Tea for Two was the last in a pair of movies TCM showed last night as a tribute to Doris Day — the other was Love Me or Leave Me, a far superior film and one that really challenged Doris Day to act (it was a biopic of 1920’s singer Ruth Etting and her struggle to get out from under the control of her gangster manager, Moe “The Gimp” Snyder, memorably played by James Cagney) — it was made in 1950, was Day’s fifth film and her first with Gordon MacRae, with whom she made five musicals that are considerably more charming than MacRae’s later roles in the big-budget productions of Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! and Carousel (roles that required far more acting chops than MacRae had, and also a more powerful singing style than MacRae’s pleasant but carefully cultivated blandness). Tea for Two, like a lot of Day’s other early films, had its roots in Warner Bros.’ acquisition of the Chappell music-publishing company in 1931; this gave them the rights to virtually all the major musical songs from the 1920’s, including the entire Gershwin catalog, and when added to Warners’ own songs from the 1930’s (particularly all the great Harry Warren songs from the Busby Berkeley musicals) this gave them a formidable list of selections to hand Day, MacRae, the spectacular dancer Gene Nelson and the other “regulars” in these movies to perform instead of having to commission new (and considerably weaker) songs.
Tea for Two is a sort-of adaptation of the 1925 stage musical No, No, Nanette, though the current prints feature a giant red splotch across the screen where the creators of No, No, Nanette (Frank Mandel, Otto Harbach, Vincent Youmans and Emil Nyltray) were originally credited so it looks like the screenwriter, Harry Clork, made up the whole story afresh. The film starts in 1950 with a framing scene in which the adolescent children of Nanette Carter (Doris Day) and Jimmy Smith (Gordon MacRae) discover a trunk full of preposterous-looking clothes. Their great-uncle, J. Maxwell Bloomhaus (S. Z. Sakall), criticizes them for making fun of the 1920’s and, deciding to tell the kids what the era was really like, starts telling them the story of how Nanette and Jimmy got together in the first place. (Ironically, during the bulk of the film, set in the 1920’s no one is shown wearing the flapper dresses or raccoon coats that so amused the teenagers in 1950. They wear fully contemporary hair styles and clothes, including the far more revealing 1950-era swim suits in the scenes set around a swimming pool.) The film flashes back to 1929, in the wake of the stock market crash; Nanette is an heiress who gave her money to Maxwell to manage — only he put it all in the market at the high point of the boom and lost it, while his business partner William “Moe” Early (Bill Goodwin) kept his and his clients’ money in government bonds and thereby rode out the Crash. (The idea that the government is a safer investment than the private sector itself dates this movie.) Nanette is being courted by scapegrace Broadway producer Larry Blair (Billy De Wolfe), who wants to marry her for her money and also wants her to put up $25,000 for his production. She’s also being courted by two of the show’s participants, Jimmy Smith (Gordon MacRae),who’s written the songs for it (actually mostly by Vincent Youmans with a few interjections from the Gershwins), and star dancer Tommy Trainor (Gene Nelson).
The gimmick is that in order to weasel out of giving her the money without actually telling her he’s lost his entire fortune, Maxwell hits on the idea of making Nanette a bet; if she can answer all yes-or-no questions “no” for the next 48 hours, she can have the money for Larry’s show. (The idea of Doris Day as someone who literally has to be bribed to say “no” can’t help but recall Oscar Levant’s famous bon mot, “I knew Doris Day before she became a virgin.”) Maxwell recruits Pauline Hastings (a deliciously astringent Eve Arden) to be Nanette’s “minder” and make sure she doesn’t cheat. There’s also an intrigue between Larry and Bea Darcy (Patrice Wymore), whom he hired to play the lead role in the show and was also courting, though now he wants to replace her with Nanette in both departments, and a Summer Stock-esque plot twist by which the entire cast of the show comes to Nanette’s upstate New York mansion to rehearse it. The plot is rather silly but it’s basically an excuse to hear Doris Day and company warble some of the greatest musical songs ever written, including “Tea for Two,” “I Know That You Know,” “I Want to Be Happy” and “Do-Do-Do,” and at the time she made this movie Doris Day’s chops as a jazz singer were still blessedly intact — her backings are pop-swing and she sings off the beat and phrases, habits she abandoned later when she realized she’d sell more records if she strait-jacketed herself in the pop mold. Tea for Two was the kind of polished, pleasant “entertainment” movie I wanted last night, perked along by the pleasant personality of Doris Day — who became the number one female musical star almost overnight with her first film, Romance on the High Seas, and was at the peak of Hollywood popularity throughout the 1950’s even though her acting skills weren’t really challenged until the 1953 film Calamity Jane (Day’s favorite of her own films and a remarkable gender-bending musical Western that was modeled on Annie Get Your Gun but to me turned out better than its model).