|Doris Day was the All-American girl for 20 years.|
I confess. As a ‘70s teen, I thought Doris Day was a dork.
To me, Doris Day was like Debbie Reynolds, a middle-aged star who acted like a perky ingénue. I was allergic to their mugging in movies and cutesy charms on talk shows. As time went by, I learned more about their lives and careers. I came to appreciate both mid-century movie girls next door, but I’m writing here to sing the praises of Doris Day.
There are still big parts of Doris Day’s career that I can’t stomach. Doris Day and sweet go together like apple pie and ice cream, dished up by Hollywood. For me, watching Doris Day in her first musicals or later TV show is like taking a big swig of fresh orange juice—right after brushing my teeth!
|Doris gets the Warner Bros. makeover in 1948's 'Romance on the High Seas.'|
The string of Warner Bros. musicals that started Doris’ career are pure saccharine. Doris is the 30-ish tomboy/ingénue, slathered in pancake makeup to hide the most famous freckles since Joan Crawford’s. Depending on the movie’s era, Doris sported frilly or silly costumes, wigs or her trademark DA ‘do. Watching these flicks, Doris Day reminds me of a singing and dancing kewpie doll. That’s just my personal taste. Day is at the peak of her youth, energy, and bell-like voice—the Warner/Day musicals are still fan favorites.
The Doris Day Show ran from 1968-73, her graceful segue from film. Many golden era big names had a hard time finding suitable film vehicles in New Hollywood. So stars like Doris, Debbie, Shirley MacLaine, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, and others headlined series built around them. Most of them failed—except Doris.
|A perpetually sunny Day!|
Cast members, locales, and plotlines changed each season, but Doris Day was always the same. Day was TV’s favorite career girl, after Marlo Thomas’ That Girl but before The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Day was 15 years older than either of THOSE career “girls.” But there was Doris, pushing 50, in false eyelashes and falls, high fashion and soft focus, working hard and fighting off the fellas! Me and my sister would roll our eyes and laugh at the sappiness—and we were in grade school. My mother always had a low tolerance for Day, calling her “Dodo.” Just hearing Day trill “Que Sera, Sera” over the opening credits was a siren song that sent my Mom out of the room or into a book. Watching clips online today, the show is even more absurd. Yet, I gotta say—Doris looks great! Plus, the show was hit, a testimony to Day’s devoted fan base.
|Doris Day was a success as a movie and TV star.|
In Doris’ fine memoir, co-written with A.E. Hotchner, Day was direct about those repetitious early roles and the studio’s cookie cutter house style. Later, Day found herself tied to a husband, instead of a studio head. Thanks to her producer hubby, Doris not only lost her money, but was committed for the schlocky TV series, which she found out about after his sudden death. My opinion of Doris Day the person changed after I read her straightforward book.
Doris was a top film star for 20 years, with no long climb to the top, no slow downward slide. She was a popular big band singer for a decade when Warner Bros. biggest director, Michael Curtiz, deemed Day the ideal “all-American girl.” Curtiz starred her in his next movie, 1948’s Romance on the High Seas. Day won audiences’ hearts from the start.
|Doris as a '50s movie and musical fave!|
The singer-actress’ music career continued to soar. A Billboard poll of the country’s top DJs voted Doris Day the top female singer 9 years out of 10 during the 1950s. During her WB years, while her movie musicals were popular, but not yet blockbusters, their soundtracks were big sellers, a double dip of Doris Day bucks for Jack Warner’s studio.
Doris left WB in1954, making the smart move to freelance. From there, she stretched her range with Love Me or Leave Me in ’55 and Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much in ’56. At the end of the fifties, Doris Day struck superstar status with Pillow Talk. From there, Day did a string of sex comedies, mixed with the occasional musical. Despite the swiftly changing ‘60s, fans flocked to Doris Day movies through much of the decade.
Doris Day’s career had several phases—musical starlet, leading lady, comedic superstar—with fan favorites from each. Here are six of my favorite Doris Day films:
|Frank and Doris with Ethel Barrymore on the set.|
Young at Heart. This1954 musical drama is Day’s last movie on her WB contract. What lifts this soap opera with songs is her pairing with Frank Sinatra, hot off his From Here to Eternity comeback. Is this a great film? No. It is highly entertaining, however. A great supporting cast is led by Ethel Barrymore. The story is a remake of the WB classic Four Daughters, with Frank’s bad boy singer/songwriter bonding with Day’s musical family. Doris and Frank are at their musical best. Sinatra’s spice is a savory mix with Day’s sweetness, which also blended well with Debbie Reynolds the next year, in The Tender Trap.
|Doris Day displays her tough side in this '55 musical drama.|
Love Me or Leave Me. Musical film bios were all the rage in the ‘50s and this is one of the best. It seems amazing that Doris Day didn’t get an Oscar nod for her applauded performance as ‘30s singer Ruth Etting, controlled by a crazy mobster, played by James Cagney. But MGM put all their musical marbles with Susan Hayward for I’ll Cry Tomorrow. Plus, Eleanor Parker also scored an Oscar nom in Interrupted Melody that year. Still, it may be the only movie Day played where her edge shows. Doris sings all the old songs in a sassy, stylized style and acts up a helluva storm against one of WB’s greatest gangstas.
|A happy family in a Hitchcock movie? Think again!|
The Man Who Knew Too Much. This ’56 Alfred Hitchcock picture is epic entertainment; Doris gets another classic leading man, Jimmy Stewart. They play a vacationing couple in Morocco, where doc Jimmy hears a murdered man’s last words. When their son is kidnapped to ensure Stewart’s silence, it becomes torture for the film’s couple and taut suspense for audiences. Doris Day makes a fine Hitchcock blonde, with that all-American sex appeal Hitch loved. Day initially found his lack of direction toward her work puzzling. Hitchcock’s response was he didn’t need to, because she was doing fine!
|Doris Day filled movie seats and sold soundtracks in her heyday.|
The Pajama Game. Thanks to smart direction by Stanley Donen, snappy choreography by Bob Fosse, this 1957 musical is still as fresh and fun as ever. Based on the Broadway hit, it teams Doris with the original cast. Rare for a musical, there’s actually a story, too. Day is in fine form here, as the Union leader determined to get her co-workers their raise. There’s a ton of fun tunes, but Day’s rendition of “Hey, There” is right up there with her other signature songs.
|America's Sweetheart & The King.|
Teacher’s Pet. This ’58 comedy teamed Day with The King, Clark Gable. Doris and Clark have a nifty rapport as a journalism teacher tangling with an old school reporter, who thinks teaching news is a bunch of hooey. A great cast and smart dialogue make this smooth fun.
Pillow Talk. The 1959 classic re-wrote the playbook for romantic comedies. Pillow Talk was considered risqué in its time, with its plot of party line hang-ups and hook-ups. Doris is the career woman and Rock is the randy wolf. Backed by a great cast, racy dialogue, plus stylish clothes, sets, and photography, Pillow Talk made Doris Day a bonafide superstar. This is Day’s biggest-grossing movie ever, and it gave Doris her only Oscar nomination.
|Doris with Rock on the set of 'Pillow Talk,' their game-changing comedy.|
After Pillow Talk, Day reteamed with Rock twice more, and starred in fluffy comedies opposite some of Hollywood’s biggest male stars: Cary Grant, David Niven, Rex Harrison, Rod Taylor, and James Garner. Doris played well with all of them. Day’s box office ride cruised on autopilot until 1967. This was a defining year in ‘60s cinema, after Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Bonnie and Clyde broke the censorship mold. Day’s last couple films were disappointments, when she just stopped, after nearly 40 movies, in 1968. Out of those movies, only a handful lost money—an incredible achievement.
It’s a shame that somebody couldn’t convince Doris to take up the offer of Mrs. Robinson in 1967’s The Graduate. To me, it would have been the next logical step after Pillow Talk. Yes, it’s hard to imagine anyone but Anne Bancroft playing the rich bitch housewife. Nothing against Annie! However, Day would not have been improbable. In the novel version of The Graduate, the characters are all yuppie, smiling California blondes. I think that if Doris had shed or spun her image, under Mike Nichols’ direction, Mrs. Robinson could have done for Doris Day what Virginia Woolf did for Elizabeth Taylor.
|Doris Day, are you trying to seduce us?|
Hear me out. Doris Day is by all accounts a nice woman, but you don’t survive as a band singer on the road for a decade, in Hollywood for two decades, and on television another decade, without having a tough side. And letting that side show comically could have opened a whole new career for Doris Day.
Whatever the reasons, Doris chose not to play Mrs. Robinson. And when you look back on her vast work and cultural impact, Day didn’t have to. Doris Day left Hollywood on a high note and has lived a peaceful life with her many dogs in Carmel, CA. She turned 95 on April 2, 2017 and I hope Doris makes it to 100 like Kirk and Olivia.
So, here’s to you, Doris Day. Some fans love you more than they ever knew.
|Doris Day at age 54 on Johnny Carson's show in 1976. Doris had better bod than most of Hollywood's sex symbols!|