TCM’s schedule might be honoring Dame Maggie Smith, but I chose another English lady to salute today: Dame Julie Andrews (I don’t believe she’s officially been given the title, and if not what’s the holdup?). I had several options I could have employed, including my personal favorite, Victor/Victoria. I went with a musical I was hesitant about purchasing (and did anyway); Thoroughly Modern Millie is an adaptation of the popular play about the modernization of women in the 1920s. While somewhat bloated with a white slavery plot that never rises above a bizarre plot contrivance, the movie is a solid, fun, and delightful musical anchored by its leads – including television ray of sunshine, Mary Tyler Moore. If you’re looking for a film about the 1920s, skip The Great Gatsby and check out Thoroughly Modern Millie.
Millie Dillmount (Andrews) is an independent woman who dreams of security by marrying her boss, Trevor Graydon (John Gavin). Complications ensue when a sweet orphan (Mary Tyler Moore) comes to town and catches Graydon’s eye. Add in a paper clip salesman (James Fox), and Millie’s white slave operator/landlord (Beatrice Lillie), and the world might be too modern for this gal.
Director George Roy Hill must love the 20s/30s, directing this and The Sting (which I praised for its portrayal of the time period in my original review). I haven’t seen the musical, but everything about Thoroughly Modern Millie plays with the knowledge of what the time period represents, then and now. Women were coming into their own, flaunting their independence and sexuality. Millie’s journey doesn’t have her coming to grips with the changes in women, she embraces change from the word “go,” immediately bobbing her hair because as the opening song says, “It’s stylish to raise your skirts and bob your hair.” In order to become “thoroughly modern,” there’s no need for grand epiphanies; the girl wants to fit in! Millie’s determination to become a carbon copy of the women around her even provides some ribald humor as she complains about being unable to flatten her chest.
Everything in the movie is done with a wink to the audience and an acknowledgment of the film’s satire. The knowing glances at the camera by Andrews can become tiresome and bring up unfavorable comparisons to cheap “spoof” movies, of which this isn’t. I mentioned comparisons to The Sting, and that’s generally reserved for the use of silent film dialogue (black screen with words) to convey Millie’s inner thoughts. These are the sequences where Andrews looks directly into the camera – with a hilarious, exasperated expression – and the words appear on-screen. The times may be about casting off repression, but Millie’s thoughts are definitely kept to herself. The silent film dialogue also plays as a mock series of rules for girls of the era to follow. I’m unsure how similar the play and film are, but the script is witty and gets in a few jabs to express its self-awareness to the audience. When various characters meet, music is used to simulate their moods; when Millie meets Graydon for the first time a choir shouting “Hallelujah” plays. Other than these knowing jokes, the humor is a consistent mix of verbal and physical humor; Millie and Jimmy are making out in the car, playing musical chairs as they dip and dive in the front seat (a very clever use of camera trickery I’m sure), before Millie magically ends up in the backseat and Jimmy in front; there’s also a funny Snow White reference when Mrs. Meers (Beatrice Lillie) injects an apple with poison in order to sedate Moore’s Miss Dorothy. And let’s not forget the tribute to Harold Lloyd and Safety Last when Jimmy attempts to scale the building to get to Millie.
The cast are masters of the comedy employed and obviously enjoy the work. Andrews was coming off the one-two punch of Mary Poppins (which is slyly referenced in a cleaning montage) and The Sound of Music. Her Millie is similar to both Mary and Maria; a woman desperate to make her way in the world. However, Millie is aware of sex, and schemes to have Trevor Graydon fall in love with her. Her botched seduction of the man, complete with exposed legs and a bizarre pick-up line involving Tom Sawyer shows why Andrews is a skilled comedienne. Mary Tyler Moore making her film début after a successful turn on The Dick Van Dyke Show, ended up surprising me the most. Moore’s autobiography claims that her role was severely reduced once Andrews joined the picture, but she’s darling in the part she has. Miss Dorothy starts as the annoying, wide-eyed ingenue; she’s so dense she pays for pay fare with a check (the frustration being that it’s only a quarter). The character could have become extremely annoying, and she becomes so to Millie once Graydon expresses an interest. What prevents this is Moore’s comedic timing and her ability to balance the doe-eyed naïvety with an adult knowledge of the world. Miss Dorothy realizes times are changing and wants to climb aboard, she just has to break down the walls of propriety. It explains why we don’t need to spend time on Millie acclimating to the world because Miss Dorothy is the foil. Moore keeps her voice barely above a whisper, so you can understand the struggle it is for Miss Dorothy to say “hell,” while she relishes saying such a naughty word. Later on, as Miss Dorothy’s confidence grows, she breezily calls another woman a bitch; she’s not a little girl anymore. The ending is the worst for all the characters, but Moore especially as she becomes the damsel. I can understand her belief that she was marginalized in a “Julie Andrews” picture, but she’s a good sport all the way.
The movie is two and a half hours, and that’s the fatal flaw of the film. It is a roadshow picture, complete with overture and intermission, but the white slavery subplot involving the boarding house owner Mrs. Meers is ridiculous and unnecessary. The movie opens with a woman being kidnapped and a newspaper announcing that white slavery is running rampant. Was human trafficking really a huge problem in the 1920s? I think it’s a bigger issue today. That’s the only explanation, though, and from there the movie employs Charlie Chan-esqua Asian actors (one played by Pat Morita in his film début) and Beatrice Lillie talking in Chinese. After over an hour you understand that the script finds it just as superfluous since the plot disappears for over 30 minutes. Various times throughout you watch Mrs. Meers attempt to kidnap Miss Dorothy, a cartoon sandwiched into the narrative like a commercial between the featured presentation. It culminates in a chase sequence, and by then all the characters have paired up and the plot has been resolved save for Mrs. Meers getting her comeuppance. I enjoyed the movie, but would have loved it had this subplot been entirely clipped.
The white slavery plot and Carol Channing (sorry, but her voice really annoys me) aside, Thoroughly Modern Millie is a musical gem. Julie Andrews and Mary Tyler Moore are fantastic, the songs are catchy, and the movie’s cheeky self-awareness presents a new look at the musical genre. Go out and get “modern” with Millie and friends.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.