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Pajama Game, The Print E-mail
Tuesday, 26 April 2005

The Pajama Game

Warner Home Video
MPAA rating: NR
starring: Doris Day, John Raitt, Eddie Foy, Jr., Carol Haney, Reta Shaw, Barbara Nichols, Ralph Dunn, Thelma Pelish.
release year: 1957
film rating: Four and a half stars
reviewed by: Bill Warren

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.

It's 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.

Doris 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.

more details
special features: DVD includes both panned-and-scanned and letterboxed prints and a deleted song, "The Man Who Invented Love." Trailer, cast list.
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 36-inch Sony XBR

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