Millie Dillmount (Julie Andrews) is a young woman in the early 1920s spurned on by womens’ suffrage to find a job for a rich businessman and subsequently marry him for his money, a notion considered unthinkable in the previous decades. On her mission to woo one Trevor Graydon (John Gavin), she befriends an aspiring actress Miss Dorothy Brown (Mary Tyler Moore) and a flailing but charismatic salesman called Jimmy Smith (James Fox), the latter of whom she finds herself falling for in spite of his economic place.
This film was directed by George Roy Hill who would go on to win an Oscar for The Sting, and it’s curious that both that film and this portray a very similarly idealized early twentieth century. Though this era is well known for the gangster culture and bohemianism, both films but especially Thoroughly Modern Millie depict the “Roaring Twenties” in a mostly innocent way. Mostly. There is a tonal shift with regards to subject matter that’s incredibly jarring in the climax, but I’ll get to that later. Hill stylizes the film in a sort of spoof of 1920s silent films with occasional title cards appearing to give insight into Millie’s inner thoughts, which is actually a clever idea. Less clever and considerably more awkward are the moments when Millie turns directly to the camera as if to break the fourth wall only to give a quick expression of her feelings. I know this too is satirizing a silent film trope, but in a talkie it’s distracting and slightly too cheesy.
I love Julie Andrews. She’s charming and affable, altogether lovely, and possessed of one of the greatest singing voices I’ve ever heard. I say that because her being the lead is the only thing that keeps me from hating this character. If Millie wasn’t played by Andrews, this would be a really irritating person to follow for two hours. Her entire arc is that she’s a gold-digger wanting to marry purely for money over love, which would be a funny change except for the fact it’s obvious she’ll realize the error in her thinking by the end. She has a very skewed idea of womens’ lib and seems to be trying to exploit it here. Andrews plays her as best she can but the way she’s written doesn’t do the actress any favours. She just manages to get by. Fox is also a bit annoying at times and tends to mug for the camera. But given how his character’s supposed to be a spontaneous, forward, and even thrill-seeking type, it makes enough sense. I do like he’s not the conventional love interest type of character the way boring old John Gavin is, and he does put on a decent American accent. But his chemistry with Andrews is only so-so and the performance is a far cry from Fox’s better work in films like A Passage to India. The best part of the movie as far as performances go, is Mary Tyler Moore. Sure Miss Dorothy is a bit too one-note, but Moore’s talented enough to wrench everything she can out of that note. She’s also terribly sweet and as the object of cruel intentions, you sympathize a lot with her. Moore’s as usual very pretty and funny, and personally I get a kick out of the fact she’s once again playing a character whose best friend’s named ‘Millie’. Also, her one line “the world of the stage just doesn’t seem to want me” is a little heartbreaking if you know about Moore’s actual career struggles during this period. Beatrice Lillie plays the orphanage matron with plans for Miss Dorothy I’ll get into, and she plays just a goofy one-dimensional comedic villain. Her henchmen whose portrayals are more than a little racist, are sadly played by Barney Miller’s Jack Soo and freaking Mr. Miyagi himself, Pat Morita! And finally, let’s talk about Carol Channing. I know she’s got her fans, particularly from her Broadway work and Hello Dolly, but for me, I can’t stand her voice! It sounds like a childish Joan Rivers and it’s like acid when she speaks let alone when she sings. Any musical number given to her is especially hard to listen to and makes Russell Crowe and Pierce Brosnan sound like Sinatra in comparison. What’s so unbelievable is how Channing’s horrid sounds are here paired alongside Andrews’ idyllic pitch.
That pitch though isn’t put to much use. The songs aren’t horrible and Andrews’ voice makes them at least somewhat nice to listen to, but they haven’t got any long-term recognition value. Many of the songs aren’t original to this film and a couple, particularly “Trinkt le Chaim” which obviously is sung in Yiddish, are handled clumsily. The only song that is any good is “Thoroughly Modern Millie” itself which is upbeat and nicely distinct. The score itself earned Elmer Bernstein his only Academy Award even though it’s not one of his better works. Thoroughly Modern Millie was the one movie they gave an Oscar to the composer behind The Magnificent Seven, The Ten Commandments, The Great Escape, To Kill a Mockingbird, Cape Fear, Airplane!, and even The Blues Brothers! What the hell?!
The most problematic aspect of Thoroughly Modern Millie though is its confused themes. It wants to be a modern and feminist film, but can’t help itself falling back on old stereotypes. The drive permeating the film is that women can marry for money rather than love, essentially that women can be just as awful as men. While of course this isn’t being taken seriously, it could’ve gone somewhere different. Because of its premise, the movie’s already drawing attention to feminist themes which makes it that much more disappointing when it just ends on the same romantic note. It’s definition of modern is really simplistic. I have to get into SPOILERS for these next couple points so be warned! It’s also remarkably weird the films’ half-trying to have a feminist message when there’s a subplot about sex slavery! Probably the most jarring thing is when the movie reveals the orphanage matron has been selling women into slavery for her Asian henchmen. And you’d think this would be really dark, but it’s played as light as they can get away with -which is actually pretty insulting. I mean there are women gagged in cages in this movie and when they’re released it comes off as just inconvenient! If the filmmakers had to include this they needed to address it with a lot more care. Because as is, it not only undercuts the semblance of a serious feminist conversation this film could provoke, but represents a horrific reality in a tasteless comic relief manner! The other thing that really ruins any good taste this film could leave is the ending, which is a really terrible cop-out revealing Jimmy and Dorothy as wealthy siblings pretending to be poor to woo people who’d love them for their personalities. Good on their part, but it gives Millie exactly what she wanted from the beginning, meaning she learns no lesson. So fuck that ending!
Is Thoroughly Modern Millie a total waste? No, it has a few good laughs, a decent sight gag and fourth wall break every so often. But the bad story elements, bland songs, poorly executed themes, and unpleasant turn into subject matter this film is really incapable of handling are really harmful. Julie Andrews, Mary Tyler Moore, James Fox and George Roy Hill are far better than this, an obscure musical that deserves to remain in obscurity.