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November 25, 2010

By the Light of the Silvery Moon

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David Butler - 1953
Warner Brothers Region 1 DVD

While most of the story in By the Light of the Silvery Moon does not revolve around Thanksgiving, the best part of the film, the first third makes this Doris Day musical holiday appropriate. A turkey named Gregory, not to be confused with any other turkeys named Gregory, has become the pet of Day's young brother, Wesley, played by Billy Gray. Wesley is so attached to Gregory that instead of taking the turkey to the butcher to be prepared for the Thanksgiving Day dinner, Gregory is freed, and an already prepared, but yet to be cooked, turkey is stolen. Wesley and the rest of the family are in for a surprise on Thanksgiving Day.

By the Light of the Silvery Moon is the sequel to a movie Doris Day and Gordon MacRae did two years earlier, On Moonlight Bay. Both films were adapted from the "Penrod" stories by Booth Tarkington, the guy virtually no cinephile ever talks about when they talk about The Magnificent Ambersons. It's been several decades since I've read any of the "Penrod" books, the misadventures of a teenage boy in small town Indiana, in the early part of the 20th Century. On Moonlight Bay is the better of the two movies because there is a tension between the nostalgia for small town America prior to World War I, and the acknowledgment by MacRae's character of the events beyond Indiana. There's a scene when MacRae jokes about the song, "By the Light of the Silvery Moon", saying that the writer had a glass of beer in one hand and a rhyming dictionary in the other hand. The first film treads the thin difference of feelings towards the past, where one might say they like something "because of" easily replacing "in spite of", where certain aspects of the past are acknowledged as corny, and perhaps more than a bit trite, but are still regarded with affection and humor.

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By the Light of the Silvery Moon displaces the few vestiges of Tarkington's observations in favor of whether or not Doris Day and Gordon MacRae will finally get together. MacRae returns soon after the Armistice, in time for Thanksgiving. His war experience consisted of arriving in Paris when combat has ceased. As much as he wants to marry Day, MacRae has made up his mind to be responsible and get himself established professionally and set aside a "nest egg" first. Day's offer to also go to work to get the couple on solid financial footing is rebuffed, much to Day's chagrin.

A more interesting film would have explored the conflict between tradition and more independent thinking. Day's character is first seen underneath the family car, getting dirty, doing repairs. Later Day repairs MacRae's car when it stalls on the road, coming home from a date. Even though Day does the actual work, MacRae makes a comment giving himself credit. These scenes are among those that contributed to the rediscovery of Doris Day in the mid Seventies as a proto-feminist. The film we have is more concerned about misunderstandings regarding a stolen letter, interpreted as a love letter between two unnamed people.

Aside from the episodes involving Gregory the turkey, the most inspired part of By the Light of the Silvery Moon again centers on Billy Gray as Wesley. A self styled detective inspired by Sherlock Holmes, Wesley writers his own story about his creation, Fearless Flanagan. Outwitting a grown up femme fatale and her three henchmen, Gray appears in his fantasy, a cute parody of detective stories. Gray was fourteen or fifteen at the time the film was made and not very tall. His character of Wesley in this film and On Moonlight Bay could be seen as establishing some of the template used for his best known role on TV's Father Knows Best.

There are probably some better Thanksgiving related movies than By the Light of the Silvery Moon. Without Billy Gray or Gregory, the film is lacks the sparkle of On Moonlight Bay. The only other bright moment is a pause from the story, allowing Doris Day one solo, performed alone. Whatever weaknesses there are in the narrative evaporate at the sound of Doris Day singing, something I dismissed when I was younger and thought of myself as being hip. It only took me the better part of my life and some knowledge of the life of Doris Day to give me something else to be thankful for.

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Posted by peter at November 25, 2010 08:11 AM