The Journey So Far

A chronological stroll thru the history of Broadway Musicals as they came to be recorded by Hollywood--the summation of a lifelong vocation, and a journey of self discovery. Equal parts cultural history, critique and personal memoir. Coming next: Hairspray

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Pajama Game

August 29, 1957   Warners   101 minutes

If I could step thru time and experience one show from conception thru Bway opening, it would be a tough choice between West Side Story and The Pajama Game. You might think I’m crazy, but the latter has a lot in its favor: for starters what other show had George Abbott, Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse all at the helm? It was Fosse’s debut as a Bway choreographer, as well as that of pop songwriters Richard Adler & Jerry Ross, who were protégés of Frank Loesser; and Harold Prince’s inaugural production on top of that. It gave John Raitt, Janis Paige and Eddie Foy Jr. their biggest stage hits; had a supporting cast of intriguing characters; and a chorus of Bway Babies to beat the band—from which one would spring to Hlwd stardom in one of the greatest understudy tales of Gotham lore. The show followed The King & I into the hit-prone St. James Theater, burst upon Bway in the dog-days of May after a musically tepid season, and hasn’t been absent much from somewhere on the planet ever since. It mined the freshness of youth, while being guided by the sure hand of experience. It takes place over my favorite month, July; and it’s set in a small town in . . . drum roll, please. . . Iowa.

Now, to this day I’ve never set foot in the Hawkeye state, but thanks to a trio of truly grand musicals, and the uncanny coincidence of growing up among transplanted Iowans in Southern California, it could pass for my Motherland. It seems the Old Country of my imagination wasn’t the Steppes of Russia, but the quilted rolling plains of Grant Wood territory. To quote Oscar Hammerstein, “Oh, I know/All I owe/I owe Ioway. . . I owe Ioway more than I can ever pay/So I think I’ll move to Californ-i-ay.” I wasn’t yet five that summer of ’57 when we moved into our newly-built tract house in Canoga Park, and met our all white, all young, mostly Mid-Western neighbors. My mother’s favorite (and mine) was “Dodo” (nee Fern) Koenig from Waterloo, Iowa, who was an endearing cross between Eve Arden & Martha Raye. Unlike my mother she was fun and easy-going, and I spent a good deal of time at her house—ostensibly in play with her adopted son, Stevie, who was several years younger than I, and likewise an only child (we had a regular Friday night date for Sloppy Joes and The Flintstones) but in truth, Dodo was the big draw. With her example of Hawkeye hospitality, is it any wonder I was pre-disposed to loving the folk depicted in Pajama Game? With its then modern day time-frame and pop-record score (OK, adult pop--but adults still counted in matters musical then—and as an only child, I was mostly around adults) Pajama Game hit all the right buttons for me.

What makes a good musical? Increasingly in the ‘50s it was finding new and often unlikely places and situations and setting them to music. By such a yardstick, why not the labor issues of a pajama factory? A strike is near, and love blooms on opposite sides, but it’s just enuf to kick-start the banal into sublime territory; that absurd and delirious netherland where people break out in song & dance. The Pajama Game takes off from the factory floor with “Racing With the Clock,” as great an opening number a musical can hope to have: establishing, energizing, exciting. The camera pans the aisles—scanning the girls at their sewing machines, the guys pushing their carts. The camera moves well in this film. Not in the way we are used to today, all over the place, with edits in fractured angles or tenths of seconds—but gliding gracefully on tracks, following a move or a dance. The show may be stagey, but it flows as a film—another feather in cinematographer Harry Stradling’s cap. The least pretentious of 1957’s slate of screen musicals, Pajama Game is also truest to its source, and the most perfectly realized. It’s easy to dismiss as harmless fluff,  but the alchemy of this unlikely brew of ingredients with a score that plays like a pre-rock Hit Parade countdown, made for one of the greatest musical comedies ever written. When it closed on Bway only six musicals (by Porter, Berlin, Loesser & 3 by R&H) had ever run longer. Warner Bros.’ lively film version does a bang-up job of preserving the show’s spunk and freshness, without any added pretense. No Roadshow release here. Or epic running time. Just the facts, ma’am. The facts are pretty fun.
The title tune, a mere 8 bars, is virtually a commercial jingle; catchy and brief—and here the cue for the opening credits. After the stirring “Racing with the Clock,” we quickly meet the characters, the conflicts and the budding romance: Sid Sorokin, the new floor superintendent, and Babe Williams, the head of the Grievance Committee. Dressed in their colorful factory frocks the sewing girls tease Babe about her likely new beau. Her protest is one of the greatest hesitation waltzes ever: “I’m Not At All in Love.” Doris Day has a ball with this one—there’s something so genuine about her playful sense of fun—and if that doesn’t send you to Cloud Nine then musicals aren’t in your lexicon. It’s my favorite number in the film, I’ll admit, but there’s plenty more to get excited about. Frank Loesser’s influence can be heard in the call-and-response of “I’ll Never Be Jealous Again,” which goes into a socko old-fashioned soft-shoe. The show’s big hit parade ballad, “Hey, There,” is a clever piece of stage business: a self duet via modern (but of course, now obsolete) technology. John Raitt introduced the song, and it was one of the biggest pop hits from any Bway show of the ‘50s; recorded by countless artists, beginning with Rosemary Clooney’s #1 charting disc in ‘54. (Others soon followed: Sammy Davis, Brooke Benton, Nancy Wilson, Sam Cooke, Peggy Lee, Johnny Ray, Sarah Vaughn, Julie London, Gisele MacKenzie, Gene Pitney, Anne Murray, Jimmie Rodgers, Stan Kenton, Sam Butera, and even decades later, Bette Midler.) It’s a deceptively simple tune; the kind that feels instantly memorable, readily accessible to the most casual ear—yet still unique.

After a half-hour of factory life, we’re ready for some fresh air; and the company picnic is happily let loose in the real outdoors—natural sunlight lending sparkle to the exuberance of Fosse’s clever polka. “Once a Year Day” revels in the landscape, the chorus literally rolling downhill in the dirt—an earth-bound version of the climatic pirouette. Two duets in a row follow, narrowing the story to its romantic core. “Small Talk” is a bald rewrite of Loesser’s “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” an overlapping seduction/resistance patter song—effective, if textbook. “There Once Was a Man” is something else: a rambunctious hillbilly howl. Both scenes are served well by the studio set designers, who make Babe’s house a charming piece of Americana; homey inside during a evening thunderstorm for “Small Talk,” then a front-yard panorama by the train tracks for “There Once Was a Man”—with Babe leaping into Sid’s arms or a car, to toot the horn with her foot. Anything but glamorous, and yet so beautifully rendered. It feels so intrinsically American, but now so entirely vanquished from today’s reality. This is the sort of America the inchoate raging Teabaggers want to have back—a nostalgic fantasyland where the oddest character in town is simply the fat girl. Iowa is still 94% white today, but I doubt it feels this white anymore—not with the pervasion of media & internet. Pajama Game captures the feel of the pre-rock, Eisenhower era like a musical time capsule. In fact these characters are the kids from Grease given ten years, stuck in factory jobs, striking for a measly raise. It’s fitting such a blue-collar musical would be made at the studio of “working-class” movies, Warner Bros.

Here’s a novel idea: bring the entire Bway cast to Hlwd—then throw in a screen star. As usual, Sinatra gets first refusal (How is it he’s always a credible fit?—I’d have loved to see him with Janis Paige.) But with Frank off to play Pal Joey, how about another tack: keep John Raitt and replace Paige with Doris Day. After all she was Warners’ hottest female Star—and still on the rise—and the part fit her like a glove. Unlike her later, “virginal” image, Dot is quite the tough cookie here, sporting a duck-tail hairdo  to  melt  the  heart  of  any lesbian. (I once took a young punkette to a screening at the Castro in San Francisco during the new-wave 80s, and proved my point.) You can measure my love for Doris when I say she’s the only one I’ll allow in lieu of Janis Paige. (How ironic that Day’s first movie role was in support of Paige: Romance on the High Seas—in perennial rotation on Turner Classics.) Perhaps because the Real Housewives of Canoga Park were my daily diet as a youth—and the men were rarely around to make an impression—I was always more focused on women in movies: Doris, Marilyn, Audrey, Shirley, Leslie, Judy, Natalie. It seems only now in the September of my years that I’m really seeing the virile charms of the likes of Keel and Brynner. Did I really not notice in previous viewings, how much of a honey John Raitt is? He’s a walking teddy bear. His voice is divine, but he also fills out a striped sport shirt handily. They save his best shot for the finale: shirtless. Yes, he’s fine, but a screen career wasn’t in the cards. But Day was yet to become America’s top box office Star (male or female) for half a decade running, once Doris meets Rock. Their pairing was still two years off, but Hudson wouldn’t have been wrong here either—even if they dubbed his singing. Still it’s nice to see Raitt and the stage pros have their celluloid day.

Eddie Foy Jr. isn’t remembered much these days, let alone his once even-more-famous father, but Jr. was a frequent face on stage and TV in the ‘50s & ‘60s. As Sleep-Tite’s timekeeper, Hines, Foy put all his Vaudeville training (from infancy) to good use: clowning, mugging, playing drunk, doing a softshoe. But I’m not sure I ever really understood Hines’ relationship with Gladys. They’re not married; she’s young & flirty; he’s fifty, a drunk and pathologically jealous—not exactly a catch. What’s in it for her? But then I’m not sure Carol Haney is from this planet. String-bean thin, she looks as if she stepped out of a Tex Avery cartoon—with a voice to match. She also has the distinction of being the first official Fosse dancer (since their pairing for his bits in MGM’s Kiss Me Kate). Here the choreography is all Fosse, and she’s front & center in the dance     numbers—most prominently the showy trio, “Steam Heat,” which put an immediate stamp on the Fosse style—still a remarkable achievement for a choreographic debut. Haney was originally hired only as a dancer, but Abbott found her so amusing, he combined her terpsichorean chores with a supporting character into one role—which may explain the odd pairing with Hines. Also from Bway is Reta Shaw, the zaftig office secretary, Mabel—who in reality is a better match for Hines. Tho she acts like his mother, she’s actually seven years younger than Foy. Interesting that Hines’s duet in the show is with Mabel, not Gladys. The softshoe they do among the silent sewing machines to “I’ll Never Be Jealous Again” is so purely, ridiculously, delightful down to their exit—skipping away the length of the factory. But Mabel isn’t unattached—she has her own sometime suitor, a Dapper-Dan, Sleep-Tite salesman, who looks to be doing double duty with The Music Man.

Janis Paige wasn’t the only original Bway cast member missing from the film. Rae Allen, (“Poopsie”) had moved on to her own featured number in Damn Yankees (“Shoeless Joe”); and of the chorus girls: Carmen Alvarez was still at the St. James, but now playing Moonbeam McSwine in Li’l Abner; Virginia Martin was one of Bway’s New Faces of ’56—but still unknown until her Hedy LaRue scorched How to Succeed five years hence— and Shirley MacLaine, who stepped out of the chorus for an ailing Haney—and walked into Hlwd legend--was churning out films at Paramount and had already been in an Oscar winning Best Picture. Peter Gennaro, part of the “Steam Heat” trio, had moved on to teaching Judy Holliday nightly cha-cha lessons in Bells Are Ringing; and from there assisting Jerome Robbins with the dances for West Side Story.  His celluloid replacement is Ken LeRoy, who by the film’s release was playing Bernardo in the same aborning West Side Story. (Hard to imagine from his white-bread looks here). But Buzz Miller, Haney’s other partner, rode the Pajama express to Hlwd, and got an expanded role in the bargain. I think of the boyish Miller, who by then was already in his  mid-thirties, as the quintessential Bway chorus boy. Loose and lanky, he’s as much—if not more so—fun to watch as Haney. Miller and his longtime companion, Alan Groh were the subjects of a lovely valentine written by Groh’s cousin, Mimi Swartz for The New Yorker in August 1998. Alas, a forthcoming book never materialized.

Along with most of the Bway cast, Warners invited Fosse and George Abbott as well. “Mr. Abbott,” as he was universally addressed had spent the last three decades directing one Bway hit after another. By the 50s he was working primarily on musicals, putting his distinctive stamp on them despite having little to do with the musical numbers. He was the master of the scene; of finding the button. A great example here of the Abbott touch is a scene in Hasler’s office (about 70 minutes in), where Hines models defective pajamas. It’s a beautifully staged chaos among a half-dozen characters, each in their own tempest—and it plays like a finely tuned cuckoo clock. Mabel asks her Salesman beau what happened when his pants fell in demonstration to a client. “They laughed,” he replies, displeased, “No sense of humor.” Abbott is why the dialogue scenes are as entertaining as the musical ones. But his film career was negligible and Warner’s thought fit to pair him with a screen musical pro: Stanley Donen (who had already directed another film musical released that year: Funny Face.). They also served as co-producers. No word on how they got along, but the results show no seams; and apparently all were happy enuf to repeat the following year on Damn Yankees.
The movie is the show stripped to the bone. A tab version, really; fast, furious and lots of fun. But line for line the scenes are straight from the stage. Original scribes, Richard Bissell & Abbott, also “wrote” the screenplay, tho it seems they had more use of a red pen than an Underwood. The deepest cuts affect the character of local union leader, Prez—here played not by Bway’s roly-poly Stanley Prager, but tall & narrow Jack Straw. On stage Prez was a married lech, hitting on various girls thru-out, including Gladys. Here he is neither lech, nor married, and hooks up, quite sweetly, with Mae at the company picnic. (Which is oddly held on a Thursday—according to a banner we see. However a calendar in Sid’s office from “Beeler’s Boat & Boiler Co.” shows the date as a Monday) But while Prez’s role has shrunk, Mae’s has grown—both in script, and as visual beacon in much of the action. She’s one of the things I’ve always loved most about the movie: Thelma Pelish—now there’s a name for you. Mae is the fat girl—and given the dearth of such women in films (especially then) I think it’s an important statement. Somehow her plus-size fuels her conviction—whether as part of the Grievance Committee, or in her appetite, or flirtation; she’s got spunk. Her wardrobe, which often consists of checkered shirt, capri-length pants, and black pumps, makes a heavy gal look confident; and she shies away from nothing, least of all that picnic potato salad. I cherish how she says with such insouciant surrender that she’s going to “break down and have another beer;” or summoning her full indignation: “I draw the line at chewin’ tobacco!” She also sings and moves well, and Abbott & Donen make careful placement of her ample frame, often as a punctuation mark. Robbins (was it he who staged “Seven & A Half Cents” on Bway?) has her holding up the whole lot on stage as they lean left. Like Lorre in Silk Stockings, when Thelma’s around I can’t take my eyes off her. Sadly, aside from playing an American tourist in Milk & Honey on Bway she didn’t have much of a career one could follow. One other we haven’t mentioned yet: Poopsie, played by Barbara Nichols. Another blonde, like Babe, but more on the order of Miss Adelaide, a little cheap & gaudy, but strangely unattached. The resemblance was even closer in her next screen role, as a wised-up chorus girl in Pal Joey; but her apotheosis that year was in the searing noir, Sweet Smell of Success, as Tony Curtis’s sometime girlfriend. She’s heartbreaking to watch, as she surrenders to Curtis’s sleazy pimping—a performance worthy of an Oscar nod. But sadly, no. Minor players have their peak years, too, and for Nichols it was ‘57.

The film’s sets, which are so cheery yet so unglamorous thru-out, are sadly off the mark with Hernando’s Hideaway—Cedar Rapids’ wildest nightspot & chop suey joint. The song itself is so instantly familiar; it quickly defined the tango for the masses, second only to “La Cumparsita” as the world’s most famous. (Jack Lemmon & Joe E. Brown dance to that one in Some Like it Hot.) Here the song moves from a file room to the niterie in question—and of course another production number. Only somehow the cleverness of the idea remains more conceptual than breathtaking. At first the place is dimmer than a gay bath-house, the chorus striking matches for each solo bit. The gimmick precludes any real dance number, and more’s the pity. But with lights up the “hideway” looks about as bright as an Applebee’s, which makes Babe’s entrance all the campier: past the coat-check stands a young Negro boy (apparently the only non-Caucasian in all of Iowa) dressed in Turkish gear, holding a box of matches. Babe & Prez then pass thru a “dark” 10 foot passage, holding matches in front of their faces, as if navigating the jungle at night. It’s silly. The whole scene is, really; with Gladys cartoon drunk as if she were the Road Runner—she even looks like a Looney Tune. “But first I’m gonna take a nap” she says plopping her head down on the checkered tablecloth. (She’s a weird one, and you can see where Shirley MacLaine found her own kooky way into the role—and stole the Haney haircut for her own early signature look.) When Babe confronts her and Sid,  Gladys  seems to steal  Janice  Drayton’s catchphrase from Silk Stockings: “…We’re just good friends!” An equally plastered Hines arrives and threatens Gladys, who leaves in disgust. Believe it or not, at this point there was once a ballet: Hines imagines their married life, beset by jealousy (I wonder if this was choreographed by Robbins rather than Fosse?—I’d venture so) But it’s certainly one lost ballet, as it seems to have been cut almost from the start. Even after the Bway opening, the show was shaved for a brisker running time, which proves the sometime point that less is more. There are so many numbers that deliver (nearly every one) that it amounts to overkill. And so out with the Jealousy Ballet; out with “Think of the Time I Save”; out with “Her Is,” and nobody misses them but the performers. It was the perfect tab show in Vegas—and one of the first Bway musicals to hit The Strip—the casino personnel sporting pajama tops during the show’s run at the Desert Inn.

The movie followed Silk Stockings into Radio City Music Hall, opening August 29, 1957—as inauspicious a week as possible, at the very tail end of summer. Not surprisingly the film was a humble performer, earning only two and a half million—$250,000 more than SS. After the blockbuster screen musical hits of the previous two years, the ’57 models were rather modest—with earnings to match. Hlwd took note, and with record prices being paid for the latest Bway hits, bigger expectations meant bigger budgets, bigger fanfare.

Much as Silk Stockings will always have a whiff of New Year’s Eve for me, The Pajama Game connotes the freshness of a New Year. It was, in fact, January 1st, 1967 that I first saw it, on Million Dollar Movie. I’d been to the local movie house in the afternoon to see Fantastic Voyage for the second time, and some programmer called Smoky—which meant this would already be the 3rd film on my just-begun movie list (one that continues to this day, I’m embarrassed to admit) Our next door neighbor—between us and Dodo—the indefatigable Gloria Milano (who had by far the heartiest, most contagious laugh I’ve ever heard) was back in her native Brooklyn, and  I  was  entrusted  in  feeding her   pooch, Cesare. The Milano’s had a color TV—still somewhat rare then—so I timed my “chore” with the Million Dollar Movie showing. This was a nightly 2-hour slot at 7 PM, with a klieg-light opening over the theme from Gone With the Wind (which I first heard here, long before I connected it to the movie). The gimmick of M$M. was to run the same film every night for a week. In the days before video, VCRs, DVDs or access to—and at the mercy of—revival houses, this was the perfect way to incur a new favorite with repeated viewings. Pajama Game was such a great New Year’s Day present I was back the next few nights at the appointed hour. I guess you could say I like the movie; I’ve now seen it twenty times.

My first winter living in New York brought the gift of a Bway revival; with a multi-racial cast in the spirit of ’73: Hal Linden, Barbara McNair, Cab Calloway. George Abbott—85 years old—was even back, to direct. Of course I made sure to be there Opening Night, but even in my youthful enthusiasm I could tell the bloom was off the rose. Funny how shows can seem irredeemably dated but then, in another decade or two, arise fresh again. Of course much of that depends on execution—tho not entirely. Kathleen Marshall’s 2006 Bway revival wisely got the central love angle sizzling with Harry Connick Jr. & Kelli O’Hara, and had a perfectly fine Hines in Michael McKean. But supporting roles were cast in a manner that was tampering with the characters. Roz Ryan’s Mabel filled the slot for a Big Black Woman—a cliché now so prevalent, it’s grown tiresome. Megan Lawrence was a Gladys more in the mold of Barbara Nichols’ Poopsie, and denied her big number, “Steam Heat,” which, instead, was performed by an entirely re-configured Mae, now a kooky, loose-limbed punk—with a cartoon voice. Oh, the sacrilege. I suppose I’m not one to talk; I once contemplated a wacky screenplay about aliens coming upon a prairie truckstop dinner theater performing Pajama Game—what on earth would they make of this? It was to be called, tongue in cheek: Play with Food.

Much as I loved the movie, I didn’t have the soundtrack LP; the Original Cast recording was good enuf for me, and I wore down its grooves. I remember one afternoon in the car with my parents, dying to get home and the album; scorning the arid Mexican summer, dreaming of a Iowa picnic among the fecund trees—little knowing the images seared in my brain from the movie were a scant 20 miles east in Griffith Park. That’s Iowa for you—transported whole to California.

Next Up: Pal Joey

Report Card:    The Pajama Game
Overall Film:    A
Bway Fidelity:  A-   trimming only
Songs from Bway:  11 
Songs Cut from Bway:  3
New Songs:  1 (unused, but in DVD extras)
Standout Numbers: “I’m Not At All in Love”
               “Once a Year Day” “Steam Heat”
               “There Once Was a Man”
               “Racing With the Clock”
Worst Omission: “A New Town is a Blue Town”
Camp Hall of Fame: Pajama party finale.
Casting:    Stellar—mostly from Bway
Standout Cast: Doris Day, John Raitt
               Thelma Pelish, Reta Shaw
Cast from Bway:  Nearly all, but Day, Nichols
Direction:   Snappy, fluid and confident
Choreography:  Fresh, funny—early Fosse       
Ballet:  Cut from Bway 
Scenic Design:  Soundstage Industrial
Costumes: Bright as pajamas
Standout Set:  Ext. Babe’s house by railyard
Titles:  Fabric & factory scenes over title tune
Oscar Noms:  None, alas

1 comment:

Jazz dance said...

Lovely,"Once a year day" and "Steam heat" are two masterpieces.