Watching The Glass Bottom Boat is interesting, especially if you’re coming at it with preconceived notions about Doris Day and director Frank Tashlin. For me, Day’s always been at her best when the movies eschew her happy sweetness and light image in favor of a more authentic sensuality. And when it comes to Tashlin, I appreciate him when he’s less Tex Avery and more satirical. All of this comes together in The Glass Bottom Boat, a movie that perfectly tempers Tashlin’s raucous frivolity and elevates Day’s comedic timing and sexiness. Though very much of the late-1960s, The Glass Bottom Boat leaves you laughing heartily.
Doris Day plays Jennifer Nelson, a NASA tour guide who moonlights as a mermaid for her father’s fishing company. She has a chance encounter with NASA scientist Bruce Templeton (Rod Taylor), who enlists Jennifer’s help to write his memoirs. But as the two grow closer, Templeton’s NASA colleagues start to believe Jennifer is a Soviet spy bent on stealing his formula for anti-gravity.
On the surface, The Glass Bottom Boat plays like a Doris Day/Rock Hudson movie, and it’s certainly in the same vein. The sex comedy is touched on from the opening frames, wherein Bruce snags his fishing hook onto Jennifer’s mermaid tale, leaving her in the lake sans bottoms. But where those Day/Hudson pairings are focused on innuendo and double entendre, Everett Freeman’s script elevates the narrative hijinks to a point where the romance is blended but feels ancillary. Coming out in the midst of the space race, Bruce’s anti-gravity machine, the heavy promotion of NASA, and Soviet spies is of the era but the script and Tashlin keep everything mired in less ’60s psychedelia and more 1940s spy thriller. Case in point, when Bruce has a dream sequence envisioning Jennifer as a Mata Hari-esque spy, complete with amazing sequined costume and headdress.
I’ve written before about connecting to Doris Day when she’s less a totem for the average woman and just plays a woman (such as in The Thrill of It All ). And here she’s just luminous. Not only is she clever enough to be employed at NASA, she’s no wilting flower. Tashlin’s works often presented exaggerated depictions of femininity (Stella Stevens in The Nutty Professor  or Jayne Mansfield in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? ). But Day, lacking in excessive makeup or a large bust doesn’t fit his paradigm and he’s forced to create uncharted humor from it. This isn’t to say Tashlin’s tropes don’t pop up. Jennifer is hit on immediately by her superior at work and her father makes a crack about not hiring his zaftig girlfriend because the fishing customers don’t want to whale watching.
But Day climbs over Tashlin’s pratfalls with women and gives us a character t root for. The entire third act is a series of “who’s zooming who” moments, with Day playing into the Soviet spy routine, Bruce refusing to believe it, and his co-workers hellbent on catching Jennifer in a lie and simultaneously being charmed by her flirtations with them. The film is littered with character actors of the small screen, all putting in phenomenal turns. Dom DeLuise had me in stitches as Julius Pritter. We meet him as an audio specialist who encounters Jennifer at Bruce’s house. The extended sequence involving Julius hanging from a ladder before getting his leg stuck in a trash can is Tashlin at his best. Bewitched stars Alice Pearce (in her last role) and George Tobias are also great, pretty much playing their characters from the popular sitcom.
The entire third act is when everything comes to a head with a series of spies coming together and Jennifer trying to extricate herself from it all. It really is a lesson in building humor. Another Bewitched alum, Paul Lynde, plays Homer Cripps, the NASA employee who believes Jennifer is a spy. He’s certainly at his Paul Lynde-iest, complete with a plotline wherein he dons drag (which doesn’t fool Jennifer at all). The third act also has a one-liner, involving two men in bed together, that is pure 1960s Doris Day!
Lovingly restored by Warner Archive, The Glass Bottom Boat will capture the most jaded Doris Day or Frank Tashlin naysayer. If you’re a fan of late-’60s comedy with a bevy of character actors swirling around a star, The Glass Bottom Boat is a great example.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.