Doris Day, the most popular female box-office star in Motion Picture history turns 90 years old on April 3rd and is still hale and hearty and living a happy life in Carmel, California.
There has never been a female star in films whose career encompassed the degree of popularity and the diversity of the roles she played with such seeming ease. While it’s true that there have been skilled singers, dancers and actresses who have scaled the heights of popularity, Doris Day, whose career was often taken for granted because she was always so good, did it all and better than anyone else.
Before the legions of Judy Garland fans storm my home with outrage, it should be noted the talent and skill Miss Garland brought to her career. However, in 39 films Doris Day reached and maintained a level of film popularity that no other female star came close to achieving. There were musicals featuring singing and dancing, biographical musicals, musical westerns, suspense thrillers, dramas, romantic comedies, slapstick comedies, family comedies and a five year run on CBS that was watched by tens of millions weekly. In addition there were countless millions of recordings sold by Miss Day who was, for years Columbia’s top-selling female recording artist and enough Gold Record awards to, as Louella Parson’s noted in the early 60’s, “Panel a room”.
Doris never aggressively pursued a career but rather it just seemed to happen through a series of circumstances. But happen it did, from her first professional singing performances in 1939 until the last time we saw her in filmed interviews in the 1990’s. However, her fame and popularity has continued thanks to frequent viewings of her films via TCM as well as enormous video and DVD sales of her many popular titles. Her recordings have also continued to sell well and a release several years ago of never before heard recordings from the 1980’s, climbed up the charts, clearly indicating an unending fascination with this iconic lady.
Despite all of this, misperceptions continue to this day, many coming from sources either not familiar with her work or so-called “clever” writers trying to be cute. Among the many moniker’s placed on Miss Day are that she was an “overage Girl Scout”, “a 40 year old virgin”, “a symbol of purity and chastity in the 1950’s”or that all of her films were simply a variation on one theme. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The film “New York New York” might well tell the story of Doris Day and her big band years and transition into a musical film star. She spent many years singing, first with Bob Crosby and later with Les Brown becoming in the process one of the best singers in the business. Along the way she married a couple of musicians, had a son Terry and suffered abuse at the hands of her first husband. It was not an easy life but she raised nary a complaint about it, maintaining a close friendship with Brown until his passing.
Doris Day signed with Warner Brothers in 1947 and her first film opened in 1948. The picture, “Romance on the High Seas” was very popular but what really made the film stand out was the fresh, vital and surprisingly natural new blonde singing sensation. Critics took note and one of the songs Doris introduced in the film, “It’s Magic” became a chart topper and was also nominated for an Oscar as Best Song. Within 3 years, she was the hottest female star on the Warner’s lot chalking up a string of hugely popular musicals as well as several more dramatic roles in films such as “Young Man with a Horn”, “Storm Warning” and “The Winning Team”.
While some of the musicals could be considered lightweight and most of their titles were derived from songs owned by Warner Brothers, each showed a different side of Doris Day’s increasing on-screen talents.
Having suffered serious injury after being hit by a train while riding in an automobile with friends in the latter 30’s, Doris Day rebounded from her crippling injuries which had threatened not only a budding dancing career but brought with it the possibility she might never walk again, by dancing on-screen. The skill and talent she displays in both “Tea for Two” and “Lullaby of Broadway” are all the more amazing when one considers what might have been.
Her performance as Grace Kahn in the hugely popular, “I’ll See You in My Dreams” (1951) with Danny Thomas as lyricist Gus Kahn, provides great insight into Day’s dramatic talents. She plays Grace in a very real way as a woman who was sometimes domineering and controlling of her husband and not always very likeable. It’s far from sunshine and flowers.
“Calamity Jane” in 1953 revealed Doris as being able to deliver one of the most consummate and complete musical performances in film history. She runs the gamut from tomboy to fighter to lady to singer, dancer and star. The trip a viewer takes while watching this film leaves you breathless and exuberant. No other performer could have carried it off with the same level of panache and style. There’s not a trace of ham to be found in a role that in lesser hands could be served on rye.
The 1954 hit “Young at Heart” is a showcase for Day and co-star Frank Sinatra who both deliver powerful performances – dramatically and vocally. The only downside, for me, is the fact that the two singing stars don’t sing together with the exception of a couple of lines at the picture’s conclusion. Recordings from their 1947 radio teaming on “You Hit Parade” as well as their popular single, “Let’s Take an Old Fashioned Walk” indicate what a perfect vocal blending they possessed.
Liberation from Warner Brothers opened new avenues for Doris and in the period of 1955 – 1958, she showed a range and diversity that was second to none
MGM’s “Love Me or Leave Me”, showcased Day and co-star James Cagney brilliantly in a film that didn’t mince words. Day’s performance as real-life Ruth Etting showed audiences someone who could be ruthless in her attempts to become famous and successful. The chemistry she shared with Cagney and the realism they brought to their parts retains its power nearly 60 years after the film debuted.
Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew too Much” with James Stewart and Andrew Stone’s “Julie”, both in 1956, contained little singing but outstanding dramatic acting including a scene in “Man” that contains some of Day’s best work. It’s a scene where Stewart medicates her prior to telling her about their son’s kidnapping. It’s almost painful to watch in its realism.
Interestingly, both 1956 releases earned Oscar nominations for Best Song. “Man” produced “Whatever Will Be Will Be” (Que Sera Sera), a song that became Day’s theme and won the Oscar, and the title song from Julie” was also nominated.
In 1957 Day returned to the Warner lot to star in the film version of the popular Broadway hit, “The Pajama Game”, taking over the role essayed on the stage by Janis Paige, who had been one of the stars of “Romance on the High Seas” in 1948, and would play a co-starring role in a Doris Day comedy in 1960 called “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies”.
Stanley Donen directed “Pajama” and Bob Fosse handled the choreography. The result was a near perfect film version of a stage hit and Day literally soared in her role as Babe Williams, head of the Grievance Committee at a Pajama factory.
A 1958 teaming with the “King” – Clark Gable in George Seaton’s very funny, “Teacher’s Pet”, paved the way for future comedies by giving Day a very strong role as a journalism teacher who falls for “student”, Gable. Doris Day showed an ability to play a working woman on-screen, in a way that helped define the women of the 50’s and 60’s who were emerging as having careers.
Doris Day never played “window dressing” roles like so many others were relegated to playing. Furthermore, she had no qualms about playing a mother on-screen, not feeling threatened that she would be overshadowed or have a scene stolen from her. She had a confidence that allowed her to share space with children and make it real. In fact in her second film, 1949’s “My Dream is Yours” she played a widowed mother with a young son. Some of her best work of the 50’s and 60’s portrayed her as a working woman or mother or both including Richard Quine’s enchanting 1959 comedy, “It Happened to Jane” co-starring Jack Lemmon, in which Day is the mother of two and has a busy career selling Lobsters.
In the October 30, 1964 issue of the Hollywood Reporter, there are several pages singing the praises of Doris Day, in ads taken out by both 20th Century Fox and MGM. In particular, the ads note, “MGM and 20th Century Fox congratulate Miss Doris Day for being chosen the number one female box-office star by Motion Picture Exhibitor Magazine’s Poll of Exhibitors for the 8th consecutive year” (1957 – 1964 inclusive)
No other female star in film history achieved the level of unprecedented popularity given to Doris Day, especially during the period noted above and, in fact, beyond the date indicated.
Those who dismiss Day as being a relic of the 50’s seem not to realize that, in fact, Doris Day’s greatest popularity was in the changing 1960’s. The annual Quigley Poll of top ten box-office attractions in 1970 noted the top male and female star of the 1960’s and they were John Wayne and Doris Day. Miss Day also topped their top ten poll as top star (male or female) in 1960 and 1962-1964, inclusive.
During a period of time in which such screen legends as Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, and Audrey Hepburn among others were starring in movies, Doris Day struck a responsive chord with moviegoers that was second to none.
Among the most popular films that contributed to this amazing run were the series of romantic comedies with Rock Hudson, the first of which was “Pillow Talk” which earned Miss Day an Oscar nomination as Best Actress. She and Hudson had a wonderful on-screen chemistry that was also evident off-screen. The two became lifelong friends.
One of Hudson’s last public appearances was in Carmel, California in July of 1985.
He had come to the beautiful seaside community to support his treasured friend Doris Day as she launched a cable television show entitled, “Doris Day’s Best Friends”. It was a program that would air on CBN and would balance her star power with her longtime passion for helping animals. Since the early 70’s, in particular, Doris has lent her name to creating awareness, supporting spaying and neutering and finding good homes for those she refers to as “our four-leggers”. Not content to merely be involved peripherally, she also had taken an active role in an organization called Actors and Others for Animals, later founding her own foundation which exists to this day.
Hudson was to be the guest on the first program which would air in October of 1985 but on this summer day in July, Rock, along with Eva Gabor and Merv Griffin were present for a press conference to tout the new venture. I was among those who had assembled.
Doris looked radiant, as though she had just stepped off the set of “Pillow Talk”which had been made 26 years earlier. It was apparent that life in Carmel, away from the hectic world of Los Angeles and Hollywood, agreed with her. She looked forward to this new opportunity because it would enable her to talk about the important chapter of her life that she was living with a house filled with the animals who provided, in her words, “an unconditional love”.
The arrival of her dear friend Rock created a major stir followed by a deadening silence that was unnerving for all present. The Rock Hudson who entered the room and was greeted with great warmth and love by Doris bore little resemblance to the dashing actor so adept at both drama and comedy. It was instantly clear that something was seriously wrong.
Whatever she might have been thinking, Doris showed nothing on her lovely face but the love and abiding devotion she felt for the man she called “Ernie”. (He called her Eunice, nicknames they’d given one another many years earlier). They kissed and she held him tight, so clearly proud to call him friend.
Later, privately, she urged him not to tape her show but rather to stay and let her cook for him and bring him back to good health. As was her custom, the career was a distant second to what really mattered in life and their friendship and the possibility of being able to help a friend, was all that mattered.
Rock insisted on doing the show and then returned to his home in Los Angeles before seeking help overseas for what was eventually announced as being AIDS.
Doris never saw her dear friend again although they spoke on the phone and she wrote him letters of encouragement.
Once you are Doris Day’s friends, you are her friend forever and I can attest to the level of caring and concern that is within her heart. Two years earlier I had battled Leukemia and throughout my ordeal my flagging spirits were raised each time the phone rang and it was Doris calling or whenever a note, card, letter or thoughtful gift arrived in the mail. I truly believe that the love within her and the power of her bottomless well of positive thinking could well have made a difference for Rock if even providing him a little longer life under better circumstances.
Doris Day shared a similar affection with other co-stars including James Garner with whom she made two blockbuster comedies in the 1960’s. Garner, like so many others who worked with Day in front of and behind the camera, have sung her praises for decades as being a consummate professional who knew her lines, could improvise with the best, and who showed an unfaltering concern and courtesy for those with whom she worked.
The legendary Sydney Guilaroff, who created hairstyles for some of the most celebrated personalities in the entertainment business and worked on some 2,000 films, worked with Doris on half a dozen MGM projects. They remained friends and Guilaroff told me in 1992 after we attended a showing of “Love Me or Leave Me” at L.A.’s late and lamented revival house, “The Vagabond, “Doris knew the names of every member of the crew as well as the names of their family. They were family to her and she never pulled rank, never acted like a star and thanked each of them for their invaluable contribution toward making the film the best it could be.”
With the death of her third husband, Martin Melcher, in 1968, Doris moved her career in a new direction. Melcher had signed her to do a CBS series to debut in the fall of 1968, without advising her of the timing of the project. It was only the first of many secrets she was forced to uncover and face concerning the man to whom she had been wed for some 17 years.
There would be no more movie roles although she was offered and turned down hundreds of prospective film and television roles from the late 60’s until the early 2000’s. The naysayers would have us believe that her screen star had faded due to changing tastes, but the reality paints a vastly different picture.
Her last film, “With Six You Get Eggroll” had proven to be a major box-office smash when it was released. In fact, it was one of the top ten moneymaking films of Miss Day’s 39 picture career. Her penultimate film, “Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?” had broken records at New York’s Radio City Music Hall where it grossed in excess of 1.3 million during a six week run.
Television, however, became an all-consuming obligation that kept Miss Day busy until 1973, when she asked CBS to let her out of her series contract after filming 128 episodes of “The Doris Day Show” which had frequently been a top-ten ratings winner for the network.
Doris had also starred in two immensely popular variety specials with guests such as Rock Hudson, Perry Como, John Denver, Rich Little and Tim Conway. The specials served to remind the public of what an outstanding vocalist Doris Day still was in the 1970’s. Her tone and breath control and inherent warmth when singing was the envy of many who failed to understand Day’s secret to inhabiting a song. She treated a song as though she were telling a story to each and every listener.
In the fall of 1974 she won an enormous settlement in a lawsuit filed against the attorney who had bilked her of more than 22 million dollars. It had taken nearly 6 years to see the case go to court and it would be many more years before it was completely resolved, but it represented a victory although Doris would never find a complete answer to the question as to whether her husband, Melcher, had knowingly aided the attorney in misappropriating her funds.
With the distinguished and award-winning writer, A.E. Hotchner, she wrote her life story in an honest, frank and completely disarming way. Released in December of 1975, “Doris Day – Her Own Story” topped every best seller list including the prestigious NY Times listing, for much of 1976. Without even a trace of self-pity, Day told her story in her way and in the process helped a lot of readers confront their own disappointments in life and not fall prey to a pattern of “woe is me”.
After a fourth marriage floundered, Doris said goodbye to her beloved home on North Crescent Drive in Beverly Hills and moved to Carmel in the early 80’s, returning only twice to Los Angeles – once to help Les Brown celebrate his birthday and a second time to accept the Cecil B. DeMille Award from the Hollywood Foreign Press in 1989. Her brief return to the limelight brought a rousing standing ovation from the celebrity-filled Beverly Hilton Hotel in January of 1989.
In the last 25 years the bulk of her time has been spent working tirelessly on behalf of animals and seeing results that have further filled her heart with love. You can find out more about The Doris Day Animal Foundation by going to: www.dorisdayanimalfoundation.org
The premature passing of her son Terry some ten years ago was a difficult test for Doris because of the long and close devotion they had shared for so many years. She found comfort from close friends and from her beloved animals who seemed to instinctively understand her emotional pain and loss and responded to it.
Doris Day never sought rewards and honors for the work she did. To her, the immense pleasure and enjoyment that fans found from that work was enough reward. None of the Gold Records or countless honors bestowed on her are displayed around her lovely home. Her residence feels like a home not a shrine to Doris Day. It’s one of the secrets for the peace of mind and pleasure that life continues to bring to her.
In recent years she has begun to understand the impact she has had on the entertainment world and to appreciate the unstinting devotion of so many. She’s even consented to do an occasional audio interview about her career and her voice, almost unchanged by the passage of time, seems to twinkle as she recalls a particular movie or memory of her singing and acting career.
At a college in New Hampshire, I teach a four week class entitled, “More than Freckles – The Amazing Career of Doris Day”, and the response has been incredible.
Every one of the 26 available slots in the class is filled within minutes of enrollment beginning and I watch a classroom discover or rediscover the magic of Doris Day, sometimes tearing up as I watch misperceptions melt away and be replaced by deep admiration, respect and utter delight.
“She’s not at all what I was led to expect”, said one delighted class member as she exited the classroom. “Boy did I miss out years ago. But it’s never too late.”
As Doris Day hits 90 – which almost seems impossible to comprehend – it seems as though the whole world wants to reach out and give her a hug for all she represents.
TCM is running an entire “Day” of her movies on April 3rd and she has done a nearly half hour audio interview with Robert Osborne, which is available for listening on TCM’s website.
Me-TV is planning to run 7 episodes of “The Doris Day Show” on Sunday, April 6th interspersed with newly filmed birthday tributes from friends and co-stars including Rose Marie, Robert Wagner, Bernie Kopell, Jackie Joseph, Tony Bennett, Kaye Ballard, Betty White and others. Doris personally selected the 7 episodes to be shown and they include a wonderful fashion show episode from 1973 in which Doris models a bikini.
Festivities are planned in Carmel at the Cypress Inn, which Doris co-owns and which welcomes guests who wish to bring a pet with them.
If the secret for a long life is love, Doris Day should be with us for a long time to come. She has spent a lifetime creating a wealth of memories by bringing pleasure to millions and helping us to understand the important role that our “four-leggers” play in making a complete life.
We’ll never see the likes of Doris Day again but fortunately her rich legacy will keep us entertained for decades to come.