Wednesday, May 1, 2024

The mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart!


Directed by George Abbott and Stanley Donen
Written by George Abbott, Richard Bissell, Richard Adler, and Jerry Ross (based on the novel 7 1/2 Cents by Richard Bissell)

Spoilers: moderate

I don't know that you'd necessarily be able to tell that 1957's The Pajama Game was a contractual requirement, nor even that this is the most accurate way of characterizing Stanley Donen's participation, for maybe it came as a relief to Donen that he wound up with such a convivial way to discharge his obligations; but as some of my favorite movies from Donen were definitely contractual requirements, if it was an opportunity he eagerly seized, I'm not sure that would mean much anyway.  History, at least, tells us this: to do Funny Face earlier that year, Donen had to satisfy three separate studios in turn (Paramount for Audrey Hepburn; Warner Bros. for the Gershwin music and the name of the unrelated Gershwin show; and MGM for himself, though he'd ultimately never make another movie at MGM ever again), and the way he satisfied Warners was by agreeing to pick up the directorial dutiesor the co-directorial duties, alongside his old boss from Broadway, George Abbottfor an adaptation of Abbott's stage smash about a labor action at a pajama plant.  He must've had a good enough time of it to co-direct with Abbott again on the following year's Damn Yankees!, which means three things: Stanley Donen's last great musical might well be the first two-thirds of Funny Face*; his post-MGM musical career was much worse than his MGM one; and whether George Abbott meaningfully directed either of these movies or not, besides telling his predominantly stage-to-screen cast "do the thing that was already successful again," it's becoming clear that he wasn't actually all that amazing at writing musicals, or at hiring especially good words-and-music dudes to make songs for them (in this case Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, respectively).

This is possibly too mean to The Pajama Game, which I will eventually give a not-all-that-begrudging positive score, and which, after all, had been a huge hit back in 1954 during its first run as a play (it appears to remain fairly well-loved up to the present day).  As for why or how it earned such great success, however, making its film adaptation at Warners a hot property, that remains a real mystery to me.  The movie seems to track the play with fidelity (and, frankly, you'd assume it would have to, given it shares basically all the same top-line personnel, besides Donen), and it's somewhat along the lines of what a hater of musical theater would cherry-pick in order to demonstrate its weaknesses, from the basic annoyance of a fiat romance that never quite convinces you it has a right to exist despite its key structural necessity, to a loud, trivializing comedic subplot that barely feels like it's evolved out of vaudeville.

It's a book musical that feels a decade older than it is, unaware of exactly how "book musicals" are supposed to work (hell, its most celebrated musical number is a diegetic performance that has nothing to do with the story).  It's astonishing that the play could be based on an actual novel, and moreover that the very writer of that novel, Richard Bissell, also co-wrote the musical with Abbott.  He went on to allow its transformation into this goofy-ass movie when he co-wrote this screenplay.  (One figures the novel would have to be a somewhat less juddery affair.)  Looking at it from another angle, maybe it's more like a book musical where it was assumed, or hoped, that the play's absolute stampede of songs (several were discarded; thirteen still make it into a movie running 101 minutes) would serve as sufficient reinforcement for characterization and story, but instead they're nothing less than complete replacements for their absence, a purpose they're not robust enough to achieve.  It doesn't help that a lot of them feel pointless.  Above and beyond the diegetic stageshow one, several songs are in service of that detestable comic subplotof course, at this point, the main romance feels like its own subplotand few of the pointless ones are good enough on their own to feel like they've done anything but jammed up the movie.

It's not like it's especially narratively dense, either, which is probably why it comes off like such a clumsy attempt to force the sprawl of a grab-bag-of-stuff musical into the shape of an integrated one; the logline of the film, "boyfriend and girlfriend find themselves separated by the clash between labor and management at the pajama factory," doesn't manifest till shockingly deep into its runtime, so it winds up falling into the sort of shamble where, for a really long time, it thinks it has a plot more than it really has one.  It is, anyway, constitutionally unable to just be the thing that it spends a long time actually being, an impressionistic hang-out with factory workers, so it never quite spools up anything to actually be interested in until such time as the movie is already more than halfway over.  And that's leaving aside the automatic complaint anyone ought to have, that half of 101 minutes spent doing nothing seems like it should at the very least provide ample space for a plausible and earnest romance.  But that's where the whole "songs crudely replace, rather than supplement, the story" comes in, so that outside of these musical numbers, it's a courtship that exists mainly as low-level sexual harassment.

So, to our story: in Cedar Rapids, IA, itinerant striver Sid Sorokin (John Raitt) has just landed himself a job as the superintendent of the Sleeptite Pajama Factory, owned by blustery capitalist Myron Hasler (Ralph Dunn).  In the aftermath of nearly getting into a fistfight with a dipshit subordinate who basically sat around picking his nose while Sid was waist-deep inside a malfunctioning machine, Sid is confronted with the union's grievance committee, who accept his version of events (the dipshit is a liar and a jerk), so their intervention serves principally as a warning.  However, it's also a meet-cute, in that the head of the committee is one Babe Williams (Doris Day), who needless to say lives up to her name.  She resists his overtures because he is, after all, a potential adversary at work, but according to the songs they both spend a lot of time thinking about the other for no really particularly well-established reasonone of them is Doris Day, at least, though John Raitt sure doesn't have that going for him, so it can't be because of Raitt's lack of screen charismaand at the annual company picnic Babe drops her guard and they get together.  Unfortunately, just as Babe feared, the union is right on the cusp of a dramatic labor action to secure the 7.5 cent per hour raise that Hasler has put off for too long, and when Sid berates his staff for the slow-down, Babe responds by ratcheting it up a notch with full-on sabotage.  She probably didn't have to come right out and confess as an active challenge to Sid's loyalty, thereby throwing her boyfriend into a quandary, but Sid fires her.  But then he feels bad about it, and something about Hasler's unaccountable recalcitrance to raise his wages to what is already an industry standard, even in the face of his business getting wrecked, doesn't sit right with him; and secretly Sid begins to work from the inside to unravel the mystery, win his workers their demands, and hopefully get his girlfriend back.

On its face, this is a nice story (as suggested, it's Metropolis: The Musical, resituated in something more vaguely resembling a real economic landscape).  It's sandbagged really hard by the subplot with the time study man Vernon "Hinesey" Hines (Eddie Foy Jr.) and his... whatever the hell it is, his "on-and-off relationship," I guess, with Gladys Hotchkiss (Carol Haney), which amounts to fits of "funny" jealousy that eventually result in a climactic assassination scheme.  I put "funny" in scarequotes for a reason, obviously.  It basically just adds twenty minutes of runtime to a movie that has no use whatsoever for it, though I suppose it makes Babe and Sid's romance look better in comparison, insofar as Sid never even thinks about throwing knives at his girlfriend.  But in the core, there's just not a lot of hook either, and while I've frowned at Raitt, there's a certain unreadiness from much of this cast, or at least a miscalibration in terms of on-camera acting.  Day was a precondition of getting the movie madeWarners was okay with the transfer of the Broadway cast to screen, but insisted it had to have one movie star, and indeed it was almost Frank Sinatra instead, so that we could've had the crooner and the stage's Babe, Janis Paigeand it doesn't feel like an accident that Day is by a significant margin the best here, the one with most humane and thoughtful emotional rendering, while the second-best is the member of the Broadway cast who had the most film experience, Haney, even if she is exclusively hamming it up.**  (In fact, the second best acting performanceHaney's a professional dancer and very pretty in a rather unusual way, so she gets unfair points in two separate columnsis probably Jack Straw, playing the union's president.  He was also not part of the original cast, but he has some great "unexpectedly tall and burly nerd" physicality going on; he does appear to be a predominantly screen actor, but the caveat is that this was his very first role.)  But I don't really mean to slag on the secondary cast, who are a perfectly likeable background ensemble, but of the principals, more than half are awful***, and Day in particular is stuck doing romance opposite a scowling wooden carving.  And despite a romance this efficient, the movie, weirdly enough, doesn't find much time to focus on the labor action, either, though most of the best stuff here is either about the labor action, or just about working at the factory.

This is where "the Stanley Donen musical" comes in and starts to make up lost ground, though in this case the figure he has to share credit with isn't really Abbott, but Bob Fosse, making the leap (after his own personally-unsatisfying tenure at MGM as a dancer) from Pajama Game's stage choreography to film.  It's a pretty good splitting of their differences, favoring Fosse, with Donen reportedly generously receding.  It's too bad that the cinematic formalism and technical innovation that Donen had been honing over his time at MGM and which dominated Funny Face does not show up in full force here, but it can make itself known, probably most saliently in "Hernando's Hideaway," deep into the film and arguably the second-most "grab-bag-of-stuff" thing in the film, treating with the subject of the seedy local bar where proletarians fuck.  Filmwise, what this amounts to is a bunch of singing faces emerging out of pitch black darkness, illuminated by matches, and I expect this must be more Donen than Fosse, in its Berkeley homage (specifically, a mix of the first phase of Gold Diggers of 1935's "Lullaby of Broadway" and the first phase of In Caliente's "Lady In Red").

Happily, it's quite cool (surely moreso than In Caliente), with the downside that Hernando's Hideaway, the actual location, does not remotely live up to its whispery, scandalized introduction.  (It's just a fucking restaurant, or rather an overlit, gaudy, and stagebound recreation of one, and the site of at most semi-effective comedy.)  The other major "I bet Donen had suggestions" piece here is "Once-a-Year Day," which strives to pull an entire park-full of picnickers into an enormous montage-based dance number composed of, essentially, nothing besides summer fun (the lyrics describing several forms of "summer fun" such as would not quite pass today), and it's probably the clearest descendent of Seven Brides For Seven Brothers in the rest of Donen's filmography in its exterior photography and emphasis on big, thronging groups (one might rightfully say that the whole movie has a noticeable Seven Brides vibe, by no means all to the good, as I also barely like that movie, too).  But if it's all rather more pell-mell than Donen's more geometry-oriented outdoorsy musical, it's chaotic and joyous, and grounded in real locations (so I suppose it's also an On the Town); in the end it's brusquely charming in ways that eventually won me over to it.

But then, "geometry" is the word for the film's best choreographic efforts (at least the best screen choreography, anyhow), these being "Racing With the Clock" and its reprise.  These rest on a pretty delightful semi-cartoon factory floor from art director Malcolm Bert, as well as some even more-delightful cinematography from Harry Stradling, the latter embracing the former's superfluity of (realistic, were this a real factory) onscreen light sources and all their various textures, from the neon signage and semi-motivated colors this entails to the blooms of all the overhead lamps.  It is, as a photographic average, a lovely movie, and principally because of this factory floor, where the two "Racing With the Clocks" play out, first with regimented women at their sewing machines working in lockstep exhaustingly and superhumanly fast while the moving camera explores how their rows and lines fill out the back of the frame, the second doing the same thing except as part of the union's first salvo, with a dramatic slow-down and the whole ensemble practically expending more energy to show off how willing they are to move like molasses.  (It's the movie's funniest scene by leagues, including its single best joke, when an unaware stockboy, moving with customary alacrity through the crowd, suddenly realizes it's a slow-down, and adjusts accordingly.)  My biggest criticism is that these two sequences should have been recognized by Donen and Fosseworking in their tightest coordination hereas their film's truest centerpieces, but I don't think they were: they're not nearly long enough to hang the description "centerpiece" on them, and that's kind of a disappointment (though "your awesome thing, which is not objectively brief, was still too short" is somewhat the sort of disappointment you want to have.)

There's the actual failures: the biggest, I think, is "I'll Never Be Jealous Again," a duet between Hinesey and advice-dispensing secretary Mabel (Reta Shaw), which is just lateral camera movements and an annoying comic song, which especially sours in retrospect, because it's set-up for the film's worst impulses with Hinsey's comic murderous rage.  We have a couple of songs detailing Babe and Sid's rocky relationship: "Hey There," sung by the latter into a dictaphone (and, for the gimmick, partly in response to his own recorded words), and it's not awful, but it's soggy, whether taken as a song, as a vocal performance, or as cinema; "Small Talk," which, uncharitably-described, involves Sid telling Babe to shut up, and is less cute than it believes itself to be; and "I'm Not At All In Love," Babe's refusal of the call to romance, which is as cute as it believes itself to be, but perhaps not special.

Then there's the actual best songs, good songs, even, which of course entirely fail to overlap with "the best choreography" on the movie's Venn diagram.  The very best is, at least, its last, "7 1/2 Cents" which is a legitimately funny comic song about the power of a raise to effect, over time, real changes in the quality of life of its recipients.  (I realize that doesn't sound funny at all.  It's mainly the way Day, Straw, etc. turn it into a series of humorously-delivered math problems.  It's also far and away the film's firmest assertion of actual left-leaning class politics, though it embodies such, more-or-less, throughout.  There's a touch of really fun choreography, too, with Fosse's body of chorines ultimately coming up against the very individually-stout body of Thelma Pelish.)  The other best is, in a little bit of a surprise, the confirmation of love between Sid and Babe halfway through, "There Was Once a Man," regarding legendary lovers and how we're supposed to perceive Sid and Babe as such, and if I'm not buying that, well, it's still a fun, silly song.  (I don't think I need to dwell on the lyric "I need you like an Injun needs his scalps"it's presented in a series of analogiesbut leaving everything else aside, it might be worthwhile to ask if a love song benefits from imagery of bloody torture.  Considering Day and Raitt's dueling choruses involve allusions to, respectively, lovelorn Shakespearean suicide and willingly committing the original sin in Eden, I can see how Adler worked himself into such an, ahem, lyrically playful state, but it's pretty jarring.)  The choreography is only a hint above basicmainly jumping up on objects in their immediate environsand the cinematic framing of it is even weirdly bad, but it's energetic and about the only time I really like Day and Raitt mutually.

Which puts the film's most enduring contribution in its own odd category: that's "Steam Heat," involving signature, all-Fosse choreography, and the angular, staccato movement represents some great, modernist work (it's led by Haney, Fosse's partner in the equally thrown-in modern ballet in Kiss Me Kate)technically, Haney and her chorines could've rehearsed their spacing more, but the shimmying on the knees is terrificand I wish it had a vessel less lame than the song, "Steam Heat."  Anyway, it exists for no reason but itself, furthering absolutely nothing about the movie around it, and that's greatmusicals can do that!but of all the things here that exist for no necessary reason, or at least feel like they do, I wish they all could have justified themselves, with themselves, as "Steam Heat" does.  They don't.

Score: 6/10

*Well, unless The Little Prince is amazing.
**Factoid time: Haney's twisted ankle on the stage show was the big break for her understudy, Shirley Maclaine.
***ETAlooking into it, I don't know what Foy's excuse is, except he thought his shticky performance was funny; even if only as bit players, dancers, or himself, the man was in tons of movies prior to this.


  1. I know I'm not being fair to the guy who did Singin' in the Rain, but the first thing I think of with Stanley Donen is Saturn 3 and how "sci-fi horror directed by guy who mostly does musicals" just radiates from ever frame of that movie and is worth seeing on that basis alone. Let's just say he did not manage to pull a William Peter Blatty move on that one.

    Not the most relevant comment to make, I know, but I felt like contributing *something*, haha!

    1. I should watch Saturn 3 again! I remember liking it ok, despite some pretty blatant weaknesses, if nothing else as a real 70s hangover of a sci-fi movie.

      I have not to date seen Blame It On Rio.