Hello, Ms. Day…
I’ll admit, up until a few days ago the first and only time I saw The Pajama Game was my freshman year of high school, when it was our spring musical. Back then, I thought it was fun and different–I had been used to musicals like Fiddler On the Roof and Annie, so “Steam Heat” and “Hernando’s Hideaway” seemed rather daring. That was over twenty-five years ago, though, and I don’t remember much about it except that my classmates did a terrific job. Watching the 1957 feature film starring Doris Day and John Raitt felt like a reunion of sorts.
The Sleeptite Pajama Factory in Iowa is a well-oiled machine, and they’ve just gotten a new superintendent, Sid Sorokin (John Raitt), who’s all business. All it takes is one complaint by the company attention-grabber to summon the Grievance Committee, headed by Babe Williams (Doris Day). She’s all business too, but in her own way. She knows the guy is faking it and she’s intrigued by Sid, but declares she’s Not At All In Love.
Sid has walked into a hornet’s nest. Sleeptite owner, Myron (Ralph Dunn), is hiding something in his ledger that he doesn’t want anyone to see, and he has his secretary, Gladys (Carol Haney) wear the key to its hiding place around her neck. The factory workers are very chummy, but they’re threatening to strike if they don’t get a seven-and-a-half cent raise. That doesn’t stop Sid from asking Babe to dinner, which she cheerily refuses because Grievance Committee.
The man is nothing if not persistent, and fortunately for Sid’s ardor, the annual company picnic in the park is coming up. Except for thundering oration on a picnic table by Myron, it’s the time when all bets are off, all hair is down, and all is a bacchanal, complete with a knife-throwing contest. Sid pulls Babe behind a tree and kisses her, after which she melts like an ice cream cone in summertime.
Sid and Babe start dating, and they’re soon madly in love. Babe still holds back ever so slightly, though–one night, she tries to fend Sid off by asking if he wants onions in his omelet. Something is soon to come between them, she reminds him: Seven-and-a-half cents.
Sleeptite’s employees employ a little passive resistance to see if Myron will cave before they actually do go on strike. The usual attitude in the place is hurry, hurry, hurry with some prodding by the foreman, Vernon (Eddie Foy, Jr.), but when they sense that Myron is resisting their demands, everyone works as sluggishly as possible, doing everything in the slowest of slow motion.
Then they try packaging pajama sets with the tops and bottoms in different sizes and only partly sewing one of the buttons on the pants flies. Poor Vernon finds this out the hard way when he has to model a pair for Myron and Sid.
Meanwhile, Sid is curious about that ledger that Myron keeps hiding. He takes Gladys out to a club called Hernando’s Hideaway and she gets super-plastered, so getting the key is no problem. What he finds in the ledger proves to be awkward for Myron and potentially lucrative for the Sleeptite gang, who are convinced they’ll be able to live large on a seven-and-a-half cent raise. Since Pajama Game is a musical, the plot is paper-thin, and even the most dastardly characters can be redeemable.
The Pajama Game’s source material is 7 1/2 Cents, a novel by Harvard grad Richard Bissell (no relation to the carpet sweeper guy). Bissell’s great-grandfather was the owner of a clothing factory in Dubuque, Iowa called the H.B. Glover Company, and for a period of time Bissell was its vice-president. The company was one of the first to cater to the Midwest instead of basing itself in a coastal area. Company employees staged a strike in 1890 which became the basis for the book. It’s unclear why there was a strike, but it got Bissell’s creative juices flowing.
Bissell, who was called “a modern-day Mark Twain,” joined forces with George Abbott to adapt his book as a musical, and The Pajama Game was born. The show opened on May 13, 1954 and closed after 1,063 performances on November 24, 1956. It won three Tony Awards: Best Musical, Best Featured Actress for Carol Haney, and Best Choreography for Bob Fosse.
Hollywood was quick to come calling, and Warner Bros. quickly bought the rights to the show. Producers Stanley Donen and George Abbott brought in the original Broadway cast to recreate their roles on the big screen, with the proviso that a Hollywood star would play the lead. Janice Page, who played Babe on Broadway, almost played her in the film, and would have if the Hollywood star had turned out to be Frank Sinatra. Frank turned the part down, so it came down to Doris Day.
Doris Day is wonderful in the film. Her character is brassy while elegant, and Day is a natural actress, bringing plenty of loveliness to the role of Babe. She matched talents with a lot of formidable artists, such as Broadway veteran John Raitt, who looks like a cross between Eddie Bracken and Josh Lucas. The chemistry between the two is pretty steamy, but they still keep things G-rated.
Day was spared the bulk of the choreography in the film, as choreographer Bob Fosse’s explosive talents were very likely beyond her. It didn’t matter, though, because the very able Carol Haney filled in the blanks. The steps aren’t the only explosive part of the numbers, though, because in the picnic scene the cast dances on turf, sometimes uphill. That’s seriously hard, guys. And it’s real turf, because clouds of dust follow these people wherever they go, and it doesn’t look like Fuller’s earth.
Overall, The Pajama Game is a lot of fun. It’s light on plot as well as dialogue, and it’s not as polished as other Donen projects, but it’s breezy and pleasurable. I enjoyed seeing it for the first time in twenty-seven years, and it brings back memories of watching the show as a freshman.
For more of the lovely Doris Day, please visit Michaela at Love Letters To Old Hollywood. Thanks for hosting, Michaela–this was great! Thanks for reading, all, and I hope to see you tomorrow when we hop over to Crystal’s Bette Davis Blogathon. Au revoir…
The Pajama Game is available on DVD from Amazon.