Aug 22, 2019

On DVD: Doris Day in The Pajama Game (1957)

I’ve always viewed The Pajama Game (1957) as an oddity among musicals. How else can you look at a romance blossoming among workers’ strikes and labor negotiations? Compounding that is a soundtrack which mixes utterly forgettable tunes with some of the greatest classics of the genre and one outstanding dance number, choreographed by a young Bob Fosse and featuring the remarkable dancer and choreographer Carole Haney. I recently re-watched this Doris Day classic on a new DVD release from Warner Archive.

Day stars as an employee of a pajama factory who is also a leader in the employee union. Her life becomes more complicated when the employees organize to fight for better wages just as she is falling for the new superintendent (John Raitt). The workers resist, Day and Raitt tangle, and everything is resolved amidst high kicks and enthusiastic production numbers.

The Pajama Game originated on the stage and much of the original cast appears in the film, with the most notable exception being Day taking on Janis Paige’s role. You can feel that play-to the-rafters stage performer energy throughout the film. It keeps the momentum rolling through the more lackluster songs. Those tunes with sparkle are an eclectic bunch: the slinky Hernando’s Hideaway, the precision pop of Steam Heat (both led by edgy pixie Haney), and the dreamily wistful Hey There, which is good enough for two renditions: one by Raitt one by Day.

Day is reliably charming in the lead, she belts out songs with enthusiasm and alternates pleasingly between romance and indignation, but Haney is the stand-out in Pajama Game. The actress won a Tony for originating her role on Broadway and by the time she appeared in the film, it fit her like a body stocking. Of the eight films the mostly stage bound dancer made, this would be one of her only opportunities to take center stage (another notable film appearance: her featured dance with Bob Fosse in Kiss Me Kate [1953]).

Haney had been assistant choreographer to Gene Kelly early in her career, working on (and sometimes appearing in) films including On the Town (1949), Summer Stock (1950), and An American in Paris (1951). You can see a bit of Kelly’s elegant grace in her style, but it is secondary to her full embodiment of choreographer Bob Fosse’s tightly-wound, cool cat style. She displays this to marvelous effect as part of a dance trio in the show-stopping Steam Heat, a number so sharply modern that it hardly seems a part of the same film.

The film is an interesting mix of the nostalgic and the cutting edge, where a cheerfully corny picnic can coexist with writhing bodies in lockstep formation. It’s clearly a late-studio age musical, with a toe in the past and an eye to the future.

Special features on the DVD include a theatrical trailer and the deleted song, The Man Who Invented Love.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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