Lullaby of Broadway
Sunday August, 24 2014 at 11:30 PM
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Doris Day wastes no time getting down to the business of entertaining us in Lullaby of Broadway (1951), coming on in top hat, white tie and tails to sing and hoof her way through a lively shipboard rendition of "Just One of Those Things." The rest of the way, it's gowns, gowns, gowns. Gold lame for the grand finale, Lullaby of Broadway, the Oscar®-winning Harry Warren and Al Dubin show-stopper from Gold Diggers of 1935. No sooner do we see Day's platinum hair piled atop her face against a sea of black, than the lights come up to reveal her against an art deco backdrop, a Himalayan staircase, and a male chorus - this time they're wearing the top hats, ties, and tails. Her sunny energies do the trick, wrapping up this modestly charming musical with the full quotas of embraceable verve she always accustomed us to expect. Here, it's enough to convince us for a few fleeting moments that the Great White Way hadn't turned a dingy gray.
After handing off the spotlight to her (in several ways) supporting song and dance partner, Gene Nelson (whose songs were dubbed by Hal Derwin), she rejoins him for the feel-good finale. Between those bracketing numbers is more of the nostalgia-tinged same, and almost all of it is nice to have around. Although Lullaby of Broadway quickly exchanges the ocean liner for Manhattan, it remains as shipshape as postwar studio musicals get. Great it isn't. Original it doesn't even try to be. No new songs here, but plenty of good old ones ("You're Getting to Be a Habit with Me," "Somebody Loves Me," "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone," "In a Shanty in Old Shanty Town," "Zing Went the Strings of My Heart," and more) lined out by a screenful of capable pros who know what they're doing.
There's a plot, barely, but its function is chiefly to stay out of the way of the songs as rendered by the fine-tuned constellation of presences in Day's orbit. This was Day on her way to occupying the America's Sweetheart slot in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Day, born Mary Ann Kappelhoff in Cincinnati, had only made her film debut in 1948 with Romance on the High Seas. She became a household name before that as a singer with Les Brown's big band, and it's still a tossup whether her best remembered hit is the WW II ballad, "Sentimental Journey," or "Que Sera, Sera" from Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). She began as a dancer, but was immobilized for months in a wheelchair following a car crash. Listening to the radio a lot, she began to sing along with the band singers (Ella Fitzgerald was her favorite). One career detour later, she was herself a singer, with a strong, sweet, plangent voice. Listening to it was like watching a pro golfer tee up a ball and smack it cleanly a couple of hundred yards down a fairway.
With her bright eyes, can-do spirit, perky upturned nose and bouffant platinum hair transmitting good vibes, her screen persona, which also left room for lots of virginal purity, was ideally suited to Eisenhower-era America, or at least America as it preferred to see itself. There were no signs of the jitters Day felt at returning to dancing for the camera after not having danced professionally for years. Yet she felt stiff and rusty (according to her autobiography). But Nelson, who co-starred and choreographed both Lullaby of Broadway and Tea for Two (1950), had a secret weapon - his wife, Miriam, who was a dancer, too. Miriam Nelson literally took her by the hand, and saw to it that Day's hard work and hers never was apparent in the finished product, even after Day took her first look at the steep staircase in the finale of Lullaby of Broadway and gulped. She said, not altogether flippantly, that she wanted a ski patrol standing by as she did her turns up and down the staircase in the film she later was to describe as the one with her most difficult dance routines.
Not that Lullaby of Broadway ever makes the mistake of so many grander endeavors and trips over its own feet. It keeps everything light, even with its wheezy, flimsy plot hinging on whether the other characters think she's been sleeping with a married man. It begins with Day's Melinda Howard returning from years abroad in London for a surprise visit to her mother (how did she ever get all those gowns into her two little suitcases - a miracle of packing!). Mom is a faded Broadway legend played with sad eyes and great cheekbones by Gladys George. Day's Melinda is the one in for a surprise, though, or would be if the others fail in their frantic striving to keep from her the news that her mother is broke and a drunk, singing for tips in a Village dive, and ashamed to have her daughter see her in such a reduced state.
Also unknown to Belinda, mom's flossy Beekman Place house was long ago sold to beer baron and sometime Broadway angel S. Z. Sakall. The butler (Billy De Wolfe) and maid (Anne Triola) are showbiz veterans who labor mightily to keep the truth from Belinda, posting her mother's letters from the Beekman Place address. Covering further, they tell Melinda that her mother is on the road, and appropriate one of the rich sweetie pie's spare rooms for Melinda to stay in. With the unwitting, then all too witting, benefactor played with perfect bumbling timing and his usual thick mitteleuropisch accent, the cuddly S.Z. Sakall genially escalates the predictable complications as the only character who's even more of an innocent than Melinda. Nelson, topping his tuxedos with a porkpie hat, provides the romantic misunderstandings on cue. And De Wolfe and Triola, accomplished troupers both, are rewarded with a couple of comic duets: "You're Dependable" and "We'd Like to Go on a Trip."
After Lullaby of Broadway, her eighth film, Day went on to make 62 more, including her Ruth Etting biofilm Love Me or Leave Me (1955), The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Pajama Game (1957), Teacher's Pet (1958), Pillow Talk (1959) and more in a film career that ended with the death of her husband, Martin Melcher, in 1968. Day's own favorite among her films, according to her memoirs, is Calamity Jane (1953). Her cheerfulness, optimism and wholesomeness unjustly caused her to be written about with a certain condescension in the dark, tumultuous late '60s and early '70s. But the woman who gamely reinvented herself as a singer after her dancing career was put on hold has outlasted her critics and been rediscovered by a new generation taken with her professionalism and work ethic. There have been lots of pretty blondes, but few Doris Days. Her young female fans didn't just want to watch her and listen to her. They wanted to be her.
Producer: William Jacobs
Director: David Butler
Screenplay: Earl Baldwin
Cinematography: Wilfred M. Cline
Art Direction: Douglas Bacon
Music: Howard Jackson (uncredited)
Film Editing: Irene Morra
Cast: Doris Day (Melinda Howard), Gene Nelson (Tom Farnham), S.Z. Sakall (Adolph Hubbell), Billy De Wolfe (Lefty Mack), Gladys George (Jessica Howard), Florence Bates (Mrs. Anna Hubbell), Anne Triola (Gloria Davis), Hanley Stafford (George Ferndel - Producer), Page Cavanaugh Trio (Themselves), Carlo De Mattiazzi (Dance Specialty).
by Jay Carr
AFI Catalog of Feature Films
Doris Day: Her Own Story, by A. E. Hotchner, Morrow & Co., 1976
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