Romance and Commerce on the High Seas

No treadmill, just cleaning today, and another old movie to keep me company. This time, I was fascinated by a scene or three from Doris Day’s film debut, 1948’s Romance on the High Seas

The plot is, of course, just as complicated and silly as a romantic comedy plot from this time period should be. Husband thinks Wife is cheating. Wife thinks same of Husband. Husband has to bow out of a South American cruise with Wife, so he hires a private detective to follow her around on the cruise. Wife suspects husband is up to no good, so she hires a nightclub singer (Doris Day) to impersonate her and go on the trip instead, while Wife stays in a hotel near home to keep an eye on Husband. Doris Day sings a lot and is just too damn cute (which is her specialty). Doris Day and detective become An Item. Doris Day’s smitten piano player complicated things further by following her on the trip, and threatens to blow her cover as Wife. There are hijinks and misunderstandings galore until the zany happy ending, at which point it all gets sorted out for the best. There are splendid character actors crawling out of the woodwork, goofy situations a-gogo, and some pretty fabulous gowns on display. There is a doctor who gets violently sick at the smell of marinated herring (a gag that makes more sense when you know the stereotype about broke musicians eating lots of herring).

The most fascinating bit of the film to me, though, was a musical number early in the show (one in which, oddly enough, Doris Day doesn’t sing): “The Tourist Trade”. As far as I can tell (without doing extensive research), it’s a Havana-based adaptation of a song originally about Hawaii. I couldn’t find the number on YouTube, but I did find the Morgan Sisters doing the Hawaiian version, and it’s rather enlightening.

What’s especially interesting about the version of the song in Romance on the High Seas is that it clearly offers a “local” voice (performed by the splendid Avon Long) that quite openly and gleefully and cynically tells the audience exactly what’s going on. The trinkets are from Terre Haute, because no tourist will buy what the locals make, but they want a souvenir. The stereotypes are all put out in force, because that’s what people expect to see, and it’s what they’re paying for. “Havana” is mispronounced, because the true Havana is not the place people come to see. It’s a surprisingly naked admission, and not quite what later viewers have been in the habit of expecting from “old” movies. The picture of the time period that those of us who didn’t live through it are given is one allegedly drawn from such films — squeaky-clean sweetness and a kind of innocence and uprightness that contemporary films (supposed to be laden with irony and weary with “naturalism” or “gritty realism” of some kind or another) no longer show us. I think this picture is manifestly false, and that one of the best things about watching films from the 40s and 50s, even when they show evidence of undoubtedly heavy content censorship, is how clear-sighted and honest and clever they can be about the seamy realities of their world. 
That this should be true even of Doris Day’s debut makes me smile, for some reason.

About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15 years or so), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've just finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. For now, I labor at a fairly interesting administrative job in order to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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