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:
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.