JEAN-LUC GODARD memorably hailed The Pajama Game, George Abbott and Stanley Donen’s exhilarating 1957 movie musical, as “the first left-wing operetta.” The first, and maybe the only: The film, an adaptation of the hit 1954 Broadway show, centers on labor unrest at the Sleep-Tite Pajama Factory, whose employees are threatening to strike if their demand for an hourly seven-and-a-half-cent raise isn’t met. The Pajama Game, a Bob Fosse–choreographed paean to worker solidarity made during the decade when union membership in the US was at its peak, takes on particular poignancy when seen in today’s era of outsourcing and permalancing.
Loyalty to the union is so important that it derails the romance between Babe Williams (Doris Day, the only principal performer in the film who wasn’t in the Broadway cast), the head of the grievance committee at Sleep-Tite, and Sid Sorokin (John Raitt), the factory’s new superintendent. “No matter what’s with us, Sid, I’m gonna be fightin’ for my team and fightin’ hard,” Babe emphatically spells out to her boss, reminding him just how political the personal is.
Beyond the cognitively dissonant pleasure of seeing the tenets of socialism espoused in a Warner Brothers musical, The Pajama Game will convince audiences of the inaccuracy of the notion of Day as a symbol of virginal, fanatically scrubbed blandness. First appearing on-screen in a light-blue patterned utility smock and surrounded by several Sleep-Tite female staffers devoted to her, Day, peroxided head cocked, fearlessly confronts Raitt about a complaint that’s just been filed against him. The actress’s entrance was greeted by several wolf whistles at a Pajama Game screening I attended almost three years ago, a lusty response that’s fully warranted: Day’s Babe is sexily, supremely self-assured, a sensuous proletariat rousing the members of Local 343 in cherry-red pedal pushers. (Babe’s confidence may have been a reflection of Day’s own: “I must emphasize that I have never had any doubts about my ability in anything I have ever undertaken,” the actress says in her 1975 autobiography, Doris Day: Her Own Story). A Day-Raitt duet, “There Once Was a Man,” remains one of the most ecstatic love songs from films of the 1950s, rivaled only by Day’s solo “Secret Love” from Calamity Jane (1953). Once Sid and Babe reconcile—after the union’s demands are met—you can only imagine what their pillow talk might be.
The Pajama Game screens November 6 at Walter Reade Theater as part of its “The One, the Only Stanley Donen” series, which runs November 3–10. For more details, click here.