Holiday Classics: ”On Moonlight Bay” (1951)

On Moonlight Bay” has often been written off as a less-impressive copy-cat of another holiday staple, 1944’s “Meet Me in St. Louis.” The reasons for this are obvious, because the two films share some remarkable similarities. Both are musicals set over the course of one year in a turn-of-the-century Midwestern family’s life, divided into chapters that change with each of the four seasons. Both heavily involve a romance between the family’s older daughter and the boy next door. And both feature actor Leon Ames in the role of the family’s patriarch. Few movies get much better than “Meet Me in St. Louis,” but “On Moonlight Bay,” with its bright and nostalgic Technicolor sets, early 20th century tunes, and winning lead performance from Doris Day, proves to have plenty of its own charms.

The Winfield family at the center of the story consists of father George (Ames), mother Alice (Rosemary DeCamp), daughter Marjorie (Day), younger son Wesley (Billy Gray), and housekeeper Stella (the always funny Mary Wickes). Directed by Roy Del Ruth, the film is based on Booth Tarkington’s “Penrod” stories, but it was decided to center the narrative around the older sister rather than the younger boy, in order to spotlight Day, who was a top box office star at Warner Brothers at the time. Day’s Marjorie starts the film as a grubby tomboy who would rather play baseball with the guys that engage in more typically ladylike activities, but she immediately changes her tune when she meets neighbor Bill Sherman (Gordon MacRae). If “On Moonlight Bay” has one big flaw, it’s this apparent indictment of girls enjoying stereotypically male activities, and that Day’s abandonment of them happens so quickly. But Day convincingly portrays Marjorie’s awkwardness as she tries to grow into womanhood, and she has great chemistry with MacRae in their third of four film pairings.

Doris Day sings a Christmas ballad as Gordon MacRae looks on in ”On Moonlight Bay”

“On Moonlight Bay” consists of a lot of little vignettes, from Wesley’s bratty behavior (there’s a really clever sequence in which the film turns into a black and white silent movie for a few minutes) to the conflict between Bill and George, who doesn’t approve of some of Bill’s beliefs, particularly his apparent disdain for the institution of marriage. As wholesome as “On Moonlight Bay,” this actually got the movie in some hit water with the Breen office, who claimed that violated Hollywood’s production code. Of course everything works out in the end in a story that takes us right up to the start of World War I, and one of the highlights is a scene set over Christmas. Day dances with snowmen and sings a lovely, little-heard song called “Christmas Story” (I’ve also seen this song referred to as “Merry Christmas All”) after a hilarious misunderstanding between her and Bill.

“On Moonlight Bay” further cemented Day’s status as America’s sweetheart (even though she was already embarking on her third marriage around the time of this film’s release) was a big hit at the box office, so much so that Warner Brothers immediately greenlit a sequel, 1953’s “By the Light of the Silvery Moon,” for which almost all of the cast of the first movie returned.

“On Moonlight Bay” is available to rent on most digital platforms. Runtime: 95 minutes.

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