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DVD Picks: 'Anything Goes'

Ethel Merman (right) and Frank Sinatra's lack of chemistry added to the unintentional comedy in their 1954 live, televised performance of <em>Anything Goes</em>.
Ethel Merman (right) and Frank Sinatra's lack of chemistry added to the unintentional comedy in their 1954 live, televised performance of Anything Goes.

Each week, Bob Mondello offers suggestions for your video queue. Today, he's high on Cole Porter's Anything Goes — not the movie, or the stage musical, but a "live" TV curiosity from 1954.

Though she'd set Broadway on its collective ear in 1934 playing Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes, Ethel Merman had only gotten to sing eight bars of the title song in a film version that truncated the score to make room for more jokes. So when TV beckoned 18 years later, she leapt. Her co-stars?...Frank Sinatra in a bit of a career lull just three weeks before he won an Oscar for From Here To Eternity, and her old buddy Bert Lahr (of Cowardly Lion fame). She and Lahr had shared a showstopper in another Cole Porter musical, so they just slipped it in, and the audience went wild.

Merman had less rapport with Sinatra. To what had to be the disappointment of bobby-soxers at the time, she and Frank share what has to be the least passionate onscreen kiss ever. But this was "live" TV. So the show goes on, even when Merman has to freeze a smile for five full seconds, or when Sinatra wrecks a rhyme by blowing a lyric in "You're the Top," singing "candied ribbon" when he should have sung "ribboned candy" to match "Napoleon Brandy."

Later, Lahr refers to Merman's character not as Lady Oakley, but as "Annie" Oakley, a part she played in Annie Get Your Gun. And it's great fun to watch them all punt when the curtain falls a full three minutes early. Merman's kissing her co-stars to prolong the applause, when Sinatra suggests she sing the title tune again, and she says, sure ... if he'll sing along.

He smiles gamely, then slips out of camera range because he doesn't know the words. But mid-song, she motions him back, and to give the man credit, he tries. He really tries — to no avail. You see him look back offstage kind of longingly, realize he can't escape, and then, for a few giddy seconds, Ethel Merman has the most expensive backup singer ever as Young Blue Eyes "ahh-ahh-ahh's" along behind her.

Hey, it was live television. Anything went.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.