Friday, January 6, 2012

Getting acquainted with ... Doris Day


This is the 11th in my Getting Acquainted series. If you don't know what it is by now, screw you. Kidding! I watch three movies a month that feature a cinematic talent who is generally unfamiliar to me. After that month, we're fast friends.

If we played a game of word association with the name Doris Day, I might have said things like "the 1950s" or "wholesome" or "movie star." Those were the general ideas I had swirling around in my head about this actress, whose iconic status did not necessarily make me any more certain who she really was. (Is -- she's still alive. But she hasn't been acting for the past 40 years.)

It was a little interview with her on NPR -- I think it might have been Weekend Edition -- that got me interested in putting her on my list for this series. I didn't necessarily know that Doris Day was equally famous (if not more so) as a singer, so it was with a little surprise that I heard her introduced in the context of the song "Que Sera Sera." What surprised me more was that the song appeared in Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much. Suddenly I wondered if I were unacquainted with Hitchcock. I hadn't seen The Man Who Knew Too Much, but "Que Sera Sera" didn't sound like a song that would appear in a thriller, let alone a Hitchcock thriller.

Suddenly I became very intrigued, and decided I needed to get to know Doris Day. It made sense to start with the film above, since any opportunity to add another Hitchcock to my list is always appreciated.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956, Alfred Hitchcock). Watched: Saturday, December 10th

But before I watched The Man Who Knew Too Much, I decided to watch The Man Who Knew Too Much.

In case you weren't aware, Hitchcock first directed a version of The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1934. (Yep, this guy had a long career.) It featured Peter Lorre in the villain role. In fact, I would have watched my first Doris Day movie ten days earlier, except that it was this version, not the version I wanted, that was available on Netflix streaming. I didn't realize that until I'd sat down to watch it on Thursday, December 2nd. So I watched something else that night, but decided I might as well squeeze in Hitchcock's original version before I got to his remake -- might make an interesting exercise. Besides, his original was only 75 minutes long, meaning I could watch it over a cup of coffee, right?

Wrong. It actually took me about three sittings to get through the original, in part because I always tried to watch it when I really should have been going to bed for the night. But also because it was damn near incomprehensible. That's a pretty stiff criticism to deliver about a movie made less than a decade into the talkie era, but I found it to be incredibly choppy, and it had terrible sound. I could see why Hitchcock wanted to give the story a second shot.

And really liked the remake, starring Day and the great Jimmy Stewart. The story revolves around a trip by the MacKenna family to Marrakesh, in which the family meets a strange Frenchman who ends up getting killed under mysterious circumstances a couple days later. As he's dying he whispers a secret in the ear of Stewart's Ben MacKenna, leading to Ben's unwitting possession of too much knowledge. The secret relates to an assassination plot in London several days hence, and in order to find out what Ben knows about it, those behind the plot kidnap his son. Ben and his wife Jo (Day) are under strict orders not to go to the police, so they begin a risky mission to use the clues they have to find their son and foil the assassination plot.

It's classic Hitchcock in a lot of ways, including the virtuoso sequence in London's Albert Hall in the third act, which goes wordless for ten or so minutes as only the key orchestral piece plays on the soundtrack. The parts that didn't seem to logically fit into Hitchcock's ouevre were the parts that interested me most, however. Such as this uplifting Day song, used twice as a showpiece -- both at the beginning and at the end. Which likened those moments more to the typical Day fare I'll explore later than to Hitchcock. It's such a good song that I won't go so far as to say it stands out like a sore thumb -- if it stands out, it's a neutral to positive standout. I just thought it seemed like a strange addition in a Hitchcock movie, which only goes to demonstrate that Hitchcock was first and foremost an entertainer, with populist sensibilities.

Day's performance was also quite good. Stewart's character initially keeps her in the dark about what has transpired involving their son, and in a moment laden with a certain darkness that shouldn't be pondered too closely, he actually drugs her before telling her that their son has been kidnapped. This is surely meant as an act of benevolence, to keep her from become paralyzed with shock and panic. She still has those reactions, since she becomes aware of the kidnapping before the drug has entirely taken its effect, and she plays them quite convincingly.

You don't really need to know my detailed analysis of the whole movie -- these Getting Acquainted pieces are long enough without me having to delve into the particulars of technique in a Hitchcock film. So let's move on to the next movie.

The Pajama Game (1957, George Abbott & Stanley Donen). Watched: Friday, December 16th

When I saw this title in Day's filmography, I must admit I did not immediately recognize it as the name of a beloved Broadway musical. Instead I thought it would be something light and fluffy along the lines of Gidget, which is the kind of prototypical Day movie I thought I wanted to see. (To be clear, Day does not appear in Gidget -- but I thought she made movies like Gidget.) Maybe I thought the character would actually spend the majority of the movie in her pajamas, talking about boys.

What I got instead was a story about a labor disagreement in a pajama factory.

Who knew?

Although I am a lover of Broadway, I did not love The Pajama Game. I thought it was okay. My biggest issue was its appearance. Save one outdoor sequence at a company picnic, which brings the film temporarily to life, The Pajama Game takes place almost entirely in grimy interiors that are shot poorly. You'd think that a musical would take pains to be colorful and effervescent, but this one didn't. Not only are the set design and costumes drab, but the camera never seems to be at the right depth. All the musical numbers are shot from what seems to be a distance of about 15 feet away, which gives neither a sense of grand scope nor a sense of intimacy -- both of which are key to the charm of a musical. I did find a number of the songs catchy, though.

What surprised me is the different perspective this gave me of Day. It still wasn't what I was expecting, but it wasn't what I was expecting in a different way. As a union type who stands up for employee rights in the factory, Day was a bit gruff -- more of a Laverne than a Shirley. (Yeah, the pajama factory made me think of the bottling plant where Laverne and Shirley worked.) I had the sense that Day wasn't anybody's idea of a pinup model, and this confirmed it. However, it also made me realized I had miscalculated again on my assumption that she was involved with wholesome fluff. The Pajama Game is wholesome enough, I guess, but it definitely has its ribald moments, as well as drunkenness in several key scenes and a homicidally jealous knife thrower. Also, it's no fluff. The story is about workers fighting the big bosses for a minimal raise, almost like a precursor to Norma Rae or something.

Day's character is involved in a romance, with the new superintendent, played by John Raitt (Bonnie's father). However, it develops in fits and starts and has a pretty unsatisfying arc. What's more, I didn't find Raitt charming at all. The characters' positions on opposite sides of the labor dispute give their relationship some inevitable edge, but the problem was that I didn't see much reason why they fell for each other in the first place. And even some nice songs didn't do much to bridge the gap in my understanding. I just found them incompatible and without chemistry.

I should say, for the record, that this film was enormously popular.

With Six You Get Eggroll (1968, Howard Morris). Watched: Saturday, December 31st

After The Pajama Game, my December was quickly swallowed up by the holidays and having family in town for the next ten days. However, I did finally squeeze in my final Day movie on the final day of the year. (See what I did there?)

With Six You Get Eggroll came on my radar entirely because of its title. I'd seen it on the shelves at the library, and had pondered renting it as long as a year or two ago, simply because of that title. (And for some reason, was under the mistaken impression that Walter Matthau appeared in it.) I couldn't fathom what the title meant, but it seemed vaguely racist. Its grammatical incorrectness (there should either be an article before "Eggroll," or the word should be pluralized) made it sound like something a Chinese restaurant owner would say in broken English.

In fact, the line of dialogue is actually spoken by a young American child while at a Chinese restaurant, and his comment refers to the restaurant's apparent policy of giving out free eggrolls if your party exceeds a certain size. Since his widowed mother (Day) married a widower (Brian Keith) with a daughter, the four of them make six when combined with his two older brothers. So it's like The Brady Bunch, minus two.

I actually adored this film, and I adored Day's performance in it. (So I "adored Doris," you might say.) In one sense, this is the light, fluffy Day I was looking for, if only because it's really funny and she is one of the main reasons it's so funny. It does indeed have a sitcom setup, with Day's Abby falling for Keith's Jake, then trying to negotiate all the pitfalls of cohabitation with four bickering children, two of them teenagers. However, it wouldn't be entirely accurate to call it "fluff." There are some serious moments of apparent irreconcilable differences and the possibility of infidelity, though they all have warm, comic resolutions. (With one weird exception of a particular night when Jake cancels on Abby to go dancing with another woman -- she sees him out with this other woman, but the subject never actually gets addressed between them, oddly enough. He actually stands her up twice and gets let off the hook. Go figure.)

But back to Day's performance. At the very start I got worried, since her character runs a lumber yard, and I was already getting flashbacks to the blue collar milieu of The Pajama Game. But her job basically disappears from the narrative, which becomes more about the difficulties of single motherhood and finding a new life partner with three kids in tow. Day is pitch perfect as the the mother who has seen it all, whose innate instincts on refereeing her children kick in without a second thought -- which doesn't mean they aren't accompanied by a perfectly timed roll of her eyeballs. In fact, what's so great about Day's performance comes down to her impeccable comic timing. This really could be one of my favorite comedic performances I've seen from an actress. At first I wasn't sure what I thought of Keith, but I really came around on him as the movie moved along.

What's odd is that I found her adorable physically as well. While I found her appearance attractively bland in The Man Who Knew Too Much and really quite scruffy in The Pajama Game, a decade later I found her as cute as a button. I suppose that could have to do with the genre shift to straight comedy, which clearly suits her talents, as well as the fact that she dresses up well in the attire of the late 1960s.

One noteworthy aspect of this movie: It was interesting to see how much a G rating would let you get away with back then. Today, this movie would be rated at least PG, possibly PG-13, just from "adult subject matter" alone. There's all sorts of ribald material in this movie, from the neighborhood seductress who tries to bed Jake, to some rather bold sexual innuendos, to the revealing short skits in a nightclub during a surprisingly protracted musical number that screams "This movie takes place in the 1960s!" I also found it interesting that two of Abby's kids stand up in the bath, and you not only see their butts, but you get a very brief view of their frontal nudity. So what wouldn't even appear in a movie today was rated G back then.

One of my favorite things about With Six You Get Eggroll is the cast. All sorts of actors we would know better later on appeared here, including Barbara Hershey as Keith's teenage daughter, George Carlin as a wise-cracking waiter at a drive-in, Alice Ghostley as a zany housekeeper and Jamie Farr as a zany hippie. (The firecracker climax involves several police cars, several arrests, a mobile home, a man using a teddy bear to cover his privates, and a whole slew of hippies. If that doesn't make you want to see it, I don't know what will.)

Sadly, With Six You Get Eggroll was not a success, and it was actually the last movie Day appeared in. That's too bad -- as far as I'm concerned, she had just tapped into her potential.

Okay, thus ends the final Getting Acquainted of 2011. I do intend to resume the series after a one-month break in January. I use each January to gorge on films from the previous year before I finalize my rankings at the end of the month. January of 2012 will be no different.

But when I resume in February, I think I'm going to make some format changes. I love Getting Acquainted because it keeps me from getting complacent in my desire to continue watching older movies and becoming more familiar with cinematic greats. Without a structured way of doing that, I could easily become slack in my resolve.

However, I'd be lying if I didn't say that these monthly write-ups have become something of a burden for me. I've created this artificial pressure to say something long and profound about each movie I watch, and when I'm doing it with three movies each month, the urge to procrastinate is powerful indeed. That's why I'm only getting to these write-ups by the 5th or later of the following month -- it just seems like a big effort to compile my detailed thoughts on three films, especially when the first one is something I saw as long as a month ago, whose details may be escaping me by now.

So in 2012, I vow to keep the Getting Acquainted project going, but to write about it here in only abbreviated form -- just an acknowledgment that I watched the movies, then a few quick hits about each. Hey, we all only have a finite amount of available time, and if given the choice, I'd rather spend that time watching the movies than writing about them.

See you back here at the end of February ...

2 comments:

Paul said...

Nice piece about Doris Day although there should be a couple of clarifications. Although to some she seems to epitomize the 1950's, she is actually the number one female box-office star of the 1960's according to the distinguished Quigley Poll conducted annually since the early 1930's. To this date, according to their poll, she remains the number one female box-office star of all-time. In addition, "With Six You Get Eggroll" WAS a success. It was one of the top moneymakers in the summer of 1968 and is one of the top ten moneymaking films of Miss Day's 39 film career. Since you enjoyed Miss Day's performance in "Eggroll", I'd also recommend other films where she has amazing rapport with children. These would include "Please Don't Eat the Daisies", "It Happened to Jane" and "The Thrill of it All". Again, thanks for your kind words about a very talented lady who could sing, dance and act with the best. Paul E. Brogan

Vancetastic said...

Paul,

Thanks for the comment!

You know, as I was calling Eggroll "not a success," I knew I should fact check it but just didn't. I made a very broad assumption, which is that if the movie HAD been a success, Day would have continued making movies. It's very rare that someone opts to go out on top, so I assumed she hadn't. Now's a good time for the old "to assume is to make an ass out of u and me" line ...

I also read a negative review of it shortly after seeing it, so again I assumed that this was the consensus opinion about the film. Bad, bad Vance!

Thanks for the suggestions! I will indeed check those movies out. And thanks for stopping by!