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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » TCM Spotlight: Doris Day Collection
TCM Spotlight: Doris Day Collection
Warner Bros. // Unrated // April 7, 2009
List Price: $49.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by David Cornelius | posted April 20, 2009 | E-mail the Author
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With most of her more popular titles already on DVD (in some cases in more than one edition), Warner Bros. now collects five lesser known Doris Day vehicles under their "TCM Spotlight" banner. The five-disc box set, simply titled the "Doris Day Collection," offers new-to-disc presentations of "It's a Great Feeling," "Tea for Two," "Starlift," "April in Paris," and "The Tunnel of Love," five films spanning a busy decade that saw Day's star on a rapid rise.

The five discs are housed in a three-panel digipak, which fits into a cardboard slipcover. Each movie gets its own disc and set of extras, so let's look at them one by one.

"It's a Great Feeling" (1949)

Well, it's just a good feeling, really, but that's close enough. "It's a Great Feeling" is another in Warners' genre of cameo-heavy musical comedies that round up a sizable number of the studio's stars, who appear as themselves, often in self-mocking fashion. Here, Edward G. Robinson pretends to rough up a security guard to protect his tough guy image, Gary Cooper sips a soda and quietly says "yup," and Joan Crawford jokes about how she's required to slap a man in all her pictures.

Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson take center stage here as caricatured versions of themselves. Here, they're a couple of bickering blowhards, inseparable pals modeled somewhat after Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, whose "Road" pictures Warners hoped to emulate. Carson is struggling to make a musical, but nobody on the lot wants to direct him. He strikes a deal with producer Arthur Trent (Bill Goodwin): if Carson can land a leading lady, he can direct himself. Ah, but what lady would ever want to work with Jack Carson?

Enter Judy Adams (Day), a Hollywood hopeful working in the Warners commissary, waiting for her big break. She schemes to deliver lunch to Jack, which opens up a box of new schemes: Jack gets her to trick Dennis into being in the musical, and then the three connive to have Trent "discover" Judy (something about how the old Hollywood fable of the kid in the malt shop makes great casting), and then they try to pass off Judy as "Yvonne Amour," the great French ingénue. Somewhere in the middle, Jack and Dennis both wind up falling for Judy, who's still engaged to her beau back in Wisconsin, not like that'll stop either of 'em.

It's all so busy and scattershot, this thinly connected series of comic episodes and musical asides. But it all works. Carson and Morgan display a terrific energy here, giddily toying with their own public personas, while Day, in only her third feature, makes a dazzling early impression, wowing us with a handful of sweet songs and a knack for light comedy.

Curiously, both "Great Feeling" and Day's previous film, "My Dream Is Yours," found her playing a hopeful talent new to show biz, a parallel to Warners' own hopes of introducing a new starlet. "Great Feeling" plays like a Day screen test, allowing her to try a little of everything: her songs range from gentle to raucous (her faux-French spin on "At the Café Rendezvous" is a highlight), while her overplayed run-ins with Bill Goodwin counter nicely with her more down-to-earth approach in other scenes. Day may be left mostly playing it straight to Morgan and Carson's clowning, but she also holds her own against them.

Video & Audio

The 1.33:1 full frame transfer features a little grain, but the Technicolor pops nicely, especially when the costume and set designs kick in with a bold stuff.

The mono soundtrack is lively, bringing the musical numbers to great life. Optional English SDH and French subtitles are provided.

Extras

"Spills and Chills" (10:23) is an odd short, collecting what seems to be a series of newsreel leftovers (some dating back a couple decades) featuring daring stuntmen dangling from airplanes, walking blindfolded atop a skyscraper, etc. It ends with a stunt of two trains crashing headfirst into each other. If you like that sort of thing (I know I do), you'll get a kick out of this.

Directed by Chuck Jones, "Bear Feat" (6:53) is an exceptionally goofy Merrie Melodies cartoon. Grouchy Papa Bear and numbskulled Baby Bear spend the entire short beating the crap out of each other as they train to be a circus act.

"Breakdowns of 1949" (10:23) appears to be an in-house studio gag reel, collecting outtakes of the year's movies. Plenty of shots of Bette Davis and David Niven tripping over their lines and cursing up a storm. Like all gag reels, it's good in spurts but rolls on a little too long; obviously, your enjoyment may increase if you spot a favorite star.

The film's theatrical trailer (2:07) rounds out the set.

"Tea for Two" (1950)

Day followed "Great Feeling" with the drama "Young Man with a Horn," opposite Kirk Douglas and Lauren Bacall. She then returned to breezier fare, receiving top billing for the first time along the way, in "Tea for Two," the third film adaptation of the Broadway musical "No, No, Nanette." (The play would be remade twice more, both for television.)

The film's a bit of a mess, with a plot that barely pays attention to itself, an unnecessary flashback structure, and dated attempts to mock "artistic types." But then there are the wonderful songs, sung by Day and Gordon MacRae, and a crackling pace, and a scene stealing performance from a devilishly wry Eve Arden as the wise-cracking best friend.

The flashback takes us from 1950 to 1929, where Uncle Max (the great S.Z. Sakall) has lost everything in the stock market crash. He hopes to hide this fact from his heiress niece, Nanette (Day), who gets tangled in an effort to put together a Broadway show - something about her producer ex (Billy DeWolfe) demanding to cast his new girlfriend (Pat Wymore) in the lead while songwriter Jimmy (MacRae) demands Nanette take the part. Meanwhile, Nanette is presented as a major backer for the show, and the money may or not be there. Meanwhile again, Nanette offers her uncle's mansion as a rehearsal space when the theater is closed down. And meanwhile still, Nanette bets Uncle Max $25,000 that she can say "no" to every request asked of her for two days.

That's a whole lot of story, all of it rushed through all too quickly, none of it ever gelling together properly. Too many ideas get shoved aside or forgotten to fit the whims of the plot. The whole "no" wager comes and goes at random, when it really should be the entire focus of the script; instead, it's just a cute side plot thrown in midway through. The screenplay gets easily distracted, jumping from weak romance (Day and MacRae are wonderful together, but their characters never click) to zany comedy (oh, those dancer types, how weird they are!) to show biz musical with no clear rhythm.

Still, it overcomes its sloppy set-up to be light, enjoyable entertainment. The songs are all a delight, loving reworkings of 1920s hits; you can't go wrong with the movie's take on the Charleston. Arden's smarmy best friend is plenty welcome, as is Wymore, who plays it doubly bitchy and becomes a marvelous villainess in the process.

Video & Audio

The Technicolor is even bolder and the image even crisper this time, in this 1.33:1 full frame transfer. Aside from the random stock footage shot, grain is almost entirely absent. There's a pinch of edge enhancement, but it's kept to a minimum.

Again, the mono soundtrack sounds solid, with clear dialogue and dazzling music. A nice French dub is provided, as are optional English SDH and French subtitles.

Extras

Joe McDoakes pops out from behind the eight ball in the comic one-reeler "So You Want to Hold Your Husband" (10:51). Joe's wife hatches a plan to gain the attention of her scatterbrained husband, with increasingly backfiring results.

"Tee for Two" (7:03) finds Tom and Jerry duking it out (where else?) on the golf course. Who knew a mouse had such a good shot?

Two audio-only features relate to the film's source material. First, a November 1959 episode from the radio program "The Railroad Hour" features Day and MacRae performing an abridged version of "No, No, Nanette" (29:49). Then we get the overture (6:52) from the 1930 film adaptation of the play. That movie is considered lost, with only its Vitaphone soundtrack surviving; the overture provides a nice sampling of its music.

The film's trailer (2:34) takes a unique approach, with Day and MacRae singing to the audience, with lyrics telling us how much fun we'll have with the movie.

"Starlift" (1951)

The next few years would be rather busy for Day; in 1951 alone, she could be found on the big screen in five features. Among them was "Starlift," a sort of warmed over "Hollywood Canteen" without the World War II. Indeed, the film makes a strange move in dealing with the armed forces and the matter of war, refusing to mention Korea by name, referring only to "the front" for reasons that fail to make much sense. (In addition, the South Pacific is discussed frequently but in vague detail, as if the script were treating this as a WWII story.)

This time, Day plays herself, along with Virginia Mayo and Ruth Roman. The trio's run-in with a couple of airmen, Mike and Rick (Dick Wesson and Ron Hagerthy), leads to them discovering a base where soldiers wait to be shipped off to war. Doris sings an impromptu song, and the gals decide to round up all their movie star friends to lend a hand cheering up the boys, whether it's at the airfield or in the hospital.

In between all the starstruck antics and celebrity cameos, we find a blatant rip-off of the "Canteen" storyline as Ruth finds herself unexpectedly falling for Rick. The twist here is that the duo then fall quickly out of love - only to get stuck pretending to still be in love once gossip columnist Louella Parsons comes sniffing around. (Parsons plays herself, and while it probably helped the film earn a glowing mention in her column, her brief appearance is embarrassing; the whole thing reeks of a suck-up job, and worse, you can see her straining to find the cue cards.)

The storyline, while very funny at times, lacks the gentle sweetness of the "Canteen" romance it imitates. That's OK, though, since it's all padding in between the real point of the movie: random song-and-dance routines from Warners' gallery of stars. The celebs gather to put on a show for the boys, which fills the second half of the film with bits like Mayo's take on "Noche Caribe," Gordon MacRae joining the soldiers' own Men's Chorus for "God's Green Acres of Home," and Phil Harris getting an assist from Gary Cooper on "Look Out, Stranger, I'm a Texas Ranger." (Cooper once again: "Yup.")

We also get a magic act and a comedy routine and plenty more music from the likes of Gene Nelson, Pat Wymore, Lucille Norman, and Jane Wyman. Outside the show, Harris shows up to pal around with some injured soldiers and James Cagney chuckles with Dick Wesson about all those terrible impressions people do of him. (Wesson, playing one of the few fictional characters in the film, refuses to be one-upped by the stars; his mugging is at times hilarious, and at times insufferable.)

It might be little more than Hollywood ridiculously selling itself - how wonderful it is to meet the stars, and how possible it might be to marry one of them someday! - but it's a heck of a show.

Video & Audio

The black-and-white photography leaves "Starlift" feeling more like a WWII-era feature, and not the Korean War-era musical it is. No matter: the gorgeous 1.33:1 full frame transfer is sharp and grain-free.

The mono soundtrack is once again spot-on, especially in the musical sequences. Optional English SDH and French subtitles are provided.

Extras

The nature short "Desert Killer" (9:34) tells the heavily dated but unexpectedly involving tale of an Indian mother and son who gets help from a white hunter when a mountain lion threatens the herd.

Perhaps having learned a lesson last time, Joe McDoakes gets his comeuppance in "So You Want to Be a Bachelor" (9:27), in which our hapless Joe reminisces of his younger days, which weren't as wonderful as he thought.

In the Merrie Melodies cartoon "Sleepy Time Possum" (6:55), a father opossum has a heck of a time getting his lazy son to do his chores.

The film's theatrical trailer (2:41) proudly boasts its similarities to "Hollywood Canteen" and "This is the Army."

"April in Paris" (1952)

By the following year, Day was now cemented as a top star. Her casting in "April in Paris," however, remains a mystery: what's a sweetheart like Doris Day doing playing a rowdy chorus girl? And yet Day sells the performance, lifting the movie well above its so-so storyline.

Day stars as Ethel "Dynamite" Jackson, a showgirl who's mistakenly sent an invitation to represent the U.S. at a French arts festival. (The invite was meant, of course, for Ethel Barrymore.) But just as State Department lackey Sam Winthrop Putnam (Ray Bolger) explains the mix up, his superiors decide it'd be great publicity to make this everywoman our delegate.

Here's where things get messy: On the cruise to Paris, Dynamite refuses to follow her hosts' strict rules of etiquette, which inspires the French crew (led by Claude Dauphin, whose character, Philippe, sets off the plot and acts as our host for the tale) to throw a wild party, which inspires Sam to get roaring drunk, which inspires Sam and Dynamite to fall immediately in love, which inspires the two to get married right away, right on the ship, never mind that Sam is engaged to his boss' daughter.

And that's only the start of the madness, as things quickly turn into a sort of small-scale farce. Sam and Dynamite try their best to hide their nuptials from Sam's previous fiancée (Eve Miller) and her father (Paul Harvey), although there's more to it all than any of them realizes, as Philippe races to straighten everything out.

It's all completely ludicrous yet quite charming. Bolger plays up the fact that he's a highly unlikely choice for a romantic lead; his awkwardness, and quick transformation to life of the party, is a delight. Never mind that the overnight romance/marriage doesn't make a lick of sense (even with the buckets of champagne factored in); Day and Bolger are both a total joy.

The screenplay, by Jack Rose and Melville Shavelson, cleverly plays with our expectations. As Day and Dauphin sing the title tune, a romantic tribute to the City of Lights, they're left to face off with a real April in Paris, a dreary, overcast, freezing place; the wind whips litter in their faces as they try their best to sing.

Indeed, the whole notion of predictable French behavior is ripe for a twist. You'd think ladies' man Philippe would be happy to see two adults enjoying some romance, but a key part of the story centers entirely around the man plotting to prevent Sam and Dynamite from engaging in any premarital activities. Bedrooms are sabotaged because a Frenchman is concerned with sexual purity? This in counter to the risqué notion that Sam and Dynamite, both liquored up, are only looking to get married so they can share a bed, the rascals.

It doesn't make a lick of sense, and it all runs out of steam a little too early, but it's often very funny, and the musical interludes create plenty of smiles.

Video & Audio

This 1.33:1 full frame transfer is the only problematic one in the set, the Technicolor print riddled with edge enhancement. Grain is not excessive but still more present than in the other transfers here. Colors come through nicely, though.

Once again, the mono soundtrack is superb, free of hiss and distortions, clear as a bell, especially during the musical interludes. Optional English SDH and French subtitles are provided.

Extras

Our final Joe McDoakes short of this set is "So You Want to Wear the Pants" (10:46), a body-swap comedy with Joe and his wife trading bodies and discovering just what the other does during the day. It's full of gender cliché, but it works to hilarious effect.

The Merrie Melodies short "Terrier Stricken" (6:52) is good ol' dog-vs.-cat nonsense; the aptly named Frisky the dog is about as perfect as any dimwitted pet to ever appear in a Warners cartoon.

Once again, we wrap up with the film's trailer (3:00).

"The Tunnel of Love" (1958)

The collection jumps ahead several years for its final offering, "The Tunnel of Love." An adaptation of the Broadway play, the film is one of the era's inelegant attempts to push Hollywood toward more adult themes. But it's full of missteps as the cast tries its darnedest to get around a limp screenplay and its unlikable characters.

When we first meet Isolde and Augie Poole (Day and Richard Widmark), they're a happy couple who've moved to the country to get away from the bustle of city life. They're also trying desperately to have a baby, either the natural way or through adoption. Adoption agent Estelle Novick (Gia Scala) turns down their request after a bad first impression (something about Augie running around pantsless while guzzling liquor), which puts a strain on the marriage. Augie starts listening to the crummy advice of his womanizing friend Dick (Gig Young), a guy who never let a thing like a wife and kids get in the way of a good time with a young lady. For reasons too complicated to detail here, Augie later becomes convinced he's the father of Miss Novick's child, a fact he hopes to hide from Isolde, even as he manages to adopt the baby.

The whole thing is directed by Gene Kelly, who seems baffled by the material, refusing to let the comedy get broad in the way a good farce requires. Except for a couple of moments that mistake "loud" for "energetic," everything's so small-scale, low-key, under-the-top, when it should be boisterous and hectic. (Tellingly, this should be a bright Technicolor picture, but instead it's filmed in restrained black-and-white.) Every ounce of Augie's continuous embarrassment and panic should be played for cringe-worthy laughs, but instead they hit all the wrong notes, and we cringe but don't laugh.

Widmark seems at a loss at how to play the comedy, adding to the discomfort of the character. The rest of the cast struggles as well - only Young seems to have a grasp on the material, bringing a deliciously nasty streak of humor to Dick's slickster-boozer loathsomeness. Day, Scala, and Elisabeth Fraser (as Dick's put-upon wife) are non-entities here, with the script sticking to the topic of those wacky men and the trouble they create. (Are we supposed to be rooting for these guys?)

The screenplay also causes trouble by trying to squeeze in a year's worth of story into a 98 minute run time. While you'd think this would create a manic pacing, perfect for farce, the pace is instead overly laid back (you can feel Kelly trying to push the casualness upon the material), and the story becomes too much of a clutter.

Video & Audio

The newest picture in the set, "The Tunnel of Love" looks spectacular in this black-and-white 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. The image is remarkably crisp, with minimal grain. Everything's a little on the bright side (even the blackest blacks are only a medium gray), but this seems to be true to the original photography.

The only non-musical in the collection, the mono soundtrack is dependent entirely on dialogue, and it comes through nicely. Hiss and other distortions are completely absent. Optional English SDH and French subtitles are provided.

Extras

Tom & Jerry goes CinemaScope for "Tot Watchers" (6:37; 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen), one of those cartoons where the animal heroes keep rescuing a crawl-happy baby from certain death, while the babysitter remains clueless to the entire adventure. It's funny stuff, as expected, but I always hated this cartoon subgenre - even as a kid, I kept hoping the baby would just fall or get run over or just plain die so the inattentive parent/sitter would finally go to prison, where he/she obviously belongs. (Perhaps the filmmakers felt the same way, allowing the cops to discover the truth by the end. I'd like to imagine they turned around and busted the sitter for child negligence.)

The film's theatrical trailer (2:15; 2.35:1 flat letterbox) plays up the "shocking" plot turns from the "bold" stage play.

(Note: All extras throughout the set are presented in their original 1.33:1 format, except where marked on the final disc.)

Final Thoughts

These are (mostly) good films with solid presentations and terrific extras. Yet the movies don't beg for repeat viewings. Serious Doris Day fans will find picking this up to be a no-brainer, but casual fans should simply Rent It.
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