Friday, September 2, 2011

Film Gab's End of Summer Flick-Nic!

Werth: Howdy, Wise.

Wise: Oh, hello, Werth. What's in the bag?

Werth: Just all my back-to-school supplies: notebooks, pens, pencils, erasers, a thermos full of chardonnay.

Wise: I hope you'll be putting that thermos to good use before heading off to class. It's Labor Day Weekend and your last chance for a picnic this summer.

Weth: Picnics are lovely- But picnic movies have all the fun of picnics without the ants. What movie brings to mind blankets, baskets and cold-cuts for you?

Wise: Based on Robert Anderson's 1952 Broadway hit, Tea and Sympathy (1956) details the teasing and bullying suffered by 17-year-old Tom Lee (John Kerr) whose un-masculine habits make him the butt of jokes at his prep school. The boys call him "sister boy," and even his father taunts him for not getting along with the guys. Eventually, his house master's wife, Laura Reynolds (Deborah Kerr), takes notice of his plight, and after his agony reaches a crisis, she takes him on a picnic and offers herself to teach him how to be a man.

Werth: That's going to be a long picnic...

Wise: Exactly. Directed by Vincente Minnelli and filmed in his typically florid style, the movie suggests that Tom's passion for tennis, classical music and sewing are as arid as his beige wardrobe. Laura on the other hand- dressed in lush greens, yellows and peach- is fully ripe and waiting to be plucked now that her stolid husband seems to prefer the company of his male students to her.

Werth: I'm surprised the boys don't call him "sister teacher."

Wise: Minnelli himself was the object of much Hollywood gossip because he was rumored to wear make-up and to have had a live-in boyfriend during his days in New York. Once in Hollywood, he married four times and yet he was still the epitome of many people's idea of effeminate.

Werth: Minnelli's sexuality (and whether it even matters) has been a hotly contested debate. But one thing is certain, he sure put the tinsel in Tinseltown.

Wise: Many students of film have tried to extract a coherent statement on Minnelli's sexuality by reading the clues he inserted in Tea and Sympathy, but I think the film is too enigmatic to say anything definitive. Further clouding the issue is the frame story of grown and happily heterosexual Tom looking back at his confused youth that the studio tacked on to satisfy the Production Code. Despite this prim veneer, the film's subtexts of "queerness," masculinity and desire remain deeply compelling.

Werth: Well, dear Wise, I see your gay-ish picnic and raise you a Labor Day in my picnic flick pick, 1957's The Pajama Game. Doris Day and John Raitt (Bonnie's pappy) star in what could best be called the 1950's musical attempt to deal with the labor conflict in America through a company picnic. If that sounds ridiculous- that's because it is. The film opens with the workers at the Sleeptite Pajama Factory stitching in time to "Racing the Clock" without the 7 1/2 cent raise they asked for.

Werth: Those unions are so demanding.

Wise: Owner Myron Hasler (Ralph Dunn) is the typical big-coiffed capitalist pig who tells new superintendent Sid Sorokin (Raitt) to keep the girls working- no matter what. That becomes more difficult for Sid as he falls for troublemaker and head of the "Grievance Committee," Babe Williams (Day). 
Their labor vs. the man tussling becomes a roll in the hay, however, at the company picnic where singing, dancing and drunken knife throwing bring both sides of the labor dispute (and several co-workers) together.

Wise: Couldn't they have accomplished the same thing with fried chicken and blueberry pies?

Werth: Directed by 1950's musical maestros Stanley Donan and George Abbott, much of Pajama Game resembles its Broadway stage predecessor. "I'm Not At All in Love" and "7 1/2 Cents" are traditionally staged group numbers while the standard hit "Hey There" gets the sweet solo screen treatment from both Raitt and Day. Their duet, "There Once Was a Man," while energetic, seems static on the front lawn and steps of Babe's house- perhaps a holdover from its stage blocking. 
But choreographer Bob Fosse was working on a new form of musical expression, and we see the first inklings of it in the picnic scene number, "Once-A-Year-Day!" Seemingly improvised running and jumping takes on the form of modern, choreographed movement and soon Gladys Hotchkiss (Carol Haney) is leading the crowd with wild, acrobatic, joyful motion that looks less like a structured dance number and more like an orgiastic thrill ride.

Wise: I often do cartwheels for a really delicious potato salad.

Werth: And the picnic is just the appetizer. At the reunion rally, Gladys performs with two back-up dancers (Buzz Miller and Eddie Phillips) in the iconic "Steam Heat." Clapping and stomping, hats, hands, knees and body angles. Here we catch glimpses of Fosse's future dance style that would change the American musical with shows like Sweet Charity (1969) and Cabaret (1972)
Don't get me wrong, though. The classical elements of this musical are worth watching too. Richard Adler and Jerry Ross' tunes are catchy and Doris Day shines as the sensible gal whose no-nonsense exterior barely conceals the passionate gooey center just waiting to be released.

Wise: Are we still talking about picnics?

Werth: And Haney is a sensation, playing Gladys like a limber, smoky Pete Puma who lures Sid (and us) into the matchlit delights of Hernando's Hideaway before she passes out from too much gin- or perhaps it was an overdose of the bright Warner Color that infuses every frame. Even if you don't buy the "love can solve anything- even a vicious labor dispute" premise, Pajama Game is a fun time that won't put you to sleep.

Wise: Excellent work, Werth. I'm certainly feeling pleasantly full of cinematic delights.

Werth: Make sure you leave some room in your basket for next week's Film Gab!

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