An 80th Birthday Tribute
DORIS DAY AT WARNER BROTHERS: Her early film career profiled by Allen Pollock
Top hat, tails and icons of the silver screen have always stirred my imagination. Astaire, with or without Ginger, used the outfit as the perfect extension of his screen persona, whilst no-one donned it as glamorously or perversely as the ambivalent Marlene Dietrich in her movies. Then there was Doris Day! The up-and-coming
Warner Brothers musical star was just a name to me in the early '50s and part of the jocular word-play humour aimed at her name and the posters for TEA FOR TWO when the school bus stopped each morning outside the Royal Cinema. Sometime later, a school holiday visit to see the much praised THE AFRICAN QUEEN was much enjoyed but it was the featured trailer for the following week's film which really grabbed my attention. LULLABY OF BROADWAY was the title and Doris Day the star, with top-hat and tails, dazzling smile and a voice which ensured Bogart and Hepburn were instantly forgettable! Hardly any need to guess who was in the audience the following week to enjoy the complete film! Thus began my quest to track down all the movies, recordings and anything else which would celebrate the Day talent. It also triggered an on-going journey towards my appreciation of all types of music and singers following the decision not to remain solely caught within the full beam of Day's star quality!
By the time LULLABY OF BROADWAY was released, Doris was already a major star with hit records and many popular films. The circumstances which led to such a parallel movie and solo recording career began around 1947 after two embryonic stints with the Les Brown Band. SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY had been the ideal popular recording to welcome home returning servicemen in 1945 and with a few other big-band hats, Doris had established sufficient popularity to Spring-board her departure from band singer to a solo career and initially much radio work.
Already established on YOUR HIT PARADE, she attended a party at Jule Styne's house in Beverly Hills and with encouragement from Sammy Cahn and with Styne's piano accompaniment, Doris sang EMBRACEABLE YOU which obviously convinced them of her potential. The team had written the score for a film due to be produced at Warner Brothers with a singing part which had been offered and declined by both Judy Garland and Betty Hutton, possibly due to their respective iron-clad contracts with MGM and Paramount. The director, Michael Curtiz, signed up the reluctant Doris to the role after a dramatic and tearful audition caused by her current personal problems; obviously an emotional crisis which proved beneficial under the circumstances.
The film was called ROMANCE ON THE HIGH SEAS (1948) and Doris made her screen scene debut with the camera shot just giving a back-view before the audience was allowed to glimpse the face which helped make her a major film star for the next twenty years.
She played a hip gum-chewing honky-tonk singer, Georgia Garrett, who not only desires success but has ambitions to travel but is thwarted by financial constraints. However, the film’s dense plotting soon involved her in a multi-layered tale of switched identities in colourful settings on a cruise ship which happily ended up in Rio at carnival time. With the appropriate casting of Warner Brothers’ stalwarts, Jack Carson, Janis Paige and Don Defore, the fourth-billed Doris was listed ahead of Oscar Levant and S Z ''Cuddles'' Sakall. She displayed a fresh and natural talent which made her an instant star with audiences, and the tuneful score included I'M IN LOVE, PUT 'EM IN A BOX, TIE 'EM WITH A RIBBON and IT'S YOU OR NO ONE, all accompanied by the Page Cavanaugh Trio. However, IT'S MAGIC became the hit for Doris and was also the popular choice of many other singers and its success encouraged Warner Brothers to re-name the film for its UK release.
MY DREAM IS YOURS (1949), a remake of the thirties film, TWENTY MILLION SWEETHEARTS was again directed by Michael Curtiz. It used the formula of an up-and-coming singer, Martha Gibson, seeking fame in radio and discovering the chosen path, people and journey to be somewhat less optimistic and smooth than anticipated. The role gave Doris many scenes which showcased her natural acting ability, and echoing her period with Les Brown, she had a young child to consider within the plot equation. With top-billed Jack Carson, Doris was listed ahead of the somewhat bland Lee Bowman and pompous Adolphe Menjou, with S.Z. Sakall on hand to fuss and fluster, and acerbic Eve Arden ready with welcome one-liners. The thin plot was boosted by a technically advanced dream sequence featuring the Bugs Bunny and Tweety cartoon characters, combined with the live action Doris and Jack in the number, FREDDY GET READY (based on THE HUNGARIAN RHAPSODY No 2). Another novelty number, TIC, TIC, TIC had lyrics to do with the atomic bomb and Geiger-counters! Doris was in great voice with the updated lyrics of CANADIAN CAPERS, originally dating from 1915, giving her another hit. Other songs involved the talents of Harry Warren, Ralph Freed and Harry Dubin with I'LL STRING ALONG WITH YOU surviving the original 1934 movie when Dick Powell made it popular. The title song was also an ideal ballad for Doris, with the effective up-tempo SOMEONE LIKE YOU providing a likable contrast.
Modern satire is cruel and often ill-defined so the '40s equivalent IT'S A GREAT FEELING (1949), can be merely considered a gentle send-up up of the studio system. Warner Brothers obviously viewed the script as a good public relations exercise with many cameo appearances by contract stars like Gary Cooper, Joan Crawford and Sydney Greenstreet, who sent up their established movie images! Directors Michael Curtiz (who directed her first two films), David Butler (director of this film), King Vidor and Raoul Walsh were also actively involved in the plot, as was Ray Heindorf the studio's musical director. The slender tale of a home-town girl working as a studio waitress in the hope of stardom, but finally settling for marriage and presumably domesticity, was and still is fun to view. Let's face it, in the Forties, most girls dreamed of ending up with Errol Flynn as their bridegroom! Needless to say, Doris, second-billed to Dennis Morgan, played the eye-fluttering starlet with relish, aided once more by Jack Carson, the two men playing themselves and competing for Doris on-screen attention. She sang THAT WAS A BIG FAT LIE which when reprised by Jack Carson's Maurice Chevalier impersonation derived from the famous vocal-dub joke in SINGIN' IN THE RAIN.
With so many comedy set-pieces and sight jokes it would have been easy for the score to have become minor key, but fortunately Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne again supplied Doris with a few good songs, which made up for some of the unflattering fashions she had to wear while singing them! AT THE CAFE RENDEZVOUS was performed in black wig, thick French accent which ended with a prat-fall to end the scene. The big production number THERE'S NOTHING ROUGHER THAN LOVE, was a bizarre fantasy dream sequence and possibly the reason Doris did not record it commercially. However, Doris had no such distractions when singing the film's ballad, BLAME MY ABSENT MINDED HEART, nicely reprised by Dennls Morgan, with the title song, a lively credit-opener to preface the erratic plot which followed.
Pre-dating the vinyl album, soundtrack recordings were a rarity at this time and Doris re-recorded almost all her film songs for Columbia. They are available on many current compilations as well as the Bear Family box-sets. Fortunately, DORIS DAY -
IT'S MAGIC - HER EARLYYEARS AT WARNER BROTHERS (WSM 8122755432) was released in 1998 and includes almost all the soundtrack versions of Doris' featured songs with the exception of AT THE CAFE RENDEZVOUS. It should be noted, however, that with the emphasis on Doris, songs performed by others have been omitted, even though, with a running time of just 42 minutes, non-Day featured songs like the calypso-styled, THE TOURIST TRADE and RUN, RUN, RUN by The Samba Kings and Avon Long featured in ROMANCE ON THE HIGH SEAS, could and should have been included.
Moving from Technicolor gloss to stark black and white, YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN (1950 - UK title: YOUNG MAN OF MUSIC), a musical melodrama, was directed by Michael Curtis and vaguely based on the life of Bix Beiderbecke. Harry James provided Kirk Douglas with the necessary ghost trumpet needed to obsess the musical perfection he reaches for but fails to achieve. Lauren Bacall played the ambivalent society bitch determined to emotionally destroy all around her. Third-billed was Doris in the sympathetic but somewhat subservient role of Jo Jordon, a big-band singer; a life she knew only too well in her first dramatic part, she acted with sincerity and sang THE VERY THOUGHT OF YOU, WITH A SONG IN MY HEART, I MAY BE WRONG and TOO MARVELLOUS FOR WORDS between the taut and sombre plot twists. The intense performance by Douglas was backed-up by Hoagy Carmichael and Juano Hernandez as believable musicians. The Columbia album YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN (Columbia/Legacy - CK 65507), available on CD is not the soundtrack but does reunite Doris with Harry James on several tracks and also includes some James solo instrumentals.
Around this time servicemen in Korea voted Doris ''the girl we would take a slow boat back to the States with”; an affirmation she had finally arrived with the right to be top-billed. It was fortuitous she moved from stark reality to a fluffy musical comedy which allowed not only ample opportunity to sing, but also to dance on screen for the first time. The ''Let's put on a show'' TEA FOR TWO (1950) was loosely based on the stage success, NO, NO NANETTE, but rewritten as a typical Warner Brothers backstage tale. It mattered not that most of the likeable score had been discarded in favour of other songs, and with the mood bright and breezy, director
David Butler ensured Doris had the full support of Gordon MacRae for songs and
Gene Nelson for some nifty foot-work. Adding the comedic force of Eve Arden, the effete humour of Billy De Wolfe, and the neurotic outpourings of S.Z. Sakall was pure necessity, with Patrice Wymore occasionally jamming a jealous spanner in the works. Doris played an heiress eager to invest in a Broadway show and grab some show business star-dust for herself in a plot which involved a bet that she should say “No” to every question for twenty-four hours. Coached by Nelson's wife, Miriam, Doris worked hard enough to make the dancing look easy on screen. However, no musical can be successful without songs and Doris, MacRae and Nelson, sang I WANT TO BE HAPPY, l KNOW THAT YOU KNOW, DO, DO, DO, I ONLY HAVE EYES FOR YOU and the agreeable title number Patrice Wymore took care of a production number, CRAZY RHYTHM with Gene Nelson adding some spectacular dancing whilst THE CHARLESTON showcased young dancers in a lively work-out and provided the only reminder the action was set in the year of the Stock Market crash (1929) as costumes and hairstyles reflected pure Fifties! An attractive medley from an on-stage NO NO NANETTE production tied up all the loose ends of the plot in the speedily reached finale.
Despite the huge box-office success of TEA FOR TWO, the film which followed, THE WEST POINT STORY (1950 - re-titled FINE AND DANDY in the UK) was a disappointing backward step for Doris as she was third-billed behind James Cagney and Virginia Mayo. At least it reunited her with Gordon MacRae and Gene Nelson but this routine tale about a Broadway director staging a revue at West Point promised more than it delivered and was let down by the film's drab black-and-white photography and routine direction by Roy Del Ruth. Cagney had the opportunity to sing, dance and veer between feisty light-weight comedy with a nice line in on-the-spot tantrums, with IT COULD ONLY HAPPEN IN BROOKLYN his big number. The Sammy Cahn / Jule Styne score also included the attractive MILITARY POLKA heavily promoted by marching men in uniforms in keeping with the location. Gordon MacRae smoothly delivered LONG BEFORE l KNEW YOU and shared YOU LOVE ME with Doris who triumphed in solo mode on the perky TEN THOUSAND SHEEP; fortunately she recorded the two latter songs. THE KISSING ROCK was reprised throughout the film by all the cast. An ensemble piece rather than a Day movie, the lack of clear focus branded this film as lacking in distinction.
The melodramatic STORM WARNING (1951) gave Doris her first non-singing role. This change of pace was significant for several reasons; the hard-hitting subject matter involving the Ku Klux Klan; the opportunity for Doris to work with her childhood idol, Ginger Rogers (who played her sister) and the only Day movie in which her character dies. With Steve Cochran moodily menacing as the husband and Ginger in a gutsy sophisticated role, Doris was somewhat grounded as the pregnant wife which at least allowed her sympathetic nature to believably flourish in a part which stretched her dramatic abilities. Ronald Reagan was also on hand as a good guy. Director Stuart Heisler, an expert at such film noir assignments, provided the intense atmosphere, and the film, rarely seen, still stands up well in the context of its subject and as one of Doris' less typical films.
From realism to familiar back-stage musical territory must have delighted Doris and LULLABY OF BROADWAY (1951), directed by David Butler, and was a lavish song and dance event in full Technicolor. Warner Brothers otherwise cut other costs by raiding their own music catalogue in order to provide Doris and others with lively numbers. The plot involved Doris as an aspiring singer/dancer, Melina Howard, returning from Europe to seek her mother (Gladys George), a faded Broadway star well in decline but intent on hiding the truth from her daughter.
The opening number, JUST ONE OF THOSE THINGS, the heart-stopper which originally grabbed my attention with Doris in top hat and tails, still confirms what a great number it is! Doris' co-star was the amiable Gene Nelson and they seemed to strike sparks in their duets and dance numbers together. YOU'RE GETTING TO BE A HABIT WITH ME, SOMEBODY LOVES ME and I LOVE THE WAY YOU SAY GOODNIGHT are shared and Gene sings and keeps his twinkling taps busy on ZING WENT THE STRINGS OF MY HEART. Gladys George, a once popular Warner Brothers star, was ideally cast, pulling the heartstrings despite her hard exterior and delivering A SHANTY IN OLD SHANTY TOWN and PLEASE DON'T TALK ABOUT ME WHEN I'M GONE in the defiant way certain aging divas nowadays identify Sondheim's I'M STILL HERE! as their anthem of survival! Comedy provided by Billy De Wolfe, Florence Bates and ''Cuddles'' Sakall kept the buoyant mood busy and somewhat unbelievable and prevented the plot from overdosing on cloying sentimentally. The perfect finale featuring the title song gave Doris and Gene the benefit of spectacular staging and slow-motion dance choreography which added elegance to the inevitable happy ending.
On a gentler level, ON MOONLIGHT BAY (1951), based on the Penrod stories by Booth Tarkington, was clearly seeking to emulate the style and success of MEET ME IN ST LOUIS. Maybe it failed to reach the same level of period charm, but the film was successful enough to inspire a sequel and it remains a movie Day fans cherish with each television transmission adding further numbers to her fan-base. With the emphasis on tomboy Marjorie Winfield played by Doris, the plot dwelled on her family's light-hearted tribulations in-between nostalgic songs. CUDDLE UP A LITTLE CLOSER, TELL ME, TILL WE MEET AGAIN, I'M FOREVER BLOWING BUBBLES and the
title song sung by Doris, Gordon MacRae and Jack Smith who played her suitors. On hand with spiky comments, Mary Wickes played the busybody maid and key figure in the corny plot. The film provided pure entertainment with the feeling nothing too drastic would ever happen to threaten the cosy atmosphere permeated by Roy Del Ruth's assured direction.
The bio-pic I'LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS (1951) detailed the life of the lyricist, Gus Kahn, who claimed fame with AIN'T WE GOT FUN, IT HAD TO BE YOU, THE ONE I LOVE BELONGS TO SOMEBODY ELSE and many other songs. Intended as a starring role for Danny Thomas, Warner Brothers on one hand needed to protect the film's box-office potential by giving Doris top-billing yet opted for black and white photography, which conversely did the movie no favours! However, directed by Michael Curtiz, this formulaic movie artfully combined the dramatic and interpolated musical elements of the story. Doris in the role as wife of the composer expanded her innate acting ability in scenes with Thomas and they gelled well together. The show business milieu was well-conceived and the passing years indicated changing period and fashion with ejective simplicity. Humour and poignancy was shared in equal measure as the tale unfolded with Frank Lovejoy and Patrice Wymore, who had LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME as her big production number, in the supporting cast.
STARLIFT (1951) is probably Doris Day's rarest film, having never been shown on UK television. She was top-billed and supported by Gordon MacRae, Gene Nelson and Virginia Mayo with numerous Warner Brothers stars, like Cagney, Phil Harris, Jane Wyman and Randolph Scott making token appearances as themselves. The background was a Californian US base during the Korean War and Hollywood's flag-waving idea of providing troop entertainment without their stars having to travel too far from the studio. To emphasise realism and propaganda, Air Force officers explained to the stars the mechanics of looking after injured troops, the departure of men to the front and other base operations. The forgettable romantic plot involving a publicity stunt existed as an excuse to link the songs, dances and comedy. Doris sang YOU'RE GONNA LOSE THAT GIRL with MacRae and her solo numbers were YOU OUTA BE IN PICTURES, YOU DO SOMETHING TO ME, 'S WONDERFUL and a snatch of LULLABY OF BROADWAY. However, Doris only occupied a small section of the movie which short-changed moviegoers who expected more considering her star- billing.
THE WINNING TEAM (1952) may have top-billed Doris but Ronald Reagan was really the star. He played Grover Cleveland Alexander, a telephone company technician who aspired to and succeeded in becoming a professional baseball player. Reagan was convincing if slightly too old for the part, with the plot following the usual highs and lows of baseball fame and the resulting detrimental effect on family life. Dori as girlfriend/wife gallantly offered a sensitive performance but there was no escaping her second place billing and status within the plot. She did get to sing OL' ST. NICHOLAS and personally succeeded in giving her character some personable charm, but this film with its pedestrian direction by Lewis Sieler continued the lull in the Day movie career with the feeling that Warner Brothers merely exploited her name in order to boost its box-office viability.
Part two continues in issue 147, May 2004
Article taken from In Tune International April 2004, issue 146