Even at age 93, onetime film, Broadway and TV star Janis Paige has nothing bad to say about her 1940s rival at Warner Bros., Doris Day.
“I thought she was great, like everybody else,” says Paige, who co-starred in Day’s film debut, Romance On the High Seas (1948). “She was so good, right off the bat. She had that fantastic voice and we had a fantastic score. It’s Magic came from that picture.”
By that time, Paige had already been a Warner star for four years, appearing in such musicals as The Time the Place and the Girl and Two Guys from Milwaukee, both from 1946 and newly available on DVD from Warner Archive ($22 each).
“I wasn’t jealous of anybody,” Paige says of life at Warner Bros. “I just felt like the luckiest kid in the world to be there. I never had those feelings. Trust me, I was too busy to worry about it.”
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Paige grew up in Washington state and moved to Hollywood after high school. She got her first movie job in 1944’s Bathing Beauty, an MGM musical starring Esther Williams and Red Skelton. She spoke two lines in the film.
“I had so little experience at MGM,” Paige says. “I can only tell you that each studio in those days seemed to have a certain pattern as to the kind of movies they made. Fox made many musicals. Metro certainly made many musicals. And Warner Bros. was more known, I think, better known for its dramas with Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, The Little Foxes, those things. They did make some wonderful musicals. Jimmy Cagney in [Yankee Doodle Dandy], wonderful musicals, but they were a little bit different in the quality, I think. Although, The Time, the Place & the Girl could have been made at Metro.”
At Warner Bros., Paige made westerns, musicals and dramas.
“They were far more diverse with me. I went from Hollywood Canteen into Of Human Bondage, for God’s sake. A more dramatic part you couldn’t have,” she says. “Then they put me in a lot of comedies. Another musical, Romance on the High Seas, then back to things like Cheyenne. I had a huge variety that Warner Bros. gave me. I was under contract. They seemed to like me and I could sing, I could dance, but I could also act pretty well. Not great, but I did OK.”
By the early 1950s, Paige’s movie career began to fade. She took her talents to Broadway, where she starred as Babe opposite John Raitt as Sid in the original production of The Pajama Game, directed in 1954 by George Abbott.
When Warner Bros. and Abbott planned the 1957 movie version, they decided to cast most of the Broadway players with one exception: One of the film’s lead characters needed to be played by a true movie star.
“The truth of it is that the film was offered to Frank Sinatra, who would have been a fantastic Sid,” Paige says. “Then they sent the script to Doris. The word out was they wanted to use as many members of the original company as they could. So if Frank had accepted the role, I would have done Babe. And if Frank turned it down and Doris took it, then John Raitt would have done it, which is exactly what happened.”
Paige didn’t have time to mourn the loss of Pajama Game. About the same time, she was headlining at the old Cocoanut Grove nightclub at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles and MGM producer Arthur Freed came to see her on opening night.
“[He] sent the maître d' in and asked me if I would join him at their table. I said, ‘Of course I will.’ I went out and everybody looked great in those days. Everybody was dressed up in tuxes and everything. It was my opening night and he put his hand over mine across the table and said, ‘I have a movie I want you to do.’ There was no audition or ‘We’re auditioning other people.’ No, he just gave it to me that day and told me I’d have a dance number with Fred Astaire.
“I said, ‘Oh, Mr. Freed, I can’t dance with Fred Astaire, I’m not a dancer. And he said something so cute, he said, ‘Oh Janis, you know how studios are. You know how Metro is — you’ll be dancing by the time we’re through with you.’”
The picture: Silk Stockings, also co-starring Cyd Charisse.
Paige practically stole the 1957 remake of Greta Garbo’s Ninotchka when she and Astaire performed the Cole Porter spoof of 1950s movies, Stereophonic Sound. The number, choreographed by Hermes Pan, had the stars literally swinging from a chandelier.
“It was hard work, believe me,” Paige says. “I was one mass of bruises. I didn’t know how to fall. I didn’t know how to get down on a table — I didn’t know how to save myself because I was never a classic dancer. Those are the tips you learn when you learn how to dance.
“Fred never knew it, but he was so great. He would come in in the morning and say, ‘I have a great idea for a step. You think you can do this?’ I never said know to him. I wouldn't dare say no to Fred Astaire. Especially when we did the end of it, when you have to catch the chandelier and swing out over all those people. He showed me and said, ‘You think you can do that?’ And I said, ‘Sure, I can do that.’ Not knowing if I was going to fall on my face or not. I didn’t.”
Paige said she and Astaire worked weeks planning and rehearsing Stereophonic Sound.
“They were generous. Of course we had time in those days,” she says. “They would take an hour or two to light a set sometimes. It was nothing like it is today, where they don’t care whether you’re lit or not. I’m not speaking about everybody, but I’ve even seen my shadow in shots and they let it go by. It’s sloppy stuff to me. But they took time to have that quality that the studios demanded.”
After Silk Stockings (to be released on Blu-ray this spring by Warner Archive), Paige spent more and more time working on stage and in television. A few highlights: replacing Angela Lansbury in the original Broadway production of Mame (1968), guest spots on 1950s TV variety shows including Perry Como, George Gobel and Dinah Shore; and co-starring in the 1980s and ‘90s on afternoon soaps Capitol, General Hospital and Santa Barbara.
Paige also did high-profile guest spots in 1970s sitcoms, including The Mary Tyler Moore Show and All In the Family.
All In the Family producer Norman Lear called Paige and said, “I’ve got a wonderful script that I want you to do.”
“This is the way they were in those days. They tailored things for you. And he was right. He was dead right,” she says.
Paige played Denise, a diner waitress who becomes involved with Carroll O’Connor’s Archie Bunker.
“His one and only kiss away from Edith,” Paige recalls.
Fans reacted with both anger and glee.
“My God, they hated me. I had hate mail: ‘How dare you come between Archie and Edith? How dare you do this?’ And other people would write, ‘It’s about time he kissed somebody else, and I would have kissed you, too, if I had been there.’