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The Pajama Game (Stanley Donen) 1957


    To combine social realism with the 50’s Hollywood musical seems impossible, but Stanley Donen nearly brings off that improbable match in his 1957 film The Pajama Game. Real world issues are the last things one would expect in a Doris Day vehicle, and Donen doesn’t really burden the audience with a sense of societal strife. What he does do, however, is incorporate the political concerns of the movie, which follows a group of unionized textile workers, into the cushy framework of his musical. The songs are as likely to make reference to pay raises and work quotas as love. It’s really a subversive move, sneaking radical political thought into a genre as conservative as the Hollywood musical is, and that we don’t feel pounded on the head by that message is no small achievement. That we’re able to occasionally forget the real-world significance of the film and enjoy ourselves is almost amazing.


    Auteur theory seems awfully suspect whenever you look at a musical, since the genre’s fusion relies on the successful collaboration of so many talents. The transcendent enthusiasm found in the best musicals is definitely present here, but I wouldn’t dare give all of the credit to Donen. The Pajama Game is based on a highly successful play that ran for a few years before the film was made. Certainly, the performers, especially Doris Day and Carol Haney, give this material their all, infusing each scene with infectious gusto.  John Raitt (Bonnie Raitt’s father) play’s Day’s love interest / supervisor with a good degree of affable charm, and the subsequent romance is engaging. Bob Fosse’s imaginative choreography and the great set design transform locales as unlikely as the work floor and the picket line into chorus lines. Considering the subject matter, the costuming is appropriately grounded, usually going for grit over glamour. There’s little to complain about here.


    It must be said that most Donen’s best moments in the film are those that focus on the spectacle of the dancing. “Steam Heat” survives the transfer to the screen mostly intact, and shines as a result. The “Hernando’s Hideaway” number is especially impressive, since it consists mostly of faces lit by match light. The singing sequences crop up often enough that we scarcely have time to worry about the logistics of the story. Occasionally, the plot rises to the surface, however, and when it does the results are better than one might expect. The Pajama Game isn’t exactly Norma Rae, but it certainly isn’t trying to be. As such, it represents one of the better musicals of the era, and a fascinating fusion of two disparate genres.


* * * 1/2


Jeremy Heilman