December sees London’s BFI Southbank pay tribute to a true cinematic icon and all-round American sweetheart, Doris Day. The actress (now in her 90th year) was the quintessential girl next door of the age, and enjoyed an unparalleled run of hits for a female star in the fifties and sixties, even causing ‘Master of Suspense’ Alfred Hitchcock to cast her against type in his classic 1956 thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much. Her star was firmly on the ascend, however, when she starred in Roy Del Ruth’s ultra homely coming-of-age musical romance On Moonlight Bay, all the way back in 1951.
The film depicts an idealised (and idyllic) view of small-town American during the First World One, and Day plays Marjorie Winfield, the daughter of a wealthy bank manager who falls for the college-educated boy from across the street, Bill Sherman, played by Gordon MacRae (who is first introduced sporting one of those giant, nebbish-looking red knitted sweaters). Marjorie, a tomboy by nature, decides to learn how to dance in an effort to behave more ladylike with her young suitor, although he has decidedly unconventional views of his own, much to the chagrin of Marjorie’s no-nonsense, old-fashioned Pops.
It’s interesting to note that underneath the chirpy optimism and ‘gee whizz’ sincerity, the film is really about two young adults who are uncomfortable with the social norms of that era. Marjorie firmly believes in equality between the sexes, while Bill’s liberal viewpoint on marriage and capitalism is pretty radical too, with the latter providing a humorous moment which sees the young man naively going off on tirade against banks in front of Marjorie’s father, whose reaction is apoplectic.
This isn’t to say On Moonlight Bay is some kind of leftist manifesto sneaked out by the studio under the guise of light entertainment, and for the most part, this is an unmistakably jaunty and wholesome product of that time. The musical numbers are highly memorable, yet subtly done, and the tropes of the genre (pretty much in their infancy here) see a series of misunderstandings threaten to pull the two young lovebirds apart, until the (inevitable) happy ending. The two leads are fantastic, but the film is almost stolen from under them by Billy Gray as Marjorie’s precocious and impish 12-year-old brother, Wesley, who thinks nothing of stealing his sister’s love letter to pass off as unproduced homework.
The film was popular enough to spawn a sequel (a rarity back then) two years later with By the Light of the Silvery Moon, which once again deployed the same formula as the first film, with equally successful results. Over 60 years since its initial release, On Moonlight Bay remains a fun and charming snapshot of classic Hollywood, and more than adequately illustrates why Day is deserving of this retrospective.
For more info on the BFI’s Doris Day Season, visit whatson.bfi.org.uk.