When Doris Day, "America's Sweetheart," started making musicals in the late 1940s, I was too young to care. By time she started making romantic comedies in the late 50s and 60s, I was in high school and immune to the subject matter. Then there was a long period during my college years in the 60s and well into the 70s when either I didn't have a TV or never watched one, so I didn't get see many of her pictures in reruns. By the time tape and cable arrived in the late 70s and 80s and made practically all movies available to me as a home viewer, Doris Day was a low (OK, non) priority. I mention all this because it seems as though there must a lot of people like me who recognize Doris Day's name instantly, yet have never really seen many of her pictures. Although she was one of the most popular stars in filmdom for almost a quarter of a century, beginning in 1948 and retiring in the early 1970s, today she may not get all the credit she deserves.
Fortunately, the folks at Warner Bros. are trying to do something about that by releasing this second set of Doris Day movies, mainly from her early years. The set includes "Romance on the High Seas" (1948), with Jack Carson and Janis Paige, directed by Michael Curtiz; "My Dream Is Your Dream" (1949), again with Jack Carson, and again directed by Michael Curtiz; "On Moonlight Bay" (1951), with Gordon MacRae, directed by Roy Del Ruth; "I'll See You in My Dreams" (1951), with Danny Thomas, directed by Michael Curtiz; "By the Light of the Silvery Moon" (1953), with Gordon MacRae, directed by David Butler; and "Lucky Me" (1954), with Robert Cummings and Phil Silvers, directed by Jack Donohue.
They are all light, frivolous musical comedies, filled with songs, romance, and laughter, but the one I'd like to examine more closely is "On Moonlight Bay," among the better films in the group and fairly typical of the breed.
Like the other films, "On Moonlight Bay" is short on plot but long on music and charm. Jack Rose and Melville Shavelson adapted the screenplay from Booth Tarkington's "Penrod Stories," LeRoy Prinz staged the musical numbers, and Roy Del Ruth directed. Del Ruth had plenty of experience at this sort of thing, his career having begun over thirty years earlier in 1920 with "A Lightweight Lover" continuing through the first version of "The Maltese Falcon," "Topper Returns," "Panama Hattie," "The West Point Story," "DuBarry Was a Lady," "Always Leave Them Laughing," and, of all things, "The Alligator People." Well, there are no alligators on the "Bay"; just young people falling in love. Close enough.
The young people are Marjie Winfield (Doris Day) and Bill Sherman (Gordon MacRae). The year is 1917, and Marjie and her family have just moved into a new neighborhood in a small, picturesque Indiana town. It's a lovely setting, the father is the vice president of a bank, and the house is a beautiful old Victorian. In other words, it's pure Americana, a world of moonlight canoe rides, lakeside dances, and other pleasantries that everyone would like to think were so perfect in the good ol' days but probably weren't. Never mind; this is Hollywood, the land of fantasy, and what else would you expect from a musical comedy?
Bill is an idealistic college senior who meets and falls in love with Marjie when she first moves across the street. Marjie, something of a tomboy until she discovers the opposite sex (in the movies, Doris Day always discovered the opposite sex, but never sex), has no apparent purpose in life other than playing baseball until she meets Bill. She doesn't seem to be in high school or college, and she doesn't have a job. We would have to guess her age in the late teens, whereas Bill as a senior at the University of Indiana would be about twenty-one or two. True to Hollywood tradition, Ms. Day was actually in her late twenties when she did the part, and MacRae was thirty. Again, close enough.
The story line confines itself mostly to a series of popular tunes of the era, a few of them World War I songs because Bill enlists just as soon as he graduates. Among the tunes are the title song, which the film offers up three times in three different renditions to be sure we remember why we're watching; then, "Cuddle Up a Little Closer," "Tell Me," "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles," "Love Ya," "Christmas Story," "It's a Long Way to Tipperary," "Pack Up Your Troubles," "Every Little Movement," and "Till We Meet Again."
A modicum of conflict develops between Bill and Marjie's father, George Winfield, a stuffed shirt played by Leon Ames (who would go on to become a model, if sometimes exasperated, father in television's "Life With Father"). George gets the mistaken impression early on that Bill is a nut case, and he doesn't want his daughter getting involved with him. More conflict develops with Marjie's bratty little brother, Wesley, played by Billy Gray (who would go on to become a model child in television's "Father Knows Best"). And a final conflict develops when the father tries to set up Marjie with a young man as stuffy as he is, Hubert Wakeley, played by "Smilin' Jack" Smith (the radio crooner and later TV host, whose fans didn't appreciate his playing a nerdy second-fiddle to MacRae).
For the most part, "On Moonlight Bay" follows the conventional romantic-comedy formula: Boy meets girl, boy and girl have trouble getting together, boy and girl finally wind up happily. It's the delightful songs along the way that keep this one afloat.
Trivia notes: (1) Most of the cast would reprise their roles in the 1953 sequel, "By the Light of the Silvery Moon," also included in this set. (2) If you look closely at the background of one location shot in which Marjie and Hubert are walking down a sidewalk, you'll notice a modern school bus in distance. And (3) as far as I know, Ms. Day still resides in Carmel, California, where she retired and where she continues to pursue her lifelong interest in animal rights.
The picture quality of "On Moonlight Bay" is up to WB's usual high standards. Using a high bit rate and a good print, the video engineers generate a fine DVD image, and one that's pretty close to its original 1.37:1 Academy ratio, this one measuring about 1.35:1 across my TV. The Technicolor reproduction is sparkling throughout the movie, with hues that are natural, radiant, and deep. The screen if free of any and all artifacts or age markings. And, what's more, the object definition is good, making for a thoroughly enjoyable sight for the eyes.
If I'm less enthusiastic about the sound than I am the picture, it's because it took a while for the audio technology to catch up to the photography. Motion-picture photography hasn't changed all that much in the last eighty years, some people saying it's even regressed a bit with the use of digital cameras; but soundtracks have become far more spectacular in their multichannel presentations and wide-ranging response. Anyway, "On Moonlight Bay" uses a standard 1.0 monaural soundtrack of the day, which nevertheless distinguishes itself quite well in WB's transfer. It's quiet, it's clean, and it has a realistic tonal balance that displays all the music and dialogue to good advantage.
There are three major extras included with "On Moonlight Bay." The first is a nine-minute musical short called "Let's Sing a Song about the Moonlight." It's in black-and-white from 1947 and pays tribute to songs about the moon and moonlight. It even gives you a chance to sing along with the Melody Makers. After that is a really clever 1950 Merrie Melodies cartoon, "A Hound for Trouble," directed by Chuck Jones. Finally, there are twenty-nine scene selections, a theatrical trailer, English as the only spoken language, and English and Spanish subtitles. Other movies in the collection contain similar supplements: short subjects, classic cartoons, and trailers, but there are no audio commentaries.
Since the ultrathin keep case for each of the movies in the set is translucent, Warner Bros. decided to take advantage of the situation by printing the chapter selections on the back of the cover, where they show through. Ootek says, "Good idea."
You can find all of the aforementioned Doris Day films in the Volume 2 box set, or you can buy them separately. Either way, they are fun, frothy, and filled with an abundance of good, old-fashioned tunes.