In 1954, the Colgate Comedy Hour adapted the famous Cole Porter musical Anything Goes for a live, one-hour television special.
The episode tells the tale of Reno Sweeney (Ethel Merman, reprising a role she’d played on Broadway 20 years earlier), a woman sailing on the S.S. Luxembourg. She plans to marry, becoming Lady Oakley.
Harry Dane (Frank Sinatra), Reno’s ex, doesn’t agree with her decision to sail off and get hitched, so he decides to book himself a ticket on the Luxembourg, too.
Also on the ship is “Moonface” Martin (Bert Lahr), a gangster posing as a missionary in order to evade the authorities. It’s not that he’s afraid to be arrested — he’s only No. 13 on the list of public enemies, and he wants to work his way up the list!
But the authorities will become Harry’s true worry when a case of mistaken identity gets him pegged as Public Enemy No. 1, “Angel Face” Nelson.
This broadcast of Anything Goes makes a number of changes to the original Broadway version, including the addition of multiple Cole Porter tunes that were not used in the original production. Five of the songs from the stage version are sung here.
Anything Goes is a fun watch. Bert Lahr, most famous for his role as the cowardly lion in The Wizard of Oz, is a total delight here as gangster-in-disguise Moonie. He adds a lot of humor to the broadcast and his charisma makes up for some of the show’s issues (which I’ll get to later).
The songs are also wonderful. I’m a big fan of Cole Porter’s music, and the cast does a great job of performing his tunes. This should come as no surprise: Can you really ever go wrong with talents the likes of Frank Sinatra?
Speaking of good ol’ Frank, it’s been widely reported that he and Ethel Merman didn’t get along at all during the process of rehearsing and performing Anything Goes. This was their only project together, and apparently neither of them enjoyed working with the other. This shows on-screen, and works to the special’s detriment.
There’s an awkward air between them, and near-nonexistent chemistry. Their duets are nice, because both of them have nice voices, but as actors they don’t mesh well as the central focus of the story. There’s supposed to be a bit of animosity between them since they’re exes with a rocky relationship history, but there’s supposed to be affection, too, and that’s missing.
Anything Goes is well worth watching for fans of Cole Porter’s songs. Despite the Sinatra-Merman problem, the musical numbers are all great, and at about 53 minutes running, it’s a quick and light piece of viewing.