Doris Day, John Raitt, Eddie Foy, Jr., Carol Haney, Reta Shaw, Barbara Nichols, Ralph Dunn, Thelma Pelish.
Four and a half stars
Labor strife in a pajama factory doesn't seem like a promising basis
for a musical comedy, but The Pajama Game is wonderful, just wonderful.
Bright, funny, colorful, it has an appealing cast, terrific songs (at
least one, "Hey There," is a standard), and lively choreography by Bob
Fosse. This really is the kind of movie they don't make any more; when
musicals do turn up these days, they're mostly on television, mostly
remakes, and mostly rather lifeless. The Pajama Game bursts at the
seams with life and vigor.
Like Damn Yankees, it's based on a play with a song
score by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, and like Damn Yankees, it uses
almost all of the Broadway cast, pretty damned rare for Hollywood. Yes,
Doris Day steps into the leading role, but she has never looked better,
and since she's one of the best singers in movie history, as well as an
appealing actress, who's complaining?
George Abbott, from Broadway, and Stanley Donen, from Hollywood,
co-directed the film, and since Donen made most of the great musicals
of the 1950s, Abbott probably welcomed the assistance. The movie has a
fresh, timeless feel; it's graceful, fast-paced and witty -- but
doesn't quite make it into the Top Ten Musicals list, mostly because it
isn't particularly ambitious. It tells a good story well, spruces it up
with excellent songs and dances -- but doesn't transcend itself.
John Raitt plays Sid Sorokin, just hired as manager at the Sleeptite
Pajama factory; he's stepped into an uncertain labor situation, where
the workers have asked for a reasonable 7 1/2 cent raise. (The
screenplay by Abbott and Bissell, from Abbott's play, was based on the
novel 7 1/2 Cents by Bissell.) The impatient Sid shoves a worker, which
results in Babe Williams (Day), the head of the grievance committee,
confronting him -- and of course, they immediately start to fall in
love. But in a movie like The Pajama Game, the fun doesn't come in
upsetting our expectations, but fulfilling them. So though Sid and Babe
go through a rough period or two, they end up wearing the same pair of
pajamas, and the Sleeptite employees get their raise.
a shame that John Raitt didn't make more movies; this was his only
starring feature, and he's fine in it, if a bit theatrical. He's
dynamic, very masculine, with strong gestures and a strong presence;
his tenor voice isn't outstanding, but he does what's required of him,
and really has only one solo number anyway, the first "Hey There." His
daughter, Bonnie Raitt, has had a bigger career.
Day was, of course, one of the biggest stars of the 1950s and early
60s, but this was one of her last musicals, dammit. She had an
extremely expressive voice, filled with emotion but without any
exaggeration, and she had a very wide range, too. She could do be
shouty numbers, such as "There Once Was a Man" here, to tender ballads,
such as her rendition of "Hey There." She wasn't an outstanding dancer,
but could hold her own.
But what made Doris Day such a major star, and not just a major singer,
was her radiant, idealized, girl-next-door personality, freckle-faced,
big-eyed, and just sexy enough. (Don't think Day could really be sexy?
Then see Love Me or Leave Me.) Here, with her swept-back hairdo and
blue-collar demeanor, she's the very definition of spunk, underscored
with cute/sexy. She never looked better in a movie, and it's still
early enough that no one thought she'd look better through a diffusing
filter. Furthermore, it's really an ensemble movie, and while Day and
Raitt are the leads, they don't take over the movie.
It wouldn't be easy anyway, with supporting players like Eddie Foy,
Jr., Reta Shaw and especially Carol Haney, who gets the big comic
numbers in the movie: "Hernando's Hideaway" and "Steam Heat." The
latter, in fact, is a sizzling, dynamic number, one of the best dance
numbers of the 1950s, and one of the first expressions of full-blown
Bob Fosse style: derbies, hip/comic steps, reversed-arched backs, tight
rhythms, etc. Abbott/Donen shot the scene on a fogged set, too, so
there's a kind of glow to the number that's very unusual for the
period. Other numbers are good, from "Once-a-Year Day" to "I'm Not At
All in Love" to "I'll Never Be Jealous Again" (which concludes with a
terrific little soft shoe by Foy and Shaw) -- but the real winner of
The Pajama Game is "Steam Heat."
Malcolm C. Bert's art direction is particularly inventive, combining
the more realistic approach of the movies with the stylized elements of
the stage. The pajama factory sets are basically realistic, but dotted
with neon signs; there are occasional pools of colored light, but
they're always "explained" by on-set elements, such as the railroad
crossing lights outside Day's room that cast a red light when she's
feeling blue. The costumes are colorful and attractive, but still look
working class. Even the locations, such as the lake where the company
picnic is held, are both realistic (it's a real lake) and artificial
(it's a man-made lake). All of this gives The Pajama Game real
distinction: it looks like no other musical.
It's a shame this DVD wasn't given more special treatment. "The Man Who
Invented Love," written for but left out of the movie is included, a
nice addition, even if it does prove that using "Hey There" again was a
better idea. But more should have been done. There are people out there
who could provide excellent running commentary; Doris Day is still
around, and could have been interviewed; there are experts on musicals
who could discuss the movie and its place in both theatrical and movie
history. The Pajama Game is easily good enough to warrant this, but
someone in Warners' head office has probably decided that the profits
wouldn't warrant this kind of investment.
That's a shame, but the movie itself is a delight.
DVD includes both panned-and-scanned and letterboxed prints and a deleted song, "The Man Who Invented Love." Trailer, cast list.