Monday, January 2, 2012

"The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1956)

She was a popular singer with a 1940s big band. She did radio. She made her Hollywood movie debut in 1949 and a star was born She quickly became a queen on the Warner Bros. lot thanks to sunny musical comedies that gave her an All-American girl next door image. She went on to become a top box office star in sexy screwball comedies with Rock Hudson and Cary Grant. In between, she proved to be a strong dramatic actress playing the dark side of the sunny girl next door image. For Hollywood's "Master of Suspense," she played a cheerful young mother who breaks down into a fit of dark despair when she learns something sinister has happened to her little boy during a family vacation overseas. I picked this thriller for a second look. The star is Doris Day.  My movie pick is Alfred Hitchcock's "The Man Who Knew Too Much."

Doris Day truly is a Hollywood movie icon, a singer who was a champ at the box office and on the Billboard record charts from the early 1950s and into the '60s.  That's a double-play future pop stars like Madonna and Jennifer Lopez couldn't match.  Last year, Day -- now in her 80s -- released a new music CD.  It topped the charts in Great Britain.  Day granted interviews to promote it which also proved that she's not a recluse.  One person lucky enough to chat with her was Robin Roberts on "Good Morning America."  In her round of 2011 interviews, it came up that Day was not initially fond of "Que Será, Será," the song from the Hitchcock film that not only went on the win an Oscar but became the theme song attached to the star.  She sang it again in her film comedies "Please Don't Eat The Daisies" and "The Glass Bottom Boat." It was also the theme for her hit CBS sitcom in the 1960s.  She may have balked at recording the tune that Jay Livingston and Ray Evans wrote for Alfred Hitchcock's remake of his own 1934 thriller, but it works perfectly for the film.  Especially for the rather feminist-friendly look at a marriage that needs to be rebalanced in the equality area.  Singer Jo Conway (Doris Day) married Ben McKenna (James Stewart) and became a successful doctor's wife in the Midwest.  She cut her career short to become a wife & mother.  No regrets, but she would like to entertain one of the offers to perform in New York.  Dr. McKenna seems to have that 1950s "the little woman" attitude.  His career is more important than hers. He's domesticated her from Jo Conway into Mrs. Ben McKenna, Housewife.  In the opening shot, we see them on a bus.  They love each other but there's space between them.  A wall.  And not just the wall between the windows in the back of the bus. Some of the space is filled by Hank, their young son.  Hitchcock shows us that Hank fills the space visually and also emotionally.

This Midwestern family is on vacation in Morocco.  Mr. & Mrs. McKenna will learn of a political assassination plot. Their little boy will be kidnapped.  The search for Hank will take them to London.  When we meet The McKennas in the back of the bus, we instantly learn that Ben likes to talk about himself.  He's so impressed with what he knows that he gives way too much information to total strangers.  He's taken his Midwestern airs into Muslim country and is so vainly stuck in his Yankee ways that he doesn't give himself over to learning about another culture.  Jo and Hank are the opposite.  They're curious about other cultures.  When a man named Louis Bernard starts quizzing the doctor, Jo tries to curb her husband's chattiness.  Ben does all the talking and treats Jo like a second class citizen.  Jo, the savvy one, gives Bernard no information. She politely asks the foreign stranger what he does and why he's asking so many questions.  There's sexual inequality amongst the Moroccan fellow passengers.  The American husband doesn't treat the wife like an equal.  This tale of suspense is also the story of a re-marriage.  This happy-looking couple has its monthly friction.  Before Jo's breakdown after the news that Hank has been kidnapped, we learn that she's been taking too many sleeping pills.  A certain sedation has been happening in the marriage.  Now a certain humility has been forced on Dr. McKenna. If their son is to be rescued, he'll have to stop being the know-it-all and let his wife take the lead.  To find their son, he must let his wife find a new voice in their marriage.

Before Mom and Dad go off to dinner in their hotel, Jo gets Hanks ready for bed by singing their lullaby, "Que Será, Será."  The song will be lullaby and, later, locater.  It suits the softness of Doris Day as song stylist.  How brilliant of the songwriters to make it a lullaby.  The initially arrogant but likable Ben is the man who knew too much.  But his knowledge doesn't equal access.  In London, no one knows Dr. Ben McKenna of the Midwest.  But, as in Day's real life last year, lots of fans remember singer Jo Conway.  Her career can get them greater, faster results in their desperate search for Hank.  To limit her, to minimize her status now would lead to tragic consequences that the marriage would not be able to withstand.  Jo must find and reveal a new voice as performer, wife and mother.  She must make that voice as loud as she can in her newly-achieved marital equality.  Even if that voice is a scream -- as we see and hear in the famous Albert Hall symphony and assassination attempt sequence.  Twelve tense minutes, no dialogue and a terrified scream from Doris Day.

This is followed by the "Que Será, Será" reprise.  A killer has the kidnapped son hidden somewhere in the large building.  Downstairs, Hank's performer mother has been asked to give somewhat of a command performance.  She'll sing the family's lullaby.  If Hank hears it, he'll answer it, and Dad can locate him in the building.  But Hank, on an upper level, will not hear it if Mom sings it like she does at bedtime. Jo knows this.  She provides her own accompaniment and flips the script on the song itself.  As singer, wife and mother, Jo is in control of the situation.  The crowning moment of her newfound voice comes when she wisely, gradually, uncharacteristically breaks her image and belts it like Ethel Merman or like Judy Garland doing the "Born in a Trunk" number in "A Star Is Born."  In terms of new identity/image in the marriage, Jo herself had to evolve from lullaby to powerful big number.

This film may not be as superior as two other Hitchcock films starring James Stewart -- "Rear Window" and "Vertigo" -- but it is satisfying and Doris Day is an excellent choice as a wife & mother Hitchcock Blonde.  Grace Kelly, Kim Novak and Janet Leigh could not have pulled it off as well.  There's scene in which Jo, after Ben has given her a sedative to soften the emotional impact, has a sobbing breakdown upon hearing that Hank has been kidnapped. It is one of Day's dramatic high points in a picture.  You feel her anguish as she feels the sedative taking effect.  You see why former co-star, film legend James Cagney, said in his autobiography that Doris Day's natural acting talent was so good that it was almost "subliminal." A top bandsinger in the 1940s before Hollywood beckoned, she was an untrained actress who became a master at movie acting technique.  In "The Man Who Knew Too Much," the singer/actress is a stand-out as the woman who finds a new voice in her marriage.

I'll end with some music trivia.  Jay Livingston and Ray Evans won the 1956 Best Song Academy Award for "Que Será, Será." They also won Best Song Oscars for "Mona Lisa" from the Alan Ladd war movie "Captain Carey, U.S.A." (Nat "King" Cole had a huge hit record with that one) and "Buttons and Bows" from the Bob Hope comedy "The Paleface."  They wrote the Christmas song, "Silver Bells," for another Hope comedy, "The Lemon Drop Kid."  Millions of babyboomers memorized the lyrics they wrote for a very popular sitcom.  Jay Livingston and Ray Evans also wrote the "Mister Ed" TV theme song.  "A horse is a horse, of course, of course, And no one can talk to a horse, of course..."

If you also love and support the art of classic films, please give some attention to this non-profit organization: The National Film Preservation Foundation (The NFPF): National Film Preservation Foundation


  1. Bobby,

    Fun and interesting post on Day and 'The Man Who Knew Too Much.' I've seen this film many times but never quite looked at it from the perspective you do here, or rather never actively paid attention to it. that is, the control shift from Ben to Jo. Also enjoyed the close look at 'Que Sera, Sera' and the purposeful shift of the song in the film.


  2. Great post on Hitchcock's use of Day in this film. He's often been called misogynistic in his treatment of women in his films, but this film shows him making the woman the stronger character, and how her voice, as you note, both actually and symbolically not only enhances her position in the film but saves the day.

  3. I love what you're doing here with the power balance/communication balance in the marriage. And I appreciate the paean to Doris Day, whom I have always adored.....


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