Starring Cary Grant as Cole Porter, with Alexis Smith as his wife and Monty Woolley as himself, Night and Day comes under heavy criticism as a biopic which is too fictionalized, mainly for glossing over the fact that Porter was gay.
I viewed Night and Day for the first time knowing only what I’ve written above plus a passing familiarity with the Cole Porter standards performed throughout the movie. Starting with such limited knowledge I think I’m able to do a pretty good job of stepping back from Night and Day and reviewing it as a drama, or even a musical, rather than give it the usual hatchet job it gets for playing fast and loose with the facts.
Fact is the subjects of these types of films always have their lives altered, or at the very least snipped, to fit into the convenient time frame and story structure of Hollywood. For instance, as a big baseball fan I find myself yelling at the screen when I watch The Stratton Story (1949), but then I step back and realize what the studio was trying to accomplish, which is tuck a tight story into a reasonable time frame and entertain the most possible people with it.
I’m not intrinsically familiar with the lives of George M. Cohan nor Al Jolson either, but I do know that both Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) and The Jolson Story (1946) change some facts to create tighter stories, and so I think those are a good pair of movies to measure Night and Day up against. But even after that lengthy preamble, I’m still going to say Night and Day falls a bit flat by comparison to that pair of classic biopics.
Despite the direction of Michael Curtiz, who along with steering Cagney’s Cohan has a pretty decent list of credits (uh, Casablanca (1942), Mildred Pierce (1945), most of your favorite Errol Flynn movies, etc.) and fine performances from Cary Grant and especially Ginny Simms and Jane Wyman, Night and Day failed to captivate me the way either of those other titles I mentioned did.
Quite possibly the reason for that was Alexis Smith playing the girl Porter falls in love with and marries, Linda Lee. Here’s the thing, as I’m getting absorbed in a movie like Night and Day I’d like to find myself falling for the leading lady too, but here I found myself more attached to the other female characters to the point where I had very little sympathy for Linda Lee as Cole gave himself over to his work at the expense of time spent with her.
I found Monty Woolley, who’s delightfully obnoxious Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942), extremely irritating playing the part of himself. Apparently Whiteside was only a mild exaggeration.
Opening at Yale 1914, we follow Porter through his meeting of Linda Lee, to his opening show where the theater empties mid-act as word of the Lusitania’s sinking spreads, onto a World War I battlefield where he is injured by the enemy while composing. From there Porter is reunited with Linda Lee who is a nurse in one of the Army hospitals he’s brought to.
Back to New York where Alan Hale tells him he loves his stuff but that it’s not commercial enough. Porter discovers his tunes are just fine with the public when co-worker Carole (Ginny Simms) sings along to one of his originals in the sheet music department where they work. Cole rescues Monty from an early acting gig as one of many bearded men so they can hustle some cash together to put on a show.
Success comes, Monty departs for Hollywood. Cole heads to London where he is reunited with Linda Lee. Cole finds their reunion spoiled by what appear to be several of Linda Lee’s children interrupting their conversation, but it’s soon revealed that these children are actually just under her care at a Children’s Institute. They marry.
From there we follow Porter through several rehearsals and shows while Linda Lee waits for the promised vacation which never comes.
Porter’s riding accident, which I’d anticipated far more of the drama would revolve around, doesn’t take place until the 111-minute mark of this 128-minute movie. Despite my surprise it does likely make for the strongest possible ending.
The IMDb lists 25 songs on the “Night and Day” soundtrack including the title song as well as standards such as “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “You’re the Top,” sung by Ginny Simms and Mary Martin, whose role here is very brief, singing the song that made her a star, “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.”
The July 10, 1946 review from Variety opens "Night and Day is a smash. It will mop up from New England to New Zealand. It has everything,” and closes “Night and Day takes its place with the screens’ distinguished motion picture entertainments”
While the New York Times of that same date doesn’t like it quite as much: “In Night and Day the Warner Brothers, who are reminding one and all via this picture that they brought sound to the screen twenty years ago, have fashioned a generally pleasant and musically exciting show patterned loosely after the career of Cole Porter.”
I think it’s safe to say that the Times liked Night and Day quite a bit, while Variety loved it. Meanwhile current web site reviews see if differently. IMDb visitors give “Night and Day” a 6.2/10 rating while Amazon.com shoppers score it a 3-1/2 out of 5. Similar scores really and I think my own scorecard is right in that ballpark as well.
A decent movie, worth the time I gave to it, but an overwhelmingly average movie elevated some by a heap of Cole Porter tunes.
For more info:
"Night and Day" review from the Ultimate Cary Grant Pages - includes both the New York Times and Variety reviews.