Thursday, April 2, 2015

Doris Day, YOUNG AT HEART

Happy Birthday to Doris Day.  Born on April 3rd, she's now in her early 90s.  The word "icon" is used way too much nowadays, but Doris Day truly was a Hollywood icon.  Madonna and Jennifer Lopez couldn't quite pull of what Doris did.  Her face and name represented a certain kind of of character and a certain kind of film entertainment.  Like Judy Garland, she seemed to have just been blessed with natural and multiple gifts at birth.  Doris Day was one of Hollywood's true triple threat girls -- she could sing, she could dance and she could act.  Doris Day had hit records, she was in the Top Ten at the box office for years and when she finished with films, she had a hit long-running sitcom on CBS.  The Doris Day Show aired from 1968 to 1973 and the network wanted to renew it.  She received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement award.   The fact that Day does not have a Lifetime Achievement Oscar is a major oversight.  The screen legend definitely deserves one.  This blog post is about the movie Doris Day made with another true icon, Frank Sinatra. It's an early display of Day's natural dramatic acting skills and depth.
Doris Day was like Judy Garland's character in the 1954 remake of A Star Is Born.  She was a singer with a band.  A top Hollywood studio took a chance on her and gave her the lead in a musical when the slated star was unavailable.   Her film debut was a smash.  Moviegoers loved her so much that, within five years, she was one the biggest new stars at the studio, making musical after musical.  Doris replaced Betty Hutton in Warner's festive 1948 musical, Romance on the High Seas.  One of my favorite Doris Day movies is a drama with music made during her star-making Warner Brothers studio contract years of the early 1950s.  The movie is YOUNG AT HEART, released in 1954, and her leading man had also been a popular big band vocalist in the 1940s.  Frank Sinatra starred opposite Doris in this remake of the 1938 Warner Bros. film, Four Daughters.

A widower music teacher in Connecticut has three sweet daughters.  The sisters love each other, their dad and music.  Handsome songwriter Alex Burke (played by Gig Young) comes to town.  All three sisters get sort of a crush on the visiting composer.  Alex also invites his hard-luck writing partner, Barney Sloane (played by Sinatra).  Burke falls for Laurie (Day's character) and the other sisters hide their jealousy.  But Laurie starts to fall for the likable grouch Barney.  She warms his wounded, cynical heart.
They marry, but Barney thinks she is in love with Alex and he feels guilty that he may have ruined her chance for happiness.

Laurie feels that a marriage should have lots of laughs in it.  If there are no laughs, there's no sense in being married.  This movie shows Doris Day's understanding of a script -- not just in her lines but in the surrounding action, the other actors' lines and the subtext of the scene.  Day, an untrained actress, had great instincts and became a master at screen technique.  In Young at Heart, the actress realizes the shadows and emotional darkness in this story about what appears to be sunny small town USA.
Laurie and her sister to go a local bar/restaurant with her sister, Alex and Barney.  Barney has a gig singing and playing piano at the bar.  The customers aren't really paying attention to Barney as he sings.  In one booth, a guy is trying to get the babe he's with to drink more so he can get lucky.  Laurie sees this.  We see it too and it clues us in that this small town has just as many naughty elements as a big city does.  Alex, basically a good guy, is rather full of himself.  He's the kind of guy who enters a room and makes himself the center of attention, but it's overlooked because of his handsomeness and charm.  Occasionally he can be a clueless jerk.  Listen to his comment about drowning a puppy.
Laurie's sister is mooning over handsome Alex.  The manager comes over to the table and rudely orders Barney to sing again and stop taking a break.  He calls Barney "boy."  Laurie cleverly and gracefully deflects all this rudeness by asking the manager if one of his family members knows one of her family members. When he realizes that she's of the town's respectable Tuttle Family, his attitude immediately changes.  Laurie mentions that Mr. Sloane is with them.  The manager is embarrassed and apologetic.  He gives his regards to the Tuttle Family and addresses Barney with respect.  If Barney had been played by Harry Belafonte, you could've said that the manager was being racist in his attitude.  Doris Day understood the dramatic undercurrent charging that scene.  It's revealing.  Alex is ignorant to how Barney was mistreated even though he's at the same table.  Alex is too self-absorbed.  Would marriage to him be lots of laughs for her?

For you young acting students, all that detail about the other couple in the booth, the initially rude tavern manager, Alex not noticing the rudeness -- that's info to help you breakdown the scene if you got it as an audition piece.  That's all vital information.

The family gathers at Christmastime. Laurie sits at the piano with Alex and sings a song he's written.  Notice how Day delivers it.  She's got good news she wants to deliver to Barney, her broke husband, on Christmas Day.  He's in the living room with the rest of the family.  But he mistakenly thinks she may still have romantic feelings for the successful Alex.  I love the way Doris sings "There's a Rising Moon (For Every Falling Star)."
The movie ends with a happy Easter Sunday family scene and a lovely duet.

When he made Young at Heart, Frank Sinatra had resurrected his film career and won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his dramatic performance in 1953's World War II drama, From Here To Eternity.  He had clout in Hollywood and changed the ending from the original 1938 movie.  I think he had a good point.  Moviegoers needed to see those two famous singer/movie stars do a song together.  In the 1938 film, Four Daughters, there's a death at the end.  Young at Heart is sort of a jukebox movie.  Songs performed in it are by various songwriters.  For instance, the song that shows Sinatra at his saloon singer peak.  At the piano, he sings "One For My Baby (And One More for the Road)", the Johnny Mercer classic written for and introduced by Fred Astaire in the 1943 musical comedy, The Sky's the Limit.  The song fits Sinatra like a velvet glove.

Doris Day and Frank Sinatra -- two vocalists with 1940s big bands who were tapped by Hollywood and made their big screen acting debuts in musical comedies.  Both proved to be such good actors that they got Oscar nominations for performances in non-dramas.  Sinatra's other Oscar nomination was in the Best Actor category for playing a junkie trying to kick heroin in 1955's The Man with the Golden Arm.  Doris Day was a Best Actress Oscar nominee for the 1959 screwball comedy, Pillow Talk.  In addition to her singing and dancing talents, she proved to be a brilliant screen comedienne, one who followed in the tradition of actresses like Jean Arthur and Irene Dunne from Hollywood's Golden Age.  In fact, Day had three leading men who'd previously starred opposite Jean Arthur.  She worked with Robert Cummings in 1954's Lucky Me, James Stewart in Hitchcock's 1956 The Man Who Knew Too Much and Cary Grant in 1962's That Touch of Mink.  In her original screen musical Calamity Jane, Oscar winner for Best Song of 1953 ("Secret Love"), she played a character played by Jean Arthur in the Cecil B. DeMille's 1936 western, The Plainsman, co-starring Gary Cooper as Wild Bill Hickok.

Doris Day and James Garner starred in 1963's Move Over, Darling.  That was a remake of the 1940 Irene Dunne and Cary Grant comedy, My Favorite Wife.  James Cagney raved about Doris Day's natural acting skills.  They made a Warner Bros. musical comedy together -- 1950's The West Point Story.  They starred in MGM's 1955 dramatic biopic, Love Me or Leave Me, about singer Ruth Etting and her hoodlum manager/husband.  James Cagney got a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his dramatic performance.  This movie should've brought Doris Day her first Oscar nomination. It's her best screen performance and, in it, she plays the dark side of the ambitious All-American girl.  She's talented, tough, manipulative, she hits the bottle and she's a physically abused wife.  She's excellent as Ruth Etting in Love Me or Leave Me.

When Doris Day had her girl-next-door movie image in the early 1950s, millions of folks probably had no idea she'd been a hard-working single mother whose physically abusive and mentally disturbed husband had killed himself.  Her little boy, Terry, would take on the last name of Doris' future husband.  That husband was Doris' well-known manager, Marty Melcher.  After his death, it was discovered that he had squandered her earnings leaving her millions of dollars in debt and attaching her contractually to work she knew nothing about.  Her respected rock record producer son, Terry Melcher, helped his mother throughout a long California court case.  Doris was awarded $22 million.  Terry had drama in his life as he was reportedly targeted by the infamous Charles Manson and needed police protection for a year after Manson and his followers who killed actress Sharon Tate and others were sent to prison.  Yes...Doris Day's is quite a story.

Albert Brooks met with the actress to offer her the role opposite his in the 1996 comedy, Mother.  She passed on the project.  The role went to Debbie Reynolds.

To see her one and only big screen teaming Frank Sinatra, check out Doris Day in Young at Heart.  It's now on DVD thanks to OliveFilms.com.

On Sunday and Monday, April 5th and 6th, see the premiere of a new Frank Sinatra documentary.  The two-part feature is entitled SINATRA: ALL OR NOTHING AT ALL and airs on HBO at 8p both nights.  For more info, go to HBO.com.  Happy Easter.

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