Tashlin Gets Religion
by Bill Krohn
SAY ONE FOR ME (1959) is the only Frank Tashlin film where religion plays an important role. It features honest-to-goodness icons (Jesus holding a lamb) and religious symbols (cruciform shadows on a wall), but it’s not a religious film like, say, THE VIRGIN SPRING, made in 1960 by Ingmar Bergman. It’s a film about religious people: Debbie Reynolds, Bing Crosby (a priest) and Robert Wagner, who plays Tony, are all Roman Catholics, realistically portrayed. Even the musical numbers are realistically situated on various stages, unlike a Minnelli film, where Fred Astaire can suddenly start dancing in Times Square when the spirit moves him.
Tony is a wolf. He wants to add Reynolds to the collection of women whose pictures adorn the wall of his modest bachelor pad. And even though it’s not stated, Reynolds is a virgin — a logical corollary of the year and her Catholicism. So his aim, once their compatibility is established by dancing together in their first scene, is to deflower her, first by inviting her to dinner, hypothetically ending at his pad; when that fails, getting into her extremely modest pad, with the bed that lets down (a Tashlin gag: he “charms” it like a snake charmer into descending so that he can achieve his goal on it), and when all else fails by taking her to Florida.
She loves him and has the hots for him too, but she has to keep her hymen intact until they’re married, which finally happens at the end of the movie, when they leave the church and get into a cab en route to Florida. 1959 is also the year when Doris Day started her career as a “professional virgin” with PILLOW TALK, a hit that paired her with Rock Hudson. Which came first, the Tashlin or the Oscar-winning sex comedy that wasted Tony Randall, the star of Tashlin’s masterpiece WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER (1957), playing a third wheel? As for Wagner, two years before SAY ONE he played a psychopath who throws his pregnant girlfriend (Joanne Woodward) off a roof to keep her from standing in the way of his plans to marry a rich girl in Gerd Oswald’s A KISS BEFORE DYING (1956). And Reynolds had previously played the purest jail-bait entrusted to Dick Powell in Tashlin’s SUSAN SLEPT HERE (1954). Those torrid 50s!
Reynolds’ ticket is a baby she uses to trick Tony into marriage: a metaphorical shotgun wedding. The baby belongs to an unwed mother whose boyfriend has seduced and abandoned her — something Tony would never do because, despite Papal strictures against birth control, he presumably uses a rubber when he “scores.” Otherwise his wall of conquests would also be full of baby pictures. This is no doubt one of the things Crosby holds against him. But Crosby also believes in sin and redemption. As he explains to the unwed mother, whom he takes under his wing, his church isn’t full of perfect people. And that baby, who just happens to have a “T” on his pajamas, is going to come in handy.
Canny Reynolds turns the “T” to “Tony” by having Big Tony (Wagner) become his godfather, and once the trap is sprung the bait — little Tony — vanishes from the picture. At the wedding of Big Tony and Reynolds, Little Tony’s mother is seen reconciling with her estranged mother, but little Tony, having served his purpose, has presumably been farmed out to Crosby’s motherly housekeeper. Tashlin is too much of a realist not to have had that solution in mind, and too good a director to waste time telling us. After the movie ends little Tony’s mother and her mother will no doubt raise him together, while Reynolds and Big Tony are in Florida making a baby of their own.
This relatively conventional comic plot, with Crosby cast in the role of the senex iratus, skids into surrealism in the Ray Walston subplot, which is more emotional than the romantic main plot and contains most of the Tashlin gags in the movie, spun out of alcoholic song-writer Walston’s stratagems for hiding booze: comic riffs on Billy Wilder’s THE LOST WEEKEND (1945). Walston, who had triumphed playing the Devil in DAMN YANKEES in 1958, plays most of his scenes “drunk,” and Tashlin calibrates the shifts from humor to pathos deftly — we occasionally catch ourselves laughing at something that isn’t funny at all. Like everyone in the film, Walston is saved by Crosby, who tells him to kneel in prayer instead of tipping the bottle to his lips, something any alert denizen of Hollywood in 1959 would recognize as the core doctrine of Alcoholics Anonymous, founded in 1935: the appeal to a higher power to overcome addiction.
The most blatantly surreal image in the film is the round mirror on Walston’s piano, which is metaphorically an empty womb. Impregnated with Crosby’s words of wisdom, Walston will give birth to the new, sober self who pens a song about keeping Christmas in our hearts all year round at the end of the film. The big scene that ends SAY ONE FOR ME is a Christmas special featuring stars like Phil Silvers (whom we briefly see: his sitcom about the peacetime Army was a huge hit in 1959), broadcast on TV to an appreciative audience of Reynolds and her father, whom she has helped recover by working in Tony’s dive. Tony is scheduled to give a show-stopping performance that will lift him out of playing dives and launch his national career, but his coat-sleeves are too short: a repetition of the childhood trauma that kept him from going to church all these years and consigned him to low-rent venues.
But he is saved by the power of confession — a Roman Catholic rite — when he shows the viewers his ridiculously truncated sleeves (fill in the Freudian interpretation here) and turns the show over to Crosby, a much better singer than Robert Wagner, whom the 1959 audience would have been been waiting for.
Made when Tashlin was on a run, SAY ONE FOR ME failed to garner the audience of Leo McCarey’s GOING MY WAY (1944), which had won Crosby an Oscar for his performance as a singing priest. But while this Johnny-Come-Lately compendium of ideas that had worked elsewhere, made in the middle of Tashlin’s winning streak with Jerry Lewis, bombed in 1959, it shines today (even in the truncated TV print) like another Tashlin film maudit, THE PRIVATE NAVY OF SGT. O’FARRELL (1968), where he teamed with his old friend Bob Hope, back from entertaining the troops, to make a boozy film denouncing America’s role in the War of Vietnamese Independence, then in its first decade with the end nowhere in sight.
July 3, 2018
SAY ONE FOR ME will screen March 9th, 2019 (16mm print) as part of Kino Slang at the Echo Park Film Center. See here for information.