Sunday, December 20, 2015

At the (old) movies: 'On Moonlight Bay'

After I noticed that this movie was on the local cinephile society’s schedule, I was reminded of a guy I used to know.

This guy -- I'll call him Al -- was in his sixties when I knew him and was married to a woman I'll call Arlene. They were my older brother and sister’s godparents. Arlene was also my mother’s godmother. Arlene and Al themselves had no children.

In the 1920s Al was a reporter on the newspaper where I later worked. In the 1930s he became a police captain through the good graces of his friend the mayor. If what I remember my mother telling me is correct, they must have been exceedingly good graces indeed, because she said Al came to the force as a captain; apparently he never walked a beat. That must have set real well with the rank-and-file.

Al retired in the 1960s and died a few years later. In the late 1970s, after I had joined the newspaper, I looked up his clip file just for the heck of it.

And I got a heck of a surprise. For along with the usual “longtime police officer retires after decades of service,” there were earlier clips that showed that Al’s retirement came not too long after a woman he had questioned during a case accused him of making a pass at her.

I asked my mother about this, and she said yes, Al did consider himself to be something of a ladies’ man, even if the ladies themselves saw him as something worse than that. Faced with the possibility of being alone with him, most of them went out of their way to stay out of harm’s way.

Poor Arlene.

Al also fancied himself to be a poet, and over the years he wrote what was supposed to be light verse (it was really not so much Ogden Nash as Ogden Gnash) and submitted it to the paper, where he still had friends who would publish it. After he retired, he self-published a book of this verbiage and brought a copy of it over to our house.

I still remember my uncle, himself a published poet of some renown, reading Al’s book and laughing his ass off. He later showed it to a friend, who, after perusing a bit of it, said, “Was it meant to be doggerel?”

As if this weren’t more than enough, Al also thought himself to be quite the piano player. Arlene and Al didn’t have a piano, but it was not unusual for him to sit down at our Story & Clark and torture the ivories.

He never needed to be asked. Then again, I don’t remember anyone ever feeling the need to ask him.

And he seemed to know only two songs.

One of them was – you guessed it – “On Moonlight Bay.”

I like to think that I am nothing if not a fair person, and as I was heading out for the cinephile show, I was not about to let the sins of a semiliterate sexual harasser be visited upon this charming 1951 film from Warner Bros.

Then again, “On Moonlight Bay,” at first glance, is not the type of movie I like much. It begins during what was supposedly a simpler, more innocent time, shortly before the outbreak of World War I. It stars two people who are substantially older than the characters they’re playing. It’s set in a small American town, but it might as well be in Never Never Land.

But in spite of this, the film works, and the audience and I had a good time.

Why does it work? I can think of at least three reasons.

The first is that the screenplay was co-written by Melville Shavelson, who was one of Bob Hope’s better writers, back when Hope was actually funny. Shavelson also was the key writer behind “My World and Welcome to It,” a sadly short-lived TV series based on the works of James Thurber.

The second reason is that its stars, Doris Day and Gordon MacRae, are so charming that they almost wheedle you into suspending your disbelief.

The third reason is the supporting cast, made up largely of folks I used to see all the time on TV and in movies, a class of performers that I fear I and others took for granted: the character actor. In this case, they are Leon Ames and Rosemary DeCamp as Day’s parents, Mary Wickes as a (surprise) maid and Ellen Corby as Day’s brother’s schoolteacher. Talk about typecasting: None of these actors had to stretch themselves much, but they certainly weren’t phoning it in, for they each played their roles better than practically anyone else could have played them.

One bonus: Billy Gray as the boy. I saw him for years as the teenage son on “Father Knows Best.” He was quite good in that, but in “On Moonlight Bay” he shows a talent for comedy that I didn’t know he had, and that sadly doesn’t seem to have been used to its full potential as his career continued.

Earlier I mentioned that the audience had a good time. One reason I like to attend the cinephile programs – even if I’ve seen the movie before -- is to see how the audience reacts. Normally I suspect this film would have gone over moderately well.

But sometimes one person’s reaction can goose the others into enjoying a film even more.

I’m particularly thinking of the scene in which Day is dancing with MacRae. Before the dance, her mother has stuffed a couple of powder puffs into Day’s dress, in an attempt to heighten (or maybe deepen) Day’s appeal.

You won’t be surprised to know that the puffs eventually fall out, and at the worst possible time. The gag was staged well – director Roy Del Ruth was a comedy veteran – and it caused a woman sitting near me to literally screech with delight, and caused the rest of the audience to fall like dominoes as they loosened up and laughed with her and kept laughing throughout the picture.

Would they have laughed so hard if the screecher hadn’t been there? Maybe, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

A sequel to “On Moonlight Bay” was made a couple of years later, with the same basic cast but with a different director and different writers.

“On Moonlight Bay” proved so popular with the cinephile audience that the society might show the sequel next year.

The name of the sequel is “By the Light of the Silvery Moon,” which – have you guessed it? – also is the name of the only other song that good old Al ever seemed to know.

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