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In the seven years following her screen debut in 1948, Doris Day churned out 15 musicals at Warner Brothers. She also appeared in two further non-musicals in the same period. Day wasn't crazy about the hectic schedule but knew that this was simply the way of the studio system. Two of her favorites of the bunch were On Moonlight Bay (1951) and its sequel, By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1953). Both are drawn from the Penrod stories of Booth Tarkington, and both are charming, warmhearted period musicals set in early 20th century small-town America.
"I liked the old songs," Day later said, "and the good old times that those films captured... Everything was sweet. I really wish that I'd lived then." Day also professed a warm affection for the making of the films themselves: "We made [them] back to back and became a real family."
Indeed, much of the cast of On Moonlight Bay returned for the sequel: Day, Gordon MacRae, Leon Ames, Rosemary DeCamp, Mary Wickes, Billy Gray, and a dog named Corky. Day and MacRae -- a popular screen team who had already co-starred four times -- play young sweethearts in 1919 Indiana who plan to get married once MacRae is financially stable. By the Light of the Silvery Moon is one of the only films, in fact, in which Doris Day literally plays the girl next door.
The actress has acknowledged in her memoir (written with A.E. Hotchner) that musicals like this one established her image of wholesomeness. Reflecting upon this, Day declared that she had little say in how her persona developed: "As actors we put ourselves into the guise of a role we are called on to play, and we perform it as honestly as we possibly can; but we have no control over whatever the result of that acting projects upon an audience -- if we did try to exercise this kind of control, the result, I am sure, would be artificial. I never think about what the public expects of me; I am only concerned with what I expect of myself."
Historian Tom Santopietro has noted that "even in these lighthearted Warner Bros. musicals, Doris Day resisted any tendency toward feminine passivity" -- even if this came out just in comic scenes. Her character's self-sufficiency, for instance, is shown in Silvery Moon in a humorous moment where she fixes a car while wearing her ball gown.
Among the more tuneful songs here are "Ain't We Got Fun," "If You Were the Only Girl in the World," "Just One Girl," "I'll Forget You," and the title number. There's also an elaborate ragtime number, "King Chanticleer," in which Day gets to really dance, with other dancers portraying barnyard animals. Choreographer Donald Saddler, whom Day insisted receive screen credit, said that "King Chanticleer" was the most complex number he ever choreographed for the actress. "Doris always made it so easy," he later said. "She just jumped into it so wonderfully. She loved the number because she was kind of tomboyish, anyway. Everything she did was of the moment and real."
By the Light of the Silvery Moon had a smooth shoot and came in a day ahead of schedule. The picture was received warmly by audiences and critics alike, with Variety calling it "excellent entertainment" and praising the music, direction, dialogue, production values and color photography. The New York Times was positive if a bit less effusive, describing it as "a Technicolor memento of small-town life at the end of WWI -- at least, as it rises in the memories of certain gentlemen in Hollywood."
Day's record label, Columbia Records, had Day re-record her songs for a specialized, new version of the soundtrack album. Since Warner Bros. owned the rights to the actual vocals heard in the film, Columbia could only legally release newly recorded versions. It was a common practice at the time, and the album hit #3 on the pop charts.
Day worked with Silvery Moon director David Butler six times, culminating with Calamity Jane (1953), one of their best. Look for Merv Griffin as an announcer with a red megaphone.
Producer: William Jacobs
Director: David Butler
Screenplay: Irving Elinson, Robert O'Brien (writers); Booth Tarkington (stories)
Cinematography: Wilfrid M. Cline
Art Direction: John Beckman
Film Editing: Irene Morra
Cast: Doris Day (Marjorie Winfield), Gordon MacRae (Bill Sherman), Leon Ames (George Winfield), Rosemary DeCamp (Alice Winfield), Billy Gray (Wesley Winfield), Mary Wickes (Stella), Russell Arms (Chester Finley).
by Jeremy Arnold
A.E. Hotchner, Doris Day: Her Own Story
David Kaufman, Doris Day: The Untold Story of the Girl Next Door
Tom Santopietro, Considering Doris Day