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Doris Day – “Duet”

220px-DorisAndreDuetIs there anyone more intimate in her singing than Doris Day? As a child, her voice teacher taught her to sing as if she were singing in the ear of one person.

Day was not as as jazzy as singers like Ella Fitzgerald (her idol) and Sarah Vaughan. She didn’t scat, but nevertheless was a jazz and swing singer, even if she is better remembered today for many of her popular hits.

According to author Tom Santopietro in his book Considering Doris Day, her preference was to take a song extremely slowly and she was able to indulge this tendency in one of her finest albums, Duet, which was released in 1962. She collaborated with Andre Previn – pianist, composer, band leader, music arranger – and his trio.

Here is one of my favorite songs from the album, “Give Me Time,” by Alec Wilder.

“Falling in Love Again” was originally written in German (“Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuß auf Liebe eingestellt”) by Frederick Hollaender and was introduced by Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel, but she was also known for singing the song in an English translation, which was provided by Sammy Lerner. Hollaender actually wrote a number of songs for Dietrich throughout her Hollywood career: Destry Rides AgainA Foreign AffairSeven Sinners.

This last song was written by one of my favorite composing teams, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. “Nobody’s Heart” was introduced in their musical “By Jupiter,” which premiered in 1942 and starred Ray Bolger, with a plot involving the Greek army and Amazons. I believe it is an Amazon who sings this song.

 
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Posted by on June 3, 2016 in Music

 

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Love Me or Leave Me (1955)

1-love-me-or-leave-me-poster-art-doris-everettWhat do you get when you combine the sunny Doris Day with gangster James Cagney? Love Me or Leave Me, a sensational grangster/drama/musical and one of my favorite films of all time.

Love Me or Leave Me is a loose biopic of singer Ruth Etting, who was famous in the 1920s, but whose career in Hollywood was ended when her gangster husband, Moe Snyder, shot her lover in the mid-1930s (the lover survived and they were later wed). The film explores not only her career, but her relationship with her husband.

Ruth Etting (Doris Day) is a would-be singer working at a dance hall, until she gets fired for kicking an over-familiar customer. This catches the eye of Marty “The Gimp” Snyder, a Chicago gangster (James Cagney) with a limp. He tries a pick-up line, but she rebuffs him, until he offers to help get her another job. This starts a whole cat-and mouse process, with Marty trying to get her obligated to him and Ruth trying to hold out, but still take advantage of his help at the same time. She’s ambitious, but Marty initially thinks if he can just humor her, eventually she’ll be satisfied and go away with him.

But pianist Johnny Alderman (Cameron Mitchell) is also interested in Ruth, but wants to help her career honestly, without using any of the questionable methods of Marty. But Ruth is ambitious. Because she’s played by Doris Day, it is easy to overlook just how ambitious she is, but she is leaving nothing to chance and wants to use Marty to help her career and she’s not ignorant of his strong-arm methods for doing so. But as Johnny warns Ruth, she’s playing with fire and she can’t just use Marty and then leave him. She doesn’t listen and winds up in an abusive marriage with Marty.

Doris Day and James Cagney are magnificent in this film. They are two dynamic, incredible actors and the screen lights up whenever they share it. Doris Day is never overwhelmed by him, but actually is his match in both presence and personality as the two of them battle back and forth. Both actors admired each other; Cagney thought Day was an instinctive actor like himself and even lobbied to have her cast in the film and be given top billing (remarkable generosity). Nothing, I believe, demonstrates her abilities better than this film and how she manages to hold her own with James Cagney. I’m not sure I can think of an actress who does it better.

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Cagney and Day

Doris Day is still seemingly herself, but with an edge. By the second half of the film, after she has achieved stardom, she is bitter and deeply unhappy, but still with that Doris Day resilience and willingness to bounce back, though perhaps not quite with the same enthusiasm that Ruth had when her career was first beginning.

Love Me or Leave Me also has one of my favorite James Cagney performances (along with White Heat and Yankee Doodle Dandy). He’s baffled and angry, full of lust and lovelorn at the same time, but he never lets you forget that he’s capable of dangerous violence.

And initially he doesn’t have a clue what he has in her, singing-wise. When he packs the club with people to hear her sing, he’s looking around nervously while the audience sits rapt during her song. There is another wonderful moment when Ruth makes her Ziegfeld debut. You can see it on his face: wonderment, anxiety, as he realizes how far she’s come and that she technically no longer needs his help, but also like he’s finally comprehending the full extent of her talent.

The more I see the film, the more sorry I feel for him (up to a point) in the first half, until he wipes away all sympathy by his actions. By the second half, Ruth becomes primarily a victim, but initially she is just as complicit as Marty and even strings him along, trying to have all the benefits of being a mistress without having to pay the price. I’m no longer sure  how much she is genuinely standing up for herself and how much is manipulation. When she is angry that he expects sex in return for getting her a job, does she really intend to walk out or is she hoping that he’ll give in? Maybe both.

I used to wonder how on earth she could have married Marty after he (it’s implied) finally gets fed up and rapes her. I finally concluded that the problem is that she both has too many scruples and not enough. She doesn’t have enough to prevent her from trying to use Marty, but too much in that she feels so guilty about it that she stays in an abusive situation because she feels like she owes him. And because she knows how crazy he is about her.

love_me_or_leave_meThat is what makes the film so powerful, in my opinion, the nuance the actors bring. Marty is primarily an abusive hood (and largely unsympathetic), but he has human emotions and is nuts about Ruth, so much so that he hardly understands it. Ruth, on the other hand, is not merely a victim, but consciously working her way to the top and is willing to roll over (or have Marty roll over) quite a few people to get where she wants (including discarding the man she loves and who loves her).

The music is also sensational (one of my favorite soundtracks). Most of the songs were popularized and associated with Ruth Etting, such as “Love Me or Leave Me” (Walter Donaldson and Gus Kahn) and “Ten Cents a Dance” (Rodgers and Hart). A few songs, like “I’ll Never Stop Loving You” were written for the movie.

Doris Day doesn’t sound a thing like Ruth Etting and she’s still more fifties than twenties – in fact the entire more looks more like a twenties flavored fifties film, but that’s not a complaint. I’m not sure the twenties look would have flattered Day nearly as well as the fifties, anyway. Ruth Etting actually wanted Jane Powell to portray her in the film, but Cagney lobbied for Day, for which I am extremely grateful. Doris Day’s incandescent talent (nothing against Powell) makes her success and Marty’s surprise at her success all the more potent, because she really is stunning. How could she not become a star?

Here is Doris Day’s rendition of “Love Me or Leave Me.”

And Ruth Ettings rendition, recorded in 1929. Ruth Etting always claimed that her voice was deeper than it sounded on recordings.

“Ten Cents a Dance,” sung by Doris Day.

And Ruth Etting’s version of “Ten Cents a Dance.”

 
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Posted by on May 12, 2016 in Movies

 

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Romance on the High Seas (1948)

ROMANCE ON THE HIGH SEASDo you mind if I gush for a moment? Thank you very much.

I am a huge Doris Day fan. I love her warmth and enthusiasm, her can-do attitude and resilience in the face of obstacles (onscreen and off-screen). She could literally do it all: sing (oh, how she could sing), dance, handle comedy and drama. And yet it’s so easy to overlook her outsized talent because she always seems to downplay it.

I’m done gushing. Thank you for your patience.

Romance on the High Seas was Doris Day’s Hollywood debut. She was 23, a successful band singer and at a low point in her personal life. She was so depressed that she didn’t even go out of her way to impress director Michael Curtiz during her audition, bursting into tears at one point (her husband was leaving her because he could tell she was going to be a star and didn’t want to be “Mr. Doris Day”). But according to lyricist Sammy Cahn, ” On the day they screened the tests, first came Marion Hutton (Betty Hutton’s sister); she was not earth shaking. Then came Janis Paige–by comparison, excellent. Then came Doris Day–and the projection room, when they ran the film, exploded.” Doris Day was cast and rapidly became Warner Bros’ top star, though they continued to give her inferior vehicles to star in.

Romance on the High Seas is something of a musical/screwball comedy. Because this was Doris Day’s first film, she is only third-billed and shares screen time with Jack Carson, Janis Paige and Don DeFore, not to mention a host of scene-stealing character actors including Oscar Levant, S.Z. Sakall, Eric Blore and Franklin Pangborn.

Society lady Elvira Kent (Janis Paige) is happily married to wealthy Michael Kent (Don DeFore), or she would be if she wasn’t convinced that he is chronically cheating on her. But her suspicions are unfounded; he’s mad about Elvira, though equally convinced that she’s cheating on him. When Michael is unable to accompany Elvira on a cruise because of a business merger, she immediately suspects him and decides to stay in New York to keep an eye on him, while hiring someone else to go on the cruise in her place to allay her husband’s suspicions.

Doris Day, Jack Carson

Doris Day, Jack Carson

The woman she hires is struggling singer Georgia Garrett (Doris Day), who works in a dinky little cafe with pianist and would-be lover Oscar Farrar (Oscar Levant, playing himself), who proposes marriage to her by the hour. Georgia is thrilled at the prospect of taking a cruise and promptly quits her job. But Michael Kent is suspicions that his wife is happily be taking a cruise without him and he hires private investigator Peter Virgil (Jack Carson) to keep an eye on her during the cruise. But when Peter meets Georgia – believing her to be Mrs. Elvira Kent – he has to struggle awfully hard not to make love to her.

It gets more complicated when Oscar joins them on the cruise, but things really get out of hand when Elvira and Michael also join them at the end of the cruise in Rio, along with their Uncle Lazlo (S.Z. Sakall), who is trying to sort everything out.

Admittedly, it’s not The Awful Truth or Singin’ In the Rain, but there is a lot to enjoy. In Doris Day’s debut, she is not quite the Doris Day we know from later films. She is super perky (perhaps a bit too perky; she obviously learned to tone it down) and plays what would have been termed a hepcat, tossing slang around even when she supposed to be acting like the dignified Elvira Kent. Doris Day always hated the costumes, makeup and hair of her Warner Bros. days. She felt it was phony and she has a point there. The hats are pretty extraordinary in the film, too. Janis Paige as Elvira Kent has one that looks like a flying saucer landed on her head.

I watched this film with my friend Andrea and she thought the film could be understood as being about perceptions and how people see things (often incorrectly). Because Elvira and Michael believe the other is a flirt, they interpret everything in a way that supports their belief, even when it’s not true. Likewise, Peter Virgil believes that Georgia is Mrs. Elvira Kent, even though there are quite a few things Georgia says and does that should have tipped him off. Likewise, the scene where Peter and Oscar manage to get drunk on nothing has to do with perceptions. They think they are drinking shot after shot, not realizing that a man is stealing their drinks before they have a chance to down the glass. They are too busy telling the other about their girl (not knowing they are both talking about Georgia). Even the song “The Tourist Trade,” which is sung by a man from Havana about how everything they do is for the tourists, makes a similar point about expectations. They don’t actually live this way; they just put on the show that the tourists are expecting.

One thing I enjoy about Romance on the High Seas is that it gives Jack Carson an opportunity to play a romantic lead. He even sings a song – in a fake Trinidad accent – and he’s actually rather endearing. He still has his usual sense of humor, but it’s fun to see him get the girl for a change. Oscar Levant, on the other hand, is his usual misanthropic self, which is either good or bad, depending on how much you enjoy his particular brand of wit, which I do.

Janis Paige and Don DeFore are adequate, but the S.Z. Sakall is his usual adorable self and Eric Blore and Franklin Pangborn both make delightful appearances. Fortunio Bonanova (who pops up in all sorts of unexpected films: Double IndemnityFor Whom the Bells TollThe Black SwanCitizen Kane, Kiss Me Deadly) plays the manager of the hotel in Rio who would like to hire Georgia to sing, believing her to be a society lady with name recognition.

The songs were written by Sammy Cahn (lyricist) and Jule Styne (music). “It’s Magic” was the hit of the film, nominated for Best Song (it lost to “Buttons and Bows”) and become forever associated with Doris Day. That is where Doris Day shines most of all in Romance on the High Seas. No one sings a ballad quite like she does. Like Judy Garland, she can bring emotion through a song that is often greater than the film even requires.

Doris Day sings “Put ‘Em in a Box” to express her disgruntlement with Jack Carson’s Peter Virgil, who is too principled to make love to married woman.

 
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Posted by on May 6, 2016 in Movies

 

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