Romance on the High Seas (1948)
This musical at sea stars Doris Day in her first film role. It would catapult her to stardom, but her casting was almost purely by accident. Warner Bros. originally planned to borrow Judy Garland from MGM to star in this film, but she was unavailable thanks to production on The Pirate (1948).
So Warner decided to get Betty Hutton from Paramount, instead. But just before filming began, Hutton announced that she was pregnant and dropped out of the film. Now Warner Bros. was in a pickle. They were desperate for a star, so when the songwriters Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn heard Doris Day sing at a party, they convinced director Michael Curtiz to give her an audition.
This chance came almost too late for Day. She was barely 25, but had already left an abusive husband a few years before and was in the process of divorcing a second. She had a five-year-old son, and despite success as a big band singer and recording artist, she hadn’t been able to break into Hollywood. (Her third movie, It’s a Great Feeling (1949), has several parallels to Day’s real life struggles to get a break in Hollywood.)
She was ready to go home to Cincinnati when the call came from Warner Bros to audition. But she was so worn out and frustrated with Hollywood that she burst into tears in the middle of singing “Embraceable You” for Curtiz! One imagines she gave up on the role then and there.
But fortunately Curtiz and the others didn’t dismiss the weepy singer. As Day’s biographer Eric Braun wrote, instead they gently reminded her that they wanted a Betty Hutton-type full of energy and pizzazz for the part. To which Day replied, “I don’t bounce around. I just sing.”
Despite this odd audition, Curtiz recognized Day’s enormous talent and charisma and offered her the part on the spot. Well done, Curtiz! His instincts paid off and she became a huge star.
As soon as Day was cast, Warner Bros. put her in acting lessons. But Curtiz disagreed with that strategy because he thought that Day had a unique personality that the studio shouldn’t mess with it. He told her, “You have a natural thing that no one should ever disturb. You listen to me, Doris, it’s a very rare thing – do not disturb.” She listened and managed to hang onto her “natural” charisma and onscreen charm.
Although it was her film debut, Day found movie-making easier than expected. Her years of performing on stage had prepared her well, and she remembered that “From the first take onward, I never had any trepidation about what I was called upon to do. Movie acting came to me with greater ease and naturalness than anything else I had ever done.”
Day and her co-star Jack Carson hit it off immediately, which doubtlessly helped Day adjust to her new work. Day wrote in her autobiography that Carson, a movie veteran who was also a sometime boyfriend, was an indispensable ally in her early days of movie making:
[Carson] helped me enormously with my technical indoctrination into movie acting. He taught me dozens of tricks about how to move to precise camera marks without actually looking for them, how to handle myself in close-ups so that my face or profile rather than the back of my head would be in a shot, how to sustain the evenness of a performed scene…. Since we were also going together, we’d often discuss some of these things in the evening, and there’s no doubt that my relationship with Jack helped me considerably in my early going.
Carson had started in vaudeville and enjoyed radio stardom before and during his work in Hollywood. He was a popular character actor (in movies such as Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941) and Mildred Pierce (1945)), before he was promoted to leading roles with Dennis Morgan in the mid-1940s. Warner Bros. teamed the duo in an effort to duplicate the success of the Bing Crosby/Bob Hope buddy films. Warner Bros. hit on a great pairing when they cast Day and Carson together in this film, and they would put the duo in several more movies together.
Besides Day and Carson, this film stars Janis Paige and Don DeFore. Paige was a singer and actress who had appeared in small parts and lower budget films for a few years. Fun fact: she appeared as a student in Bathing Beauty (1944)! (Bottom right pane.)
This would be one of Paige’s bigger movies, though you can also see her in Silk Stockings (1957) with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, and Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (1960) with Doris Day again. She had a long career on Broadway and in television, too. Like Paige, DeFore had been appearing in smallish roles for years. He would act in films until the 1950s when he became famous as “Thorny” on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet on TV.
To the film!
We open with a wedding. It’s an unusual strategy, as generally Hollywood films close with the promise of nuptials rather than start with them. What will the movie be about if our couple is already hitched?
Don’t worry. Conflict bubbles up immediately as the groom grins at a flirty bridesmaid and the bride smiles at a handsome guest. Something is off about this couple.
That “something” is a mutual lack of trust combined with flirty personalities. Socialite Elvira (!) Kent (Janis Paige) loves her husband Michael (Don DeFore) but their marriage is a constant battle. He cancels their anniversary trips at the last minute due to “work” conflicts, and she gets friendly with car salesman and handsome strangers. Neither one fully trusts the other, and it’s their suspicions that propel the plot.
After the wedding, we see Elvira’s diary chronicling the past two year’s anniversary plans. Due to Michael’s “work,” she’s had to cancel the last two trips, but she’s hopeful that on their third anniversary Michael won’t dare fall out. So she visits her travel agency to confirm plans for their anniversary South American cruise.
While there, she overhears Georgia Garrett (Doris Day) chatting with an agent. Georgia is a nightclub singer who can’t afford travel but amuses herself by planning extravagant trips that she will never take. This hobby isn’t as amusing for the agents as it is for Georgia…You can watch the scene here.
Here is Day in her cute beret on the first day of shooting:
After taking some passport photos, Elvira visits her husband’s office. She is not thrilled to see Michael’s glamorous new secretary, especially when she learns that Michael neglected to tell this gorgeous blonde that he is married. I rather like how the secretary matches the flower painting on the wall, though.
Sidenote: this movie is a great example of mid-1940s Technicolor design. Look for scenes drenched in teal, rich brown, pops of red and soft blush, shimmering white, and cerulean. There is tons of that grayish-blue cornflower color, too, as you can see on the walls and the secretary. The visuals are a treat.
The costumes are stunning, too. Ridiculous, but beautiful. Look at this glittery mini top hat tipped just so! Warner Bros. costume designer Milo Anderson was in charge of the designs and they are amazingly over the top.
At the office, Michael tells Elvira that he can’t go on the cruise because he can’t possibly leave the drugstore chain he manages with Elvira’s Uncle Laszlo (S. Z. Sakall) right now. Elvira thinks the cancellation has more to do with the dame in the front office than any work projects.
As she vents her frustrations and suspicions to Uncle Laszlo, her passport photos arrive from the travel agency. But they sent her Georgia’s by mistake, which gives Elvira an idea! That evening, she and Uncle Laszlo visit the vaguely seedy club where Georgia sings.
Georgia’s accompanist and wannabe fiancé is Oscar Farrar (Oscar Levant), who plays the same cynical, apathetic composer/pianist that he always does.
After her song, Elvira invites Georgia to her table for a chat. She explains that she will send Georgia on an all-expenses-paid South American cruise if Georgia travels as Mrs. Elvira Kent. That way, Elvira can stay behind and spy on Michael who will surely act out if he thinks his wife is on an ocean liner far from New York!
Georgia is game. She’s always wanted to travel! Fun fact: the movie sets Elvira and Georgia up as foils: they’re classy/brassy and sophisticated/uncouth respectively, but Georgia drops her low class accent and gum chewing pretty quickly. She’s really a sophisticated broad; she just needed some money and a new wardrobe to bring it out. Says something about class, doesn’t it?
The plan is underway when Michael changes his mind about going on the cruise. He never thought that Elvira would go alone, and he’s concerned that she is meeting a lover or something! But she eventually convinces him to stay home.
Anyway, Michael hires a private investigator and sends him on the cruise to keep an eye on his wife. It’s a good thing the Kents are so wealthy! Not everyone has enough cash to send people on fancy cruises to satisfy their dumb suspicions.
To the ship! Elvira and Georgia elude Michael, his private eye, and Oscar to finally get some alone time in the suite. Well, alone except for all the dead foxes on Georgia’s shoulder.
Elvira wears yet another stunning skirt suit complete with an asymmetrical furry hat and a purse with what appears to be Lucite handles.
Full disclosure: this is not an especially timeless nor riveting classic film. I love it, but it’s a fun, light musical with a farcical plot that’s very of its time. But if you watch it with an eye for the fashion, decor, and other style elements, it can be a lot more interesting.
Anyway, the first night out, Georgia puts on a fancy bright blue gown and runs into Peter Virgil (Jack Carson), Michael’s private investigator. He’s also in black tie, but they’re the only ones. Apparently you don’t “dress” the first night out. So the two misfits head to the bar and eat peanuts in their finery. Georgia can’t help herself and joins the band for a song.
Peter is mesmerized. But also conflicted because he thinks that Georgia is Mrs. Kent, the woman he is supposed to investigate!
Georgia likes him, too, but Elvira warned her about safeguarding Mrs. Kent’s reputation. She follows up the warning with a radiogram about the importance of acting like a good married woman while on the cruise. So it’s goodnight to Peter and off to her cabin, alone.
Let’s pause to appreciate this gown:
In shape, mini-cape, and bustle it reminds me of the pink frontier Barbie dress Day wears in Calamity Jane (1953) a few years later:
Fun fact: Warner Bros. was thrilled with how glamorous Day looked onscreen in Romance, but she thought she looked ridiculous: “pancaked with make-up” and “horrendous hair.” She preferred a more natural look and didn’t cover up her freckles, so she wanted her shots to be redone without the work of the studio make-up department, whom she called the “Warner embalmers!” But of course they kept her super-glamorous look in the movie.
Back to the film! Peter and Georgia/”Elvira” spend happy days together onboard ship and in port. First up is Havana, where a charismatic Cuban (played by Broadway legend Avon Long) serenades the tourists with the surprisingly modern, cutting song “The Tourist Trade.” It’s about how the souvenirs aren’t really made in Cuba but are mass produced somewhere else for clueless tourists, how everything is for hire, and how the tourist trade can support a place but also mess it up.
It’s worth a watch. Fun fact: Hollywood Reporter wrote in 1946 that B-unit footage for this movie was shot in Cartagena, Rio, and Bahia, Brazil.
After this sobering yet entertaining number, Peter and Georgia grab cocktails and Georgia sings “It’s Magic.”
“It’s Magic” would become one of Day’s signature songs. It’s really wonderful–the lyrics are fantastic and it’s gorgeously performed by Day.
I love that fern/feather top. It’s shockingly understated for this movie!
While in Havana, Peter sneaks away to call Michael. He’s sorry to report that “Mrs. Kent” is behaving herself. But I’m more interested in the shots of the operators connecting the long distance call! For more on that, visit my History Through Hollywood: Telephones.
While Peter and Georgia are enjoying cocktails and love songs, Oscar turns up in Havana–he’s decided to surprise Georgia and join the cruise. When Georgia sees him, she flees to her dusky gray-blue cabin and fakes an illness. So naturally Peter fetches the ship’s doctor, played by the one and only Eric Blore.
He’s an hilarious hypochondriac who is more concerned with his own pulse than Georgia’s. He can’t find anything wrong with her, but he gives her a sleeping shot anyway. It seems that doctors used to do that all the time: you complain about feeling a little ill, and they shoot you up with tranquilizers. Roman Holiday, anyone? Here they are filming this scene:
Peter waits anxiously in the hallway, so he sees Oscar enter “Mrs. Kent’s” cabin. He is shocked to witness Georgia fall into Oscar’s arms in her belly-baring negligee. Of course, we know that it’s all innocent and she “falls” into his arms because the sleeping potion kicks in, but Peter thinks the worst.
He rushes to the radio room to cable Michael. (For more on cables/telegrams, visit History Through Hollywood: 3rd Edition.)
The next day, Georgia can’t understand why Peter is suddenly so cold. So she finds Oscar and sings a song of woe that soon turns into the classic “Put ‘Em in a Box” with the ship’s band. I love how everyone is just waiting around to sing with strangers in these movies. What a world, right?
It’s a fun one:
Fortunately for Georgia, Peter softens towards her and they spend another lovely evening together. He just can’t help himself, especially not when he hears her sing this tender song:
Or maybe it’s her chic gown that is worlds away from the bright blue satin number she wore on the first night.
Peter enjoys himself so much that after they say goodnight, he rushes to the radio room to report himself to Michael!
Recognize the radio officer? It’s Grady Sutton, character actor from dozens and dozens of films.
The next day, the ship docks in Trinidad. Both Oscar and Peter send Georgia notes asking her to meet at the same cafe, which puts her in an awkward spot. Remember, Peter doesn’t know she’s really Georgia, and Oscar doesn’t know she’s pretending to be Elvira.
While he waits, Peter sings with a local calypso band before meeting Oscar accidentally at the bar. You can watch it here.
They commiserate over the women they love, not realizing that it’s the same dame. When Georgia arrives, she wisely decides not to approach but instead sends them both notes cancelling the appointments. Then it’s back to the ship!
But the boys don’t return. They get “drunk” though a real drunk at the bar actually drains their drinks and the guys just think they’ve downed shot after shot. You can watch it here.
In their “drunken” stupor they decide to run away from their complicated love affairs and take a plane back to New York. But they accidentally board the flight to Rio, instead, and arrive just as the ship pulls into port. Nice one, fellas.
They run into Georgia in the hotel lobby, but fortunately Oscar doesn’t spill the beans. He recognizes that Georgia is in love with Peter, and lets her have the moment. And the fake identity.
Let’s pause to appreciate Georgia’s set of snakeskin luggage!
It shows up again in Skirts Ahoy! (1952)!
Meanwhile, back in New York, Elvira hasn’t been able to catch her husband doing anything bad. She is terribly frustrated and decides to fly to Rio and join the cruise. At least she’ll get to enjoy part of the trip! Naturally, she has another crazy outfit and flying saucer hat in which to make these decisions.
Down in Rio, Oscar is trying to get a job with the hotel orchestra. But the conductor (Fortunio Bonanova) declines unless Oscar can get his friend “Mrs. Elvira Kent” to perform, too. The show would be a lot more popular with a high society singer! So Oscar convinces Georgia to take the job under the fake name.
Meanwhile, Peter phones Michael and quits the assignment. He can’t investigate Michael’s wife anymore because he is in love with her! Michael is flabbergasted and decides to fly to Rio, too. So now both Kents race south, separately, and arrive at the hotel minutes apart. Ready for some farce?
Michael walks in the lobby and is horrified to learn that his wife is making her “sensational debut” performing “songs in the Society Manner!” It’s not that he’s embarrassed, but he knows she can’t sing!
But his day gets worse. He goes to Mrs. Kent’s room, but of course he stumbles in on Georgia! He goes back to the concierge to check the room number and tries again, but this time he finds Oscar in bed! The slimy concierge (Franklin Pangborn, a favorite of Preston Sturges) is delighted by the confusion and remarks happily that “Rio gets more like Paris everyday!”
As Michael tries to find his wife, Elvira arrives and sees the poster advertising her debut! She is furious with Georgia, but all of that is pushed aside when she learns that Michael is in the hotel, too. Oh, dear!
To keep up her lie about the cruise, Elvira pretends that she has been at the hotel all along. And that evening the show must go on! But which “Mrs. Kent” will sing?
Elvira gets on stage first, but she surprises us all by introducing Georgia to the delighted crowd. I don’t know why she is dressed as a vampire-Heidi, but that’s her business.
Then Georgia wows them with “It’s Magic” in her sparkly white garbage bag of a gown.
You can watch the performance here:
And so we come to the end. Everyone is happy and in love and properly paired off. Peter is thrilled that Georgia isn’t married, and the dysfunctional Kents are happy to be back together. At least for the moment. I’m not sure they’re destined for good things…
Romance on the High Seas was in production from June through August 1947 and premiered the next June. Its working title was Romance in High C, but it was released in the UK as It’s Magic. It was a hit and Day became a standout star with a new signature song.
Fun fact: “It’s Magic” was nominated for an Oscar, but “Buttons and Bows” from The Paleface won. The movie’s only other nomination went to Ray Heindorf for Best Musical Score, but he lost to Johnny Green and Roger Edens for Easter Parade.
Another fun fact: Ray Heindorf makes a cameo and conducts the studio orchestra while Carson and Day sing in It’s a Great Feeling.
Bosley Crowther at The New York Times wasn’t a fan of this movie. In fact, he was downright pessimistic about Day’s abilities and started his review with this dour pronouncement: “As much as we all like to welcome new faces and talents to the screen, it is hard to work up enthusiasm for the Warners’ new starlet, Doris Day. Maybe this bouncy young lady, who came directly from singing with bands to a leading role in that studio’s color musical…has ability and personality. But as shown in this picture…she has no more than a vigorous disposition which hits the screen with a thud.”
Ouch! He spread the blame to the studio, too:
The fault is not hers entirely. If the Warners had tried to pick a show in which a new and untested personality was least likely to succeed, they couldn’t have done much better than this woeful banality. It’s a scatterbrained comedy of errors in which the identities of several people are confused, for completely preposterous reasons, in the course of a South American cruise. And as a brash little night-club singer who is supposed to act like a swell, Miss Day is most plainly the victim of the writers’ unutterable ennui.
Crowther also criticized Michael Curtiz for his direction, writing that, “Not only has [Curtiz] let the young lady spread noisiness all over the place, but he has wasted the few minor talents that he had in a most provoking way. For instance, a fake Calypso number is given to Avon Long to sing and dance, supposedly in Havana, in a distastefully gymnastic display. And an honest Calypso number is turned over to Jack Carson to clown, while Sir Lancelot, a good Calypso singer, is compelled to watch and smile.”
Despite his criticism, this film proved popular with audiences and Day became a star. Warner Bros. threw their new musical darling into another movie with Jack Carson immediately: My Dream is Yours (1949) which was followed by another Carson-Day pairing, It’s a Great Feeling (1949).