Spy Games: Frank Tashlin & Doris Day Go Undercover


In the late ‘60s Doris Day starred in two spy spoofs directed by Frank Tashlin, THE GLASS BOTTOM BOAT (1967) and CAPRICE (1968). At the time Day was 43-years-old and one of Hollywood’s biggest stars but her career was in decline. Critics seemed to relish taking potshots at the movies she appeared in while launching full-blown attacks on her squeaky-clean image. Day was commonly referred to as “the eternal virgin” and when the sexual revolution heated up the middle-aged actress was unfairly pigeonholed as a perpetual square. The fact remains that while many actresses were regulated to the role of sex object, wife or mother, Doris Day often played independent working-class women with professional careers who reluctantly fell in love. And while Day’s characters may have been prone to clumsy mishaps and verbal blunders, she was usually able to outsmart her male costars. Frank Tashlin seemed to understand Doris Day’s strengths as a performer and in THE GLASS BOTTOM BOAT and CAPRICE I think he has lots of fun playing with critical assumptions and expectations.

Frank Tashlin began his career working on animated cartoons for Warner Brothers and his directing style often reflected his artistic background. Slapstick inspired sight gags and vaudeville infused humor were Tashlin’s specialty and his films routinely mixed social satire with brilliant visuals that incorporated the director’s pop art sensibilities. The stars of Tashlin’s most acclaimed movies such as Jerry Lewis (ARTISTS AND MODELS) and Jayne Mansfield (WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER?) occasionally resembled Looney Tune characters so it’s not too surprising that the director may have been eager to work with Doris Day. The actresses’ broad appeal, quick wit and willingness to do just about anything for a laugh must have appealed to Tashlin’s funny bone. Day had shown a natural flair for physical comedy in films such as CALAMITY JANE (1953) and SEND ME NO FLOWERS (1964) but in THE GLASS BOTTOM BOAT and CAPRICE Tashlin enabled Day to deliver the most physical performances of her career.

In THE GLASS BOTTOM BOAT Doris Day plays a middle-aged widow who works as a tour guide for an aerospace research laboratory during the week and spends her weekends in a mermaid costume entertaining passengers on a Catalina Island tour boat owned by her father (Arthur Godfrey). She meets her potential love interest (Rod Taylor) after he accidentally hooks her on his fishing line and manages to remove her mermaid tale. Doris is left aghast and “bottomless” in the ocean and refuses Rod Taylor’s help after he makes a few wisecracks. She even threatens him with arrest but Taylor counters with, “They’re going to have you arrested, going around without your bottom!” This funny exchange sets up the entire premise of the movie, which is part sex farce and part spy spoof. Director Frank Tashlin and scriptwriter Everett Freeman were clearly manipulating the actresses’ good girl image by kick-starting their movie with a bare bottomed Doris Day. We eventually learn that Rod Taylor’s character is actually Doris Day’s boss at the aerospace laboratory and he’s working on a top-secret device called GISMO (Gravity Inertial Stabilization Man Observatory) that can overcome the effect of weightlessness in space. Day and Taylor naturally end up falling for one another but their relationship gets complicated when Taylor’s staff begins to suspect that Day is a spy sent to steal GISMO. The supporting cast includes Paul Lynde, Dom DeLuise, Dick Martin and Edward Andrews who all deliver funny performances as the ensuing mayhem threatens to permanently put an end to Day and Taylor’s budding romance. Director Frank Tashlin intended THE GLASS BOTTOM BOAT to be a humorous commentary on modern technology and its effects on our lives so the film is filled with funny gags involving vacuum cleaners that run amok as well as misinterpreted phone conversations that cause havoc. While it might not be as slick as Jacques Tati’s PLAYTIME (1967), which had similar intentions and was released the same year, THE GLASS BOTTOM BOAT does have its own off-kilter charm.

One of the films funniest moments allows the audience inside Rod Taylor’s head while he imagines Doris Day dressed up in a series of spy get-ups including a sexy Mata Hari costume that recalls one of the director’s best known Warner cartoons, PLANE DAFFY (1944) that featured a seductive animated spy called Hatta Mari. The movie also contains some worthwhile musical numbers including Day’s “Soft As the Starlight” and a funny bit where she playfully sings the film’s title song and eventually breaks into her popular hit, “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)” originally heard in Hitchcock’s espionage thriller, THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1956), which also starred Day.

Critics weren’t particularly kind to THE GLASS BOTTOM BOAT. Vincent Canby of The New York Times called it a “frantic failure” but audiences embraced the movie. It was a box office hit and that’s largely due to the natural chemistry between the film’s leads. Doris Day and Rod Taylor only made a couple of films together but their screen romance is believable and seems genuine so it’s easy to imagine the two lovebirds sailing off into the sunset together. The success of film led to Doris Day and Frank Tashlin working on a second espionage comedy titled CAPRICE, which is more adult in nature but I find it just as funny and somewhat more effective than THE GLASS BOTTOM BOAT.

Like it’s predecessor, CAPRICE begins with someone losing their “bottoms” but this time it is actor Larry D. Mann as a hapless police inspector. Mann suffers this indignity at the hands of Doris Day who’s introduced as a brassy industrial spy working in the beauty industry while trying to sell trade secrets between rival cosmetic companies. Day eventually meets her match in Richard Harris who’s secretly working for the government while trying to put an end to Day’s corporate hijinks. Like THE GLASS BOTTOM BOAT, CAPRICE contains many self-referential jokes including a scene where Doris Day’s character visits a theater showing a movie that happens to also be titled CAPRICE. The film even contains a funny scene involving a bugged sugar bowl that’s reminiscent of a similar scene in THE GLASS BOTTOM BOAT concerning a tray of hors d’oeuvres set up to record important information that ends up failing spectacularly. But the differences between the two films are more interesting than their similarities.

Tashlin’s directing choices in CAPRICE are more self-assured and progressive. He takes bigger chances here and in turn the film has a more polished and stylized look. Music and sound effects have always played an important part in Tashlin’s films and in CAPRICE the sound design and soundtrack are particularly impressive and Doris Day’s character seems to reflect Tashlin’s confident direction. She wears eye-catching white wigs, big sunglasses and mod fashions with bold patterns and bright colors that occasionally make her look like a comic figure from a European spy story (much like Monica Vitti in MODESTY BLAISE; 1966). And unlike her somewhat dimwitted character in THE GLASS BOTTOM BOAT, Doris Day is an action-oriented heroine in CAPRICE who climbs hills, outruns bad guys, falls out of balconies; snow skis and eventually finds herself dangling from a helicopter. This would be an impressive feat for anyone but Doris Day was 44-years-old at the time and in 1967 most actresses were (and still are) forced into motherly roles at that age. Unfortunately critics didn’t exactly see things my way.

When CAPRICE was released critics ripped it apart and the harshest criticism was hurled at Doris Day who was called “too old” for the role and the wardrobe. Judith Crist even compared Day to an aging drag-queen recalling Pauline Kael’s opinion that Day was too “butch.” In 2012 these kinds of criticisms seems particularly bizarre, wrong-headed, sexist and essentially homophobic but they also reflect the outdated idea that a 44-year-old actress should “act and dress her age” lest she risk the wrath of some conservative minded critics. Whatever you might think about the movie, Doris Day didn’t deserve the pummeling she got for making it.

Today THE GLASS BOTTOM BOAT and CAPRICE are still considered lesser films in both Frank Tashlin and Doris Day’s filmographies but they’re gaining more respect every year and CAPRICE has developed somewhat of a small cult following. If you like Day and appreciate a good-natured spy spoof, I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t enjoy these films. They’re no more ridiculous than many of Day’s earlier ‘60s comedies such as LOVER COME BACK (1961) or MOVE OVER, DARLING (1963) but with Tashlin at the helm they’re definitely more self-aware and daring. And if you can’t appreciate Tashlin’s distinct directing style or his spirited approach to filmmaking his spy comedies with Doris Day won’t make you a fan.

Both movies are available on DVD and regularly air on TCM.

Further reading:
- TCM: Doris Day Profile
- The Films of Doris Day
- Frank Tashlin: Day after Day
- Considering Doris Day: an Interview with the Author Thomas Santopietro

20 Responses Spy Games: Frank Tashlin & Doris Day Go Undercover
Posted By Klara : August 30, 2012 6:13 pm

Kimberly, I really like the point you made about how she was basically pigeonholed and tagged as someone overly prim — partially because of the sexual revolution, which in itself was a trend. The strange thing about Doris Day, for me, is that she always seems like a wise-cracking bad-ass kind of woman. Sort of tough on the tough side. More like a ‘broad not to be messed with’. So I never understood the kind of reputation her films built for her… since just her appearance and movements and behavior always defied that stereotype. My only understanding of Doris Day came from watching her in her films — and in that way, I never saw someone virgin-like (for one thing, she always seemed too old to be one…! ;) ) Anyway, I like Doris Day… and I like that you covered these later films of hers!

Posted By Klara : August 30, 2012 6:13 pm

Kimberly, I really like the point you made about how she was basically pigeonholed and tagged as someone overly prim — partially because of the sexual revolution, which in itself was a trend. The strange thing about Doris Day, for me, is that she always seems like a wise-cracking bad-ass kind of woman. Sort of tough on the tough side. More like a ‘broad not to be messed with’. So I never understood the kind of reputation her films built for her… since just her appearance and movements and behavior always defied that stereotype. My only understanding of Doris Day came from watching her in her films — and in that way, I never saw someone virgin-like (for one thing, she always seemed too old to be one…! ;) ) Anyway, I like Doris Day… and I like that you covered these later films of hers!

Posted By Christopher : August 30, 2012 7:53 pm

I lived overseas when Caprice came out and it was so popular that they ran it 4 times within 2 months at the American Club theater..Same with -With Six You Get Egg Roll,people,kids especially loved her films..So what if she was voted out by the popular trends of the day,people that follow those are only “commercially” cool..they ain’t the real thang…I always thought Doris Day was pretty hot in those later days.

Posted By Christopher : August 30, 2012 7:53 pm

I lived overseas when Caprice came out and it was so popular that they ran it 4 times within 2 months at the American Club theater..Same with -With Six You Get Egg Roll,people,kids especially loved her films..So what if she was voted out by the popular trends of the day,people that follow those are only “commercially” cool..they ain’t the real thang…I always thought Doris Day was pretty hot in those later days.

Posted By Pamela Porter : August 30, 2012 9:27 pm

I *love* “The Glass Bottom Boat”! Dick Martin is hilarious, Gladys & Abner Kravitz make an appearance, and remember – “Vladimir is a sheepdog!”

(note to Paul Lynde – electric blue satin cocktail sheaths are *not* your best look. Should tried coral instead) :D

Posted By Pamela Porter : August 30, 2012 9:27 pm

I *love* “The Glass Bottom Boat”! Dick Martin is hilarious, Gladys & Abner Kravitz make an appearance, and remember – “Vladimir is a sheepdog!”

(note to Paul Lynde – electric blue satin cocktail sheaths are *not* your best look. Should tried coral instead) :D

Posted By Susan Doll : August 30, 2012 11:59 pm

I am a big fan of Doris Day. She is much more versatile than she’s given credit for, though I love her in those 60s comedies that define her image. I saw CAPRICE a few months ago and found it delightful — both a product of its time and a spoof of it. That was one of Tashlin’s gifts. And, Day can handle any comic role.

Posted By Susan Doll : August 30, 2012 11:59 pm

I am a big fan of Doris Day. She is much more versatile than she’s given credit for, though I love her in those 60s comedies that define her image. I saw CAPRICE a few months ago and found it delightful — both a product of its time and a spoof of it. That was one of Tashlin’s gifts. And, Day can handle any comic role.

Posted By Doug : August 31, 2012 1:00 am

Part of her wholesome appeal comes from looking Scandinavian-one of my favorite bits was in “Move Over, Darling” where she pretended to be a Swedish masseuse with a broad, “Yah Sure Don’t cha know?” accent…describing Irene Dunne playing in “My Favorite Wife”. That is classic.
I’m surprised that she was in her mid-forties in those 1960′s movies-she seemed much younger to my younger eyes.

Posted By Doug : August 31, 2012 1:00 am

Part of her wholesome appeal comes from looking Scandinavian-one of my favorite bits was in “Move Over, Darling” where she pretended to be a Swedish masseuse with a broad, “Yah Sure Don’t cha know?” accent…describing Irene Dunne playing in “My Favorite Wife”. That is classic.
I’m surprised that she was in her mid-forties in those 1960′s movies-she seemed much younger to my younger eyes.

Posted By Juana Maria : August 31, 2012 4:25 pm

As a long time fan of Doris Day,I don’t like the critics’ comments at all! I don’t really worry about critics’ opinions when it comes to my favorite movies and actors/actresses. I have seen “The Glass Bottomed Boat” several times on TCM. I am surprised to read no mention of Eric Fleming or Dom Deluise! They are so good in that film,they each add something special and funny to it. Next time,include more about the actors in the film and less about the negativity of critics,please. I don’t always like the color or cut of Doris Day’s hair in films,but over all I have no complaints about her acting! Watch “Midnight Lace” to see what I mean…scary and superb. Thanks for the article,I never have seen or heard of the film “Caprice”,will have to find and watch it soon.

Posted By Juana Maria : August 31, 2012 4:25 pm

As a long time fan of Doris Day,I don’t like the critics’ comments at all! I don’t really worry about critics’ opinions when it comes to my favorite movies and actors/actresses. I have seen “The Glass Bottomed Boat” several times on TCM. I am surprised to read no mention of Eric Fleming or Dom Deluise! They are so good in that film,they each add something special and funny to it. Next time,include more about the actors in the film and less about the negativity of critics,please. I don’t always like the color or cut of Doris Day’s hair in films,but over all I have no complaints about her acting! Watch “Midnight Lace” to see what I mean…scary and superb. Thanks for the article,I never have seen or heard of the film “Caprice”,will have to find and watch it soon.

Posted By Klara : August 31, 2012 7:52 pm

BTW, this is what I mean about how I really see her ;)
http://pinterest.com/pin/143693044331192934/

Posted By Klara : August 31, 2012 7:52 pm

BTW, this is what I mean about how I really see her ;)
http://pinterest.com/pin/143693044331192934/

Posted By idlemendacity : August 31, 2012 8:50 pm

I enjoy The Glass Bottom Boat for the romp it is (just like I enjoy Tashlin’s Jerry Lewis movies or his two Jayne Mansfield films) but Caprice? No. It’s a mess. Even it’s stars, Doris Day and Richard Harris loathed it. Doris thought the script was a turkey and didn’t even want to do it, but it was one of those films her husband-manager Martin Melcher signed her to do without her knowledge. It’s not that Doris was “old” as the critics say that is the problem it’s that in so many of her films of the 60s the character she’s playing is written as younger and more naive than obviously Doris was. I look at some of her 50s films and their range – from the tomboy of On Moonlight Bay to Ruth Etting in Love Me or Leave Me to the wife and mother in The Man Who Knew Too Much to the widow running her own business in It Happened to Jane and then I look at some of her 60s films (when she was at the height of her popularity) and I shake my head. Martin Melcher did more harm for her career than good.

Posted By idlemendacity : August 31, 2012 8:50 pm

I enjoy The Glass Bottom Boat for the romp it is (just like I enjoy Tashlin’s Jerry Lewis movies or his two Jayne Mansfield films) but Caprice? No. It’s a mess. Even it’s stars, Doris Day and Richard Harris loathed it. Doris thought the script was a turkey and didn’t even want to do it, but it was one of those films her husband-manager Martin Melcher signed her to do without her knowledge. It’s not that Doris was “old” as the critics say that is the problem it’s that in so many of her films of the 60s the character she’s playing is written as younger and more naive than obviously Doris was. I look at some of her 50s films and their range – from the tomboy of On Moonlight Bay to Ruth Etting in Love Me or Leave Me to the wife and mother in The Man Who Knew Too Much to the widow running her own business in It Happened to Jane and then I look at some of her 60s films (when she was at the height of her popularity) and I shake my head. Martin Melcher did more harm for her career than good.

Posted By Peter Nellhaus : August 31, 2012 10:04 pm

Thanks for the link. Interestingly, Day did get new respect in the early Seventies, with the Canadian film magazine, “Take One”, leading the way, based on her portrayal of career women. The Oscar Levant quote about knowing Day before she was a virgin probably colored the perception many (including me) had of her. My personal favorite is Young Man with a Horn, although I also have fond memories of my grandparents taking me to see Please Don’t Eat the Daisies on a HUGE CinemaScope screen in Detroit.

Posted By Peter Nellhaus : August 31, 2012 10:04 pm

Thanks for the link. Interestingly, Day did get new respect in the early Seventies, with the Canadian film magazine, “Take One”, leading the way, based on her portrayal of career women. The Oscar Levant quote about knowing Day before she was a virgin probably colored the perception many (including me) had of her. My personal favorite is Young Man with a Horn, although I also have fond memories of my grandparents taking me to see Please Don’t Eat the Daisies on a HUGE CinemaScope screen in Detroit.

Posted By Heidi : September 4, 2012 12:22 pm

Great post. i Love Glass Bottom Boat. There isn’t anything I don’t like about it. It feeds my Doris Day fix, and Rod Taylor! I think they do a great job of playing it straight, but weird things just happen to them. It hits my love of nerdy space and spy things too, as well as just the absurdity of it all. It is a good romp and I say shame on the critics for putting it down. They obviously didn’t know how to laugh. Paul Lynde is a riot, and Dom Delouise is just plain funny. I love the bugs in the buffet line. The geeky side of me loved the kitchen gadgets and I would love to have that kitchen-maybe with a calmed down sweeper.

Posted By Heidi : September 4, 2012 12:22 pm

Great post. i Love Glass Bottom Boat. There isn’t anything I don’t like about it. It feeds my Doris Day fix, and Rod Taylor! I think they do a great job of playing it straight, but weird things just happen to them. It hits my love of nerdy space and spy things too, as well as just the absurdity of it all. It is a good romp and I say shame on the critics for putting it down. They obviously didn’t know how to laugh. Paul Lynde is a riot, and Dom Delouise is just plain funny. I love the bugs in the buffet line. The geeky side of me loved the kitchen gadgets and I would love to have that kitchen-maybe with a calmed down sweeper.

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