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Some of the gags in the 1963 romantic comedy Move Over, Darling may seem repetitive and oversized, but watching its two stars in action - Doris Day and James Garner -- for even a minute or two makes it clear that the picture is more than just the sum of its parts. A remake of the 1940 farce My Favorite Wife, starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, Move Over, Darling features Garner as a man who's just about to remarry, after his wife was lost at sea five years ago. Lo and behold, Day shows up alive - looking adorable in a pair of borrowed sailor's dungarees - just hours after Garner has tied the knot with his new beloved, an over-psychoanalyzed handful of trouble played by Polly Bergen. The hijinks that follow reach almost absurd proportions, aided and abetted by some marvelous supporting players: Don Knotts shows up, delightfully, as a docile shoe clerk enlisted by Day as part of her plan to get her husband back, and Thelma Ritter is the mother-in-law who, rather than just being meddlesome, makes everything right in the end. And together, Day and Garner are like kids who have just been let out of school unexpectedly: They're emotionally and physically rambunctious, two troublemakers on a tear. It's the sort of chemistry that's so visceral, somebody could get hurt - and somebody actually did, although she had the grace and good humor to laugh it off.
At the time Move Over, Darling was made, Day was married to Martin Melcher, who produced the film. And although the picture was very much in the vein of madcap romantic comedies Day had done previously - like the 1962 That Touch of Mink and the 1959 Pillow Talk (the latter of which, like Move Over, Darling, was directed by Michael Gordon), it was made at a point when Day was under the thumb of her husband, who would, in the course of the early to mid-1960s, drive her to the point of nervous exhaustion. Melcher had married Day in 1951, just a few years after the aspiring actress - who'd already embarked on a singing career - had begun her film career at Warner Bros. (Her first picture was the 1948 Romance on the High Seas, with Jack Carson and Janis Paige.) Day was one of those immediately likable performers whose career took off like a shot, and Melcher availed himself of plenty of the attendant financial benefits. Their marriage would last until his death, in 1968, but few would defend Melcher as the ideal husband - least of all Day's Move Over, Darling co-star.
James Garner is notoriously reticent about giving interviews. According to Raymond Strait's 1985 Garner biography, the star was quoted, around the time Move Over, Darling was being made, as saying, "I'm not a great windbag. In fact, being interviewed makes me feel funny. I absolutely hate publicity. . . . I'd rather dig a ditch than do an interview." But surprisingly enough - or maybe not - Garner's honesty has made him an invaluable, candid oral historian. In the 1976 A.E. Hotchner biography, Doris Day: Her Own Story, Garner doesn't mince words in expressing his feelings about Melcher: "Marty was a hustler, a shallow, insecure hustler who always ripped off fifty thousand dollars on every one of Doris's films as the price for making the deal." Although Melcher set himself up as executive producer on Day's films, he'd rarely show up on the set, and when he did, Garner would avoid him: "You don't get too close to a guy like that, just good morning, no conversation, and keep your hand on your wallet." He caps off the tirade with the kind of bold assessment nobody in today's Hollywood would ever dare to make: "I never knew anyone who liked Melcher."
If Garner is damning about Melcher, he has nothing but affection for Day, and the feelings seem to be mutual. As Day says in Garner's 2011 memoir The Garner Files, "Jim and I only worked together twice, in Move Over, Darling and The Thrill of It All . He's so good at what he does...I felt married." Garner goes even further - he's clearly the kind of actor who can acknowledge the sexual charge he feels with a fellow performer without turning it into something prurient or cheap. In Doris Day: Her Own Story, Garner says that of all the women he's played love scenes with, Day and Julie Andrews - both of them, he notes, "notorious girls next door" - were the sexiest. "Playing a love scene with either of them is duck soup because they communicate something sexy which means I also let myself go somewhat and that really makes a love scene work," Garner says. "You just can't do that with someone you don't like or who's a lump unless you're a hell of an actor and I'm not that good an actor." Garner also called Day "the Fred Astaire of comedy," meaning that she could switch acting partners effortlessly -- and she always made her partner look good.
In Move Over, Darling, especially, Day's gifts as a physical comedienne are on full display: Disguised as a Swedish nurse, she chases a semi-naked Polly Bergen around a bedroom; she tumbles into a pool with great gusto; she tussles with Garner in a way that suggests, but doesn't spell out, the frustrated sexual frisson between the two characters. Day, in her youth, had hoped to be a dancer, and although a car accident curtailed that dream, she could really move on-screen, nimbly and with a remarkably game spirit. She's the kind of performer who's up for anything, and not even a cracked rib or two could ever stop her. In Hotchner's book, Day explains that Garner, "a man of heft and muscle, picked me up under his arm a little too enthusiastically and cracked a couple of my ribs. I made that movie mummified with adhesive tape, which made it difficult to breathe and painful to laugh." And years later, Day - who has remained friends with Garner through the decades -- would still be able to laugh about the incident: In The Garner Files, she's quoted as saying, "Jim, if we don't speak for a while, I forgive you for breaking my ribs. Both of them. Don't give it another thought."
Producer: Martin Melcher, Aaron Rosenberg
Director: Michael Gordon
Screenplay: Hal Kanter, Jack Sher (screenplay); Leo McCarey (story); Bella Spewack, Samuel Spewack (1940 story and screenplay "My Favorite Wife")
Cinematography: Daniel L. Fapp
Art Direction: Hilyard Brown, Jack Martin Smith
Music: Lionel Newman
Film Editing: Robert Simpson
Cast: Doris Day (Ellen Wagstaff Arden), James Garner (Nicholas Arden), Polly Bergen (Bianca Steele), Thelma Ritter (Grace Arden), Fred Clark (Mr. Codd, hotel manager), Don Knotts (Shoe clerk), Elliott Reid (Dr. Herman Schlick), Edgar Buchanan (Judge Bryson), John Astin (Clyde Prokey), Pat Harrington, Jr. (District Attorney).
by Stephanie Zacharek (Stephanie is the chief movie critic for Movieline - www.movieline.com)
James Garner with Jon Winoker, The Garner Files: A Memoir, Simon & Schuster, 2011
Raymond Strait, James Garner: A Biography, St. Martins Press, 1985
A.E. Hotchner, Doris Day: Her Own Story, Bantam Books, 1976