seen and appreciated for the first time will necessarily be fantastic in all their subsequent films that I watch. Thus, having watched The Sound of Music—and raved over every single element of it, especially Julie Andrews—I began searching out other films that starred Julie Andrews, in the childish hope that they’d all be as fabulous as The Sound of Music.
Alas, no. This one, for instance, made only two years after the von Trapp saga, is nowhere close to as endearing. Julie is superb as the 20’s flapper girl Millie Dillmount, trying her best to be hard-heartedly modern, but the film is a bit of a drag.

It’s 1922, and Millie Dillmount (Julie Andrews) has been living at the Priscilla Hotel for Single Young Ladies in New York, for the past three months. It’s dawned on Millie that with her old-fashioned hairdo and prissy attire, she’s not going to get anywhere. So she’s had a makeover, which has changed her from this:

To this:

Just about then, Millie makes friends with a new girl who’s come to stay at the Priscilla Hotel. This is Miss (she insists very strongly on the ‘Miss’) Dorothy Brown (Mary Tyler Moore). Miss Dorothy has just arrived in town from California, and is a sweet, pretty, naive little thing who goes about trying to pay off the cab fare (35 cents) with a cheque. Yeah, sure.
Millie takes Miss Dorothy under her wing (firstly, by paying her cab fare) and then takes her into the Priscilla Hotel. Miss Dorothy confides in Millie, saying she’s here in New York to become an actress. Millie says she has just finished a course at a business school and is all set to become a stenog.

The ‘house mother’ at the Priscilla is the very creepy Mrs Meers (Beatrice Lillie), who, unknown to all the Single Young Ladies of the Priscilla, is the brain behind this:

With the help of her two Chinese assistants (Jack Soo and Pat Morita), Mrs Meers dopes lodgers who have no family or friends; bungs them into a laundry basket and then transports them to Chinatown in a laundry van…

…ready to be shipped off to faraway lands.

And now, discovering that poor Miss Dorothy is an orphan and all alone in this world, Mrs Meers has started hatching evil plots to dope Miss Dorothy.

For the time being, though, Millie is looking after her new friend. They go up to their rooms (Miss Dorothy’s room is opposite Millie’s) in the Priscilla Hotel lift, which you need to dance in, in order to get it to move.

That evening, in the Priscilla Hotel hall, there’s a Friendship Evening dance, to which Millie takes Miss Dorothy. The girls are enjoying themselves. Mrs Meers is slinking around trying to dope Miss Dorothy with a doctored drink. And Millie is approached by a cheery young man (James Fox) who introduces himself as Jimmy Smith and says he saw all these people having so much fun, he couldn’t resist the temptation to join in.

They do have a good time, and the evening ends with Jimmy taking Millie out for a drive in his employer’s roadster (Jimmy explains that his employer’s out of town and has left the car with Jimmy to use while he’s away). There’s some very breathless smooching, and it’s obvious that Millie and Jimmy are well on the way to being an item…

…but Millie has other plans. She is a thoroughly modern girl, right? And modern girls don’t let their hearts rule their heads. No. Millie is going to get a job and then marry her boss, so that she can be a rich man’s wife.
With this goal, Millie goes out looking for a job the next day. Her first few interviews turn out to be damp squibs—the bosses in question are either married or engaged or otherwise unattractive—but with the last man on the list, Trevor Graydon (John Gavin of Psycho fame), Millie strikes gold.

Even better, Mr Graydon approves of Millie and hires her. So Millie becomes his secretary and spends all her spare time trying to work her charm on him. It seems rather disappointing, then, that Mr Graydon calls her John (“he thinks of me as a Johnny-on-the-spot,” Millie explains bleakly to Jimmy). Mr Graydon can’t seem to see Millie as an attractive, marriageable young lady.
And Jimmy, in the meantime, has been phoning Millie up and working his charm on her.

His latest invitation—which includes Miss Dorothy—is for a day-long party at the mansion of a very wealthy widow named Muzzy van Hossmere (Carol Channing). Jimmy explains that his father used to be gardener at the van Hossmeres’, so Muzzy regards Jimmy with much fondness.
Jimmy goes off to the van Hossmere estate with Millie and Miss Dorothy in a plane (his employer’s, he says—also loaned, like the roadster, while the employer’s out of town).

Muzzy, to whom Millie and Miss Dorothy are introduced, is a very eccentric female who has an entourage of instructors—a German pilot; a French singing instructor; a Spanish butler who teaches her to throw the boleadoras; a dancing instructor who goes about saying “Yeah! Yeah!”; and more—Muzzy doesn’t seem to have a care in the world. Millie is quite enthralled by her; the woman lives such a full life. Now, if only Trevor Graydon would buck up and get a move on, perhaps Millie too could end up wealthy enough to live the good life.

But Muzzy has hidden depths, and has figured out two things:
(a) Jimmy is in love with Millie
(b) Millie loves him back, but is so hung up about being the modern girl, she refuses to see what’s in front of her eyes
So Muzzy has a cosy chat with Millie, and convinces Millie that she should encourage Jimmy. Love is everything, not wealth. After all, when Muzzy fell in love with Mr van Hossmere, she didn’t know he was a multi-millionaire.

Millie, her heart bursting with love for Jimmy, goes traipsing off to find him…
…and instead, finds him traipsing off with Miss Dorothy.

Phut goes poor Millie’s heart. Is there any hope for her? Will Trevor Graydon catch her on the rebound? Or will Jimmy come back to Millie? And what about Mrs Meers and her evil plans?

What I liked about this film:

Julie Andrews. Okay, I have a soft spot for her, but she is just so wonderful. A great actress, and what a superb voice. If you are a fan of Julie Andrews, I’d recommend Thoroughly Modern Millie—it’s a good showcase for Julie’s immense talent.

The music and the choreography. My favourite songs include the title song and Carol Channing’s Jazz baby, as well as the brilliant Trinkt le chaim, not just a wonderful bit of music but also great dancing!

What I didn’t like:

For a Julie Andrews film, I do wish this list wasn’t quite as long as it is. But really, Thoroughly Modern Millie wasn’t a film I enjoyed too much. True, the music is very good, and Julie Andrews is marvellous. True, also, that it has its moments of humour—parodies, in particular. For instance, every now and then, as in a silent film, Millie’s thoughts flash across the screen in a title card.

And there are other subtle and not-so-subtle jabs at stereotypical plot elements that reigned in Hollywood through the 20’s to the 50’s, even the 60’s. The love at first sight, the hero climbing towers for his girl, the love wins all, the final denouement with the superficial disguise being whipped off: it’s all there.

But, that’s about it. For me, this film just didn’t work (and this from someone who generally likes musicals and who is not above loving farce as well!) For one thing, it drags on too long. For another, there are pointless digressions, characters, and dialogues that don’t go anywhere. Millie’s prickly colleague, Miss Flannery, who spends all her time trying to prevent Jimmy from meeting Millie, is a case in point. So are the convoluted and/or silly plots Mrs Meers (whom you’d have expected to have more sense if she was running a racket like that) hatches to lay her hands on Miss Dorothy.

Even worse, there is Muzzy. Yes, Carol Channing is a fine comedienne; but Muzzy is irritating in the extreme. Throughout the film, whenever Muzzy appeared onscreen, all I wanted to do was throttle her.

Lastly, Mrs Meers and her Chinese assistants: was there or wasn’t there a definite whiff of ‘evil Chinese’ racism there? All right, I know this film was set in the 1920’s, when there seems to have been something of this sort—the smuggling of white girls, etc—going on, but the film was made in 1967. By which time I’d have expected a more balanced approach in the way the Chinese are depicted. Thoroughly Modern Millie makes its Chinese characters out to be evil buffoons who can do nothing right, not even follow Mrs Meers’s impatient orders.

Oh, well. Enough cribbing about one film. Thoroughly Modern Millie is tedious and long and irritating in places. But yes, if you like Julie Andrews, see it at least once. It’s available on youtube, by the way, in several parts; the first is here.

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29 thoughts on “Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967)

  1. This is exactly how I landed up with my own set of DVDs for Darling Lili and Star!. At least the latter had some really good songs, the former was just a waste of my time and money (in spite of the added bonus of Rock Hudson) – I couldn’t even bring myself to watch it a second time so I could write it up!

    I wonder why poor Julie Andrews landed up with these less-than-watchable films. She doesn’t have many films, and quite a few of them are just great showcases of her talents and nothing else besides. You need a dose of Victor Victoria to get the taste of this one out of your mouth!

  2. The only other early Julie Andrews film (I’m not counting new stuff like The Princess Diaries and Tooth Fairy, which in my opinion anyway don’t count as ‘Julie Andrews films’) that I’ve seen is Torn Curtain. Alfred Hitchcock, Paul Newman. Good, but they could’ve had anyone in the role she played: not a song out of her! :-(

    Have you seen Hawaii or The Americanization of Emily? Both are on my list, and both have rave reviews on imdb, but I’m a little wary of imdb’s rave reviews now… Thoroughly Modern Millie also got rave reviews.

    Victor Victoria has been on my to-watch list for a while. My DVD rental company doesn’t have it yet, but maybe I’ll try getting it from Amazon.

  3. I love The Americanization of Emily, but its more of a James Garner film than a Julie Andrews one. Victor Victoria is all hers though and is a total riot – its the only film involving cross-dressing that I’ve ever found funny! I am desperately seeking The Tamarind Seed – I caught a part of it on TV once and haven’t been able to find it on TV or elsewhere, ever after. What little I saw of it looked pretty promising. But that is the end of Julie Andrews films that seem to be on offer!

  4. bollyviewer: Thank you! I’ll certainly look out for Victor Victoria, and have discovered that The Tamarind Seed is on youtube. If you’re not averse to watching films on youtube, here’s the first part. I’m bookmarking it right now – anything with Julie Andrews and Omar Sharif? Right up my street! Thank you for that tip.

    Sharmi: If you love Julie Andrews, then that’s enough reason to watch Thoroughly Modern Millie. She is by far one of the best things about the film!

  5. This outright racist!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    and not to say sexist!

    Thanks for the warning!

    I’ll stay clear off this!
    And as bollyviewer said, do watch Victor Victoria! It is simply great!
    I could watch it again and again!

  6. Bit of a pity that Andrews didn’t get to reprise her stage Eliza Dolittle in the film version of My Fair Lady. The studio demanded at least one big star and absolutely refused to cast both her and Rex Harrison in the leads – so they went for Audrey Hepburn, who couldn’t even do her own singing. I know Hepburn’s performance in the role has become iconic in its own right, but I think Andrews would have brought another dimension to it, and of course her chemistry with Harrison would have been much better.

    Ironically, the same year that My Fair Lady was released, Andrews became a big movie star herself because of Mary Poppins! And she won best actress at the Oscars while Hepburn wasn’t even nominated for My Fair Lady. Some saw that as poetic justice.

  7. I tried to watch this one once… never finished it. Didn’t like it much at all.
    Victoria Victoria is REALLY good and Julie is EXCELLENT in it… I think you will love when you find it! I like The Americanization of Emily too… loved her performance.

  8. harvey: If it comes to the crunch, I’d say Thoroughly Modern Millie is really not worth a watch – not even for Julie Andrews. If you want to enjoy her performance in the film, watch her songs – that’s more than enough.
    The sexism isn’t as virulent as the racism; the latter really put me off, it’s so crass. I need to see The Crimson Kimono again to get rid of that nasty taste in the mouth this left me with…

    Jabberwock: Much as I like Audrey Hepburn, I do think Julie Andrews would’ve been far better as Eliza Doolittle, too. She sings wonderfully, of course, but even otherwise, I think she’s extremely expressive, a great actress, and very easy on the eyes! Plus the factor of having already done that role onstage… I think that helps. Judy Holliday, for instance, is perfect in the screen version of Bells are Ringing, partly perhaps because she’d already been playing the role on Broadway for a long time. The same for Topol in Fiddler on the Roof. I don’t mean that past experience of the role is essential (most actors would never make it otherwise!), but it probably does help a bit when you know the role that well.

    DG: Thank you for recommending The Americanization of Emily! I’d been wondering whether to bother to search for it or not, and needed advice from someone with similar tastes! If you didn’t like Thoroughly Modern Millie either, I’m guessing you share my tastes. ;-)

  9. I love Julie Andrews. Have seen her in Mary Poppins, Sound of Music and Victor Victoria (caught it on TV in Australia).

    So now I have Thoroughly Modern Millie, and The Americanization of Emily to look forward to.
    I think I might enjoy TMM because of the setting and songs and Julie. Oh I did see her in Princess diaries (had to watch it because of my daughter) and she looked quite royal.

  10. Strangely enough, Mary Poppins is one film I’ve not yet got around to seeing – I’ve seen bits of it, but not the entire film. Must, must amend soon!

    I wish Julie Andrews had acted in more films. There’s something so likeable about her.

  11. I saw Mary Poppins a few times, but I was very small at the time, so I would have to see it again to see whether I might like it these days.

    I never saw Thoroughly Modern Millie, but I wanted to mention a strange coincidence: Shortly after I looked at this post before, I was doing some surfing and searching, and I spotted a headline about KPAC doing a production of Thoroughly Modern Millie. And I thought, what, the famous Kerala People’s Arts Club is doing Thoroughly Modern Millie? But then I checked the post and saw that it was just the Kelsea’s Performing Arts Center in New Jersey:

    http://www.thealternativepress.com/article.asp?news=12006

  12. Despite the Sound of Music & Mary Poppins, Julie Andrews is one actress I have never warmed too. In fact, I rather avoid films by her, its just something about her personality and voice.
    And the 2 films I have cited I would rather have had someone else do the leading role.

  13. To each his/her own, I guess! It’s just that – her personality and her voice – that I especially like about Julie Andrews. On the other hand (taking off from Jabberwock’s comment about Audrey Hepburn getting to play the screen Eliza Doolittle), I’m not a huge Hepburn fan. She’s all right, but I can’t bring myself to rave about her.

  14. It is good that there is a variety of tastes in this world! Otherwise it would be terribly boring…

    In fact, no one in our family likes her, and we all have seen and acknowledged the quality of films like Victor/Victoria, etc.

  15. Julie Andrews is truly a great star. From these discussions of her films I had not realized there were so many highs and lows. Of her recent work she is very good in the two “Princess Diary” films. I recall in 1992 she starred in a horrid and short-lived tv situation comedy “Julie” playing a tv star who married a country veterinarian. The only moment I clearly remember is that during their marriage ceremony, for lack of a wedding bouquet she carried a bunch of broccoli!

  16. Unfortunately her corpus of onscreen work seems to be pretty limited – and it looks like (though I could be mistaken) film makers tended to sign Julie Andrews on mainly if they wanted a singing star… which sort of restricted her repertoire to musicals. Not always, of course – Torn Curtain is a case in point – but to some extent. And somehow Hollywood musicals aren’t always known for coherent and engaging stories! The ones I really like, even for stories and not just for their songs, can be counted on my fingertips: The Sound of Music, Bells Are Ringing and Fiddler on the Roof.

    Thank you for the warning re: Julie. if I ever come across it, I shall avoid it like the plague!

  17. I loved Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music . I had seen a part of TMM on tv some time back, but inspite of Julie’s presence I didn’t find it very intriguing. Now after reading the comments, I have added The Americanization of Emily and Victor Victoria in my must-watch list.

  18. This is one of my favorite movies, but I would note a few points that I dislike:

    1. Since this movie was located in 1922, why all the fashions belong to 1927 – 1928? And why they have a lot of ’60s influence? Also, the 1920s were still very 19th century. They would have introduced more victorian gowns, Chaplin’s like suits, &c. They failed at this point.

    2. There’s A LOT of racism in this movie. I didn’t see any black people, they should have appeared at least as workers or something. I dislike that. Only white people is not a good point to start. But I consider that this movie was made 40 years ago, when racism was still a big problem to deal with.

    Anyway, this is one of my favorite movies and the ’20s are well represented – This is my favorite era!

    • I’m not as clued into fashion to be able to distinguish between clothing in 1922 vs. clothing in 1927-8, but yes, I’m absolutely with you when it comes to racism – that was one of the main reasons I didn’t like this film. And not just because there weren’t any black people in the film (I actually hadn’t noticed that – thank you for drawing it to my attention), but also in the way the Chinese were depicted. Anti-any-race is still racism.

  19. I really haven’t seen most of Julie Andrews’ films. And I even dare to call myself a fan. Awww. But anyway, I once attempted to view this film. I changed my mind, seeing that it’s quite long. Nevertheless, I am still interested with it since it’s a Julie Andrews film, after all, and it was set in an earlier era (I’m not much of a 20’s fan, though; I’m still trying to get to know more about it). Maybe I’d still try to see this one… for the sake of being a Julie Andrews fan. :)

    • This one, frankly, isn’t one of my favourite Julie Andrews films. I’ve seen a few – The Americanization of Emily, Hawaii, Victor Victoria, Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music among them, but my favourite remains The Sound of Music. For a different (non-singing!) Julie Andrews, the Hitchcock thriller Torn Curtain, with Paul Newman. That’s a good one too.

  20. Have you seen Duet for One? I think it’s one of her best dramatic performance on screen. Julie is often undervalued and underappreciated because of her musical talents and her huge string of successes in that area with classics like Mary Poppins, and The Sound of Music. You only have to watch The Americanization of Emily, to see what she was capable of if given a strong dramatic role. I often wish she had sprung for other collaborators rather than her husband during her peak years, as while Blake Edwards did his best to distance her from her 60s image, he still didn’t seem to quite know how to utilise her properly (with the exception of VICTOR/VICTORIA).

    • I haven’t seen Duet for One (though now that you’ve told me about it, I shall add it to my wishlist). I agree that Julie Andrews is associated, in most people’s minds, with only singing. I have seen The Americanization of Emily, and thought she was very good in it – as in Hawaii and that Hitchcock film – was it Torn Curtain? She’s a good actress; her being a good singer tends to mask that at times.

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