SPY GAMES: Frank Tashlin & Doris Day Go Undercover

The stars of Tashlin’s most acclaimed movies such as Jerry Lewis (ARTISTS AND MODELS) and Jayne Mansfield (WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER?) often resembled Looney Tune characters so it’s not too surprising that the director may have been eager to work with Doris Day. The actresses’ animated gestures, 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, she delivered the most physical performances of her career.

In THE GLASS BOTTOM BOAT Day plays a 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 while reeling her in. Day is left aghast and “bottomless” in the ocean but refuses Taylor’s help after he makes a few wisecracks at her expense. She even threatens him with arrest but Taylor counters with his own wisecrack, “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. And Tashlin, along with 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 Taylor’s character is actually 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. Tashlin intended THE GLASS BOTTOM BOAT to be a humorous commentary on modern technology and its impact 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 and stylized as Jacques Tati’s PLAYTIME(1967), which had similar intentions and was released the same year, THE GLASS BOTTOM BOAT does have its own unique 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 Tashlin’s best known Warner cartoons (PLANE DAFFY; 1944), which 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 shared between the film’s two leads. Day and 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 the film led to Day and 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 her corporate hijinks. Like THE GLASS BOTTOM BOATCAPRICE contains many self-referential jokes including a scene where Day’s character visits a theater showing a movie that also happens to 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 designed 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 creative and self-assured. He takes bigger risks here and as a result, the film has a more polished and modern 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 while Day’s character reflects Tashlin’s self-assured writing and fearless direction. Day wears eye-catching white wigs, big bold sunglasses and flashy mod fashions with jarring patterns and bright colors that occasionally make her look like a comic book 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, Day is an action-oriented heroine in CAPRICE who climbs hills, outruns bad guys, falls out of balconies; snow skis down dangerous mountains and eventually finds herself dangling from a helicopter. This would be an impressive feat for anyone but 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 see things my way.

When CAPRICE was released critics ripped it apart and the harshest critiques were aimed at Doris Day who was called “too old” for the role and the mod 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 seem 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” or she risks the wrath of 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 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 1960s comedies such as LOVER COME BACK (1961) or MOVE OVER, DARLING (1963) and with Tashlin at the helm, they’re definitely more self-aware, brash and daring. But if you can’t appreciate Tashlin’s distinct directing style or his spirited approach to filmmaking then his spy comedies with Day probably won’t make you a fan.

by Kimberly Lindbergs, original written for Turner Classic Movies and published in August 2012