Thursday, May 21, 2015
Those Queer Little Things
I've been seeking out and watching movies I liked as a child, to see how they look to me now. Of course this is generally a bad idea, but it's still interesting, and at least when some other wheezing old geezer complains that they don't make movies like they used to, I can say with conviction, "And it's a good thing, too!"
So this week I watched Please Don't Eat the Daisies from 1960, starring Doris Day and David Niven, directed by Charles Walters, based on Jean Kerr's 1957 book. I'm not absolutely sure I did see this one before; more likely I saw the 1965-7 TV sitcom, and I know I read a couple of Kerr's books. Nothing in the movie version called up any memories; by comparison, I remember scenes from The Mountain (1956), which I saw in the theater a couple of times with my mother -- especially the one where Spencer Tracy towed an injured woman across a snow bridge over a deep drop.
But that's not too surprising, since nothing in Please Don't Eat the Daisies has that kind of drama. The closest you get is baby/toddler Adam dropping the paper bag full of water his older brothers handed him onto a pedestrian a few floors below the window of their New York City apartment. What surprised me is how much more I liked Daisies than most Hollywood movies of its era, even though I could tell immediately that the source material must have been altered to conform to Hollywood Code-era family values. Generally the fake-looking sets, the absurd gowns and makeup, the stagey acting just frustrate me. I've been trying to rewatch some of the Sean Connery James Bond movies, and they turn me off within fifteen minutes, not just because of the Cold War politics and Playboy sexism, but because the production values are so bad.
So why did I mostly enjoy Please Don't Eat the Daisies? I could tell right away that Day's character, the stand-in for Kerr's persona in the book, had been hobbled: I knew that Kerr was a playwright, quite a successful one. In the book, which I'm now rereading after many decades, she says that she became a playwright to earn money to hire someone to take care of her children in the mornings. Her ambition since childhood, she says, was to sleep till noon each day, and since they couldn't hire a maid/nanny on a drama professor's pay, she found a way to earn her own money. This was a remarkably un-Fifties thing for a woman to say, and I think this writer, who says she admires Kerr a great deal, plays down her subversiveness. In the movie, Day's Kate Robinson Mackay is a stay-at-home mom; her husband Larry has just been appointed theater critic for one of the big New York newspapers, but before that he was a college drama professor. How they afford their maid is never explained, though I didn't think of this myself until I began reading the book.
Day and Niven don't have much chemistry together, but I believed them as a couple anyway. They may not exude mutual lust or romance, but they do exhibit mutual respect and affection. Larry is pursued for a while by Deborah Vaughn, an actress whose performance he's panned in his maiden big-time review; it's not clear what motivates her to do so, aside from habit and maybe his evident lack of responsiveness. Janis Paige, who plays the actress, does a fine job, and it's a shame her part is so underwritten; her performing style is remarkably "natural" and unstagey for the period, and she makes the character likable even though she's probably not supposed to be.
Day, by contrast, shows her limitations as an actress. She's likable, wholesome and energetic, and she might have done a better job if Kate had been written to be more like Kerr, as a woman balancing work and family, and one who doesn't do mornings. But she has rigid body language and only a limited range of facial expressions. It's probably just another convention of the times as well as a sop to Day's history as a singer, but at a few points Kate bursts spontaneously and inappropriately into song. At dinner with Larry in a fancy restaurant, she slips into a few bars of her hit "Que Sera Sera," which she'd first sung in Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much four years earlier. That's Doris Day singing there, not Kate Mackay. Later, after the Mackays have moved to the suburbs and Kate has become a volunteer at her sons' school, she breaks out a ukelele and leads a dozen children in the title song. Then, having joined a local amateur theater group, she sings a duet in rehearsal for their upcoming production; the song is "Any Way the Wind Blows," which had been written for Day's previous film Pillow Talk, but not used. Waste not, want not!
But despite all this, the general feel of the movie is grown-up, and that is probably why it worked for me, or at least didn't turn me off. Of course it was made to conform to the Hollywood Production Code, so there's nothing explicitly off-color in it. (When Kate's mother [Spring Byington] leads Larry into the bathroom for a private chat, we hear her putting down the toilet seat so she can sit down, but we don't see it.) But there are some entertaining and mildly surprising bits.
When an icy woman barges in one morning to look at the Mackays' apartment, which she's already leased, Adam the toddler cheerfully calls out "Daddy!" from his playpen. The new tenant looks at him coldly and asks Larry coldly, "What's with him? Queer?" She hasn't seen him walking around his mother's shoes, as we have, but then this is just meant to establish her as unsympathetic. Larry replies, "He's confused, like I am."
Later on, when Larry demands to know where Kate and the kids (and the dog) were, she replies angrily that they had a "rendezvous with Rock Hudson!" This, again, is Hollywood commercialism, but it's also pleasantly meta, leaving aside what we now know (as everyone in Hollywood then knew) about Hudson.
Finally, when the Mackays are settling into the huge, Addams-family-esque house they've bought in Connecticut*, they're visited by the "Welcome to Hooton" committee: a clergyman, another housewife, and a charmingly butch woman in a dress leather jacket and string tie, introduced as Dr. Sprouk. One of the boys asks her, "Excuse me, are you a lady or a man?" Kate is embarrassed, but Dr. Sprouk, unruffled, answers affably, "I'm a veterinarian, sonny. It's somewhere in between." This exchange can probably be read in numerous ways, but I took it as a relaxed (and therefore atypical) acknowledgment of human difference. It's too bad the movie as a whole couldn't equal that moment, and a few others like it. There's the germ of an intelligent grown-up comedy in Please Don't Eat the Daisies; someone ought to make it.
*According to the book -- which is not a narrative but a collection of humorous essays -- they made the move while Jean and Walter were writing the book for a musical comedy, Goldilocks, which opened in 1958. The filmmakers could have mined some good material, full of comic complications, from such a situation, but chose instead to invent the subplot of Larry being pursued by Deborah Vaughn while he works on his own book about Theatre.