Release Date(s)1951 (November 23, 2021)
Studio(s)Warner Bros (Warner Archive Collection)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B-
- Extras Grade: D
Following her film debut in Romance on the High Seas (1948), Doris Day became Warner Bros’ popular singing star in a series of light musicals in which her girl-next-door persona won fans and filled box office coffers. She would have a second career high from the late 1950s into the 60s with a series of romantic comedies. Lullaby of Broadway is one of her early Warner films.
Day plays Melinda Howard, sailing to New York after years as a minor-league performer in London to surprise her mother, the Broadway star Jessica Howard (Gladys George). Unbeknownst to Melinda, the man she meets and performs a number with aboard ship is a Broadway star hoofer, Tom Farnham (Gene Nelson). Also unbeknownst to Melinda, her famous mother’s addiction to booze derailed her career and now she earns a meager living singing in Greenwich Village dive bars.
In New York City, Melinda heads for the fancy address where she believes her mother lives, but it’s actually owned by beer magnate Adolph Hubbell (S.Z. Sakall) and his wife Anna (Florence Bates). Melinda is befriended by the butler, former vaudevillian Lefty Mack (Billy De Wolfe), who is good friends with Jessica. To avoid telling Melinda the sad truth about her mother, Lefty says that Jessica rented the house to the Hubbells while she’s on tour. When Melinda tells him she’s broke, Lefty puts her up in the servants’ quarters. Adolph is sympathetic to this ruse, but is afraid to tell his wife.
At a big party at the Hubbells, where Melinda expects to reunite with her mother, producer George Ferndel (Hanley Stafford) brings Tom to perform in the hope that Adolph will back his new Broadway show. Tom whirls the surprised Melinda into an “impromptu” song and dance. This gets her a shot at launching a Broadway career, but her heart gets broken when Jessica fails to show up. Afraid to face Melinda, Jessica has drunk herself into unconsciousness and been hospitalized with the DTs.
Lullaby of Broadway is slight on plot with just enough story to tie together such song standards as You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me, Somebody Loves Me, Just One of Those Things, Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart, and A Shanty in Old Shanty Town. The finale features Day and Nelson singing and dancing the title song backed by choruses of tuxedo-clad men and women in gowns and fur stoles.
Day, looking fresh-scrubbed and perky, doesn’t have much in the script to challenge her dramatic chops. She’s pretty, has a lovely voice, and emanates star quality—enough to make the picture worth seeing. Photographed in Technicolor, she dazzles, yet her character remains humble and down to earth. Day does a lot more dancing in this film than usual, remaining center stage rather than conveniently dancing into the wings while the chorus does the heavy lifting.
Nelson, whose singing is dubbed, doesn’t have a great deal of chemistry with Day, even when they duet on a couple of numbers. A regular presence in screen musicals of this period, Nelson never achieved the success of Astaire or Kelly and never managed to make his dancing especially distinctive, like Donald O’Connor. He’s serviceable as a secondary lead, never coming close to matching Day’s luster.
Comedy is provided by Billy De Wolfe and Anne Triola (as his fiancee and the Hubbell maid) and S.Z. Sakall, who falls back on his trademark flustered exasperation to elicit smiles. Gladys George sings two songs and disappears, reappearing late in the picture to help tie together the plot elements. That gap is filled by a bunch of mostly uninspired rehearsal scenes and a good deal of innuendo about the relationship between the rich old married man and the beautiful young woman.
David Butler directed Lullaby of Broadway and several other Doris Day musicals for Warner Bros. His helmsmanship is routine, and the tepid material doesn’t give him much to work with. The musical numbers were choreographed by Al White and Eddie Prinz. A bit of imaginative staging involves Day and Nelson dancing together on opposite sides of glass doors. They dance in slow motion in Love the Way You Say Goodnight, a technique used far more effectively by Fred Astaire in Easter Parade a few years earlier.
There’s little pizzazz in the staging of the other musical numbers, especially the finale. The song Lullaby of Broadway was the centerpiece of Gold Diggers of 1935, with huge choruses of men and women, lots of tapping, and creative camera angles contributing to a dizzying spectacle. In an homage to the original staging of the number, the opening shows Day’s face at a distance against a black background. As the camera moves in, her image gets larger as the set becomes bathed with light. Unfortunately, the “big” finale is shot mostly from the audience’s point of view, failing to fully exploit cinematic possibilities.
The oddest number in the film is by the specialty act Carlo and Constance De Mattiazzi as mechanical dancing dolls. With porcelain masks and body movements that range from stiff to limp, they perform their routine after a key “winds” them up. This act displays a lot more cleverness than the film’s major numbers.
Lullaby of Broadway was shot by director of photography Wilfrid M. Cline on 35 mm film with spherical lenses, finished photochemically, and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. On the new Blu-ray release from the Warner Archive Collection, the opening credits look somewhat fuzzy, though the rest of the film is sharp. The Technicolor photography enhances a pleasant combination of bold hues and pastels, particularly in Doris Day’s gowns and the forest green dresses of the female chorus in the finale. Complexions are natural with a bit of rosiness in the cheeks of Day and Gladys George. Shot mostly with high key lighting, the film has the look typical of mid-20th-century musicals, with little use of shadows for dramatic effect. Camera work is ordinary, with no especially interesting shots.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio. Subtitles are provided in English SDH. Dialogue is crisp and precise throughout. For a film this old, the lack of surface noise, crackle, and hiss is impressive. Because of the mono source, the musical numbers sound rather flat and lack excitement. Ray Heindorf’s arrangements are excellent but aren’t heard to full advantage. Day’s vocals are clear as a bell with no distortion whatsoever. The tapping lacks the crispness prominent in other musicals, especially the Astaire and Kelly films. Think of the title number in Top Hat or Moses Supposes from Singin' in the Rain. Perhaps the taps weren’t overdubbed, a process that was common at the time.
The only bonus material on this Blu-ray release is the film’s theatrical trailer, which heralds “A High Note of Song, “A High Note of Dancing,” and “A High Note of Comedy.”
Lullaby of Broadway is not among Hollywood’s best. It’s a good example of a musical star stuck in pedestrian material. Doris Day does her best with the script, but the film comes to life only when she’s singing and dancing.
- Dennis Seuling