With television luring people away from the movie theaters and onto their sofas, the landscape of Hollywood saw a huge sea change. On top of that, the crumbling of the studio system and the changing mores of American society was causing studios to desperately grasp onto whatever was popular. Hoping to maintain their air of respectability, as well as giving audiences’ something they couldn’t see on their televisions, the ’50s and ’60s was dominated by Broadway shows hitting the silver screen. The Pajama Game ran for 1,063 performance, winning the Tony for Best Musical in 1955. It was only a matter of time before Hollywood came calling, but by the time they did the movie musical wasn’t what it used to be.
Sid Sorokin (John Raitt) is the new superintendent of the Sleeptite Pajama factory where its workers are currently petitioning for a 7 1/2 cent raise. He immediately is at odds with the factory’s grievance commissioner, Babe Williams (Doris Day), though it isn’t long before the two fall into each other’s arms. But when the workers have had enough, Babe and Sid are forced to figure out where their loyalties lie.
The Pajama Game is a romantic comedy, but it’s also about the need to pay workers fair wages (still a relevant topic it seems). Those two elements might not feel so odd on-stage but they come off like oil and water on the screen. The opening scene almost implies the Sleeptite Pajama factory is a sweat shop, with a dour interior and the workers rapidly singing a song about not wasting time. The fact that a 7 1/2 cent raise is actually going to change their lives fundamentally is shocking, particularly since this is 1957.
That being said there is an air of fantasy that only Hollywood could infuse into a story about labor relations. (This isn’t Waiting for Godot.) Each of the workers have their own personalities and issues, mainly Hines (Eddie Foy, Jr.) and his extreme, and unprovoked jealousy, towards his wife Gladys (Carol Haney). We never know these characters outside of the confines of the factory or other factory events leaving the film audience to wonder how much of the play has been condensed?
The adaptation of The Pajama Game was one of two musicals Hollywood wanted to adapt courtesy of George Abbott, he of Damn Yankees fame. In fact, considering Bob Fosse choreographed this film and his wife, Gwen Verdon, starred in the film version of Damn Yankees, AND that it appears this movie utilizes the same sets, they’re kissin’ cousins. Both films also appear to lose something in the translation. All films have an awareness that they’re movies; characters sing directly at the camera, sometimes break the fourth wall, etc. But with Broadway shows turned musical there’s an added element of stage quality. The camera never goes for anything grand, content to just stare at the actors performing leaving everything feeling staid.
And considering Hollywood was gobbling up every musical it could get, some didn’t always receive the A-treatment. Thirty-four percent of The Pajama Game’s original cast came over for the film production, which was unheard of at the time. But the film never does anything with them. Haney and Foy, who reprised their roles, are little more than a squabbling couple with murderous intentions (though Haney, Fosse’s long-time dance partner gets to strut herself during the “Steam Heat” number). Reta Shaw is little more than the matronly overseer of the factory. Really, this is a star vehicle for John Raitt, one of the top Broadway stars at the time.
Raitt, a combination of Kirk Douglas and Jack Palance, lacks any true sense of charisma and his interactions with star Doris Day are so tepid. The only time the two come alive is when they’re singing which happens a lot. It’s almost as if the Abbott and co-director Stanley Donen realized how little lust their leads exuded and sought to hide it with music. Songs like “There Once Was a Man” show off their ability to perform and dance well together, but there’s no sexual chemistry. Even in a song that’s literally about hooking up, “Small Talk,” Day looks flat-out uncomfortable.
Day was the one stipulation the studio made regarding casting, demanding a big-name star lead the picture. They initially wanted Frank Sinatra to play Sid, with Broadway’s Janis Paige reprising her role as Babe. That makes sense considering the film is about Sid’s character, not Babe’s. Instead this is a Doris Day movie with large swathes of her off-camera or mired in the ensemble. Babe Williams is certainly a type of woman Doris would have played.
She understands that the power dynamics between her and Sid are imbalanced and thus they shouldn’t be dating (the film plays this as a Romeo/Juliet thing but we know better). Regardless of her love – I don’t buy it – for Sid, Babe never gives up on her principles, especially once she’s fired and sets up a worker’s strike. Hearing her sing “Hey There,” a song I’ve only heard performed by Illeana Douglas and Rosemary Clooney was particularly awesome.
The Pajama Game wasn’t for me. I certainly wouldn’t list in my Doris Day top 5 because it’s really not her movie. Haney and the supporting cast work well, but Day and Raitt just don’t have the chemistry to make this sing. Warner Archive’s re-release in the wake of Day’s death certainly gives us an opportunity to revisit this, but it’s not much.
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.