Thursday, April 12, 2018

Doris in Distress (Part 1)

Two decades before Karen Black famously played a stewardess forced to fly and land a plane in Airport ’75, Doris Day played those scenes, too, almost verbatim, in an overwrought but entertaining psychological thriller called Julie (1956).

Julie is one of my favorite Day films because it’s one in which she stepped far away from her musical comedy comfort zone. Admittedly, it’s far from a great film, but it’s an entertaining yarn; Doris carries the picture with her eminently watchable portrayal of the archetypal damsel in distress.

Don't worry, she's got it all under control

When you think of a Doris Day movie, a heavily dramatic psychological thriller is probably not the first thing to enter your mind. More likely, you may think of nostalgic period pieces like On Moonlight Bay or By the Light of the Silvery Moon; backstage showbiz musicals like Lullaby of Broadway and Tea for Two; or the early ’60s bedroom farces that made her the #1 Box Office Champion four years running opposite hunky leading men like Rock Hudson (Pillow Talk), Cary Grant (That Touch of Mink) and James Garner (The Thrill of It All).

A gifted songstress and talented comedienne with a seemingly indelible virginal girl next door image, Day was able to sink her teeth into a choice dramatic role only a very few times in her career. Early on she had played Ginger Rogers’s clueless sister, married to a Ku Klux Klan thug in the heavily dramatic Storm Warning, and Kirk Douglas’s platonic singer friend in Young Man with a Horn, but these supporting roles called upon her to do little but play her plucky, sunny blonde self.

In Love Me or Leave Me, though, Doris showed off both her musical and acting prowess in what many believe to be her finest screen performance opposite James Cagney, and soon after she would give an equally memorable performance working with James Stewart and Alfred Hitchcock in the exciting and entertaining remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much.

With the handsome Louis Jourdan as Lyle Benton

In Julie, Doris plays a well-to-do young widow and former airline hostess who has just married a swarthily attractive but dark and brooding man named Lyle Benton, played by French heartthrob Louis Jourdan (The Swan, Gigi). Unfortunately, Julie’s possessive new hubby has a jealous streak and a frighteningly explosive temper. At first, Julie puts up with a tremendous heap of toxic abuse from her handsome but controlling new husband, and it’s not until she discovers that Lyle might have been responsible for her first husband’s mysterious death that she tries to escape. How the rest of the film unfolds is told by the lobby card advertisements of the time, which screamed: “Run, Julie, Run!"

Doris’s husband and business manager Martin Melcher set up a production company to produce Day’s films himself and get a piece of the action. Julie was the first film to be produced by Melcher and Day under their Arwin (as in “your loss is our win”?) Productions.

According to Day’s engrossing and frank autobiography Doris Day: Her Own Story, Julie’s theme of jealousy permeated the atmosphere both in front of and behind the cameras during the filming, as Marty Melcher became increasingly suspicious of the on- and off-screen chemistry of the film’s two stars. Though Melcher himself had cast the good-looking French actor opposite his wife in the role of Julie’s psychotic and insanely jealous husband, Melcher ironically became furious with Day and Jourdan at the hours that the two costars would spend together on the set and on location, taking long walks and chatting about life, love, spirituality and every subject under the sun.

Martin Melcher, Doris Day's manager and third husband

Together, Day and Melcher had embraced the Christian Science religion, and on the Julie set he admonished her to spend more time studying her script and her Mary Baker Eddy, and not so much “gabbing with that Frenchman.” During the filming, Doris fell ill with a benign ovarian tumor (according to Day, it was the size of a grapefruit) and underwent a hysterectomy, which destroyed her hopes of having more children. (Day had one son from a previous marriage, Terry, who had been adopted by Melcher.). So most of Doris’s memories of Julie were not happy ones.

With a storyline that foreshadows the Julia Roberts thriller Sleeping with the Enemy, Julie has some tense and suspenseful moments; but much of the film is a bit silly and overheated, almost to the point of camp. Example: In the scene where her husband leaves the house, giving her a chance to escape, Julie starts packing a suitcase, becoming more and more frantic as she searches for clothes, toiletries, etc. Audiences of the day must have shouted, “Just get out of that house, Doris, he’s on his way back!”

It’s a good thing Doris plays hysterical so convincingly, because she is forced to remain in an extreme state of terror throughout the entire film—literally right from the get-go. The opening scene of the film is a hyper-dramatic set piece: Julie and Lyle leave their country club in the middle of an argument and she gets behind the wheel of their convertible to drive, raving about his appalling jealous behavior. Lyle jams his foot onto the gas, forcing poor Julie to maneuver the wheel to keep from careening off a cliff and killing them both. Later, Day’s stewardess-landing-the-plane business maintains the melodramatic momentum in the film’s climactic moments.

Lyle is contrite after trying to kill them both in the car

Jourdan is properly menacing as the husband from hell, but it is the redoubtable Doris Day who carries the film with her energetic performance, ably supported by reliable Barry Sullivan as her dead first husband’s best friend, who helps her escape Jourdan’s insanely jealous clutches.

Perhaps just to make sure she nailed all the nuances of the damsel in distress, four years later Doris would portray another memorable terrified-wife-having-nervous-breakdown, opposite Rex Harrison in Midnight Lace (another of my favorite Day performances that I will save for Part 2, to come at a later date!)

Much of Julie was filmed on location in the coastal California town of Carmel by the Sea, just south of San Francisco. Carmel was the bright spot of the Julie experience for Day, who fell in love with the picturesque coastline and would move there full-time in the early 1970s as her film and television careers came to a close. But she was only one of two very famous Carmel residents. Neighbor Clint Eastwood, who would one day become the mayor of Carmel, used the splendors of the location in his own debut directorial film, Play Misty for Me.

Doris on location in Carmel by the Sea
On April 3, 2018, living legend Doris Day celebrated her 96th birthday in Carmel. And as of this writing, that is where Miss Day still resides with a houseful of furry friends.


William said...

Now this is a really excellent write-up on this picture, which you have captured perfectly, Chris. As you say, it certainly isn't perfect, but it's an entertaining picture and Day is on top of things. I remember watching it with some friends years ago and no one could believe that Doris would actually wind up flying the plane, or at least landing it! You've also reminded me that one of these days I have to re-read Day's memoirs. Day got a lot of flack for being rinso white and "virginal" -- Mad magazine was merciless with her, almost vicious -- but it's also true that she was a gifted and very likable performer. Very nice post, Chris!

angelman66 said...

Hi Bill - thank you so much as always for stopping by! Yes, Doris’s autobiography is so worth reading and of my all time favorite star bios. And along with Olivia de Havilland, Mitzi Gaynor and a very few others, Day is one of the last living links to Classic Hollywood. I recently read that Day spends time every day answering fan mail, so maybe we should drop her a line!
As always, Bill, I treasure your support and look forward to your Great Old Movies blog every week!
- Chris

Rick Gould said...

Hey Chris,
Nice review on 'Julie' and the behind the scenes drama that sounded more entertaining than what ended up the big screen!

'Julie' used to be on the afternoon movie frequently when I was a kid. My mother always commented how could anyone be scared of scrawny Louis Jourdan? Mom always had a low tolerance for Doris when she verged on hysterical... Midnight Lace was the other one that set her teeth on edge.

That said, I visited Mom on spring break and we watched Love Me or Leave Me, which neither of us had ever seen before. Both of us were impressed by Day playing a change of pace role as Ruth Etting. Isn't it ironic that Etting's husband/manager was a self-aggrandizing bully, too? And both were named Marty!

Also, whenever The Man Who Knew Too Much is on, both my Mom and I always tune in!

My personal fave is Doris' The Pajama Game: Fun, smart, great songs, and Doris gives both sugar and spice!

Cheers, and look forward to your take on Midnight Lace!


angelman66 said...

Hi Rick - thanks so much for reading and commenting!
Your story about your mom being annoyed by Doris's histrionics makes me laugh! Her characters in Julie and Midnight Lace are VERY high strung; it's understandable; come to think of it, she has a hysterical fit in Man Who Knew Too Much, too, when Jimmy Stewart tells her about the kidnapping!

Love Me or Leave Me is my favorite Doris movie--and the real-life and reel-life similarities are indeed eerie. If you ever have the time, I did do write up on that one too a few years back:

Rick, thanks as always for your support, and I your amazing Reel Life blog is always one of my must-reads.
- Chris

Ken Anderson said...

Hi Chris
Another of my favorite Doris Day films. I have this one in my collection but I haven't watched it in a while. I love all that voice-over narration, making the movie sound like one of those pulp gothic romance novels from the 50s.
I tend to like Day a great deal in her serious roles, although this one doesn't have her play more that terrorized (and it's so frustrating how little protection was available in those pre "stalking"-restraining order days. The cop acts like he can't do a thing unless they catch Jordan with his hands around her throat).
An excellent write-up, Chris. And I'm crazy about that last poster. Never saw it before!

angelman66 said...

Hi Ken - So glad you mentioned the pulp-fiction, film noir voice over narration by Doris in those tense hushed tones! (Also reminds me I forgot to mention this movie is in black-and-white, though I fell in love with all these color and colorized production stills for illustrating the post...and YES, that poster is really camp, isn't it?

Thanks as always for visiting and reading, Ken...I love that our taste in film is so often parallel. See you soon at your Le Cinema Dreams blog!

Poseidon3 said...

Angelman, glad to see you back in action after a bit of a hiatus! I enjoyed this post a lot. I first came to know of Doris through Hitchcock's TMWKTM and not too long afterwards picked up her biography in paperback for $0.35 at a place called The Book Nook! It was one of the earliest celeb bios I ever read. Knowing how great she was in TMWKTM, I was eager to see Julie and Midnight Lace because she noted in her book how she gave everything in herself to the hysterical moments to the point of nearing an actual breakdown (and also how the terrifying parts brought back bad memories for her and haunted her after as well - in that regard she was something of a Method actress, dredging up old hurts for the camera!) So imagine my surprise years later to see these other two films and find that they were campy in the extreme and almost fall-down funny at times!!! But nevertheless, SHE was all in, no matter how indulgent the direction/production of them got. Doris had plenty more gas in her tank when she retired. She could have done countless more roles of many varieties that we hadn't seen, but I think she'd just had it with the underbelly of the business itself and found greater joy in working with all her dogs and animal welfare. BTW, she probably devotes PART of each day answering fan mail, but unless something's changed, the bulk of her day is probably still caring for and feeding that army of dogs! LOL She put them and their well-being above her own interests for decades, refusing even to leave them long enough to come to L.A. to gather an Honorary Oscar! (I did love it when she went and got her Cecil B. DeMille Golden Globe... she even hinted at returning to the biz, but didn't...) Thanks and take care.

angelman66 said...

Hi Poseidon, so delighted at your visit and your Doris lore--I too was a huge fan of the AE Hotchner-cowritten book and read it obsessively; I still think it is one of the best and most frank memoirs. I agree totally with you that Doris retired way way too early...and she looked gorgeous and glamorous at that long-ago Golden Globes. I thought for sure she would reemerge on a Hollywood Wives miniseries or something, but to no avail! My favorite fantasy is Doris as Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate. That would have been something to see, and Doris may have gotten that elusive Oscar.

Thanks as always for visititng. Your divine Poseidon's Underworld is one of the all-time best blogs for nostalgia movie-voyeurs like me!