Oct 29, 2020

On Blu-ray: Doris Day Breaks Out in Romance on the High Seas (1948)

 In Romance on the High Seas (1948) Doris Day made one of the most impressive film debuts in Hollywood history. In that performance, she emerged as a fully-formed star, ready to top the box office in the decade to come. Now this light-hearted musical, with its charming supporting cast and ridiculously catchy tunes is available in all its perfect pastel glory on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

Janis Paige and Don DeFore set the scene as Elvira and Michael Kent a wealthy New York couple suffering from mutual delusions of marital infidelity. Elvira is also frustrated because Michael constantly cancels anniversary trips for business. 

When Michael ditches Elvira yet again to work on a merger, she decides to announce she’s going on their spoiled Cuba trip alone, while sending underfunded nightclub singer Georgia Garrett (Day) as a decoy in her place so she can spy on Michael and his new secretary at home. The also suspicious Michael hires detective Peter Virgil (Jack Carson) to follow “Elvira” on her trip. To complicate matters, Georgia and Peter meet on the ship to Cuba and quickly become smitten with each other.

While director Michael Curtiz is perhaps best known for drama and action hits like Casablanca (1942) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1939), he did helm several musicals, including working again with Carson and Day on the also charming My Dream is Yours (1949) the following year. However, Busby Berkeley was hired to direct the musical numbers, and while in this film he doesn’t oversee the kind of massive, leggy productions that brought him fame, his unusual framing of movement and faces is evident in performances like that of the delightful calypso tune The Tourist Trade, led by the engaging Broadway and Cotton Club star Avon Long.

Jack Carson also has his moment with Run, Run, Run, his amusingly Caucasian take on Calypso, but for the most part the music belongs to Day. She mostly sings in casual settings: a bar, a restaurant, a windy ship deck. The tactic surely saved money, but it’s also clear that Day could provide ample spectacle by herself. 

The soundtrack is full of winners: in addition to Long and Carson’s numbers, Day’s renditions of Put 'em in a Box, Tie 'em with a Ribbon (and Throw 'em in the Deep Blue Sea), It's You or No One, and the instant classic It’s Magic are rhythmic perfection. One of the most fascinating aspects of the songs is that the latter two are reprised to reflect Day’s character development.

Day transforms into the unique star audiences would come to love over the course of the film. In her early scenes she is as scrappy as an early Barbara Stanwyck character and similarly a bit of a con artist, but only because her survival demands it. The daisies and sunshine aspect of her persona is always there; she is an instant star and entirely lovable as this character, but from that she evolves into someone more intriguing right before your eyes.

It happens during a mid-film reprisal of It’s You or No One. In her previous rendition of the tune she’s having fun with a fresh-faced combo, showing cheerfulness at odds with the mournful lyrics. When she returns to the tune she has lived the lyrics. With upswept hair on a windy cruise ship deck, she croons with that throb in her voice and ability to embody the emotion in a lyric that would distinguish her as a vocalist. In this moment she escapes being a type and becomes unique, the kind of person who could be a major star.

S.Z. Sakall and Oscar Levant round out the cast with their reliably assuring shtick. There’s also a heightened level of fussiness as both Eric Blore and Franklin Pangborn make appearances.

While it may not have the glitz and spectacle of the other musical extravaganzas of the time, Romance on the High Seas is just as satisfying as those films and is in some ways more charming in its simplicity.

The Warner Archive disc includes the vintage musical short Let’s Sing a Song from the Movies and the cartoon Hare Splitter. It’s also got a handy menu that lets you skip directly to the songs in the film.

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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