The Pajama Game proves that Doris Day knew nothing about labor relations. But, it wasn’t her fault. When the year is 1957 and you have to romance John Raitt, things are going to go a little wonky. Based on a hit novel and play, Warner Brothers saw the opportunity to make a gorgeous film about the garment industry. It was the 1950s, it was either watch this or get polio. Your options were limited.
Doris Day brings the steam heat
Doris Day is one of those star talents that feels like an oddity in the 21st century. In the Pajama Game, Doris Day plays Katie Williams aka Babe. She’s a feisty gal that is Pro Union and makes the bulk of the budget. Therefore, Hollywood had to dive deep to find an affordable male lead to act against her. Enter John Raitt.
But, before we talk about Raitt, we should address how huge Doris Day was at the time. Quite possibly the biggest actress in American film at that point, she commanded pay days that were the equal of male leading stars. In fact, the lead role of Sid was originally meant to go to Frank Sinatra. But, WB couldn’t afford to pay Day and Sinatra both, so Day won out.
It was quite easily the smartest decision made, as Doris Day couldn’t quite play the aggressor successfully against Sinatra. Babe is meant to be an innovative lady that doesn’t let anyone push her around. A real leader that can bust out a musical number, as well as stitch a perfect pair of pajamas.
Let’s talk about The Pajama Game source novel 7 1/2 cents
Female led efforts to unionize don’t typically turn to song. However, The Pajama Game began life as a 1953 novel entitled 7 1/2 cents. True to the musical, 7 1/2 cents was about a Midwest garment factory’s efforts to obtain a 7 1/2 cent cost of living wage increase. The struggle is real and continues to this day, but what does it mean for The Pajama Game?
Well, any number of things. Especially since the film uses the union struggles as mere set dressing for the bigger numbers.
You there, you with the Bonnie Raitt tickets.
John Raitt is one of those amazing Musical Theater actors that has fallen out of the mainstream limelight. If he wasn’t so charming, it would be hard to accept his character. Especially because he’s the heavy who fires Doris Day for not bowing to the Sleep-Tite Pajama Company’s demands. It’s OK, because it’s the 1950s and he lets her know that he’d date her.
The American workplace of the past is quite the fascinating thing to watch onscreen. While older viewers will have grown accustomed to watching women and minorities deal with a lot of grief, it can disrupt modern viewings of supposedly light material. I’m not caving on the softer sensibilities out there, I’m just calling out the distraction.
The fact that The Pajama Game chooses its main relationship to be
Carol Haney: Interesting in 1957, Interesting in 2021
Androgyny isn’t a term I throw when it comes to the Golden Age of Broadway. But, what Carol Haney was doing in The Pajama Game is interesting to say the least. After all, how many other Broadway stars/dancers had that vague look?
The Golden Age of Hollywood Musicals continued a lot of what started on Broadway and even in the Ziegfeld Follies. The musical shows were about having the best and brightest young women hanging off the broad chested dudes.
Carol Haney didn’t have a look that you could find on posters. Every bit of Haney in The Pajama Game or otherwise was a well-crafted artist working her body to bits. In quite a thumbing of the nose to studio conventions, Haney was built like a dancer and not like a bombshell. Honestly, you could say the only female with a speaking role that conformed to studio norms was Doris Day.
What’s sad is that The Pajama Game is the only featured role Haney had in her too short career. Having risen up through the ranks of Broadway and background dancing in MGM productions, Haney was set to explode. But, she was a dancer first and foremost.
Then, life had other plans.
What Carol Haney pulls off with the Bob Fosse choreography is closer to Donald O’ Connor than Cyd Charisse. She was a comical talent that forced her body into full contortions unseen on stage until Gilda Radner started her full body antics on Saturday Night Live. Haney was desperate for her chance at the spotlight. There’s a famous story of how Haney carried on for the rest of her Pajama Game stage performances after blowing out her ankles.
Torn ankle ligament injuries are a big deal for athletes. Now imagine being a woman in the early 50s having to fight to make sure your stage work translated into you continuing your role in the feature film. Bob Fosse called Haney his favorite dancer and he choreographed a lot around her before Gwen Verdon came on the scene. All of that makes her death that much sadder.
Haney would only have two more bit roles after her bow as Gladys in The Pajama Game. It seems like it wasn’t enough to be the protege of Gene Kelly, the dancing hero of Bob Fosse and a hit stage performer. What complicated the matter further was her worsening health that led to her death at the age of 39.
But, back to those ankles. When the ankle pain was too much and the understudy had to fill in for Carol Haney, it launched the career of Shirley MacLaine. It’s almost criminal how underrated and unknown Haney remains through absolutely no fault of her own.
From cruel twists of fate to fateful twists
What’s so odd about turning The Pajama Game from a hit novel to a stage musical to a feature film is the translation losses. It’s common to hear from a lot of first-time watchers that the film is kind of directionless. While the plot is hot and heavy for the first hour, the rest of The Pajama Game dissolves into a series of events. That might sound nondescript, but so is the rest of the movie.
For those that have picked up The Pajama Game, tell me how much plot happens in the last 40 minutes of the movie. Now, tell me how much time is dedicated to musical set pieces at the Union Hall, Hernando’s Hideaway and elsewhere. What works on stage for theatrics to keep people from second guessing paying Broadway places slows down the nature of film.
Modern fans will have a hard time hanging with the movie through its conclusion. That is unless you’re a theater kid who has been trained to marvel at song and dance spectacle like an 8 year old watching the seasonal Marvel film. Things like this entertain me.
If you translate something with original audience expectations into an experience for another audience, does it work? There is something to be said for not being a slave to the material. But, the theatrical experience of the 1950s came with expectations that mutated on film.
Musical Numbers in the Era of Cinerama
The Pajama Game is the tale of two movies. One film was a straight forward adaptation of the musical, the other was an attempt to make a real world take on the Union dynamics behind the film. Can both stories exist at the same time? Some would argue they can, I argue with compromise.
Doris Day is much like Sandra Bullock now. She can play bigger roles when the narrative is centered around her. But, she gets lost as part of a larger ensemble. Gotta love these 70 year old hot takes, but here goes.
A star can be too big for the material. If you’re telling a story about a small town garment union factory having internal struggles, very rarely does someone above a Sally Field works out. When you go too far one way, it become super dramatic. You go too far another way and the material becomes campy.
That happy middle ground is a fantasy that only happens at the right moments in history. Did it happen with The Pajama Game? I don’t think so.
What did you actually like about The Pajama Game?
The Pajama Game accomplishes something spectacular in my findings. It takes a novel about labor issues and gives it the fantastic luster of a Broadway show. Whether or not it’s the right venue is a different argument, but I appreciate the effort.
What The Pajama Game does is commit the crime that dooms a lot of cinema. It’s inconsequential. Many movies are good for one viewing, fall apart on the second and then disappear from the mindscape before a third viewing ever starts. It’s the curse that is plaguing modern media in the middle of a Pandemic.
There is a point where Netflix ends, where streaming runs dry and the water table of quality cinema dips. A major running theme at AndersonVision is how do you deal with the cinema that is just OK? People will over praise their favorites and sharpen their knives on the cinematic trash, but who is going to sing the praises of the good enough?
While it might seem like I’m overthinking this one, The Pajama Game raises a fascinating point or two. If you can’t do a perfect translation of a stage show, then why film it? Disney Plus ran into the same thing as they chose to show a filmed live staging of Hamilton a few months back. While that might work for a rock concert film, does it play for the musical theater?
I’d argue no. There is a film on Hulu that recreates the nature of the live magical performance. In & Of Itself is getting a lot of praise from the Cineaste set, but I can’t say I like it or hate it. What the Frank Oz directed documentary asks of its audience is to think about the nature of performance.
What does it mean to be fixed into a shared auditorium and sold a narrative that everyone must buy for the fantasy to work. Beginning his show, Derek DelGaudio shares classic tales he picked up in his travels. All the while, a mix of shadowplay and wood cut imagery plays behind him.
Then, he gets into the construction of his act. The big trick involves having a select audience member return to the show the following night to help carry a narrative for a new set. DelGaudio then has the audience member who missed the previous night’s performance right down what they think they missed.
As DelGaudio has these people read from this giant journal and he shares his favorite highlights, we discover something. The act of translating live performance to concrete narrative leaves little wiggle room for creative actions. The expectation of what could be never matches the little nuance and flair that comes from a live performance.
Now, Doris Day and John Raitt making goo-goo eyes at each other doesn’t directly compare to an Art Snob’s Magic Show. But, they both hint at this quiet truth about stage shows turned to films. You can’t have it both ways. Either you buy into the spectacle or you spend your time trying to make each audience accept what’s in your head.
As frustrating as it may seem, the problem hasn’t been solved for decades. The closest I’ve seen someone get to breaking down the creative barrier is Julie Taymor. But even her best movies needs an expensive hook to break on through to the other side.
Talk about the Warner Archive Blu-ray already.
Warner Archive brings The Pajama Game to Blu-ray with a few special features. You get a deleted song and a trailer to watch after finishing the film. The A/V Quality is pitch perfect and gives me heavy hopes for the pending release of Damn Yankees. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen a musical from this era pop like this. Thankfully, we always have Warner Archive releasing amazing cinematography highlights in stunning HD.