“I’ll See You In My Dreams” was, surprisingly to me, Doris Day’s biggest grossing film of the fIfteen she made until “Love Me or Leave Me”. It’s not that it’s a bad film; in fact it’s quite good. But it’s much less known now than “Lullaby of Broadway”, “Calamity Jane”, or “Young At Heart”. Although it has plenty of music, it’s not really a musical but a biopic about song lyricist Gus Kahn and his wife Grace. It’s also in black and white, unusual for a Day movie, but for a long time black and white indicated a more serious film and color was for out-and-out musicals and lighter pictures. It may be that the biographical nature of the film brought in members of the movie audience who weren’t into the usual frothy fare of Day’s musicals.
Secondly it’s not about a truly famous or compelling character who the audience would be curious about. Though some might know his name, few would have been able to say exactly what he did. Gus Kahn was not a public figure like, say, George Gershwin or Cole Porter. On top of that he was a lyricist and it’s usually the composer of the music who gets most of the attention. Lyricists only get noticed by the public if they’re part of a regular team, like Oscar Hammerstein II, Lorenz Hart or Hal David and even then, not so much. But unlike them, Kahn worked frequently with Walter Donaldson, but also with many other composers over the years.
But in many ways this worked in favor of the film. With no real preconceptions the audience could simply accept the story as it was and not be upset about any of its details. Hollywood biopics have always been mostly fiction anyway as they have to make a film about someone who despite some accomplishments probably lived a rather uncinematic life the rest of the time. Though Gus Kahn died from a heart attack in 1941, Grace lived till 1983 and was an advisor to the writers of the screenplay. As such, I have to take it on faith that there is at least some basic accuracy here. What we do learn is that Gus and Grace were a team and without her he might not have done so well. She is played by Doris Day.
She’s teamed up with Danny Thomas as Gus. That threw me the first time I saw this film years ago. Having grown up with “The Danny Thomas Show” (aka “Make Room for Daddy”) it was hard for me to not see the zany Danny Williams character in his scenes. Happily I got over that and it didn’t figure in on this, my third viewing. Thomas had been a well-known radio actor and even had his own show. He made only a handful of films. I think Grace wanted an actor who was somewhat like Gus and standard leading men of the day were just too Anglo-American. Danny Thomas, whose family came from Lebanon was able to express Gus’ ethnicity. He’s nice in the role of a man who was a little coarse and rough around the edges, matter of fact about most issues and at times too proud for his own good.
He and Day work well together as actors and seem to be a real couple throughout the movie. Of course it’s Day’s lively presence that really ignites the film. She had a special quality that shone through in all her films and she always looked dazzling, though even more so in color. They are assisted by an able cast including Frank Lovejoy as Walter Donaldson and Patrice Wymore as Gloria Knight, a star of Broadway. Her big song is, ironically, “Love Me or Leave Me” (and was dubbed by Tommy Dorsey Band singer Bonnie Lou Williams). Though Ruth Etting sang the song originally in “Whoopee” one of the big hit shows of 1928, I don’t think Gloria Knight is supposed to represent Etting. The Knight character is single and free-wheeling while Etting was closely tied to gangster Moe Snyder.
There’s lots of music here, though having written so many songs, many are heard in shortened form or as parts of several movie montages that move the plot along. Day does most of the singing, of course, but Thomas gets “It Had To Be You” and a “Whoopee” duet with Day. Still, you could not call this a Doris Day musical. The acting is shared with Thomas the main focus of the film. It’s a biographical drama with songs. All in all this is a sweet film and easy to enjoy.