Getting to Know: Doris Day

So far, Cinema Paradiso's Getting to Know series has focused on Sidney Poitier, Cate Blanchett and Bill Murray. In the fourth instalment, we look at the profile of one of Hollywood's most beloved stars, Doris Day, whose mid-career change of direction saw the Sweetheart of Song become a feminist icon.

Sadly, Doris Day passed away not long after her 97th birthday and had been retired for over 30 years. Yet her fans remain as devoted as ever and critics have slowly started to recognise the value of the 39 films she made in addition to the 650+ songs she recorded. At one point, the 'girl next door' and 'career woman' images that Day had created during her spells at Warner Bros and Universal made her a figure of fun. Indeed, pianist Oscar Levant once quipped that he had known Day 'before she was a virgin'. In fact, she disliked being stereotyped and longed to quit show business to become a wife and mother. But the on-screen persona that has inspired generations of women served as a mask to hide an often unhappy private life.

The Accidental Singer

Until two years ago, Doris Day had always believed that she had been born Doris Mary Ann Kappelhoff in Cincinnati, Ohio on 3 April 1924. Yet, when a journalist checked her birth certificate on the eve of her 95th birthday, it was discovered that she hadn't been born on the same day as Marlon Brando after all, as music teacher and Catholic choirmaster William Kappelhoff and his wife, Alma, had actually welcomed their only daughter (and named her after silent star Doris Kenyon) in 1922.

Devoted to her two older brothers, Doris had been a tomboy. But, following her parents' divorce, she became interested in dancing and formed a partnership with Jerry Doherty. Following a visit to Hollywood, the duo decided to relocate. But, while travelling home after a farewell party on 13 October 1937, Doris's car was hit by a train and she suffered such serious compound fractures of her right leg that doctors feared she might never dance again. While recuperating, Doris often listened to the radio and fell so deeply under the spell of Ella Fitzgerald that she asked Alma if she could take singing lessons.

In later years, she would cite vocal coach Grace Raine as the biggest influence on her career. But it was bandleader Barney Rapp who 'discovered' her after he heard her singing on the WLW radio show, Carlin's Carnival. Moreover, he gave her a new stage name after the song, 'Day After Day', although she always thought it was phoney and made her sound like 'a headliner at the Gaiety Burlesque House'.

Such was her clarity, control and emotional sincerity that the teenage Day was soon in demand and she appeared with bandleaders Jimmy James and Bob Crosby (brother of Bing) before joining Les Brown and His Band of Renown, with whom she appeared in three musical shorts known as 'soundies': My Lost Horizon, Once Over, Lightly and Is It Love or Is It Conscription? (all 1941). While touring with Brown, Day fell for trombonist Al Jorden and married him with the intention of settling down to raise a family. However, he turned out to be a possessive brute and she divorced him shortly after giving birth to her son, Terry.

Reluctantly resuming her career, Day became a radio regular on The Bob Hope Pepsodent Show, whose comic host dubbed her J.B., which was short for 'Jut Butt'. This became one of many nicknames that Day acquired during the course of her career. Jack Carson called her Zelda and Gene Kelly referred to her as Brunhilda, while Rock Hudson alternated between Eunice and Maude when she addressed him as Roy or Ernie. The name that stuck, however, was Billy De Wolfe's Clara Bixby, which is still used by her closest friends.

In 1945, Day had her first chart success with 'Sentimental Journey' and six more Top 10 hits followed over the next 12 months. Such acclaim didn't go down well with saxophonist husband George Weidler, however, and their marriage fell apart after just eight months. But songwriters Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn were convinced that Day was a star in waiting and, when they introduced her to Hollywood director Michael Curtiz, he promptly placed her under an exclusive contract.

Shining Through

Despite getting to sing the Oscar-nominated 'It's Magic', Day was so dismayed by her debut performance in Romance on the High Seas (1948), that she begged Curtiz to let her take acting lessons. However, the Hungarian assured her, 'No matter what you do on screen, no matter what kind of part you play, it will always be you...Doris Day will always shine through the part. This will make you a big, important star.'

In time, he proved to be correct, and Day quickly acclimatised to acting on camera, as can be seen from the compilations Hollywood Musicals of the 1940s (2000) and Music Clips From the Swing Years (2004). Curtiz also directed Day in My Dream Is Yours (1949), Young Man With a Horn (1950) and I'll See You in My Dreams (1951), with the latter being a biopic of tunesmith Gus Kahn, while Young Man With a Horn teamed Day with Kirk Douglas in a film à clef about jazz musician Bix Beiderbecke, whose career inspired Brian Parker's Alan Plater-scripted TV series, The Beiderbecke Tapes (1987), which starred James Bolam and Barbara Flynn.

This period also saw Day directed in David Butler in It's a Great Feeling (1949), Tea For Two (1950) and Lullaby of Broadway (1951), and by Roy Del Ruth in The West Point Story (1950) and On Moonlight Bay (1951). The former cast her as a movie star repaying a favour to Broadway producer James Cagney by helping him wangle protégé Gordon MacRae out of the army, while the latter drew on Booth Tarkington's 'Penrod' stories to reunite her with MacRae as a tomboy whose first romance is jeopardised by the Great War.

More daringly, Stuart Heisler's Storm Warning (1951) teamed Day with Ginger Rogers and Ronald Reagan in a drama denouncing the Ku Klux Klan. She also lined up alongside Reagan in The Winning Team (1952), Lewis Seiler's biopic of a baseball pitcher, Grover Alexander Cleveland. But Warners saw Day as the next Betty Grable and she worked hard to create a persona based on freshness, honesty, optimism and a deceptive streak of self-reliant resilience.

This all-American gal appeared in various guises in three films for David Butler. In April in Paris (1952), Day plays Ethel 'Dynamite' Jackson, a chorus girl who is mistakenly invited to a cultural convention in the French capital instead of actress Ethel Barrymore, while By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1953) saw her reprise the role Marjorie Winfield opposite Gordon MacRae in a sequel to On Moonlight Bay. Most enduringly, Day took the lead in Calamity Jane (1953), a rootin' tootin' musical Western, in which she introduced Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster's Oscar-winning song, 'Secret Love'.

Following a rare misfire in Jack Donohoe's Lucky Me (1954), Day wrapped up her Warner contract alongside Frank Sinatra in Gordon Douglas's Young At Heart (1955), a musical remake of Michael Curtiz's 1938 drama, Four Daughters. However, Day had grown tired of forever appearing peppy and third husband Marty Melcher (who married her after divorcing Patty Andrews of The Andrews Sisters) helped her to snare some more challenging roles.

Brand New Day

Having enjoyed a taste of freedom while hosting her own radio show in the early 1950s, Day turned down a new deal with Warners and formed Arwin Productions to shape her own destiny. Her first independent project saw her playing Jazz Age actress Ruth Etting in Charles Vidor's biopic, Love Me or Leave Me (1955), in which she performed Sammy Cahn and Nicholas Brodszky's Oscar-nominated song. 'I'll Never Stop Loving You'. Yet, while James Cagney landed a Best Actor nod as her gangster lover, Martin Snyder, Day was overlooked for what many consider to be the best acting display of her entire career.

Somewhat surprisingly, she became Alfred Hitchcock's next cool blonde in being paired with James Stewart in the 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), which saw her croon another Oscar-winning song, Jay Livingston and Ray Evans's 'Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera, Sera)', which became her signature tune. She remained in thriller territory for Andrew L. Stone's Julie (1956), which she made at Melcher's insistence, even though the story about a wife who is menaced by her jealous husband brought back unhappy memories of her first two marriages. However, she became friends with co-star Louis Jourdan and was so smitten by the locations around the Californian town of Carmel that she settled there after her retirement. Yet, despite her misgivings, Day would later play another imperilled spouse opposite Rex Harrison in David Miller's London-set chiller, Midnight Lace (1960).

Having returned to musicals to play Katie 'Babe' Williams in George Abbott and Stanley Donen's adaptation of the former's Broadway hit, The Pajama Game (1957), Day reached the conclusion that the genre in which she had made her name was going into decline, as the rise of rock'n'roll ended her decade-long run as the bestselling female artist on the Billboard charts. Consequently, she sought a new avenue and tried her hand at romantic comedy, alongside Clark Gable in George Seaton's Teacher's Pet, Richard Widmark in Gene Kelly's The Tunnel of Love (both 1958) and Jack Lemmon in Richard Quine's It Happened to Jane (1959). The lukewarm reception accorded this trio suggested she had wandered into a career dead end. But Universal producer Ross Hunter wasn't so sure.

The Virgin Queen

At 37, Day had her doubts about joining forces with Rock Hudson in Michael Gordon's Pillow Talk (1959), as he had little experience of romcoms and she didn't think she had the looks or the poise to play the epitome of the modern working woman. Yet, the public readily accepted the new Doris, as did the critics and her peers, who nominated her for the Academy Award for Best Actress. Having adeptly repeated the formula opposite David Niven in Charles Walters's Please Don't Eat the Daisies (1960) and Cary Grant in Delbert Mann's That Touch of Mink (1962), she resumed her partnership with Hudon and their loyal sidekick Tony Randall in Mann's Lover Come Back (1962) and Norman Jewison's Send Me No Flowers (1964).

Moreover, after making a brief return to musicals in Charles Walters's Billy Rose's Jumbo (1962), Day tweaked her image to add homemaker to careerist, as she paired with James Garner in Jewison's The Thrill of It All and Michael Gordon's Move Over, Darling (both 1963) and Rod Taylor in Ralph Levy's Do Not Disturb (1965) and Frank Tashlin's The Glass Bottom Boat (1967). Yet, despite being the most bankable female star in American cinema, Day was growing restless. She might have been appalled at being offered the role of Mrs Robinson in Mike Nichols's The Graduate (1967) - which would earn Anne Bancroft an Oscar nomination - but she was tiring of being Ms Perfection.

She returned to the frontier to play a widowed Wyoming rancher in Andrew V. McLaglen's The Ballad of Josie and sought to capture the zeitgeist by essaying a spy going undercover at a cosmetics company in Frank Tashlin's Caprice (both 1967). Intriguingly, she commented upon her situation in Hy Averback's Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?, in which Day plays an actress with a squeaky clean image and a manipulative spouse who contemplates retirement because no one will cast her against type. Indeed, the picture may well have prompted her into deciding that Howard Morris's With Six You Get Eggroll (both 1968) would be her final feature. However, any hopes she had of exiting stage left were dashed by the revelations that emerged following the death of her husband.

Clara From Carmel

Day has largely been diplomatic in discussing her relationship with Marty Melcher. But Frank Sinatra had banned him from the set of Young At Heart, while James Garner considered him a hustler. Shortly after she had been widowed, Day discovered that Melcher had not only committed her to star in a new TV series, but he and business associate Jerome Rosenthal had squandered much of her fortune. Consequently, she had little option but to make The Doris Day Show (1968-73), even though she disliked acting for the small screen.

Abetted by her son, Terry Melcher, Day gained creative control over the series, which enjoyed decent ratings. But Melcher had troubles of his own. In his capacity as a producer with links to bands like The Beach Boys, The Byrds and The Mamas and the Papas, he came into contact with aspiring musician Charles Manson, who hoped to sign a record deal and star in a documentary about his Manson Family commune. Shortly after Melcher decided to distance himself from Manson, members of the cult murdered killed actress Sharon Tate and her friends at the 10050 Cielo Drive address that Melcher and girlfriend Candice Bergen had recently vacated.

The tragedy forms part of the story in Quentin Tarantino's forthcoming drama, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and reinforced Day's determination to withdraw from the public eye following the transmission of The Doris Day Special (1971). In 1976, she married restaurant maitre d' Barry Comden, but was single again within five years and too preoccupied with her animal charities to contemplate a return to the screen. She was approached to play Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote (1984-96) and rumours circulated that she was planning a sequel to Pillow Talk with Rock Hudson. However, these were scotched by the revelation that he was dying of AIDS after he appeared on her pets programme, Doris Day's Best Friends (1985-86), which aired on the Christian Broadcasting Network.

Although Day's films with Hudson were reclaimed as knowingly camp classics in documentaries like Mark Rappaport's Rock Hudon's Home Movies (1992), Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein's The Celluloid Closet (1995) and Jeffrey Schwarz's Vito (2011), it became fashionable to denigrate Day's screen persona. Yet, while Rizzo (Stockard Channing) could make mocking comparisons with Sandy (Olivia Newton-John) in the lyrics to 'Look At Me, I'm Sandra Dee' in Randall Kleiser's Grease (1978), critics began to reassess Day's contribution to cinema and society. Some even hailed her as a pioneer of women's liberation and there's a good deal of affection in Peyton Reed's parodic screwball, Down With Love (2003), which starred Renée Zellweger and Ewan McGregor in the Doris and Rock roles.

At the age of 89, Day became the oldest artist to have a Top 10 album of new material in UK chart history when My Heart was released in 2011. However, the 2015 reports that she had agreed to cameo for Carmel neighbour Clint Eastwood turned out to be idle gossip and, while she cropped up in archive footage in documentaries as different as Raoul Peck's I Am Not Your Negro (2016) and Alexandre O. Philippe's 78/52 (2017), Clara Kappelhoff (as she now calls herself) continues to turn down honours she has to collect in person and focus on protecting animals.

For much of her professional life, she had embodied images of womanhood that she despised. Novelist John Updike called her a 'shy goddess...[who] fascinates us with the amount of space we imagine between her face and her mask'. Yet, to many, she remains an inspirational role model, while her singing will never cease to enchant. Who can argue with Queen guitarist Brian May: 'She is technically unmatched, adorable, mind-blowingly expressive, and probably the best interpreter of a song I ever saw. I just hope she knows how much she is still loved and respected. Will somebody please tell her? She is the ultimate, as far as I'm concerned. Doris Rocks!'

  • On Moonlight Bay (1951)

    1h 31min

    Although people tend to remember Doris Day's three teamings with Rock Hudson, she made more films with Gordon MacRae during the hectic period at Warners when she churned out 17 features in seven years. Two of the five Day-MacRae outings were adapted from Booth Tarkington's `Penrod' stories, with the focus being shifted away from young Wesley Winfield (Billy Grey) on to the relationship between his baseball-playing tomboy sister, Marjorie (Day), and philosophical boy next door William Sherman (MacRae). Echoing the kind of Americana that Vincente Minnelli had celebrated in Meet Me in St Louis (1944), the picture proved such a success that the stars were reunited in a sequel, By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1953).

  • Calamity Jane (1953)

    Play trailer
    1h 37min

    What a whip-cracking triple bill this fantasy on the life of Martha Jane Canary would make with George Sidney's musical oaters, The Harvey Girls (1946) and Annie Get Your Gun (1950). Day had hoped to headline the screen version of Irving Berlin's Broadway smash, but Louis B. Mayer pipped Jack Warner to the post and then opted to cast Betty Hutton as Annie Oakley after Judy Garland was fired. Determined to show the MGM front office what it had missed, Day threw herself into playing Calam and prompted one critic to suggest she was 'within hailing distance of Ginger Rogers and Judy Garland'. With its cross-dressing and references to 'secret love', this has become something of a camp classic.

  • Young at Heart (1954)

    1h 53min

    Fresh from scooping a Best Supporting Oscar for Fred Zinnemann's From Here to Eternity (1953), Frank Sinatra threw his weight around on the set of this musicalisation of Michael Curtiz's Four Daughters (1938), even though Day had top billing. In addition to insisting on a change to the ending, he also had cinematographer Charles Lang replaced by Ted McCord for taking too long over his camera set-ups. However, Day and Sinatra rubbed along well in playing a small-town Connecticut gal and the chip-shouldered New York pianist (whose playing is dubbed by André Previn), who competes for her affections with composer Gig Young, who has also caught the eye of Day's sisters, Dorothy Malone and Elisabeth Fraser.

    Director:
    Gordon Douglas
    Cast:
    Doris Day, Frank Sinatra, Gig Young
    Genre:
    Drama, Classics, Music & Musicals, Romance, Collections
    Availability:
    DVD, Blu-ray
  • Love Me or Leave Me (1955)

    1h 57min

    Day came of age as an actress in this potent account of the turbulent relationship between 1920s jazz singer Ruth Etting and Chicago mobster Martin Snyder. Nicknamed 'Moe the Gimp' because of a limp incurred in a childhood accident, Snyder made Etting a star. But he also proved to be a controlling and abusive husband, whose seething jealousy prompted him to shoot Etting's accompanist, Myrl Alderman. Cameron Mitchell impresses as the man in the middle, but it's the combustible chemistry between Cagney and Day that makes Charles Vidor's biopic so compelling. Whether fending off the unwanted attentions of co-stars and stage-door johnnies or suppressing her spirit to pacify her spouse, Day excels, particularly during 'Ten Cents a Dance'.

  • The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

    1h 55min

    The only remake in Alfred Hitchcock's canon came 15 years after producer David O. Selznick had first suggested revisiting the 1934 thriller that had confirmed its director as the Master of Suspense. It took a trip to Morocco with his wife Alma to persuade Hitch to change his mind and, having cast Day as James Stewart's wife, he instructed his screenwriters to base her character on popular singer Jo Stafford. The location shoot was hair-raising, as anti-government riots broke out. But Day responded to the challenge and proved her acting mettle during the sleeping pill sequence and her singing class with 'Que Sera Sera', which was inspired by the family motto in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's The Barefoot Contessa (1954).

    Director:
    Alfred Hitchcock
    Cast:
    James Stewart, Doris Day, Brenda De Banzie
    Genre:
    Thrillers, Classics, Collections
    Availability:
    DVD, Blu-ray
  • The Pajama Game (1957)

    Play trailer
    1h 37min

    Dubbed 'the first left-wing operetta' by Jean-Luc Godard, this Broadway transfer proved something of a watershed for Doris Day, as she was able to shed her brassy tomboy image and hint at the feminist chic that would become her trademark in the battle of the sexes comedies that dominated her final decade on screen. As the union official leading a strike at the Sleeptite nightwear factory, she gives works superintendant John Raitt as good as she gets. But there's a touching vulnerability in her reprise of 'Hey There' (which she sang live), which director Stanley Donen made all the more poignant with his symbolic use of the red and green lights from the railway signal outside her window.

  • Teacher's Pet (1958)

    1h 55min

    Writers Fay and Michael Kanin had originally envisaged the story of a hard-bitten newspaperman posing as a journalism student to show up a prissy professor as a serious drama. However, they reworked it as a romantic comedy and, inadvertently, anticipated Day's future direction. Cary Grant and James Stewart were among the rumoured co-stars, but Clark Gable was shrewdly cast as the sceptical scribe, who recalls the reporter he had played in winning an Oscar for Frank Capra's It Happened One Night (1934). While Day adored working with the King of Hollywood, she had little time for Mamie Van Doren, as Gable's chanteuse girlfriend, and there's an edge to her send-up of 'The Girl Who Invented Rock'n'Roll'.

    Director:
    George Seaton
    Cast:
    Clark Gable, Doris Day, Gig Young
    Genre:
    Classics, Romance, Collections
    Availability:
    DVD
  • Pillow Talk (1959)

    Play trailer
    1h 38min

    Marty Melcher called Day's first teaming with Rock Hudson 'a clean sex comedy'. Perhaps he was referring to the fact that they shared one of their cosy telephone chats in their respective bathtubs, as director Michael Gordon made playful use of the split CinemaScope screen to parody the bedtime conversations that Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman had enjoyed in Stanley Donen's Indiscreet (1958). Day received her sole Oscar nomination for her performance as the interior designer who fails to realise that the naive Texan seemingly besotted with her is really the smug songwriter who keeps hogging her party line. However, she lost out to Simone Signoret for her work in Jack Clayton's Room At the Top.

    Director:
    Michael Gordon
    Cast:
    Rock Hudson, Doris Day, Tony Randall
    Genre:
    Classics, Collections, Comedy, Romance
    Availability:
    DVD, Blu-ray
  • Move Over, Darling (1963)

    1h 39min

    Dean Martin and Marilyn Monroe had been cast in George Cukor's 1962 remake of the Cary Grant-Irene Dunne screwball, My Favourite Wife (1940). However, Something's Gotta Give was shelved after Monroe died and, with Kim Novak, Shirley MacLaine and Lee Remick reluctant to take over the assignment, it was reworked for Day and James Garner to play the wife making an unexpected return five years after being presumed lost at sea and the 'widowed' lawyer about to go on honeymoon with Polly Bergen. For once demonstrating her gift for physical shtick, Day hilariously impersonates a Swedish maid trying to give Bergen a massage and it's easy to see why Garner dubbed her 'the Fred Astaire of comedy'.

    Director:
    Michael Gordon
    Cast:
    Doris Day, James Garner, Polly Bergen
    Genre:
    Classics, Comedy, Romance
    Availability:
    DVD
  • Caprice (1967)

    1h 34min

    Notable primarily for being one of the last two films made in CinemaScope (the other being the James Coburn spy spoof, In Like Flint), this was one of Day's least favourite outings. Indeed, on reading the script, she told Melcher, 'Thank God we don't have to do movies like that anymore!' However, her husband had already committed her to the picture and the 44 year-old typically gave her all to an espionage romp that has much in comic-book common with Joseph Losey's Modesty Blaise (1966). Co-star Richard Harris claimed to have learnt more about comedy from Day than he had done in four years at RADA (a drama school he hadn't attended). It's no classic, but it's still fun.

    Director:
    Frank Tashlin
    Cast:
    Doris Day, Richard Harris, Ray Walston
    Genre:
    Comedy, Classics, Romance
    Availability:
    DVD

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