Tuesday, May 14, 2019

The Late Great Doris Day

Doris Day occupies a very special place in my life. It is quite possible that she was the first classic movie star I ever discovered. She was the top box office star in the United States the year I was born. Her movies were still shown in prime time on the broadcast networks. When I was little she even had her own television show, The Doris Day Show, that aired every week on CBS. Doris Day has been a part of my life for so long that I cannot remember where I first saw her. I suspect it might have been on her weekly sitcom, but it could just as easily have been one of her many movies.

Of course, that Doris Day occupied a very special place in my life is not at all unusual. I suspect she occupied a very special place in many people's lives. It occurred to me yesterday that when her recording and film careers are combined, Doris Day probably ranks among the most successful performers of the 20th Century. From 1949 to 1958 she was ranked nine times as the top female vocalist in the annual poll of disc jockeys conducted by Billboard. She ranked in the top twenty of the Motion Picture Herald's poll of exhibitors sixteen times--ten of those times in the top ten and four of those times as the number one box office star in the United States. Nearly fifty one years since her last movie was released (With Six You Get Eggroll in 1968), Doris Day's death was major news yesterday. Even people who are not fans of classic movies posted about her to social media, many of them not yet born when her last movie was released. An argument can be made that while there are stars who are as big as Doris Day, there are none bigger.

It was yesterday that Doris Day died at age 97. She had been in good physical health of late, but had recently contracted pneumonia.

Doris Day was born Doris Mary Ann Kappelhoff on April 3 1922 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her father was a music teacher and choir director, while her mother was a housewife. The two divorced while Miss Day was young. From when she was very young Doris Day took dance classes. As a teenager she regularly won dance contests alongside her partner Jerry Doherty. Unfortunately, Miss Day's aspirations to be a dancer would end when her car was struck by a train. One of her legs was so badly damaged that it took her months to recover. To pass the time she sang along to songs on the radio. Her favourite singer was Ella Fitzgerald, whose style she would try to emulate. Seeing her daughter's interest in singing, Miss Day's mother arranged for her to take voice lessons. She eventually got a job singing on radio station WLW's  programme Carlin's Carnival. Her appearances on the show brought her to the attention of band leader Barney Rapp, who hired her as the female vocalist for his band. It was Mr. Rapp who gave Doris Day her stage name. He felt that Kappelhoff was too long for marquees and he liked how she sang the song "Day After Day." Doris Kappelhoff then became Doris Day.

Doris Day would later perform with such band leaders as Jimmy James and Bob Crosby. It was in 1940 that she began singing with Les Brown and His Band of Renown. She would appear in three Soundies featuring the band. It was in 1945 that her recording of "Sentimental Journey" with the band became her first hit, going all the way to #1. It was followed the same year by another #1 song, "My Dreams Are Getting Better All the Time." It was the start of a slough of hits that would last through the Fifties. In the late Forties alone Doris Day had around thirty top twenty hits and three number one records. Her first album, You're My Thrill, was released in 1949.

It was in 1947 that Doris Day joined The Pepsodent Show Starring Bob Hope alongside Les Brown and His Band of Renown. They would remain with the show even after Pepsodent dropped their sponsorship and it became The Bob Hope Show in 1948. Miss Day, Les Brown, and his band remained on The Bob Hope Show until 1950. It was in 1948 that Doris Day made her film debut in Romance on the High Seas. The song, "It's Magic," performed by Miss Day, would be nominated for the Oscar for Best Song. She would make several more movies in the late Forties, including My Dream is Yours (1949), It's a Great Feeling (1949), Young Man with a Horn (1950), Tea for Two (1950), and The West Point Story (1950).

If anything, Doris Day's recording career would continue to be successful in the Fifties, as she transitioned from being the lead vocalist of a big band to a solo artist. During the decade she had around 14 top twenty hits. Among these were the no. 1 hit "Secret Love" from the movie Calamity Jane and "Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)" from the movie The Man Who Knew Too Much (which went to no. 1). During the decade she also released several more albums. From 1952 to 1953 Miss Day had her own radio show, The Doris Day Show.

It was during the Fifties that Doris Day also became a major movie star. The movie Calamity Jane (1953) would be a breakthrough for Miss Day. Not only would it give her one of her most recognisable songs ("Secret Love"), but it also proved to be a success at the box office. Having appeared in primarily comedies and musicals up to that point, Doris Day took a dramatic turn in the movie Love Me or Leave Me (1955), which also proved to be a box office success. She also appeared in the thrillers The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and Julie (1956). Her career would take another turn in 1959 with the release of Pillow Talk. Co-starring Rock Hudson, it would be the first of the Sixties sex comedies. Despite only appearing in three films together, Rock Hudson and Doris Day would become the stars most associated with the genre. In the Fifties Miss Day also appeared in the films Storm Warning (1951), Lullaby of Broadway (1951), On Moonlight Bay (1951), I'll See You In My Dreams (1951), The Winning Team (1952), April in Paris (1953), Lucy Me (1954), Young at Heart (1955), The Pajama Game (1957), Teacher's Pet (1958), Tunnel of Love (1958), It Happened to Jane (1959), Please Don't Eat the Daisies (1960), and Midnight Lace (1960).

During the Fifties Doris Day also made a few appearances on television. She was twice the mystery guest on the game show What's My Line? and appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and This is Music.

With the advent of rock 'n' roll, Doris Day's recording career would see less success than it previously had. During the Sixties, however, her film career was at its height. She was the top box office star for the years 1963, 1964, and 1965, and ranked in the top ten until 1966, when she finally dropped out of the list of top box office stars. Some of her most recognisable films were released during the decade, most of them Sixties sex comedies. These included such movies as Love Come Back (1961) with Rock Hudson, The Thrill of It All (1962) with James Garner, Move Over, Darling (1963) with James Garner, Send Me No Flowers (1964) with Rock Hudson, and The Glass Bottom Boat (1966) with Rod Taylor. She also appeared in the films That Touch of Mink (1962), Billy Rose's Jumbo (1962), Do Not Disturb (1965), Caprice (1967), The Ballad of Josie (1967), Where Were You When the Lights Went Out? (1968), and With Six You Get Eggroll (1968). Sadly, after years as a top box office star, Doris Day's career went into decline after 1966. Several of her movies in a row failed at the box office. An exception was With Six You Get Eggroll, which proved to be very successful at the box office. Despite this, it would be Doris Day's last film.

While Doris Day would no longer see success in movies in the late Sixties, she would see success on television. It was after the death of her husband Martin Melcher that she learned he had signed her to a TV show on CBS without her knowledge. Worse yet, she also learned that Mr. Melcher and his his business partner Jerome Rosenthal had spent her earnings, leaving her effectively bankrupt. Miss Day felt obligated to honour the agreement with CBS, and at the same she had to get herself out of bankruptcy. It was then that Doris Day starred in the The Doris Day Show from 1968 to 1973. The show proved moderately successful in the ratings, despite frequently shifting its format with little warning from season to season. Miss Day would eventually win a multimillion lawsuit against Jerome Rosenthal for legal malpractice.

From the late Sixties into the mid-Seventies Doris Day continued to appear on The Doris Day Show. She also appeared in the TV specials The Doris Mary Anne Kappelhoff Special and Doris Day Today. She was a guest on the shows The Merv Griffin Show, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, The Doris Day Show, and The Mike Douglas Show.

Interested in animal welfare from her childhood, it was also in the Seventies that Doris Day became truly active as an animal welfare activist. She co-founded Actors and Others for Animals in 1971. In 1978 she founded the Doris Day Pet Foundation, now the Doris Day Animal Foundation. In 1987 she founded the Doris Day Animal League.

Following the Seventies, Miss Day would be primarily active with her animal welfare activism, but from 1985 to 1986 she hosted her own talk show on CBN (later the Family Channel and now Freeform) titled Doris Day's Best Friends. The show was historic for Miss Day's interview with her dear friend Rock Hudson, who was sick with AIDS. It would not only be the first time that the public saw just how ill Mr. Hudson was with the disease, but the first time the public saw anyone suffering from it. Sadly, Doris Day's Best Friends would only last a single season and 26 episodes.

The Nineties would see the release of The Love Album. Recorded by Miss Day in 1967, it was not released until 1994. In 2011 Miss Day's final album, My Heart, was released. Since the Eighties Doris Day had rarely given interviews. In 2011 she gave the breakfast programme Good Morning America a telephone interview. She gave ABC another telephone interview in 2016 on her birthday. This past April she provided an interview to The Hollywood Reporter.

In the 1978 M*A*S*H episode Colonel Sherman Potter confesses that he fell in love with Doris Day and, what is more, he has seen every single one of her movies alone. I am certain that Colonel Potter was not the only person to have fallen in love with Doris Day from afar. Men and women, straight and gay, I think many people have fallen in love with her over the years. Doris Day wasn't simply America's Sweetheart, she was the Whole World's Sweetheart. There was a quality about Miss Day that simply brought people joy. I am convinced that for most people it is impossible not to see Doris Day on the screen or to hear her voice in her songs and not be happy. I have to believe that this stemmed from an inner goodness about Doris Day. She truly was the girl next door. All of her co-stars and everyone else with whom she worked simply adored her. One never heard a bad word uttered about Doris Day. This was perhaps because Miss Day was truly a nice person. One almost never heard Doris Day utter a bad word about anyone else either. Miss Day once said, "I like joy; I want to be joyous; I want to have fun on the set; I want to wear beautiful clothes and look pretty. I want to smile, and I want to make people laugh. And that's all I want. I like it. I like being happy. I want to make others happy." She certainly did make others happy.

Of course, Doris Day was an enormous talent. There is a tendency on the part of many to think Miss Day only played wholesome, virginal roles. There is even a quote, variously attributed to Groucho Marx or Oscar Levant, "I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin." In truth, very few of Miss Day's roles could be described as "virginal," and in fact she played a wide variety of roles and played them well. Despite claims otherwise, Doris Day was certainly not virginal in her many Sixties sex comedies, even if she was wholesome. Indeed, in The Thrill of It All (1963), Move Over, Darling (1963), Send Me No Flowers (1964), and Do Not Disturb (1965), Miss Day played a married woman. In The Glass Bottom Boat (1966) she played a widow. In yet other sex comedies, such as Pillow Talk (1959) and Love Come Back (1961), Doris Day was certainly virtuous, but I don't think she could be described as virginal--her characters had clearly been around the block once or twice in their lives. What is more, in many of the Sixties sex comedies she played successful career women who showed no signs of giving up their careers even after getting married (which they inevitably did at the end of each movie). While I suppose some of Doris Day's earlier roles could be described as "virginal," it hardly held true for her whole career.

Indeed, throughout Doris Day's career she played a wide variety of roles. With her dulcet voice and incredible acting talent, she was certainly well suited to musicals. And even in her musicals Miss Day's roles could vary. In April in Paris (1952) she played a Broadway chorus girl who accidentally gets chosen to represent a theatre at an art exposition in Paris. In Calamity Jane (1954) she played the title character. One has to suspect that Calamity Jane may have been one of the characters closest to Miss Day in real life (she confessed that she was a tomboy growing up, which explains why it was her favourite among her films). In The Pajama Game she played a worker in a pyjama factory.

Of course, Miss Day appeared in more than musical comedies. What is often overlooked is that Doris Day was very good in dramas. In Storm Warning (1951) she played a newlywed whose sister  has witnessed a violent assault. She gave a bravura performance as singer turned movie story Ruth Etting in Love Me or Leave Me (1955).  In Julie she played a woman who is stalked by her psychopathic second husband. Although best known for her musicals and comedies, Doris Day was excellent in her dramas. Quite simply, the gifts she brought to her musicals and comedies benefited her in drama as well. She could convey emotion with simply a look, and the timing that proved so useful in singing and performing comedy allowed her to deliver lines so as to maximise their effect while all the time seeming perfectly natural.

While Doris Day appeared in several dramas throughout her career, she was certainly best known for her comedies. She had a natural gift for comedy, so much so that co-star James Garner called her, "the Fred Astaire of comedy." Miss Day had perfect comic timing and even a bit of a gift for physical comedy in addition to her natural talent for delivering lines and conveying emotions with just a look. What is more, she played a wide variety of roles in her many comedies, from a drama critic's wife in Please Don't Eat the Daisies (1960) to an unemployed computer operator in That Touch of Mink (1962) to an industrial designer caught up in intrigue in Caprice (1967). While today many identify Doris Day with a particular sort of role, she played a wide variety of parts even in her comedies.

Of course, Doris Day began her career as a singer. What is more, she was one of the most successful singers of all time. Miss Day had a naturally mellifluous voice. She took what she learned from listening to Ella Fitzgerald and built upon that. Her style was clear and casual, but at the same time conveyed emotion better than any other singer around. It was a style that was suited to a wide variety of songs, from the slightly melancholic "Sentimental Journey" to the novelty song "Celery Stalks at Midnight" to love songs such as "If I Give My Heart to You." Contrary to the prevailing image of Doris Day, she could even be sexy when singing a song. There are few more songs more passionate than her rendition of "Blame My Absent Minded Heart." There was an honesty about the way Doris Day sang that is often sorely lacking in more overwrought vocalists.

Doris Day was a  very singular star, and not simply because she was a triple threat. It is true that she could dance, sing, and act and did all of them well. At the same time, she brought a quality to her work that few performers ever have. There was a sincerity to her singing and acting that few could duplicate. Audiences picked up on that sincerity and they loved her for it. What is more, she had a natural talent for making people happy. To see or hear Doris Day will bring a smile to most people's faces. It is little wonder that she was one of the biggest stars of all time. 

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