Doris Day will receive the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn.’s Career Achievement Award, the group announced on Saturday morning.Born in Ohio in the early years of the 1920’s, Doris Kappelhoff never dreamed that one day she would be the biggest star in the world. By the time she was 17 Doris was singing professionally on a local station and soon caught the eye of a local bandleader, Barney Rapp who changed her last name to Day.
Over the course of the next several years Doris Day sang with Bob Crosby’s band and eventually making a real name for herself as one of the best, when she became lead vocalist for Les Brown.
One of their hit songs, “Sentimental Journey” became a million selling hit and one of the most beloved tunes of 1945. It was quickly followed by a slew of popular successes and professionally, at least, Doris Day quickly became a recognizable name to millions through the recordings, personal appearances and radio appearances.
By 1946 she had left the Les Brown Band and was working as a solo artist with a measure of success. She would later work with Brown again when she toured with comic Bob Hope.
Her biggest break to date came in 1947 when she attended a Hollywood party at the home of composer Jule Styne and mesmerized the crowd when she sang.
Styne and his partner Sammy Cahn recommended her to Warner Brothers where she was screen tested for a role in a Michael Curtiz-directed musical entitled, “Romance on the High Seas”. She signed with Warner Brothers in 1947 and the film went into production shortly thereafter.
When it was released, “Romance on the High Seas” received notice from critics mainly because of the fresh new vocalist featured in the film. Doris Day stole the picture and showed an ease in front of the camera that was startling for a newcomer. Not as surprising were her vocal renditions. One song in particular, “It’s Magic” would be Oscar-nominated as well as becoming a huge recording hit for Miss Day. Doris Day’s recording career with Columbia would eventually bring her enough Gold Record Awards to panel a wall. For several years in the 1950’s she was the best-selling female vocalist in America. Her latest release, “My heart”, an album of heretofore unreleased material, much of it recorded in the 1980’s, soared to the top of the British Charts upon it’s recent release.
During the twenty years following the release of “Romance on the High Seas”, Doris Day would star in a total of 39 films, record more than 600 songs and become, according to the folks who conduct the annual Quigley Poll to determine the top ranked motion picture stars, the number one female box-office star of all-time.
This title was conferred based upon the four times in which Miss Day was voted number one at the box-office. In addition, she appeared on the listing six additional times including three appearances as the top-ranked female on the poll. Even more impressive are some other poll numbers including the annual poll conducted by the prestigious trade publication, Box Office. She made the list of top drawing female stars a record 18 times between 1951 and 1969, including placing number one or two on nine of the annual polling of theatre owners throughout the United States.
In their poll conducted in 1968, Miss Day’s last year in films, she still managed to be voted the number four top drawing female in films. Doris ranked higher in the poll than Elizabeth Taylor, Shirley MacLaine, Julie Christie, Jane Fonda and Raquel Welch among others.
Doris Day was named the top female star by the Hollywood Foreign Press three times and was also nominated for a Golden Globe for her acting in films a total of five times.
The Motion Picture Exhibitor Magazine in their annual poll of theatre owners, named Doris the top ranked female star at the box-office an unheard of 8 consecutive times from 1957-1964, inclusive. She also received their coveted Laurel Award as best Actress on four occasions. The reason for this resounding public approval is based upon the enormous diversity in the roles that Doris Day played on the screen. Some historians would have us believe that Doris Day did nothing but play a variation on the role of virgin in film after film after film. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Doris Day starred in out and out musicals as well as musical biographies. She also starred in suspense thrillers, dramas, westerns, musical westerns and adaptations of Broadway musicals.
Her comedy output was just as varied. There were the comedies about a successful career woman at a time when most of the top female stars were playing window dressing roles and not women who worked for a living. There were also domestic comedies during a time when the other top female stars (Monroe, Hepburn, MacLaine, Taylor) were rarely if ever near a child on screen. Doris Day also proved her mettle in the genre of slapstick comedy and when she did a spy film, she was not the vapid, sexy female that the male lead kept available and handy. Instead, Doris was a spy who didn’t hesitate to use seduction for the purpose of obtaining necessary information.
Doris played a mother in her second film and more than a dozen other times including her final film, “With Six You Get Eggroll”. In that final picture she had three children including an 18 year old son.
At first glance it might be simple to lump all of her Warner Brothers musicals together since many of them have titles that evoke a particular song. “Tea for Two”, “On Moonlight Bay”, “Lullaby of Broadway”, “I’ll See You in My Dreams”, “April in Paris”, “By the Light of the Silvery Moon”, etc.
If you actually sit down and watch the films in their entirety, you come away awed by the natural acting ability that Doris displays, not to mention her amazing aptitude for making every song she sings tell a story to the listener. There are very few if any histrionics.
In “Romance on the High Seas”, Day comes across as a Betty Hutton-type until she sings with a heartbreaking wistfulness, “It’s Magic”.
She beautifully underplays in “Young Man with a Horn” and I noted, when reviewing the video of “I’ll See You in My Dreams” in 2001, that Doris Day played Grace, the wife of lyricist Gus Kahn in such a way that you didn’t always like the character. Grace was almost pushy in her intensity to make her husband a success. There was also an underlying current of discontent in Day’s performance as Jimmy Stewart’s wife in the deservedly renowned 1956 remake of “The Man Who Knew Too Much”.
Day’s wonderful warmth when playing with children seems so natural and real that you almost forget she is acting. Whether in “It Happened to Jane”, “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies”, “The Thrill of it All” or the aforementioned “Eggroll”, she has an ease and comfort with the on-screen children that draws an audience in and makes them believe wholeheartedly in what they are watching.
In one of her greatest performances – Ruth Etting in “Love Me or Leave Me”, she alternately plays naïve and ruthlessly ambitious without missing a beat. Watching her tackle a role of such depth offers clues as to why William Wyler considered teaming her with Katharine Hepburn in his film of “The Children’s Hour” as well as why Cukor and Arthur Laurents talked about working with her.
“Calamity Jane” can easily be dismissed by some as Warner’s answer to MGM’s “Annie Get Your Gun”, but Day’s performance in the lead role is miles ahead of Betty Hutton’s good performance in the Metro film. Whereas Hutton resorts at times to her trademarked mannerisms, Day plays “Calam” with such a lack of self-consciousness and a natural skill that at times you forget you’ve seen the actress before. There is something so fresh and interesting that you root for the transformation into a lady but are grateful she still maintains some of her traits from earlier in the film. Had Doris Day starred in “Annie Get Your Gun” and later in “South Pacific”, these would be two more classic performances for the ages.
The comedies that helped make Doris Day the biggest star in the world work because of Doris Day. She makes you believe that she is a career woman in New York and not just an actress “posing”. When she talks about interior design in “Pillow Talk” or about the latest ad campaign in “Lover Come Back”, she sounds like she could really do, in real life, what her character in reel life purports to be doing. Interestingly, in 1988 when I visited Doris in Carmel and she gave me a tour of the Cypress Inn, which she had recently taken over with a business partner, she talked about her ideas for redoing the public areas as well as some of the rooms. “If I hadn’t been an actress I think I’d have enjoyed doing interior design”, she noted and I believed her. There is a serious misconception that Doris Day stopped making films in the late 1960’s because the public lost interest in her.
A new breed of actresses was taking over Hollywood and Doris Day didn’t have a place in it anymore, or so “they” said. Nothing could be further from the truth.
It was certainly true that some of the films (“Do Not Disturb”, “Caprice” and “The Ballad of Josie”) had shown not only diminishing returns at the box-office but also a certain tired and stale formula quality, It was also certainly true that you could not keep recycling “Pillow Talk” for an indeterminate period of time. “The Glass Bottom Boat” which MGM released in the summer of 1966 turned out to be one of the biggest hits of the season. It marked a departure from the frothy comedies that seemed to be coming off an assembly line. Frank Tashlin brought his trademark slapstick to the effort and Doris was certainly game. Unfortunately their follow-up teaming, “Caprice” couldn’t decide whether it was a spy thriller or a comic spoof. “Josie”, which was directed by the competent Andrew McLaglen, son of the actor Victor McLaglen, seemed more like an expanded television western. It lacked the spark that McLaglen had brought to his John Wayne/Maureen O’Hara success, “McLintock” a couple of years earlier.
Wayne always said he wanted to work with Doris Day and told her so when they met at the AFI Tribute to James Cagney in 1974. Perhaps if Wayne had co-starred in “Josie”, the box-office results might have been better. “Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?” which MGM released in the summer of 1968 was Day’s 14th film to play New York City’s Radio City Music Hall. In terms of box-office revenue (not playing time), Doris Day was the all-time moneymaking female champ at the Hall.
“Lights” surprised many when it opened to a then record first and second week at the Hall. An ad in Variety, the “Show Biz Bible” noted that the first week was “The greatest one week gross for any picture in any one theatre – anywhere – any time in history.” The 137,932 people who packed the Music Hall that week seemed to agree judging from the prolonged applause and laughter that greeted the film. While the critics were less kind, the film made money for MGM and put a stop to the downslide of Day’s career. “With Six You get Eggroll”, released in August of 1968 did more than that. Although a similarly themed comedy (“Yours, Mine and Ours”) had been released several months earlier, “Eggroll” proved beyond a doubt that the public still adored Doris Day, if she was given a decent script.
“Eggroll” would prove to be one of the top ten moneymaking films of Miss Day’s 39 film career and her biggest success since the 1963 smash, “Move Over, Darling”.
Her departure from films was not intentional but more or less predicated by the passing in April, 1968 of her husband-manager, Marty Melcher. Melcher was much more ambitious with respect to his wife’s career even going so far as to sign her to a long-term CBS Television deal. “The Doris Day Show” began airing on CBS in September, 1968 and would air for five years, go through several format changes and often find itself one of the top ten rated programs on the air. Although her comedy series was a major success on television, the American public continued to think of Doris Day in terms of being a motion picture star. This fact was clearly evidenced in 1972 when Family Weekly Magazine conducted their first popularity poll to determine America’s favorite film and television stars.
Doris had not made a motion picture in nearly four years but was voted the number one favorite female motion picture actress by the readers of the magazine. John Wayne was voted favorite male. After concluding her television series as well as starring in a couple of very popular musical specials, Doris began to focus her considerable energies on a cause very dear to her heart – animal welfare. Always an animal lover, Doris had been a major force behind Actors and Others for Animals, an animal welfare organization founded in the early 1970’s by actor Richard Basehart. She now formed her own organization and for the past thirty-five years has continued to work tirelessly on behalf of the “four-leggers” as she lovingly refers to all animals. In late 1975 Doris in collaboration with author A.E. Hotchner published her autobiography.
The fascinating and well-reviewed book topped best-seller lists for many months including the NY Times list, just as Doris had topped the movie popularity polls a decade earlier. Their were recurrent announcements of film and television projects including sequels to “Pillow Talk”, that would reunite Doris Day, Rock Hudson and Tony Randall. Nothing ever came to fruition with the exception of a series, “Doris Day’s Best Friends” that aired for one season on cable in the mid 1980’s, several years after Doris had moved from Beverly Hills to Carmel. Filmmaker Albert Brooks personally went to Carmel in the mid 90’s hoping to convince Miss Day to star with him in his film, “Mother”. The pair met and talked but Doris decided against returning to the big screen and the role eventually went to Debbie Reynolds.
Several years later, Reynolds’ daughter, Carrie Fisher, attempted to get Doris for one of the major roles in a television movie she had written entitled, “These Old Broads”. Day declined to take the role and the resultant telefilm, which starred Debbie Reynolds, Joan Collins, Shirley MacLaine and Elizabeth Taylor was savaged by the critics. The release of her most popular films on video and eventually on DVD have brought the star, now in her 80’s, a whole new audience and she reports that her fan mail is bigger than in her heyday.
While there have been many honors bestowed on Doris Day including the DeMille Award from the Hollywood Foreign Press, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and an Honorary Grammy, Doris has reportedly declined the Kennedy Center Honors, the American Film Institute Award and an Honorary Academy Award. “I loved the work I did and loved working with the crew and all of my co-stars”, she has noted. “It was a lovely part of my life, but my life is now here, in Carmel, working on behalf of the animals.”
Doris Day is an original and while fans can mourn the loss of what might have been during the past three decades, she has fortunately left behind an enviable record of quality entertainment that can stand the test of time.
Written By: Paul E. Brogan
Edited By: Tommy Lightfoot Garrett
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Photograph is Courtesy: Bobby Head/Link 81 Collection