Sunday, May 10, 2015

DORIS DAY: THE ESSENTIAL COLLECTION Warner Bros./MGM 1948-1966) Warner Home Video

The filmic career of Doris Mary Ann Kappelhoff – better known to the world of entertainment as Doris Day – is unique among her contemporaries. Day, who took her moniker from the song ‘Day after Day’, remains an almost child-like nymph, imbued with an angelic voice, yet sultry charm. Despite changing times and tastes she has endured our collective fascination for the ‘little girl’ persona poured into an hourglass figure. There’s no getting around it. Doris Day is something of a contradiction; one rife for parody in our brutally uncivilized Babylon of pop culture. Indeed, comedian, Groucho Marx was to throw the first brick at Day’s galvanized personage when he commented he had been around Hollywood for so long he knew Doris Day “before she was a virgin!” Of course, a lot of what we knew – or presumed to be the truth about Doris Day then – was as much fictionalized banana oil put forth by a studio’s well-oiled PR department as it proved to make Doris a prisoner of this ensconced reputation.  In fact, notions about her squeaky clean guise nearly cost Day one of her best performances; as the frantic mother of an abducted child in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956); Paramount so nervous about their star appearing in a movie where she did not sing, they forced its director, Alfred Hitchcock to insert a tuneful little ditty – Que Sera Sera into his movie; much to his chagrin.
If the battle was lost, then Doris certainly won the war, proving she could act as well as sing; dual competencies more spectacularly realized the year before in Charles Vidor’s Love Me or Leave Me (1955);an exhilarating and breakthrough biopic of torch singer, Ruth Etting. In the echelons of great stars, Doris Day has held onto an enviable reputation of varied accomplishments achieved throughout her enduring 91 years; band singer, million-dollar recording artist, movie star, TV hostess and celebrity, and finally, philanthropist and animal activist; there is hardly a moment she has not been ever-present in the public spotlight, despite the fact she willingly walked away from it in 1973 – destined to be made the brunt of even cruder humor about her freckle-faced, pert and plucky persona; the squeaky clean ‘good girl’ of the movies who could just as easily distinguish herself in more macabre film fare as the bright and breezy musical mélange that proved her main staple from the late 1940s to the late 1960s.  We love Doris Day precisely because she seems to fill any room she enters with bright-eyed optimism. There is a clear-eyed precision to her vocalizations. When she sings she doesn’t belt one out of the park as, say, Judy Garland could, but instead reaches all the way back into a sort of candid recess of herself, unguarded yet unseen in interviews or even, perhaps, in any of her pictures until she opens her mouth and lets every last and subtly nuanced joy and sorrow tumble forth as lyric and melody dictate.
In our present era of canned pop sensations, all preprocessed and auto-tuned, such enfranchised musical stylists are very rare indeed. But Doris Day has managed to maintain a presence in the industry she ostensibly turned her back on in 1968. After 1973, she all but became a recluse by choice on her Carmel by the sea ranch; choosing to let the parade of public notoriety pass by her. Arguably, it is to the public’s credit they never quite allowed Day the right to fade away.  In fact, her movies and albums are frequently revived on television and on the radio, perhaps because she seems more and more to speak to an intangibly devoted and highly romanticized perfection we all fundamentally cling to and sincerely crave for in our lives. There is a magic to Doris Day one cannot easily articulate, even upon multiple viewings of her movies. Too few of them can rightfully be considered ‘outstanding achievements’ of the American cinema. And yet, each is blessed by Day’s airy and bright-eyed dignity. Perhaps it is the mystery behind the façade that keeps us coming back for more; an addictive elixir, like the mythical fountain of youth, meant to cure all ailments afflicting the human spirit; ageless, and full of rich promise for a better tomorrow…or is it, a new ‘Day’ dawning? Whatever the allure, it goes well beyond Doris’ superficial presence as a stunningly handsome woman, immaculately adorned in haute couture; even further removed from her sweet melodies and brilliantly comedic charm. Quite simply, she remains pure and warmth-giving as an undiluted beam of sunshine. 
The films amassed in Warner Bros.’ repackaged ‘essential’ DVD collection are varied and uneven, but nevertheless attest to Doris’ versatility as an all-around entertainer.  Day’s transition from popular big band chanteuse with the Les Brown orchestra began auspiciously when her agent, Al Levy convinced Day to perform at a house party at the home of composer, Jule Styne. So impressed with Doris was Styne that both he and his collaborative partner, Sammy Cahn, recommended her for the lead in Romance on the High Seas (1948); a picture in prep at Warner Bros. then and for which Cahn and Styne were writing the score. Today, no studio would dare take such a gamble on a virtual unknown. Yet Jack Warner invested everything the studio had in Michael Curtiz’s glossy Technicolor confection, casting Day as Georgia Garett – the plot, a simple case of mistaken identity run blissfully amuck. The story is basic but serviceable: Elvira Kent (Janis Paige) and her husband, Michael (Don DeFore) suspect each other of marital infidelity. To smooth over the rough edges in their marriage, Elvira decides to book them both on a cruise to Rio de Janeiro for their wedding anniversary. Alas, in the eleventh hour, Michael cancels and Elvira frustratingly sends Georgia in her stead; Georgia travelling under Elvira’s name.
Elvira hopes to use the opportunity to spy on Michael while he presumes she is away. Instead, Michael becomes jealous of the thought of his wife enjoying a cruise without him and hires a private investigator, Peter Virgil (Jack Carson) unearth incriminating evidence about his wife’s infidelity. Peter thinks Georgia is his pigeon, but suffers a crisis of conscience when he finds himself falling madly for Georgia himself, whom he still believes to be the wife of his client; the situation further complicated by Georgia’s friend, Oscar Farrar (Oscar Levant), who is madly in love with her, causing jealous friction between Peter and Georgia; also, for Peter to suspect he has discovered the true identity of Elvira’s lover…oh, brother!  Under Curtiz’s slick and stylish direction, Romance on the High Seas evolves into an effervescent bauble, capped off by Day’s superb rendering of the Oscar-nominated Cahn/Styne classic, ‘It’s Magic’.  The picture was a titanic success. Yet for a time, Doris continued to appear in largely forgettable ‘nostalgia-based’ musicals; the studio merely contented to capitalize on her popularity as a singer without pushing the boundaries of what she was capable of with better material at her disposal.
From 1949 to 1953, Doris basically made the same picture over and over again with slight variations (My Dream is Yours, It’s A Great Feeling, Tea for Two, Lullaby of Broadway, On Moonlight Bay, April in Paris, By The Light of the Silvery Moon); her frequent co-star, Gordon MacRae, another contract player utterly wasted by the studio’s shortsightedness. The formula in all these aforementioned movies, included in this box set, is fairly transparent; Day, a struggling newcomer, desperate to make good and find her creative niche, is surrounded by gifted members of the artistic community, and one standout male influence destined to become her love interest before the final fade out.  Interestingly, Doris’ most popular movie from this vintage, 1951’s I’ll See You In My Dreams, is not a part of this newly repackaged cornucopia, and neither is 1950’s Young Man With A Horn or 1951’s Storm Warning (two of her better WB efforts). Even the innocuous West Point Story (1950) and Starlift (1951) have been shaved off this list. Instead, we leap ahead to 1953’s Calamity Jane; arguably, the first glimpse into Day’s more formidable and exquisite gifts meant for the movie screen. As the rough and tumble legend of the ole west, whose tomboy heart is turned to pliable feminine butter by Howard Keel’s Wild Bill Hiccock, Day excels as few actresses of her generation could; warbling the Oscar-winning Secret Love. The song would eventually become her fourth #1 hit single.     
She might have gone on indefinitely in this manner except that after making the rather turgidly scripted Lucky Me (1954) and Young at Heart (the latter not featured in this collection either) Day chose not to renew her Warner Bros. contract, placing her faith and trust for future career prospects in her third husband, Marty Melcher.  Together, the couple conspired to carve out a more ambitious slate of projects; the first, Charles Vidor’s gritty musical biopic on the semi-tragic life of torch singer, Ruth Etting. Love Me Or Leave Me (1955) is not your typical Hollywood glam-bam musical. Etting’s fatally flawed marriage to small-time hood, Marty ‘the gimp’ Snyder (James Cagney) is at the crux of a powerful backstory, expertly scripted by Daniel Fuchs and Isobel Lennart. Predictably, Day is in very fine voice, given MGM’s A-list treatment in a big and splashy Ziegfeld-esque production number, ‘Shaking the Blues Away’. Otherwise, Love Me or Leave Me is remarkably restrained in the staging of its songs; a pair of luscious ballads (Never Look Back, and, I’ll Never Stop Loving You) providing Doris with rewarding moments to dazzle an audience almost exclusively with her singing pipes. When it premiered, Love Me Or Leave Me marked a decided turning point in Doris’ career; no longer seen as just the fresh-faced virginal Miss who could breeze in on a pink cloud of joy and exit stage right into the wings of yet another mediocre plot, superficially meant to fill run time between bouncy songs. Love Me or Leave Me is, in fact, one of the greatest exemplars of the ‘integrated musical’ – a subgenre in which the score augments the action and vice versa.
In the wake of her breakout success, Doris starred for Hitchcock in The Man Who Knew Too Much (not part of this collection), and then the pathetically undernourished B-thriller, Julie (1956 and also not included herein). Electing to return to more familiar territory, Day next appeared in The Pajama Game (1957); co-directed by Broadway’s George Abbott and Stanley Donen. The film’s plot is ridiculously second-rate; members of a non-unionized sweat shop fighting for representation and a five cent an hour pay raise. To this simple-minded fluff, Day introduced a new maturity to Babe Williams, costarring opposite John Raitt; the 1950’s idea of the all-American he-man, who woos and melts Babe’s heart accordingly, despite their love/hate relationship at work. The picture was a smash hit, followed by several more forgettable ventures over at Paramount; including Teacher’s Pet and Tunnel of Love (both in 1958 and neither featured in this box set, despite the fact both are currently under the Warner distribution umbrella), and, It Happened to Jane (1959), arguably, the weakest of all her post-Warner efforts. For nine out of ten of these years, Billboard’s nationwide poll continued to rank Doris Day the #1 female vocalist in the land, despite the fact her movie career had effectively overshadowed her ambitions as a pop singer.
In 1959, Doris reinvented herself yet again, entering her most profitable phase as a film star with a trio of featherweight comedies co-starring all-American hunk de jour, Rock Hudson. But it was the success of 1962’s That Touch of Mink, playing the sophisticate opposite Cary Grant that sent shockwaves through Hollywood’s power structure; becoming the first movie in history to gross more than a million dollars at Radio City Music Hall.  This box set is a little light on Doris’ later accomplishments; perhaps, because most were made independently at other studios for which Warner lacks the necessary rights to reissue them to home video. 1960’s Please Don’t Eat The Daisies (later to inspire a TV sitcom of the same name) found Doris the mildly jealous wife of a snooty playwright, played as the model of erudite efficiency by David Niven). It’s forgettable fluff again, or rather, at best; Doris singing a handful of repurposed melodies, as well as the film’s original title track. Then, in 1962 it was announced Doris would appear in the film version of Billy Rose’s Jumbo; a colossal stage smash that ought to have yielded even more musical riches on the big screen. Alas, MGM was hardly capable of pulling off such a venture in the cash-strapped sixties; the musical shot almost entirely on Metro’s backlot without the benefit of that necessary ‘cast of thousands’ to carry it off. Despite Day’s poignant renditions of Richard Rodgers and Lorenzo Hart’s marvelous score, including, the poignant ballads, ‘My Romance’, ‘This Can’t Be Love’ and ‘Little Girl Blue’; Jumbo proved little more than a minor footnote in Day’s career and a terrible flop besides.
The last movie in this collection, 1966’s The Glass Bottom Boat, comes fairly near the end of Doris’ tenure as a movie star; thoroughly miscast as Jennifer Nelson, a novelty act at Santa Catalina Island’s popular glass bottom boat tourist attraction; pretending to be a mermaid whose costume gets hooked by Bruce Templeton’s (Rod Taylor) fishing hook. Perturbed, Jennifer vows to get even until she discovers Bruce is one of the top executives at her day job as public relations go-to person for NASA’s aerospace research laboratory in Long Beach. Templeton concocts a ruse to get to know Jen better; suggesting he would like her to write his biography. Problem: the lab’s chief of security, Homer Cripps (Paul Lynde) suspects Jennifer of being a Russian spy. To illustrate the absurdity of this claim, Jen decides to pretend she is a spy, inadvertently exposing some real espionage in the process. The Glass Bottom Boat is contrived nonsense, hardly joyous and fairly tepid by most standards. It plays more like an extendedly premised 70’s sit-com; Doris looking bored through some of it, her faux indignations unbecoming a woman past her youthful prime.
Doris Day would continue to make movies until the end of the decade. But by 1969, she found her reputation being battered like a piñata; the reigning laissez faire sexual politics of the decade dubbing her ‘the world’s oldest virgin’ and worse, her popularity steadily on the downward slide. Offered the plum role of Mrs. Robinson in 1966’s The Graduate, Day was frankly shocked and appalled by the inference she should play a middle-aged, married cougar out to snag herself a young college stud. Despite her many accolades and the considerable amount of effort she had committed to her career throughout the decades, Day would discover too late, and much to her horror, most of her hard earnings had been squandered by Melcher’s ill-timed bad investments.  As bankruptcy loomed large on the horizon, she would be forced to enter yet another ‘new’ era in her career – television – to make restitution and settle outstanding debts accrued by her late husband.
The fifteen films repackaged as Doris Day: The Essential Collection are reissues of titles previously made available on home video in two separate installments of TCM’s Spotlight Collection. If one is so inclined to own all of Doris’ work from this period, I would strongly suggest purchasing the two independent TCM collections in lieu of this set because most of the missing pieces are featured in either Volumes One or Two, thus providing the viewer with a more comprehensive retrospective. You will still need to seek out Universal’s ‘Doris Day/Rock Hudson Collection on DVD and pad out your appreciation with other single disc purchases too. But owning both TCM collections is a fairly good starting point to the ‘Day’-ification of Doris’ illustrious movie land tenure. It’s rather shocking more of Doris’ movies have not found their way to Blu-ray. Save the Australian region free Blu-ray offering of Midnight Lace, Warner’s own Calamity Jane, and, Jumbo and Universal’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, Pillow Talk (each reviewed in greater detail elsewhere on this blog), Day’s expansive Hollywood career is MIA in hi-def. One would sincerely hope Warner has at least Love Me or Leave Me and Romance on the High Seas in their hopper for consideration.
So, how do these movies look on standard DVD? Most have been competently rendered. Romance on the High Seas is the obvious beneficiary of some digital restoration efforts; its Technicolor exceptionally vibrant and properly aligned. Ditto for Lullaby of Broadway, Love Me Or Leave Me, and Billy Rose’s Jumbo. You won’t be disappointed by the quality of these transfers. The rest of the movies, however, are a very mixed bag. The early Warner catalog, particularly It’s A Great Feeling and On Moonlight Bay suffer from periodic mis-registration of the Technicolor negative; with disturbing halos cropping up now and then. My Dream is Yours, Tea For Two and April in Paris have other issue as well; chiefly, a lack of punchiness, the spectrum of color often muddy at best and slightly faded besides. There is also a considerable amount of age-related debris scattered throughout these transfers. The Pajama Game’s image seems overly thick, with film grain infrequently looking digitized. The Glass Bottom Boat and Please Don’t Eat the Daisies both suffer from mild vinegar syndrome; the image appearing slightly jaundice with a yellow/brown slant in the color scheme. Aurally, this collection is on very solid ground; a few of the features in mono, but most boasting new 5.1 Dolby Digital mixes that will surely please fans who have come to hear la Doris in all her glory. Warner has basically padded out this set with the same extras that accompanied the original releases; vintage short subjects and theatrical trailers. Doris Day: The Essential Collection is Warner Home Video’s idea of re-marketing its vintage catalog for some quick double-dip cash. But I would caution against it. You can get more comprehensive collections of Doris’ movies elsewhere. I would also sincerely encourage Warner to get busy remastering a few of these classics in 1080p Blu-ray, either via their archive program or home video apparatus. Bottom line: buy if you must!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
Romance On the High Seas 4
My Dream Is Yours 3.5
It’s A Great Feeling 3
Tea For Two 2.5
Lullaby of Broadway 3.5
On Moonlight Bay 4
April in Paris 2
By The Light of the Silvery Moon 3.5
Calamity Jane 5
Lucky Me 2
Love Me Or Leave Me 5+
The Pajama Game 4
Please Don’t Eat The Daisies 3.5
Billy Rose’s Jumbo 3
The Glass Bottom Boat 2

VIDEO/AUDIO 

Romance On the High Seas 4
My Dream Is Yours 3
It’s A Great Feeling 3
Tea For Two 3
Lullaby of Broadway 4.5
On Moonlight Bay 3
April in Paris 3
By The Light of the Silvery Moon 3
Calamity Jane 4
Lucky Me 4
Love Me Or Leave Me 4
The Pajama Game 3.5
Please Don’t Eat The Daisies 3
Billy Rose’s Jumbo 4.5
The Glass Bottom Boat 3

EXTRAS


2.5  

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