Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Bedtime Story

Happy Birthday to Doris Day, who turns 91 today.  My first exposure to her, alas, was the swath of 60s comedies taking on sex and domesticity with such prudish timidity.  There was no doubt that she had genuine chemistry with her leading men, especially Rock Hudson, but the films so often tried to have it both ways, playing naughty but really neutered.  And for someone with such a fantastic set of pipes, it always seemed weird that we rarely saw her sing in those immensely popular films.

I’d soon learn that the 50s held far more interesting fare from her (Love Me or Leave Me, Teacher's Pet), though it took me a while to eventually discover my favorite film of hers, and one that’s almost criminally unknown by movie fans (I don’t remember ever seeing it broadcast, even on TCM): The Pajama Game (1957).  Of the two films co-directed by Stanley Donen and George Abbott, it’s not as well known as the following year’s Damn Yankees!, itself a work that’s fading from the canon of movie musicals, but it's a gem nonetheless.

I love this film for a lot of reasons: A great assembly of songs with addictive melodies; terrific choreography by Bob Fosse, a decade before he directed his first film; a story that’s unapologetically pro-labor unions; and my favorite Day performance, where she’s virtuous but not virginal, romantic but not sappy, and fun-loving but still a fierce woman of conviction.  Plus, it’s the movie musical that most prominently features postage stamps!

Babe Williams (Day), a major player in the labor union at the pajama factory where she works, has finally succumbed to the charms of Sid Sorokin (John Raitt), the new up-and-coming middle manager at the company.  Hanging out at her home, her single dad (Franklyn Fox) approaches his daughter’s new beau with his beloved stamp album:
Pop: “Say, Sid, do you like stamps?”
Babe: “Oh, Pop!”
Pop: “Well, even If he don’t, that’s something that’d interest anyone: Two sets of mint Columbians. Plate blocks on every issue since 1919.”
And then after he leaves, Sid scans through the album.
Sid: “Say, he has got a whole set of mint Columbians”
Babe: “Sure he has. That’s why I work at Sleeptime.”
This leads to the duet “Small Talk”, where Sid croons, “I don’t wanna talk small talk, now that I’m alone with you”, as Babe counters with a series of efforts to change the subject, including the refrain
"Who would you vote for next election? How do you like the stamp collection?”
“Small Talk!”
Eventually, Sid’s argument, “I’ve got something better for your lips to do, and that takes no talk at all” wins out.

But after some work-related conflict about a raise and a threatened strike puts them at romantic odds, Sid visits her home to reconcile, only to run into Pops again with his stamps and magnifying glass.
Babe: “What you got there, Pop, your stamp album?”
Pop: “Now don’t get excited—if Sid don’t want to look at it, why he doesn’t have to.  There’s no law against my looking at it, is there?”
Babe: “Sid likes stamps.  He told me so.  But me, I’m just plain bushed so if you don’t mind I think I’ll slide off to bed.”
Pop: “Run along, honey.  Good night, dear.”
Sid: “Good night.  Sleep well.”
Babe: “Thanks.”
Pop: “Sid, suppose we start with the Pan-American Exposition issue of nineteen-hundred-and-one”
Sid: “I guess that’s good a place to start off as any.”
This issue is a real philatelic release, commemorating the 1901 Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo, an event which is now most famous as the site where President McKinley was assassinated in September of that year.  Here’s a website that discusses those stamps in more detail, though I’d be inclined to guess that if Pop had a favorite stamp from that set, it would be Scott #295, since his blue-collar job is as a train engineer.  Today, the value of that set of six stamps, unused, would be over $800.

So what about the Columbians that Pop talked about earlier?  There was an issue known as The Columbians in 1893, commemorating the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, itself celebrating the 400th anniversary of Columbus landing on the New World.   Here’s a website that goes into detail about all 16 stamps in that set, ranging in denomination from 1 cent to 5 dollars.  This last figure is quite extraordinary because it would be analogous to having a postage stamp with a $150 face value today.  Another fun trivia note is the Columbian issue features the first US postage stamps to depict a woman--in this case, Queen Isabella.  Needless to say, a complete set of this issue in good quality would be worth close to $20,000 today.

Pop also talks about plate blocks, which are blocks of stamps straight off the production line and which include the additional perforations off the edge of the block which gives the information of the cylinder from which those stamps were printed.  This is obviously something much harder to get hold of and not available at your local post office.  They are also something which some collectors treasure highly.

I only own one plate block, of Scott #926, the first stamp about movies ever issued anywhere (which I discuss more here).  Note the cylinder number in the bottom left-hand corner.

The original Broadway production of The Pajama Game (represented by the postcard at the top) was in 1954, so plate blocks for every issue since 1919 meant over 500 US stamps across those 35 years.  That makes Pop an avid collector, a hobby which Babe implies she helps to subsidize.  So she really does need that "Seven-and-a-half Cents" raise (quite possibly my favorite song in the film).

The movie is readily available on DVD for cheap.  It has gorgeous production values but the quality of the print used for the transfer is dodgy and could use a loving TLC restoration.  But the film itself is marvelous--great fun but also genuinely progressive without compromising the political passions of the heroes.  It's also the only major film role for theater legend Raitt (Bonnie’s father) and features the only cinematic speaking part for Carol Haney, a frequent collaborator of Gene Kelly’s (she’s one of the dancers in the On the Town fantasia) and a legend in her own right who died a very sad, early death.  “Steam Heat”, “Hey There”, “Hernando’s Hideaway”, “Once-a-Year Day” are all staged by Donen with peerless energy and great verve.  It’s one of his best films—high praise for perhaps the greatest director of movie musicals the world has ever known.

My 10 favorite Stanley Donen films

1. Singin' in the Rain (1952, w/Gene Kelly)
2. On the Town (1949, w/Kelly)
3. The Pajama Game (1957, w/George Abbott)
4. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)
5. Charade (1963)
6. It's Always Fair Weather (1955, w/Kelly)
7. Bedazzled (1967)
8. Royal Wedding (1951)
9. Funny Face (1957)
10. Two for the Road (1967)

Last year's Bob Fosse stamp is Scott #4701 and Audrey Hepburn is #3786.  Johnny Mercer (composer for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers) is #3101, while George Gershwin is #1484 and George w/brother Ira (the team behind the Funny Face song score) is #3345.  The wedding rings are #4397, the Oregon stamp is #3732, and the Costume Design stamp is Scott #3772c. 

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