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For most of her film career, Doris Day was typecast in roles - many of her own choosing - that exploited her wholesome screen presence and sunny disposition. It was this image that moviegoers fell in love with in her musicals (The Pajama Game, 1957) and lightweight sex comedies (Pillow Talk, 1959), making her one of the most popular and highest paid actresses of the '50s and '60s. What tends to be overlooked, though, is Day's occasional foray into drama roles. She could be impressive when matched with a gifted director such as Charles Vidor (Love Me or Leave Me, 1955) or Alfred Hitchcock (The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1956). Or she could be overwrought (Storm Warning, 1951) and unintentionally funny (Julie, 1956) in less talented hands. Midnight Lace (1960) falls into the latter category with Ms. Day maintaining a high pitched hysteria throughout the narrative while looking fabulous in her seventeen costume changes by Irene (she received an Oscar® nomination for her designs).
Directed by David Miller, Midnight Lace may not be great art but it's consistently entertaining as a Hitchcock imitation, just like Miller's previous "damsel in distress" suspenser - Sudden Fear (1952) starring Joan Crawford. Day is cast as Kit Preston, the American wife of a wealthy London businessman (Rex Harrison). One night while walking alone through a thick fog, she is stalked by an unseen tormentor threatening her in an eerie, unidentifiable voice. The assault on her mental state continues as the mysterious voice terrorizes Kit by phone, even as she tries to convince her husband, Scotland Yard and anyone who will listen that her life is in danger. The culprit and his motives are eventually revealed in a climax set in a deserted construction site, high atop some scaffolding. Preposterous, yes, but nothing is as wacky as that high pitched voice that spooks our heroine. It might have scared audiences in 1960 but now it sounds like a character on The Cartoon Network, one you might encounter on "Courage, the Cowardly Dog" or "Aquateen Hunger Force."
Interestingly enough, Doris Day didn't want to make any more thrillers after Julie but her husband/co-producer of Midnight Lace, Marty Melcher, convinced her to do it. The reason she didn't want the part was due to simple vanity. "I might look at some of the terror scenes in Midnight Lace and see how awful I looked. My mouth crooked, my hair mussed, my eyes swollen, my dress a shambles," she revealed in her autobiography, Doris Day: Her Own Story (co-authored by A. E. Hotchner). Her main objection, though, was the emotional demands of the role, particularly the scenes where she was in grave danger. "To convey the terror of my reaction I re-created the ghostly abuses of Al Jordan [Day's first husband, 1941-1943]. In one scene in which I had to become hysterical, I imposed on myself that moment when I was pregnant and ill, and Al Jordan burst into my room, dragged me from the bed, and hurled me against the wall. I wasn't acting hysterical, I was hysterical, so that at the end of that scene I collapsed in a real faint. Everyone was terribly alarmed. The director, David Miller, suspended further production. I was carried to my dressing room. Marty and Ross Hunter [executive producer] hurried to my side. My pretend life and my real life had fused. I just can't walk away from a scene and shed my emotions."
Myrna Loy, who was cast as Aunt Bea, had a much less stressful experience and recalled the filming in her autobiography, Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming: "I have nothing but the best to say about Doris Day. She was wonderful to me, really lovely...The men were another story. Rex Harrison was in a strange kind of mood, no doubt because his wife, Kay Kendall, had died. He had very little time for me or anybody else, as far as I could tell; he did his job and that was it. John Gavin, whom Ross was trying to groom into another Rock Hudson, was a very handsome man who didn't quite have what it takes. I used to tease him about his right-wing proclivities. "You'd better be careful," I warned him. "You shouldn't be seen with me." He must have been careful - he rode Reagan's coattails right into an ambassadorship [he served as US ambassador to Mexico, 1981-86]."
As for Rex Harrison, he later admitted in his autobiography, A Damned Serious Business, that it was a pity he couldn't have played opposite Day in a romantic comedy - his specialty - where he would have taken the Cary Grant or Rock Hudson part. Still, the two actors established a good rapport and despite Day's brief on-set "breakdown," Harrison wrote "she credited me and my "light sense of humor" for helping her keep her sanity while we shot the rest of the picture. That was nice of her, but I'm not sure how well I was hanging on to my own sanity at the time!"
Producer: Ross Hunter, Martin Melcher
Director: David Miller
Screenplay: Ivan Goff, Ben Roberts, Janet Green (play)
Cinematography: Russell Metty
Film Editing: Leon Barsha, Russell F. Schoengarth
Art Direction: Robert Clatworthy, Alexander Golitzen
Music: Frank Skinner
Cast: Doris Day (Kit Preston), Rex Harrison (Tony Preston), John Gavin (Brian Younger), Myrna Loy (Aunt Bea), Roddy McDowall (Malcolm), Herbert Marshall (Charles Manning).
by Jeff Stafford