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The Bootleg Files: The Ann Miller Great American Soup Commercial

BOOTLEG FILES 699: “The Ann Miller Great American Soup Commercial” (1970 television advertisement).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube in both its full-length and truncated versions.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: There is no market for old-time television advertisements.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not likely.

If you are a frequent viewer of today’s American television, you may have noticed some depressing trends regarding advertising. It appears there is a surplus number of commercials for pharmaceutical products that display cheerful images while running soundtracks full of dreadful warnings of toxic side effects, and there are too many commercials from insurance companies that offer obnoxious characters who try and fail to be funny, and there are also too many commercial from packaged food providers that promise immediate and drastic weight loss if you shift your diet to an exclusive focus on their offerings.

Mercifully, I am old enough to recall when American television commercials were warm, funny and innovative. And perhaps the most astonishing of these mini-productions brought together an audacious mix of outsized talent to promote a product that never quite captured the fancy of the American public.

In 1970, H.J. Heinz Company sought to challenge the Campbell Soup Company’s dominance in the canned soup sector by introducing a brand called Great American Soup. The company tapped satirist-turned-advertising whiz Stan Freberg to create a distinctive commercial for the new product and gave him an unlimited budget.

The resulting commercial was, to that time, the single most expensive commercial ever produced, at a cost of $154,000. Freberg’s vision was a spoof on the Busby Berkeley dance extravaganzas from the old-time Hollywood musicals, and he brought in celebrated choreographer Hermes Pan and MGM dance diva Ann Miller to bring his vision to life.

The commercial opens in what appears to be a typical suburban home. The husband (played by character actor Dave Willock, who would have been familiar to viewers in 1970) quickly enters the kitchen and says to his wife, “Boy, am I hungry! What kind of soup is that?” The wife is Ann Miller, dressed in an oversized blue apron, and she responds, “Make way for the Great American Soup.” The husband looks at his wife with slight confusion and says, “Can you give that to me again?”

At that point, Miller’s wife rips off her apron to reveal a showgirl’s outfit made from red satin and decorated with iridescent red sequins and a glittering white rhinestone filigree pattern trim that accentuates the hips and bust. The walls of the kitchen separate to reveal an Art Deco set typical of the grand finale in a 1930s Busby Berkeley musical. A small army of blonde chorus girls in star-spangled costumes are seen dancing merrily as Miller magically receives a red top hat and a cane. Miller winds up singing and dancing atop an oversized cylindrical platform resembling a can of Great American Soup that rises out of the floor.

The camera briefly offers an overhead view of the dancers in symmetrical choreographed precision (a Busby Berkeley trademark) while Miller sings exuberantly such brilliantly inane lyrics as “Let’s face the chicken gumbo and dance!” and “Who’s got its noodles up in lights from Broadway to the Loop? It’s the great – I said the great – the Great American Soup!” The giant soup can slowly sinks back into the floor as Miller sings and tap dances her way back into the domestic setting, where the kitchen walls close in. Miller spins into the arms of her husband, who asks in a perfect deadpan, “Emily, why do you always have to make such a production out of everything?”

Although the execution of the commercial was brilliant – no mean feat, considering it was created with only one week of rehearsal and a three-day shooting schedule – it didn’t quite achieve its goals. Freberg’s commercial ran slightly over one minute, which was a bit too long for many potential advertising spots. Great American Soup requested a 30-second version, which cut out the domestic sequences and focused instead on Miller and the chorus girls in their toe-tapping glory. Freberg recorded a narration that made the commercial seem like a trailer for a new musical film, but the impact was a lot less amusing.

Even worse, viewers remembered the commercial but not the product, and many people mistakenly assumed it was an advertisement for Campbell’s Soup. Heinz would discontinue the Great American Soup line by the end of the 1970s, due to lack of consumer interest in the product.

However, the commercial for the product quickly became the stuff of legend, and even the Smithsonian Institution got into the act by acquiring the costume worn by Miller. Today, the commercial is still celebrated as an apex of television advertising, and both the full-length and truncated versions can be found on YouTube in unauthorized postings.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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