A widow, Louisa May (Shirley MacLaine) descends the pink staircase of a pink mansion's pink hallway dressed all in black. She is followed by the coffin of her late husband, which slips from the grasp of the pallbearers, flies down the stairs and zooms around the slippery floor until it is caught and held down. After the funeral, Louisa visits the building of the United States Treasury and offers them a cheque, but when they see the amount - hundreds of millions of dollars - she is sent to a psychiatrist, Dr Stephanson (Robert Cummings), who lets her lie on his couch while she tells her tale of woe. Louisa, you see, has always been unlucky in love...
Supposedly a black comedy, What a Way To Go! is really too frothy to be considered alongside the likes of MASH or Where's Poppa? which were just around the corner. Louisa's problem with men is that they're always dying on her, leaving her with astronomical amounts of money in their wills when all she wants is to settle down and live the simple life. Written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green from Gwen Davis' story, it's pure, mega-budget Hollywood profligacy, with all the cash thrown at it up there on the screen just at the time that such lavish productions were on the brink of falling from favour. And besides, the Frank Tashlin-style jokes and "money isn't everything" message here aren't exactly cynical.
In fact, it looks as if it belongs in the previous decade with its campy humour but a slightly arch tone tempers the fluffiness of the presentation. Louisa begins her tale by describing her early life, where she grew up with an overbearing mother (Margaret Dumont in her final role) whose hypocrisy showed in her money-grabbing manner. When she was old enough to date men, there were two who were interested in her, Leonard Crawley (Dean Martin) the local millionaire who practically owned the town, and Edgar Hopper (Dick Van Dyke), who owns the one, lowly shop that Leonard doesn't. Naturally, Louisa goes against her mother's wishes and marries Edgar.
However, their wedded bliss doesn't last long. With every husband, Louisa fantasises that her life is a movie, and with Edgar it's a silent comedy, living in near poverty but happy with each other. Then her husband makes up his mind to make his fortune and buy out Crawley, which he does, so now Louisa never sees him, and when he says "Hard work never hurt anybody" a few too many times he keels over from a stress-related heart attack, leaving his wife a rich widow. The roster of stars who line up to play MacLaine's husbands is undeniably impressive, and despite the episodic nature of the storyline they each make their mark.
But the bright and perky Shirley is always in danger of being overwhelmed in her own film, whether it's her stellar co-stars, the over-the-top sets or those elaborate Edith Head gowns she wears (there must be about a hundred of them). Paul Newman is spouse number two, an American artist living in Paris (of course the film adds to that veneer of sophistication by travelling to Europe) who invents a painting machine to create his canvasses for him, just underlining how bizarre a lot of this film appears. Then there's Robert Mitchum, who is already a millionaire when Louisa marries him, and Gene Kelly, a nightclub act who becomes a pompous star almost by accident (obviously Lousia envisions her life with him as a musical). It's all lots of fun, but you can't help but see What a Way To Go! as a warning from Hollywood to the simple folks to stick with their mundane existences - after all, who wants to be rich? Music by Nelson Riddle.