Doris Day is an actress of rhythms. She has differing modes of performance operation, and depending on the starring (or occasionally, supporting role) vehicle, she can crank it up or tone it way, way down. She uses her inherent wholesomeness as a shield, a way of hiding her substantial sensuality and beaming inner light. She’s often mislabeled as the world’s oldest virgin, mainly because her movie roles had her equal, not underneath, the leading men. In many ways, she is the role model for future actresses, trading femininity for friendliness while never losing the intelligence and spark that made her a star. She herself gave up her celebrity at the start of the 1970s, concentrating her efforts instead on charity work—especially animal rights and advocacy. As a result, she remains a part of a certain time, a relic reminding us of a period when paternalism still dictated the way in which married people performed their roles.
So when one thinks about it, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies is the perfect Doris Day picture. It’s light and airy, like a sitcom made spectacular by the setting and the circumstances (it’s no surprise the film—derived from a best-selling book by Jean Kern—eventually became a short lived TV series). It employs formula elements like uncontrollable bratling children; decrepit, money pit style country homes; and eccentric cab drivers/playwrights who want to derive entertainment out of the most bizarre subject matter (a musical version of The Bible, for one) to pad its pleasantries. It lets Day take the lead, but only in service to her spouse David Niven, and never allows the possible unpleasantness of the real world (adultery, antagonism, sex) to step into the picture. From the beginning, this is a movie about rediscovering your center, about remembering what is important in life. And like all good old-fashioned Hollywood films from the time period, home and hearth are where your true loyalties should lie.
Our story starts in Manhattan, 1960. Larry Mackay (Niven) is about to become the talk of the town. The failed playwright and drama teacher has just been hired as a critic for the biggest paper in the city. And wouldn’t you know it, his first assignment is a doozy. He must review old friend Alfred North’s new show, starring the high-strung diva Deborah Vaughn. The show is a bomb. Of course, things at home aren’t much better. Wife Kate wants the family to move to the country, a situation better suited for the four young boys that make up the rest of the Mackay brood. This means a major commute for Larry, and when he spends more time in the city (especially in the occasional company of Ms. Vaughn), Kate gets suspicious. Can she save her marriage, or will she be too busy screaming “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies” to the children?
While it may be hard to see it, you can actually witness the birth of the high concept motion picture comedy here. It may not be as obvious as the far-reaching films of the ’80s, but you still can see how name performers are being placed in outrageous positions to twist contrivance into conviction. Of course, Niven has to become an egomaniac—how else will he learn humility? Of course the children must be city spoiled urchins—how else will they learn the magic of the country? Deborah Vaughn must be an extreme. The same with Alfred. Otherwise, the eventual leveling of their characters wouldn’t mean as much to the narrative. Similar to Day’s predetermined pitch (read: manic and perky), Please Don’t Eat the Daisies is tuned to a plane of preposterousness that can only exist in the movies. Larry would never allow himself to be humiliated with his own poor play in real life (a true plot contrivance if ever there was one), nor would any right-thinking adult buy a Gothic dump like the one the Mackays purchase in the country. Indeed, what Daisies wants to do is set up outrageous situations, hoping the humanity will seep through. Thanks to the terrific acting all around, it does—but not without some bumps along the way.
Perhaps the best storyline in the film doesn’t involve Day, the children, or the move to the country. Instead, David Niven gets the award-winning arc as he moves from theater professor to high-powered media critic for a major New York paper. Slowly, over the course of Daises, Niven’s Larry goes from meek moralist with integrity to maintain, to sanctimonious fourth estate dictator with a sense of self-importance larger than any actor he’s critiquing. Naturally, this leads to a fine dramatic double whammy as old friends try to get back at him while starlet Janet Paige (as Vaughn) tries to seduce him. Basically, while Doris is home playing with the wee ones, David is being wined and dined for his praise and positive reviews.
The rest, sadly, is pure Hollywood artifice. It’s bad enough trying to envision Day married to Niven (a similar situation occurs in her pairing with Rex Harrison in Midnight Lace). Day is just too American, too crafted out of Kansas corn, California sun, and Bible Belt basics to warrant such a steak-and-kidney stiff upper lip. Also, the kids are a central casting nightmare (though it is fun to see future My Three Sons sibling Stanley Livingston as one of the manic Mackays), biology playing no part in their look or their personalities (how Niven and Day raised such delinquents is a question for cinematic psychiatrists to ponder). Yet, somehow, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies manages to make its points with humor and heart. This is neither a laugh-out-loud farce, nor is it really a pointed study in character. It is the melodrama version of comedy—not quite farce, but close enough in tone to warrant a mild comparison. Instead, this is urbanity taken to tired extremes, with only the expert cast and journeyman direction of Charles Walters saving the silliness.