Doris Day began to make her way as a big band singer in 1939. She scored several million-selling records during her singing career, beginning with “Sentimental Journey,” her hit with Les Brown’s band in 1945. Her next million-seller came in 1948 with “It’s Magic,” but her biggest hits were songs from two of her popular mid-‘50s films, “Secret Love” from Calamity Jane (1953) and “Que Sera, Sera” from The Man Who Knew Too Much (1955). Day’s last hit single, Everybody Loves a Lover was released in 1959. Coincidentally, Pillow Talk, a frothy sex comedy, and a new direction in type for her, was also released in 1959 and it would change the course of her career. For the next four years she would reign as queen of the box office starring in bubbly romcoms, most often opposite Rock Hudson.
While she was still churning out hit records in the ’50s, Day starred in a movie that was all but forgotten once her screen persona shifted and she became the super-feminine, stylishly gowned and bouffantly coiffed icon of the early ‘60s. The Pajama Game (1957) is an overlooked and underappreciated pièce de résistance of a musical that contains one of Day’s most captivating performances – along with 11 songs, quite a few of them show-stoppers…and more.
The story revolves around labor-management tensions at the Sleeptite Pajama Factory in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where union members are pushing for a seven-and-a-half-cent per hour raise while management is steadfastly ignoring them. Brand-new and hunky factory superintendent Sid Sorokin (John Raitt) arrives just as workers are becoming more vocal about the wage increase. He and the head of the employees’ grievance committee, “Babe” Williams (Doris Day), first glimpsed as a long, cool woman in a blue smock, become smitten. The labor dispute comes between them until Sid’s ingenuity paves the way for a compromise. That’s the story, but it’s in the telling that the tale comes to life. And this yarn is spun with verve and style, highlighted by a superb score and inventive, energetic dance numbers.
The Pajama Game opened on Broadway in 1954. A Tony-winning smash co-directed by George Abbott and Jerome Robbins and, blessed with a score by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross that included several songs destined for the Hit Parade, it was 27-year-old Bob Fosse’s first choreography assignment on the Great White Way. The show made his reputation and brought him the first of 13 Tony Awards. When the musical was adapted to the screen under the co-direction of Abbott and Stanley Donen, Fosse was tapped to choreograph his first film. The jazzy/sexy style, distinctive moves and costuming touches that are well known today as Fosse trademarks were introduced in a Carol Haney showcase, “Steam Heat,” a number that takes place at a gathering of Sleeptite’s union members.
Making their movie debuts with Fosse were leading man John Raitt and supporting actress/featured dancer/all-around dynamo Carol Haney, who had originated their roles on Broadway. Haney, as Gladys, a Sleeptite secretary, became a stage star and won a Tony for her performance. Raitt, who may have lacked some of the onscreen ease of his contemporary, Gordon MacRae, seems to me perfectly cast as dedicated and sincere, he-manly but slightly unsure Sid. Just as crucial, his sweet baritone is a match for Day’s sunny tones. Their duet on “There Once Was a Man,” a rollicking ode to falling madly in love, is sheer joy for its exuberance –
That’s two show-stoppers…and counting. There’s another Carol Haney showcase, this one a long measure tango, “Hernando’s Hideaway”:
“Just knock three times and whisper low…
That you and I were sent by Joe.
Then strike a match and then you’ll know…
You’re at Hernando’s Hideaway…Olé!”
And there’s the wistful ballad, “Hey There,” sung first by Raitt and later reprised by Day, that became a pop standard.
Oscar-winning (My Fair Lady, The Picture of Dorian Gray) cinematographer Harry Stradling, Sr., deserves much credit for The Pajama Game’s visual dazzle. Stradling got his start through his uncle Walter, one-time Mary Pickford cameraman, and worked his way up behind the camera, first in Hollywood and then in Europe. He returned to the U.S. and built a reputation as one of Hollywood’s top cinematographers, noted for his fluid camera work, emphasis on high style and facility with color. Stradling’s 1950s films are emblematic of the glorious use of Technicolor during that decade, and he was Oscar-nominated for his work on both Guys and Dolls (1955) and Auntie Mame (1958).
Setting The Pajama Game’s scene and creating its rich, vivid look is the handiwork of art director Malcolm Bert. Oscar-nominated for A Star is Born (1954) and Auntie Mame, Bert’s other memorable projects of the ‘50s include East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause, both in 1955.
Though The Pajama Game spawned three breakout songs, none were hits for Doris Day–the popular versions had been recorded by others while the show was still on Broadway, long before the movie went into production. Patti Page’s “Steam Heat” rose to #8 on the Billboard charts, Archie Bleyer’s “Hernando’s Hideaway” reached #2 and Rosemary Clooney’s version of “Hey There” climbed to #1.
What Doris Day brought to the movie was bigger than her apple pie sex appeal and a buttery voice capable of producing hit records. In his new book, Dangerous Rhythm (Oxford University Press, 2014), author Richard Barrios writes, “The Pajama Game gave definitive proof that movie-star casting can sometimes be the best thing to happen to a filmed version of a Broadway show…Day’s natural physicality enabled her to move from speaking to singing not only smoothly, but with a uniquely vigorous conviction…” She lights up the screen, delivering one of her best performances as strong, confident–and sexy–“Babe.”
Had The Pajama Game been filmed just two years earlier, it might well have been a bigger box office success for, by 1957, Hollywood musicals were on the wane. No matter, it survives and endures, a high-spirited musical snapshot of post-war America in the fabulous ‘50s.
The Lady Eve lives in Northern California and works in TV. Her blog posts have won CiMBA Awards from the Classic Movie Blog Association and been reprinted in newspapers and magazines. For more information, visit http://eves-reel-life.blogspot.com.