The Simple Pleasures of Lullaby of Broadway (1951)
An adorable musical co-starring Doris Day and Gene Nelson, Lullaby of Broadway has long been one of my low-key favorites from Day's filmography. The film follows singer Melinda Howard (Day) as she returns to New York to reunite with her mother, the famous stage star Jessica Howard (Gladys George). Arriving at her mother's house, Melinda meets Lefty and Gloria (Billy De Wolfe and Anne Triola), a pair of vaudevillians who are working as the butler and maid. Lefty informs Melinda that Jessica is on tour and leasing her mansion to the wealthy Hubbells (S.Z. Sakall and Florence Bates), but the truth is that Jessica has become an alcoholic and sings in a Greenwich Village dive bar. When she is admitted to a hospital for her alcoholism, her old friend Lefty helps keep up the charade and loops in Mr. Hubbell, a sympathetic, darling man who winds up casting Melinda in a Broadway show he is backing. Things seem pretty sunny for Melinda as she falls for her leading man, Tom (Gene Nelson), but soon she finds herself confronting rumors about her friendship with Mr. Hubbell and, more importantly, the truth about Jessica.
One of the most winning things about Lullaby is its sincerity. At its core, it's just a film about lovely people being lovely to other people. Lefty is like Melinda's guardian angel throughout the film, while Mr. Hubbell becomes her kind uncle. Both men's admiration of Jessica is very touching -- there is a look De Wolfe gives George as she is singing that just melts my heart every time -- and no one in this film thinks twice about helping someone else out or giving someone a chance. After this past year, it is really nice to spend 92 minutes in that kind of world.
It doesn't hurt that that world is populated by such a terrific cast, either! Gladys George is superb as the unsteady Jessica, bringing the necessary gravitas to the role to give the film its emotional stakes. S.Z. Sakall, natually, is an absolute hoot, as is Florence Bates. I can't remember seeing Anne Triola in anything else before, but she is great opposite Billy De Wolfe, who just might be the film's stealth MVP. A lifelong best friend of Day's, De Wolfe is wonderful whether he is hamming it up in a song with Triola or comforting an insecure George.
As for Gene Nelson, I will never understand how he didn't become a bigger star. Every time he appears in a film, even if his character isn't perfect like in Lullaby, my mood instantly lifts. When this guy moved, it's like his feet didn't even touch the ground. And they often didn't! In She's Working Her Way Through College, he does a number in a gym that starts on a single dangling rope before segueing into basketball, gymnastics, boxing, and tap dancing. In Tea for Two -- another stellar showcase for his and Day's dancing partnership -- he flits up and down a staircase, including the railing. He just floats through the air in things like "The Farm Off Old Broadway" and Lullaby's "Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart." What a ridiculous talent.
While Nelson is not to be missed, the woman who makes it all shine brighter, of course, is Doris Day. She bounces through her scenes like a literal ball of sunshine, but also handles the film's dramatic notes with a tender vulnerability, such as the moment where her character finds out the truth about her mother and all she can do is watch her from the back of a room and silently cry.
Perhaps what impresses me the most about Day's performance here is her dancing. It is well-known that the actress initially wanted to be a dancer before she was involved in a car accident at the beginning of her promising career, which caused her to focus on singing as she recuperated from a serious leg injury. When she was told years later that she would be dancing in Tea for Two, Day's worries about her rusty skills were assuaged by Gene Nelson, who choreographed the film, and his wife, Miriam, who worked with Day one-on-one. The trio worked together again on Lullaby, which Day believed had the most difficult dances she ever did. The finale was especially terrifying to her:
"There was one spectacular number that required me to dance up and down a steep flight of steps while wearing a long dress. ... Of course, Gene was a marvelous dancer and that was a help, but when I walked on that set in my gold lamé ball gown and looked up at that Mount Everest of stairs, I put on the brakes. 'You've got to be out of your minds!' I said, in a loud, clear voice which I hoped carried up to Jack Warner. 'I can't even walk up and down those stairs!'"
Miriam eventually convinced Day she could do it. Once the filming of the number was finished, Miriam made a confession: "Thank God you didn't notice that when I was demonstrating the routine on those turns, I never actually did them for you... Doing turns up and down stairs is too tough for me. Never was able to do it. I guess because it's so dangerous. But you were absolutely super." Indeed she was!
Joyous and sweet, Lullaby of Broadway is one of those unassuming Warner Bros. musicals that just makes you feel good. The numbers in particular are incredible, ably highlighting what a triple threat Day was. Whether singing a peppy version of "Just One of Those Things" in a tuxedo, crooning "You're Getting to Be a Habit with Me," or dancing with a flawless Gene Nelson to "Somebody Loves Me," Day can do no wrong here. It isn't hard to see why so many years later people are still crazy about the woman.
This is my entry to my Fifth Annual Doris Day Blogathon. Join us in celebrating the iconic Day here!