Sunday, January 6, 2013

Please Don't Eat the Daisies (Euterpe/MGM, 1960)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I finished last night’s dinner in time to run a movie, and I picked one I’d recently recorded from Turner Classic Movies that I’d seen in my first moviegoing days in the early 1960’s: Please Don’t Eat the Daisies. I remembered this as a manic comedy about a woman coping with four rambunctious young sons in a suburban environment with a husband whose job kept him in the city. That recollection was probably shaped more by the subsequent TV show than by the film itself, which actually started life as a comic novel by Jean Kerr, wife of Walter Kerr, who when this film was made (1960) was drama critic for the New York Herald-Tribune and, when that paper closed in 1966, he was hired by the New York Times. Walter Kerr’s Wikipedia page offers some quotes from his actual reviews that show the origins of the savage put-downs the equivalent character, Laurence Mackay (David Niven), comes up with in Please Don’t Eat the Daisies: of the original 1972 production of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies Walter Kerr wrote that Follies was “intermissionless and exhausting, an extravaganza that becomes tedious for two simple reasons: Its extravagances have nothing to do with its pebble of a plot; and the plot, which could be wrapped up in approximately two songs, dawdles through 22 before it declares itself done … Mr. Sondheim may be too much a man of the seventies, too present-tense sophisticated … The effort to bind it up inhibits the crackling, open-ended, restlessly varied surges of sound he devised with such distinction for ‘Company’.” In the film, Laurence Mackay is a drama professor at a New York college and is living in an apartment with his wife Kate (Doris Day, top-billed) and their four incredibly energetic young sons: David (Charles Herbert), Gabriel (Stanley Livingston — I presume), George (Flip Mark) and Adam (Baby Gellert). Adam is the youngest and is often kept inside a fully enclosed wooden cage in the middle of the Mackays’ living-room floor; if they did that today the Mackays would be arrested for child endangerment and their kids would be placed in foster care, but back then the characters in this movie find it a bit eccentric but not at all out of line. Adam is kept in the cage — though just how secure it is is open to question because Kate explains that at the age of 1 ½ Adam could already pick open just about any lock — because if he isn’t, he’ll go to the window and drop water balloons on the heads of passers-by.

Life changes for the Mackays when Laurence gets hired by a New York newspaper to be its theatre critic — a problem because, among other things, the Mackays’ best friend is producer Alfred North (Richard Haydn), who’s about to open a new musical with star Deborah Vaughn (Janis Paige), and as (bad) luck would have it, Laurence’s first review will be of North’s latest production. He can’t stand either the show itself or Deborah Vaughn’s performance, and he says so in print — provoking a hissy-fit from North and a warning from North to Kate that her husband is in danger of becoming a professional wit, savaging even good shows just for the sake of a finely honed bitchy line. Jean Kerr’s book was apparently a series of loosely connected essays about the same people rather than a novel with a conscientiously constructed through line, which challenged screenwriter Isobel Lennart’s (she later wrote Funny Girl) talents to come up with one. What she came up with was a jumpy but nonetheless funny film in which Day’s freshness and vitality enables her not only to cope with those rambunctious kids but deal with her husband’s slide into the sort of bitchy world-weariness that consumed the characters of All About Eve (there’s a cocktail-party scene that can’t help but evoke the comparison). About midway through the film she decides that the solution to their problems as a family is to move to the country, to an upstate village on the Hudson called Hooton, and to that end she fails to renew the lease on the Mackays’ city apartment — and the building manager rents it out to a bizarre apparition, an evidently female veterinarian who, when one of the Mackay kids asks if she’s a man or a woman, says, “Actually I’m sort of in-between.” (This in a 1960 movie — and a Doris Day movie, at that! A woman who’s considered the epitome of the square, though anyone who’s seen Calamity Jane or Love Me or Leave Me will be aware of hidden depths in Day as an actress that weren’t tapped by most of her on-screen roles.)

The Transgender vet says she’s moving in to the apartment in three weeks whether the Mackays are out of there or not — she’s already measuring the windows and the floor — and the Mackays therefore have to buy a house in a hurry. The one they find looks like it came off the horror section of the Universal backlot (I joked that the real-estate agent who sold it to them probably mentioned “the previous owner, Mr. Karloff”), full of picturesque gables and an overall run-down air, and with Laurence scheduled to deliver a book about the theatre he’s contracted to write (his publisher is pushing him to meet the deadline because a book about theatre by a major critic is obviously more salable than one by a minor professor — especially since he’s been getting into public scrapes over his reviews, notably one scene in which Deborah Vaughn confronts him in a restaurant, slaps his face, then does it again because the photographer she brought didn’t get the picture the first time, which neutralizes the review and provides such effective publicity her show becomes a hit) he finds he can’t work with all the carpenters, plumbers, paperhangers and what-not doing the fixer-upper gig under his wife’s supervision. So he goes back to New York and takes a room at the Plaza Hotel for the duration of the remodel — and wifey back home gets involved with the local drama society, the Hooton Players, and begs hubby to find them a play. Hubby has already alienated a cab driver and wanna-be playwright, Joe Positano (Jack Weston), who submitted to him a musical based on the first two books of the Bible (given the success of Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell a decade later, one could argue the guy was 10 years ahead of his time!) and got the brush-off from Laurence, who basically told him to write what he knew.

In another sort of movie that might have been the cue for Joe to write a great play about a New York cabdriver, the Hooton Players to stage it and Alfred North to find it so impressive he arranges for it to be produced on Broadway — but no such luck; instead, as a way of taking the now bitchy and egomaniacal Laurence Mackay down a peg, Alfred decides to give Kate Mackay an old play her husband submitted years before, which was so terrible no producer would go near it. Putting on a pseudonym and a different title, North gives it to Kate, who in turn gives it to the Hooton Players; Kate also stars, and adds a couple of songs to liven it up. One is the title song of the film — the only part I really remembered from my childhood (Kate sings it to her kids in the backyard of their new home after one of them has indeed tried to eat a field of daisies) — and another is a song called “Any Way the Wind Blows,” which represents one of Doris Day’s attempts to compromise with rock ’n’ roll (it’s basically a light backbeat and a loud — by her standards — rhythm guitar part added to a piece otherwise in her usual style) and was apparently originally written for Pillow Talk and actually considered as an alternative title for that film. (Doris also gets to warble a bit of “Que Sera, Sera” in an early scene, provoking one contributor to snipe, “Didn’t we get enough of this crappy tune in The Man Who Knew Too Much??”) Please Don’t Eat the Daisies actually holds up quite well; it’s clever and charming, and David Niven’s world-wise character is actually a better foil for Day than Rock Hudson (to whom there’s an in-joke reference in the dialogue) ever was. I’d thought this might be one of those films from my childhood that would seem lame and dull in the cold light of my current age, but no-o-o-o-o; though the social attitudes of this piece are awfully dated, it’s still quite funny, and the strong supporting cast — including Spring Byington as Day’s mother and Patsy Kelly in her usual voice-of-reason role as the Mackays’ maid — helps a lot as well.