On Moonlight Bay (1951) is a candy-colored semi-musical which purports to be based on the “Penrod” stories of Booth Tarkington, and the movie does indeed present a troublesome boy called Wesley Winfield (portrayed by Billy Gray). But while Tarkington’s writings focused on the misadventures and misbehavior of a young boy growing up at the turn of the century, On Moonlight Bay expands its horizons by including the boy’s parents (Leon Ames and Rosemary De Camp) and his older sister Marjorie (Doris Day) in the story.
The Winfield family has just moved into a new house as the film opens in 1917 Indiana, and only Mr. Winfield (a prosperous banker) is happy about this. It’s hard to understand why, as it’s a huge, lovely house that bears more than a passing resemblance to the one in the 1944 Meet Me in St. Louis, but the plot’s the thing, and so the Winfields mourn their unwanted move at first, as does their extremely forthright maid Stella (Mary Wickes). Marjorie, who is outfited as the typical pre-feminization tomboy of the movies (loose, unbecoming boys’ clothes, pigtails, no makeup), undergoes a rapid transition into the world of femininity and fashionable attire after meeting the young man across the street, a certain William Sherman (Gordon MacRae). Their romance progresses at a swift pace, punctuated by Wesley’s shenanigans and some contretemps introduced by William Sherman’s conscientious objections to institutions and conventions, including marriage and banking. Mr. Winfield objects to such a suitor for his daughter, backing as his favorite in the race for Marjorie’s hand a pedantic and spectacled young man (Jack Smith).
The film looks very pretty, and although the glance it casts back at the 1910s is undeniably nostalgic, it does capture with a good deal of accuracy much of the look and atmosphere of that era, again recalling the similar feat of Meet Me in St. Louis. Unlike this parent film, it cannot offer a memorable score; the songs which crop up every so often are mostly forgettable. But a good deal of care must have gone into the picture as a whole, and some of the little things in it are very agreeable, such as the Winfields’ flowered china, and the meticulously seasonally-appropriate decorations festooning Wesley’s classroom, and the almost fairy-like colors and glowing Chinese lanterns of an early scene at a fair. Wesley’s birthday party, late in the film, reminds us of the gulf that separates that time from this in the matter of social conventions; in fact, it must be among the most Tarkingtonian parts of the film, and recalls many passages in the writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald. To the modern viewer, the film seems a quaint relic of an age long gone, but many people among its contemporary audience must have been reminded of their not too distant youth. It’s interesting to note how pastel-colored the early century looked even then to an America that was enjoying its post-war boom.
While the film is easy on the eyes, it seems somewhat unsure as to what path to take, especially towards the end. The carefree tone which characterizes roughly the first two-thirds becomes lost in an unecessary and somewhat forced attempt at serious drama when Marjorie’s beau joins the army and the young lovers’ attempt to marry is interrupted by Mr. Winfield’s disapproval of William. Doris Day and Gordon MacRae look charming and prosperous and are beautifully colored, almost as though they had been molded out of Technicolor, but they do not offer much in the way of dramatic substance. They do their best, and it’s a valiant, determined best, but they are not helped by the script, which seems to lose heart and take a cowardly refuge in cliches, stock situations, and recycled dialogue.
Yet the film never quite loses that special quality that leads one to expect that better things are lurking around the bend of the very next minute. Little Wesley does quite well altogether, showing some progress towards maturity, and there is an interesting attempt to “humanize” the suddenly unbending father by reminding him of his own unregenerate boyhood. There is a freshness in the movie (perhaps it’s just the cheery Technicolor) which puts one in a friendly, well-wishing mood and lets one accept it as a pleasant enough entertainment without too rigorous criticism. Contemporary audiences must have been beguiled as well, because a sequel arrived in 1953, called By the Light of the Silvery Moon and featuring the same actors.