Doris Day: a great entertainer, not a symbol of repression

Joan Merrill remembers a singer and actress whose work will chime with many jazz fans

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She never won an Oscar, never won a Grammy. But, except for perhaps Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, no other American entertainer left such an impressive legacy as Doris Day.

She did 39 movies, 600 recordings, which include 18 albums, and five seasons of the sitcom The Doris Day Show, plus television specials. According to Ultimate Movie Rankings, nearly 60% of Day’s movies topped $100 million in domestic gross box office sales. In the 1960s she was the No. 1 box office female star for four years, a record matched only by Shirley Temple. Two of Day’s songs won Oscars: Secret Love from Calamity Jane (1953) and Que Será, Será from The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956).

Day was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004, five Golden Globe awards – including the Cecil B. DeMille Award – as well as the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and the LA Critics’ Career Achievement Award. She might have been honoured by the Kennedy Center or received an honorary Oscar if she had wanted them, but she shunned the spotlight and never sought fame.

Her fans, however, thought differently. They thought she deserved these honours and were disappointed she didn’t get them. Will Friedwald, author of A Popular Guide To The Great Jazz And Pop Singers (Pantheon, 2010), said of Day’s singing: “At her very best, she’s worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald, yet she’s never gotten a fraction of their respect”. And renowned film critic Molly Haskell said, “I think Doris Day is the most underrated, underappreciated actress that has ever come out of Hollywood”.

But now, in death, Day is still underappreciated. Obituaries mention how, due to the roles she sometimes played – a virtuous woman resisting the advances of playboys – she symbolized the sexual repression of the 1950s. As if she chose those roles, as if she declared that image for herself. It was a great entertainer who died, not a symbol.

‘Day was perfectly aware that the material given her was often bad, but she had no control over the matter’

Critics also seem to blame her for the inferiority of some of her songs and movies, as if she had chosen them. Day was perfectly aware that the material given her was often bad, but she had no control over the matter. She gave each project her best effort and should be lauded for that.

Let’s take a closer look at her legacy. Doris Day had parallel careers as movie star and recording artist. Her film career lasted from 1948 to 1968 and her recording contract with Columbia Records from 1947 to 1967. From 1968 to 1973, she appeared in a TV sitcom, The Doris Day Show, which was among the Top 20 in the Nielsen ratings for two straight years. (Her husband and manager Marty Melcher, who died suddenly in 1968, had signed a contract for this show without her knowledge.) And she excelled in each field: recording, movies, and television.

When CBS offered to renew the sitcom, Day declined and moved to Northern California in 1973, spending the rest of her life concentrating on her animal welfare foundation, The Doris Day Animal Foundation. In her animal activism, Day also helped launch World Spay Day, opened a pet-friendly hotel and encouraged people to adopt pets from shelters.

When Day died on 13 May 2019, she hadn’t made a record or a film for almost 50 years. Does her work have lasting value? What exactly is her legacy?

Her recordings will be of interest longer than her films. She worked briefly as the featured singer with Bob Crosby’s orchestra and then with Les Brown’s, recording Sentimental Journey, which was a huge and lasting hit, marrying a sideman in this band, the first of her unfortunate marriages. She was one of the great vocalists of the classic age of popular music and so long as the Great American Songbook exists, so will Doris Day’s best recordings, such as Day By Day, Day By Night, Canadian Capers and Latin For Lovers, among others.

Her films fall into two broad categories, those with music and those without. And of those with music, some are Broadway-originated musicals, and some are movies where music is an integral part of the story. The musicals are Calamity Jane, Pajama Game and Billy Rose’s Jumbo:

Calamity Jane (1953): Day plays an Annie Oakley type, dressed in buckskin and speaking rough. Howard Keel plays Wild Bill Hickok. Some of the musical numbers call for elaborate acrobatics from our girl. This is a fun movie with Day’s characterization of Calamity worthy of an Oscar. She introduced Secret Love, which was a huge hit, and won an Academy Award for Best Song.

Pajama Game (1957): Film version of the Broadway hit, with Day as the only performer not from the original cast. John Raitt plays the male lead with Carol Haney and Eddie Foy as comic relief. Very enjoyable, clever staging, and good songs.

Billy Rose’s Jumbo (1962): Another film version of a Broadway show. Day plays the daughter of the circus owner (Jimmy Durante). The male lead is Stephen Boyd, Martha Raye is Durante’s fiancée and, of course, it features Jumbo the elephant. Lots of circus acts and beautiful songs written by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart (My Romance, Little Girl Blue).

The movies with music are more numerous. Day was hired by Warner Bros director Michael Curtiz (best known for Casablanca and Mildred Pierce) mainly for her singing. Curtiz saw potential star power during her screen test, saying “She said her lines like a human being”. In fact, he advised her not to take acting lessons, and he was proven right. In Romance On The High Seas (1948), she introduced It’s Magic and sang a few songs with the Page Cavanaugh Trio. Her singing combined with her looks and charisma made her an instant star.

Of her subsequent 16 Warner Bros movies, she played a singer in most of them. Though the stories are sometimes silly, a few of these movies are charming, even today.

My Dream Is Yours (1949): Agent Jack Carson helps Day’s character become a star while their love blossoms. Eve Arden is a great presence, as usual. While not perfect, the movie has enough good singing to make up for its flaws. Included are the title song, Someone Like You, Canadian Capers and the tender I’ll String Along With You.

Lullaby Of Broadway (1951): With excellent dancer Gene Nelson and comic character actors, S.Z. Sakall and Billy de Wolfe. The plot involves Day dancing and singing on Broadway with Nelson. Day had wanted to be a dancer as a girl but was involved in a horrendous car crash. Her leg was shattered, and doctors feared she would never walk again. In Lullaby Of Broadway, she fulfilled her dream. She danced some very complex numbers with Nelson, drawing praise from one of the film’s choreographers.

Curtiz directed Day in two biographical movies, in which she played a singer:

Young Man With A Horn (1950): Based on the life of jazz trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke, this is an overwrought story of a disturbed musician (Kirk Douglas) and his equally disturbed wife (Lauren Bacall) with Day playing a band singer. The music is terrific throughout with Harry James on trumpet accompanying Day on standards such as Too Marvelous For Words and With A Song In My Heart. This is among the best singing she does in movies.

I’ll See You In My Dreams (1951): Bio of lyric writer Gus Kahn, played by Danny Thomas, with Day as his wife who can sing like a dream. Frank Lovejoy is Kahn’s songwriting partner. A drama with plenty of music from the Songbook.

Both these movies are worthy of being included in Day’s film legacy.

Doris Day may have gotten her tagline “the girl next door” from the movies On Moonlight Bay (1951) and its sequel By The Light Of The Silvery Moon (1953). In these she plays the tomboyish teenage daughter of a bank manager in an idealistic small town in the early 1900s. She falls in love with the boy not next door but across the street, the handsome, golden-voiced Gordon MacRae. With her hair natural and no makeup, the 29-year-old actress is believable as a teen. Nevertheless, the films are sitcoms, not movies, and have little appeal today.

When her contract with Warner Bros ended in 1955, Day and her husband formed Arwin Productions. Their first film as independents was based on the life of 1930s torch singer Ruth Etting and her relationship with her husband/manager gangster Marty Snyder.

Love Me Or Leave Me (1955): It’s a misnomer to call this a musical, since we associate the genre with pleasant fun. This movie is a drama, bordering on tragedy, with lots of music. Day’s acting (doubtful producers only gave her the part on James Cagney’s recommendation) is superb and she holds her own with the dynamic Cagney. This is without doubt Day’s best film, worthy of an Oscar. She demonstrates her great skill as both a singer and actress.

And another Class A film was directed by Alfred Hitchcock:

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956): The film is about a tourist couple (James Stewart and Day) who are innocently drawn into a sinister plot, with their son being kidnapped. As part of the story, Day sings Que Será, Será. A very good movie, pure Hitchcock. Fine acting by Day.

In 1958, 1959 and 1960, Day made three excellent movies, with no music to speak of. (She usually did a title song for each romantic comedy, but no singing in the film.)

Teacher’s Pet (1958): With Clark Gable (clearly too old for Day, but still….!) and Gig Young for comic bits. A journalism teacher (Day) and a newspaper editor (Gable) have opposing ideas as to what makes a good story. A logical script (for a change). This is by far the best of the romantic comedies.

It Happened To Jane (1959): A lobster farm owner (Day) is thwarted from delivering a big order by a mean railroad company owner (Ernie Kovaks). Jack Lemmon assists in getting the lobsters delivered on time. Very good movie.

Please Don’t Eat The Daisies (1960): Based on a popular book, this is the story of a wife and mother of four boys, Day, who talks her New York drama critic husband (David Niven) into moving to the country. With Janis Paige as a sexy actress who tempts Niven. Good solid movie.

Pillow Talk ‘…resulted in Day being called the “perpetual virgin” and deemed the representative of sexual repression in the 1950s and early 1960s. (Several factors contributed to this societal attitude and Doris Day wasn’t one of them!)’

In 1958, producer Ross Hunter decided to co-star Day with handsome hunk Rock Hudson in Pillow Talk, which is about neighbours who share a telephone party line. The story revolved around her resisting his advances. It was extremely popular and the first of similar movies, which resulted in Day being called the “perpetual virgin” and deemed the representative of sexual repression in the 1950s and early 1960s. (Several factors contributed to this societal attitude and Doris Day wasn’t one of them!) The main plot line of Pillow Talk – Brad Allen’s quest to bed Jan Morrow – is not as amusing today as it was in 1958. If Jan Morrow (Day) is ridiculous for trying to protect her virtue, then Brad Allen (Hudson) is a prime candidate for a #MeToo takedown.

The Ballad Of Josie (1967) had real potential. A widow (Day) decides to raise sheep on her land to make a living. She shocks the town folk by donning jeans and annoying her male neighbours who raise cattle. When the cattle ranchers threaten her, the sheriff (Peter Graves) comes to her rescue. She falls into his arms and throws her jeans into the fireplace, another sitcom plot. Imagine what it could have been with a good script and John Wayne – a great movie with the top box-office stars of the time. (Wayne once said, “I would crawl on my hands and knees to Beverly Hills to be in a movie with Doris Day”.)

Of Day’s 39 movies 12 are of lasting interest, a pretty good record. Her later films might have been better were it not for Melcher, who refused to allow Day to get another agent who might have gotten her better parts. Melcher cared for money, not artistic merit.

But despite the sometimes poor material she was forced to work with, Doris Day was a phenomenon: a first-rate dancer, one of America’s greatest vocalists, and a popular actress who did musicals, drama and comedy at their highest level and with the greatest of ease.

She was culturally influential in that she was one of the first actresses to play a successful career woman, as she did, for example, in Pillow Talk (interior decorator) and on her television show (magazine writer) in the years before women’s liberation. She played a career woman much more often than “the girl next door” or the “perpetual virgin.” As Tom Santopietro says in his excellent book, Considering Doris Day (St. Martin’s Press, 2007), “Doris Day could do it all, and did it so naturally, in such an unintimidating package, that people didn’t realize just how great she really was”.

Amen.

Joan Merrill is the producer of two Doris Day tribute shows, Que Sera! Celebrating Doris Day and Everybody Loves Doris Day with Palm Springs-based vocalist Kristi King.

To learn more about Doris Day’s life, read her autobiography, Doris Day: Her Own Story (with A.E. Hotchner).
To learn more about her career, read Considering Doris Day by Tom Santopietro.
To keep up with the latest news, see Discovering Doris Day at dorisdaytribute.com.

Copyright, 2019, all rights reserved, Joan Merrill