Call Me Madam is one of the poorer movies adapted from an Irving Berlin musical. It’s a cacophonous, shrill, and charmless film with an obnoxious main character. There isn’t a single memorable song or moment in the whole movie.
Ethel Merman has no screen appeal as Sally Adams, the loud-mouthed American socialite assigned as ambassador to the mythical European country of Lichtenburg (a combination of the names of Luxembourg and Liechtenstein). She becomes almost unbearable. Merman was moored to the stage and was too big for the screen. She had been performing Call Me Madam for two years in Broadway by the time she made this film adaptation and was running on automat without adapting her performance to cinema. It doesn’t help, of course, that the story, intended as a jab at the United Nations and USA foreign policy, is of little interest. It has some of the usual cultural faux pas on behalf of the naïve and extroverted Americans abroad, a comedy of errors, and romantic complications and misunderstandings. Then again, Call Me Madam is charmless in all departments: story, songs, and characters.
As Foreign Minister Cosmo Constantine, George Sanders foregoes his trademark Britishness for a silly generic European accent that sounds even worse when he sings. Sanders was born in Russia so there is no excuse for this clumsiness. The running gag of Minister Constantine’s failure to “get” American slang and anecdotes gets old fast since it wasn’t very funny to begin with.
Donald O’Connor is given too little time to repeat the fun he had had in Singin’ in the Rain the year before. His best moment is a frantic run through a patio filled with balloons, a manic dance clearly intended to copy his “Make em’ Laugh” number from Singin’, but it lacks the energy and the spontaneity.
The Marx Brothers could have done wonders with this political lampoon. Even if the dull songs got in the way, the sequences left untampered with the Brothers could have made for a potentially great comedy. This could have even been the United Nations spoof that Billy Wilder had conceived for them but sadly never got to make.
The point is that the silly songs and fluffy love stories of Call Me Madam would have been merely intrusive back stories in a smarter comedy musical. But in Call Me Madam, they are virtually all there is. Unfortunately, there isn’t any more.