Magic Makes a Splash
Updated: Aug 20, 2022
She was the sweetheart of American television, the golden voice of twentieth century radio, a darling of the silver screen and the quintessential girl next door, forever warming her way into the hearts of audiences thanks to her natural poise, irresistible charm and effortless beauty. Her films, in particular, were loved not only for their liveliness, easygoing humor and occasionally heartbreaking experiences, but for the down-to-earth and personable portrayals she brought to them.
In the public eye, Doris seemed so reserved, composed and optimistic (unlike many of her peers whose scandals were dramatically vocalized for all to hear), one would never suspect a lifetime of tragedies and deeply impactful emotional experiences lurking underneath the surface. An extramarital affair in which she caught her father at the age of 10 forever impacted her ability to fully trust men as an adult. A serious car accident left her with leg injuries that prevented her from pursuing a career in dance. The physical abuse endured during her first marriage, meant to cause a miscarriage, nearly cost her the life of her son. Ongoing panic attacks and mental distress made her days of filming seem all the more grueling. A heavy debt left behind by her third husband wreaked havoc on her finances.
But while Doris' private life may not have been a fairy tale by comparison to that of her on-screen personas, despite all the hardships and challenges she endured along the way, she remained a first-class act to the very end.
If there's one characteristic that can be attributed to Doris Day, the actress, it is versatility. Audiences who remember her 1968-1973 TV series, comedy favorites such as Pillow Talk (1959) or The Thrill of it All (1963) and an occasional suspense thriller like the commercially successful The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) can surely vouch for Doris' ability to tackle a variety of genres and play an important part in making them seem believable. But perhaps the most effective genre, which truly launched her career, is that of the musical. And the one that put Doris on the map just happened to come with an all-expense paid trip around the world.
Warner Bros.' Romance on the High Seas, a 1948 remake of 1933's The Keyhole, is by no means Doris' best or most widely remembered film, but it is one that is highly enjoyable, well-made and an interesting find one can discover only by venturing down a Wonderland rabbit hole. Doris herself, then a band singer with no acting experience, could never have predicted the splash she was about to make; by relying on her artistic intuition, natural delivery and director Michael Curtiz's refusal to hire a drama coach in support of authenticity, Doris made a long-lasting impression on moviegoers everywhere and left the studio lot with a signed, sealed and delivered seven-year contract.
Just like her standout roles in 1953's Calamity Jane and 1955's Love Me or Leave Me, the character of singer Georgia Garrett in Romance is one that Doris Day plays to perfection. From the moment she first appears at the desk of a travel agency to the closing scene where she takes the spotlight and gives it her all in front of a proper audience, she is memorable and electrifying, lighting up the screen as so few stars of today do. The story that unfolds is simple and unassuming but serendipitous in the way it propels Doris to stardom, even as Georgia herself makes her debut.
Georgia's journey begins when she crosses paths with Elvira Kent (Janis Paige), a lively New York socialite whose plans to celebrate her wedding anniversary aboard the Southern Queen cruise ship go awry. Suspecting her workaholic husband, Michael (Don DeFore), who is too busy to travel with her, of infidelity, Elvira is determined to stay behind and catch him in the act of cozying up to his new secretary. All she needs is to find someone who will make it easy for her to be in two places at once. Luckily, Elvira doesn't have to look far, nor does she hesitate to offer a first-class ticket to an unassuming Georgia, whom she catches performing "I'm in Love," the first of the film's many musical numbers, at a nightclub.
The street-smart and sassy Georgia is by no means as sophisticated or elegant as Elvira herself, but she gladly jumps on the offer to travel in style — something she's always dreamed of doing but had no financial means to make a reality. As the ship sets sail, with Georgia promising to be on her best behavior, another plot unfolds. Even as Elvira continues setting her plan in motion, aided by her uncle (S.Z. Sakall), Michael concocts a scheme of his own. Wary of Elvira's enthusiasm to embark on the cruise without him, he hires a private detective named Peter Virgil (Jack Carson) to follow Elvira and potentially catch her in the act of having an affair with another man.
Like Doris Day, Canadian-born Jack Carson's career began outside of Hollywood. A promising comedian of the stage, he had initially made his way around the vaudeville circuits and on the radio around the time he received his first movie offer, an uncredited appearance as a gas-station attendant in 1937's You Only Live Once. Since then, Jack has starred in highly rated movie classics such as Bringing Up Baby (1938), Mildred Pearce (1945) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and earned additional praise as a variety program host and TV personality through the 1960s. It is little wonder that Jack, whom Doris credited as a mentor during the filming of Romance, fit the bill of becoming Georgia's unsuspecting love interest and ultimate cheerleader when he himself ended up going for the ride of his life.
Sparks fly almost immediately after Peter first meets the overdressed and heavily accented Georgia, now engrossed in an unlikely Elvira impersonation, and invites her to have dinner with him. It is there that he first hears her sing the "It's You or No One" number, the first of two renditions that appear in the movie, and realizes that there is more to her than meets the eye. Little does he know that he is about to mix business with pleasure and come face to face with a rival whose romantic interests in Georgia may very well rival his own.
Playing the role of Georgia's lovelorn friend, Oscar Farrar, legendary concert pianist Oscar Levant adds plenty of wit, sarcasm and musical virtuosity to Romance. Briefly seen at the beginning of the film, he now boards the ship at one of its ports of call, his appearance further complicating matters for Georgia, who does not return his feelings in the least, and Peter, who believes him to be the mystery lover Michael envisioned all along. But despite the misunderstanding that Oscar causes later in the film, Peter and Georgia continue cruising right along, finding themselves on a fun-filled voyage even as the audience is treated to a glimpse of exotic destinations depicted in a time capsule of a bygone era.
Beginning as early as the 1920s, Cuba was a sought-after destination for many global travelers, including celebrities and socialites like Elvira Kent, who especially frequented the capital city of Havana in search of lively entertainment, top-notch attractions and scenic surroundings they could not find back home. The locale certainly didn't disappoint; casinos, marketplaces, restaurants and nightclubs were readily available and accessible to those who sought them out — while they still could, that is. Given the fact that American travel to Cuba became non-existent in the 1950s, the depiction of the glamorous, exotic tourism in early twentieth-century movies is all the more culturally significant.
Romance is certainly no exception, showcasing an ensemble of breathtaking destinations through a series of whimsical scenes, interactions with loveable locals and catchy musical numbers like "The Tourist Trade" and "Run, Run, Run." Even Jack Carson gets in on the act, lending his vocals to the latter tune in a throwback to and recollection of his theatrical roots. The real showstopper, however, is Doris' introduction of "It's Magic," an unforgettable tune showcased not once but multiple times throughout Romance. Inspired by Doris' captivating rendition, which remains a definitive version, the single was released by several prominent record labels — including Columbia, RCA Victor, Decca and Capitol — and covered by legends Dinah Washington, Tony Martin and Dick Haymes, to name a few, over the years.
The true-to-life chemistry between Doris Day and Jack Carson that lit up the screen in Romance was only the beginning of what would become a trilogy of successful film collaborations. Their pairing worked so well on the screen (and off), that the two were reunited for not one but two musical films — My Dream is Yours and It's a Great Feeling — the following year.
Wise men who claim that only fools rush in must have had Peter and Georgia in mind when expressing the heartfelt sentiment. Both have fallen for each other aboard the luxurious Romance liner, but there is no smooth sailing up ahead. Neither partner can make claims on the other while in the employ of Elvira and Michael. And with no knowledge of Georgia's real identity, Peter finds little consolation in dealing with the situation. Fortunately, he is not alone in dealing with the predicament.
Oscar, who is equally as frustrated by Georgia's lack of affection toward him, runs into Peter at a bar. The two share a heart-to-heart moment while discussing their romantic woes and make a collective decision to return to New York. Even then, their attempts to escape a situation that has spiraled out of control goes awry. Lost in translation, Peter and Oscar find themselves on a plane headed to none other than Rio de Janeiro while Doris Day's Georgia delivers the tongue-in-cheek "Put 'Em in a Box, Tie 'em with a Ribbon, and Throw 'em in the Deep Blue Sea" with the Page Cavanaugh Trio.
The atmosphere becomes even more unpredictable when Georgia is asked to headline an act under the name of Mrs. Elvira Kent, whose place in high society is prominent enough to justify the opportunity presented to her, and a hilarious case of unexpected visitors, mistaken identities and character redemptions ensues. Thanks to an engaging storyline, which takes many twists and unexpected turns, Romance consistently keeps the audiences on its toes and guessing what's next. Can Georgia go through with a performance that will make or break her career? Does Peter have what it takes to forsake his professional integrity in the name of love? Will Michael and Elvira finally cross paths to find marital reconciliation? What sort of a friend and companion will Oscar prove to be when all other attempts fail? These and many other questions are answered in typical Hollywood fashion: with an all-out, bells and whistles grand finale that is every bit as satisfying as every top-notch musical should be.
Part of the reason that Romance is so appealing to watch, Doris Day's presence aside, is its abundance of hilarious situations and impeccable comedic timing. But while its stars are certainly noteworthy of recognition, the wave of talented professionals who were involved in the movie's creative execution — including costume designer Milo Anderson (who contributed 27 outfits to complement Doris Day's own brand of magic), cinematographer Elwood Bredell, composers Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn and conductor Ray Heindorf — are equally as responsible for bringing the movie's visual and musical stylings to life.
Though I've seen a few Doris Day comedies over the years, That Touch of Mink (1962) and Move Over, Darling (1963) being my two favorites, I had never heard of any of her musicals. As such, I was particularly excited to come across a used, out-of-print DVD set of Romance as a precursor to experiencing the rest of her extensive film catalog. I couldn't have known it at the time, but it would take several tries for me to actually watch the film all the way to the end. The disc I bought skipped halfway through the movie, and its replacement wasn't any better. It took some effort for me to find a copy that actually worked, but thanks to Warner Archive, I was finally able to appreciate and add Romance to my collection. In a digital age where countless streaming platforms keep you binge-watching shows and movies online, the outdated concept of buying DVDs of classics that may no longer be in circulation is part of what makes my adventure in Wonderland so current and enticing.