Of Thee I Sing (TV Movie 1972) Poster

(1972 TV Movie)

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Pleasant, but could have been better...
F Gwynplaine MacIntyre9 January 2004
The 1931 Broadway musical 'Of Thee I Sing' was a landmark in the American theatre. The songs (by the Gershwin brothers) were fully integrated into the script by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, advancing the plot rather than interrupting it. Whereas most other musicals of the 1930s offered frothy escapism, 'Of Thee I Sing' drew bitter satire from the Depression and America's political situation at the time: this was only one of several reasons why 'Of Thee I Sing' was the first musical ever to win the Pulitzer Prize. The original Broadway production featured some vicious humour at the expense of the American political system, such as a chorus line of Supreme Court justices singing "We're the A.K.s who give the O.K.s" ('A.K.' being a Yiddish epithet). It can be argued that 'Of Thee I Sing' is anti-American in its spirit; in fact, author Kaufman refused to sanction a revival of this musical during World War Two, believing that the U.S. government should not be satirised in wartime. Remarkably, the same team that created 'Of Thee I Sing' created a sequel, "Let 'Em Eat Cake", which is even more vicious in its satire ... a musical 'comedy' in which the United States is overthrown by a fascist dictatorship.

Bizarrely, much of the plot in 'Of Thee I Sing' anticipates the shenanigans of the Clinton administration. The President of the United States has a sexual tryst with a Southern woman, who then sues him. Meanwhile, the White House bedrooms are full of people who have made financial contributions to the party in power. There is debate as to whether the First Lady should be politically active, or whether she should stay home and bake muffins...

For various arcane reasons, Hollywood never produced a film version of the original Broadway production of 'Of Thee I Sing'. This 1972 special, aired on CBS television, is therefore extremely important as the nearest thing (by distant default) to a filmed record of the original production.

Carroll O'Connor stars as John P. Wintergreen, a Presidential candidate who campaigns with the slogan 'Wintergreen: The Flavour Lasts'. After the election, he and his wife Mary settle into the White House. O'Connor's singing voice is well-suited to the material, and he clearly relishes this opportunity to demonstrate that his acting range doesn't stop with Archie Bunker. Jack Gilford is perfectly cast as Alexander Throttlebottom, the Vice President who is such a non-entity that he can only get into the White House by joining a guided tour.

This tv special heavily abridges the original Broadway libretto, cutting out most of the pointed satire about 1930s politics, and retaining only the most generic gags about politicians. A few new jokes have been inserted, but they add no wit or hilarity to the proceedings. For example, when Gilford takes a roll call of the Senate, the senator from Alaska hugs himself as if he is freezing. (If he's this cold in Washington DC, how will he feel back in his home state?)

The biggest flaw in this tv special was some network executive's stupid decision to load the cast with cameo appearances by several actors who were in the casts of programmes running on CBS-TV at this time. Their presence adds absolutely nothing to this special, and they distract from the subject matter.

In some alternate universe, a video company is selling copies of the 1933 movie version of 'Of Thee I Sing', starring William Gaxton and Victor Moore in their Broadway roles. Unfortunately, in *our* universe, that movie was never made. This 1972 tv version is small comfort indeed, but it's all we've got. I'll rate this so-so special 6 points out of 10, mostly for the historical significance of its source material.
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Well Remembered
lzf024 January 2011
I remember seeing this TV version of "Of Thee I Sing" when I was very young. It helped turn me into a life long Gershwin fan. I even have the LP made by Columbia. Since that time, I have seen and been involved with productions of this brilliant musical comedy. A few of the songs ("Of Thee I Sing", Who Cares", "Love Is Sweeping the Country") have become world class standards. Then there are the hidden gems like "A Kiss for Cinderella" and "Because, Because".

Paramount was supposed to make a movie version. It was discussed as a vehicle for the Marx Brothers. Would Groucho have played Wintergreen or Fulton? Harpo would have been hysterical as a silent Throttlebottom. Chico would have added to the hilarity as an immigrant committee member. Maybe Zeppo would have been Wintergreen! In the 1940s,Bob Hope was to star in a movie version. Hope would have been perfect as Wintergreen, but looking at Paramount 40s musicals, it wouldn't have been great. Musically, we probably would have ended up with only "Wintergreen for President", "Love Is Sweeping the Country" and the title song. Paramount used Hope instead of William Gaxton for its production of "Louisiana Purchase"; Victor Moore repeated his Broadway role. However, most of Irving Berlin's score was unused and Hope did not get one single musical number. What a shame! Paramount also made messes of Broadway hits "Let's Face It" and "Lady in the Dark".

As for the CBS production, the libretto was truncated to fit into a 90 minute slot and the southern senator became the villain, replacing the French Ambassador, which would not make much sense in the 1970s. Peter Matz's musical arrangements are crisp and swinging. They are far superior to the Don Walker arrangements from the 1952 Broadway version. Jack Gilford was so perfect as Throttlebottom that he was used again for the Brooklyn Accademy of Music production in the 1980s. With the Gershwin music still vital at the time, CBS was able to update the story and place it in the 1970s. However, if this show was revived on Broadway today, unfortunately it would have to be treated as a period piece.
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Wintergreen For President
theowinthrop13 February 2006
"Of Thee I Sing" should somehow be revived as often as "Porgy And Bess" or "An American In Paris" or "Rhapsody In Blue". But this, the first musical comedy to win the Pulitzer Prize, is never revived. Some of its songs are sung, in particular "Of Thee I Sing Baby", but most of them are very deeply connected to the plot of the musical. How to understand a song like "She's the illegitimate daughter, of the illegitimate son, of the illegitimate nephew of Napoleon." which happens to deal with a plot problem concerning the promise of a marriage to the winner of a contest by the victor of the Presidential election. See what I mean: the songs can't be on their own feet, like the best loved melodies of George and Ira Gershwin.

Yet it has never been forgotten, as so many other Pulitzer play winners (who recalls the story of "Why Marry?" the first play to win, or "Men In White", which we all remember is about hospitals...and then what?). The reason is the spoofing of the political system in the story, at a critical moment of American history, remains cogent to this day.

Set in the 1930s (in an alternate universe, where Herbert Hoover was not replaced by Franklin Roosevelt), a convention that is deadlocked nominates one John P. Wintergreen for President. It later turns out that Wintergreen, a little known delegate, yelled his own name at a critical moment, and it swept the convention hall. A Vice Presidential candidate was also chosen as well, but nobody is paying attention to that (in fact, in the play's directions the name of the Vice President on the banners is constantly hidden from view). Wintergreen discusses campaign strategy with several managers (each representing a portion of the country: the urban immigrant voters represented by a Jewish fellow, a southern Democrat type, etc.). But the Vice President is never seen. He is a nonentity - indeed he becomes the monument to the concept of nonentities.

It is decided to run on a "Love Ticket", in which the handsome Wintergreen, if elected, will marry the winner of a national beauty contest. Here the song "Love is Sweeping the Country" would come in - the other major standard that came out of this show. The winner of the contest is Miss Devereaux, who is from the south. John wins the election, but he has met Mary, and he wants to marry Mary. This is an insult to the southern delegation to congress, who demand his head. Soon it becomes an international matter, when it turns out that Miss Devereaux is a relative of Napoleon (hence the song I mentioned before). Wintergreen is threatened by impeachment from the U.S. Senate, and war from France unless he marries Miss Devereaux.

But while this is going on, we finally meet the Vice President: Mr. Alexander Throttlebottom. A harmless nothing, nobody pays any attention to him. He can't get a library card in Washington as he has no pair of references. But when the possibility that Wintergreen being removed occurs, suddenly Throttlebottom becomes a desirable person to know. And he knows it.

Victor Moore played Throttlebottom in 1931 to William Gaxton's Wintergreen. Moore had been a Broadway figure for two decades (he was in "Forty-Five Minutes From Broadway" in the first decade with Fay Templeton - see the program that is briefly shown in "Yankee Doodle Dandy"). But this role is the one we remember him for, and it is not on film or video or even radio broadcast. He and Gaxton were paired for a decade on Broadway, and Moore went on to Hollywood, sometimes playing clones of Throttlebottom like Senator Loggenberry in "Louisiana Purchase". It made him a real star. Gaxton had less movie success (see him in "Best Foor Forward").

The 1972 television version was a flop really. Jim Bachus, by the way, played the southern senator, not the French ambassador. Herb Edelman was the Jewish adviser. Carroll O'Connor was fairly good as Wintergreen, but the role should have been for a slightly younger man. Jack Gilford did well as Throttlebottom, but one would have rather seen Moore's bobble headed characterization. Cloris Leachman and Michelle Lee did well as Mary and Miss Devereaux. But the production was not that good and has never been revived.
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