The promise of the American dream is a dead-end billboard in Michael Curtiz’s significantly cynical and bittersweet musical My Dream Is Yours (1949), a film thematically concerned with fabricated aspects of artistic integrity, sacrifice, jealousy and the flighty complexities of stardom. Set amidst a world of products that endlessly reinforce a better sense of self-worth, aggressive marketing driven by men who live off the ulcers that will eventually kill them and the pastel-colored realm of advertising that systematically churns out impressions of reality, this subversive musical about a young woman who has a soaring singing talent that brings her to a point of success that threatens an established male star is a remarkably poignant cautionary tale that paints a heroic image of the perpetually sacrificing woman.
In a world where sponsors dictate the trajectory of an artist’s career, Michael Curtiz delivers three archetypal figures in his film who are all slaves to an industry that is now living in the shadow of what was something relatively special, but now stepping suspiciously with great prudence in a turf that is sceptical and unsure. Curtiz’s pillars are Doug Blake (Jack Carson), a hardened agent, Gary Mitchell (Lee Bowman), an egotistical crooner and Martha Gibson (Doris Day), the classic ingénue but for a new age. Doris Day’s Martha Gibson is a single mother who has had it hard, working for a lowly salary as a sing-a-gram in a progressive world of the big band musician. Curtiz presents an industry that is very much invested in the artistry of women and what women can offer, with “all-girl swing bands” recording in major studios, conducted by tough-as-nails broads who insist their leading vocalists “Just be good”.
In My Dream Is Yours, women are powerhouse endorsements of a promising new world and Doris Day comes to represent a vital optimism in a society so perplexed by consumerism. However, it is the much-loved star in Lee Bowman’s Gary Mitchell who stands in as the old guard who believes he is being neglected and forgotten. As the film moves forward, Gary romances Martha and forces her to re-examine her career with hopes she would give it up in order for his to continue to soar. After all, the role of the male crooner seems to have the upper hand in the big picture, as here exists an undeniable sex appeal where female fans “Ooh” and “Ahhh”, whilst women musicians will soon discover that it is harder to find an audience – this acts as a pseudo-backbone to Gary’s plight. As the third component to this trio of figureheads, Jack Carson as the ambitious and constantly stressed agent does not fit the mould of a regular opportunist that audiences would come accustomed to in backstage musicals of the past. Here, Carson’s agent is a sensitive man, covered in flop sweat only because he cares so much about Doris Day. In reality, Carson himself would be heavily influential on Day’s career, and this film somehow plays off such a dynamic with him portraying a talent scout as a steady and compassionate, decent gent. What makes the film even more impressive is the focus on domesticity as the alternative, and also as the backdrop, to the world of commerce and arts.
Themes of choice run heavy in the film. The sheer fact that the construct that forces Doris Day to choose between sacrificing her career for a world of domesticity is handled with innovative sensitivity and doesn’t give clean cut answers is a testament to Michael Curtiz’s genius. What Curtiz also does is present a series of set pieces and segments where there are images of Jack Carson dressed in an apron, cooking for Doris Day, which sets a tone complicating gender roles which are now being re-evaluated in a period that is supposed to be so “traditional”. Also, in one super poignant sequence, Day’s son asks if Carson is his “daddy”, which confuses the jittery bundle of nerves, but also warms Doris Day’s heart. This is a film that delivers Day as a woman determined to do whatever is right for righteousness sake, and much of this comes to the needs of her child who seems to be lost in a world of cartoon bliss – Bugs Bunny being his hero.
There is also a fantastical segment in the film which features the wise cracking Bugs in what is a celebration of childhood fantasy, but also wish fulfilment – here, Doris Day’s son imagines his mother and her “friend” as two rabbits performing an Easter-flavored number that both serves plot as well as tributes the Warners legacy of Looney Tunes cartoons and its heroes such as Bugs and Tweety Pie.
The holiday of Easter is an interesting factor to contribute here in My Dream Is Yours — while the world of what would be a forties institution being the Woman’s Picture is definitely a hangover here for a fifties (mostly) diegetic musical, Easter is used to point out a reference of rebirth, resurrection, reinvention and Spring purity that will lead to togetherness and affection. Artists relating to one another in both careerist terms as well as romantic ones pops up again a year earlier in Easter Parade (1948) (a film more explicitly about the holiday) where Fred Astaire neglects to see Judy Garland as more than just a musical partner and sometimes jeopardises his position with her.
Outside of the trinity of aforementioned characters and as substitute “aunt” of sorts to Doris Day’s somewhat lonely child, there is Eve Arden – stoic but funny, classy but street-wise, modern but also not shy of some sense of romance. Arden plays a business woman who works alongside Jack Carson, and while she is not a cynic, she most certainly is a careerist who works hard; the perpetual business minded woman who is someone who has seemingly made all of her sacrifices off screen. She shares her house with Doris Day and there seems to be a sisterhood that bridges worlds – a single mother in Day, and a woman who has had those opportunities (if one wishes to call them such) swiftly pass by in favour of an alternate life. Arden’s hard edges counter Day’s openness and hearty healthy freshness, and while the blonde beauty becomes the “new star”, Arden guides her career as much as Carson does. There is something wonderfully settled in solidarity here, Arden sees in this single mother a chance of a lifetime, and someone who deserves this, and rightfully so, seeing that she is blessed with unparalleled talent. Of course, the course that runs is most certainly not a smooth one, and an edgy sense of darkness sifts into the fold.
With some semblance to George Cuckor’s A Star Is Born (1954) with James Mason’s unstable artist falling into a vortex of alcoholism while Judy Garland continues to shine (albeit through painful tears), My Dream Is Yours eventually delivers a musician on a downward spiral with liquor leading the way. New Hollywood maestro Martin Scorsese would profess his love for the film by using it as a powerful source of influence for his tribute to the backstage musical and big band musical in the gritty and sometimes terrifying New York, New York (1977), where the tumultuous relationship between Robert DeNiro and Liza Minelli – two musicians who rely on one another but also suffocate each other with devastating desperation – is an extension of the Mason/Garland and Bowman/Day doomed romances. When Lee Bowman fumbles his lyrics singing the title song – a man now cursed by drinking – Doris Day joins him and saves him. With her voice, Day has redeemed a man who was once great. The sequence where he insists that they “concentrate” on his own career, and that there is no room for two careers in one relationship, we bear witness to Doris Day as a figure perplexed by human insincerity and emotional abuse. Doris Day’s magnificence as a versatile actress is on show in just that one moment, as she watches her partner surrounded by ogling fans and selfishly lapping up his own success which is not at all something attributed solely to his own work – after all, he was “saved” by Day.
Doris Day’s vocal ability – a singing voice that has to be considered one of the most important throughout filmic history – provides a booming freshness and an openness that is the personification of an age in desperate need of an optimistic outlook. However, this is not a vocal style that exudes an innocent naivety; instead this is a smooth melodic timbre that is forged from an informed voice. What audiences must not forget is that Day would be one of the great big band singers (as noted by historians such as Molly Haskell and Jeanine Basinger), and what Day’s voice represents for a period in cinema is an insight into changing worlds. Here, in Michael Curtiz’s dramatic and emotionally stirring film, Day’s singing is both a celebration as well as a cry of uncertainty for all careerist women moving within the realms of an Atomic Age that offers “big breaks” but also shatters dreams in the same cold dead breath.