If you’re looking for a biopic about Cole Porter that tells the real story of his life, Michael Curtiz’s Night and Day is not for you. If, however, you’re merely looking for a sumptuous Technicolor musical extravaganza starring Cary Grant with great songs throughout, then it fits the bill.
The film was made with Porter’s supervision and full approval, so failures early in his career are blamed on everything but mediocre songwriting and production, and questions about his sexuality are never addressed.
The more recent Porter biopic, De-Lovely (2004), which starred Kevin Kline, implied that he was bisexual, but plenty of other sources claim he was gay, which makes more sense. His 35-year marriage to Linda Thomas was successful, if sexless, but all that means is that the two shared a genuine friendship and enjoyed each other’s company. Also, the seamier details of Porter’s parties during his time in Paris in 1917 and 1918 — “much gay and bisexual activity, Italian nobility, cross-dressing, international musicians, and a large surplus of recreational drugs” — wouldn’t have been appropriate material for a Hollywood production in the ’40s, even if Porter had been completely open about them.
Porter was an undeniably great songwriter — and one of the few Tin Pan Alley composers to write both music and lyrics — but even here the movie sanitizes things, since Porter’s lyrics were notoriously risqué. For instance, when the song “Let’s Do It” is played, you’ll heard about how “educated fleas” do it, but nothing about how roosters do it “with a doodle and a cock.” And musically, Ray Heindorf’s orchestrations tend toward the saccharine. By the end of the picture I felt as if I’d heard the same piece played over and over again.
Some of the whitewashing in Night and Day is purely ridiculous, though. Why was Porter’s first Broadway production, See America First, which was written with his Yale classmate Monty Woolley, a flop? Not because it was a critical disaster, according to this movie, but because the opening night crowd was drawn out into the streets by late-edition newspapers carrying word of the Lusitania sinking. Never mind that in real life, the New York American called the play a “high-class college show played partly by professionals.” In the world of Night and Day its failure was wholly due to a disaster outside of Woolley and Porter’s control. (Incidentally, Woolley plays himself in Night and Day, but perhaps owing to his age, his character is recast as one of Porter’s Yale professors instead of his contemporary.)
While there is no intimation that Porter may have ever produced mediocre work, there are gay undertones in the picture, if you care to look for them. Alexis Smith as Porter’s wife Linda spends a lot of the film looking dissatisfied and neglected. And the dramatic arc hits its climax at the 90-minute mark when Cole and Linda are pulled apart by the pressures of success. “You’ve put me in a small corner of your life, and every once in awhile you turn around and smile at me,” she tearfully tells him. In the film, their marital difficulties are resolved, but in an unconvincing, wordless final scene.
While the drama of Night and Day may be dishonest, the music is not, and it’s a great-looking movie.