One of the greatest losses the American Musical Theater ever suffered was the premature death, at 29, of Jerry Ross. With Richard Adler, they only collaborated on two full-fledged musicals—The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees!–, but both works are marked with musical dexterity and thematic ingenuity.
Curiously, both film adaptations have been relegated to cinematic after-thoughts. 1957/58 was a transitional period for film musicals. The era of the original film musical was coming to a close, and Hollywood became increasingly interested in capitalizing on the rejuvenation of Broadway (often credited to Rodgers & Hammerstein and their series of mammoth hits) as their primary source material. It wouldn’t be until the early 60s that huge hits like West Side Story and The Music Man cemented the stage adaptation as the primary incarnation of the film musical, but the late 50s already saw Oklahoma!, South Pacific, and Porgy & Bess, in addition to the two Adler/Ross films.
The Pajama Game remains my favorite movie musical that originated on Broadway for many reasons, but one major one is that it doesn’t suffer from the problems that the adaptations of the 60s fell increasingly easy prey to. 60s musicals often felt they needed to “open up” the action by making songs longer, setpieces bigger, and forcing the action outdoors with lots of location photography. This usually meant more expensive production costs, which in turn meant the need to promote the film as more than just a musical, but a spectacle. As a result, a lot of these films suffer from bloat, with plenty of audience-friendly pandering and gratuitous elements that make the films feel elephantine—something they didn’t suffer from on the stage.
When it comes to movies, I’m a big fan of economy—narrative economy and visual economy. You won’t find any showy, bravura camera movements in The Pajama Game, but if you pay close attention, you’ll notice that director Stanley Donen (aka the greatest movie musical director ever) is constantly tracking and reframing the action in fluid and often subtle ways to maximize the performances. The camera’s never static like in a Fred & Ginger film, but it never draws attention to itself either; even in the one big “opening up” number of “Once a Year Day”, the camera’s still at ground level instead of in constant panoramic/crane mode.
Visual economy also means letting the action speak for itself. I’ve long been a proponent that the more editing that occurs in a musical, the easier it is to cheat, particularly in the dance numbers. PjG isn’t much of a “dancing” movie outside of Carol Haney, but letting the camera roll not only allows you to better see continuity in performance, but it increases the intimacy as well (because the cinematic artifice is reduced), and Donen keeps the cut-cut-cutting to a minimum.
I guess what I’m saying is I like the film’s simplicity—the material is so original and the performances so engaging that there’s no need to fancy things up.
I like the fact that it’s one of the few musicals that deals with real economic stakes in the character’s lives without creating glib rich/poor class dichotomies (My Fair Lady, Annie). Although it’s a love story, the central theme remains the yearning of the working class for a better life—it doesn’t romanticize the elite but rather ennobles the concept of upward mobility through hard work and solidarity. This common man element runs through the film and even colors the details—even the main love song (the terrific “There Once Was a Man”) compares historical and aristocratic love stories with the love two working class folk have for each other.
I also like that the love story subverts many of the expectations we have from other musicals. Babe isn’t the classic ice queen alienated from love; she just hasn’t found the right person. But love doesn’t “feminize” her, either. There’s no personality makeover—a male fantasy that musicals often indulge in (hair down, glasses off: voila! Cyd Charisse!). When the chips are down, she doesn’t abandon love out of disillusionment, but because of a higher principle. We actually see what Sid sees in her. And even though Sid’s more of a “guy’s-guy” than the more typical “sensitive” male musical lead (Crosby, Astaire, Kelly), he’s still the starstruck romantic of the duo.
But none of this stuff matters if the film isn’t good, and boy is it ever. The songs are clever and catchy, the staging of the numbers charming and memorable, and the performances great fun (with the possible exception of Eddie Foy Jr.‘s comic “stylings”). Raitt is one of film’s great one-hit wonders. He’s got charisma to spare, and a terrific voice, but the remaining baritone parts by then were few and far between (Howard Keel took most of them already) and he seems too full of energy to be contained on the screen. Day (the only major cast member not part of the original stage production) is quite good and a far cry from the tedious virgin she’d incarnate just a few years later. And Haney is equal parts goofy and smokin’ when it’s her turn to showcase her dancing abilities.
I do miss “A New Town is a Blue Town” (the only cut song I might’ve put back in), but Raitt still has his classic signature tune “Hey There” (with the dictophone duet an inspired touch). “Steam Heat” and “Once-a-Year-Day” are bursting with energy, “Hernando’s Hideaway” (Robert Frost jokes aside) delivers on the match conceit, “I’ll Never Be Jealous Again” is genuinely funny (Foy’s fine when the music’s on; his cut number “Think of the Time I Save” was also a winner), and “Seven-and-a-Half Cents” is an irresistible way to wrap things up.
For me, it’s never a film that blows me away initially. But the cumulative effect, scene by scene, is always so satisfying that it becomes a film I end up falling for over and over again. Most people I talk to have never seen it, but end up being surprised at how something that good could’ve escaped their attention for so long. I’ve always imagined it would be a great candidate for a high school production (great subject, low demands on the dancing, easy-but-colorful production values) or for a theatrical revival (I’ve never seen one mounted that I can recall). I wish the DVD had a better transfer (a lot of the colors are muted and dingy compared to the original feature), but it still doesn’t diminish the quality of the film for me one bit.
So, let the new version of the SDMB Musical Lovers’ Salon & Debating Society commence!