Bright Lights Film Journal

Not the Girl Next Door: Doris Day Reconsidered (Happy 92nd Birthday)

Today, April 4, is Doris Day’s 92nd birthday. We offer our best wishes to one of our favorite multitalented stars by reprinting this tribute/overview originally posted in December 2015.

* * *

Doris Day is so fused with her archetypal image that it’s easy to miss what a damn good actress she was.

* * *

I was about eleven movies into a Doris Day marathon when I found myself thinking about Marlon Brando. The paradox of extraordinary acting is that it necessarily calls attention to itself: “Brando was so believable,” we gush. But if a performance is indistinguishable from the real thing, we shouldn’t be able to see it, right? Doris Day, who will be best remembered as the blonde, helmet-haired, had-it-up-to-here-with-him star of 1950s and ’60s romantic comedies with magnificent animated title sequences, hadn’t Brando’s ambition or depth, but she could hold an audience as well as anyone.

In 1975’s Doris Day: Her Own Story, a collaborative tell-all written by A. E. Hotchner, Jack Lemmon calls her “a method actress even though she never went to the Actors Studio or studied Stanislavsky,” and Rock Hudson – the Tracy to Day’s Hepburn, at least on screen – calls her “an Actors Studio all by herself.” This is not favor-repaying flattery: you can rarely see the seams in a Doris Day performance. It helps that she was, while pretty, undistractingly so – not a beauty so much as the possessor of a face lacking a dud feature (a bit of geometric luck often mistaken for beauty in the movie biz). Once she was no longer beholden to Warner Brothers’ picks for her, she undid the shackles of the taffy-brained nostalgia musical and seized on choicer parts that tested her range and endurance.

Screenshot from Romance on the High Seas

But even her Warner Brothers work was good, beginning with the multi-gigawatt delivery of her first line – “Greetings, chum” – in her first film, 1948’s Romance on the High Seas, in which she portrayed a low-rent nightclub singer as a walking glass of champagne in a whipped-cream-topping blonde wig. According to her book, after she was cast by the film’s Hungarian American director, Michael Curtiz of Casablanca fame, he discouraged her from using an acting coach: “Always there is Humphrey Bogart himself coming through every part he play. So with you. You have very, very strong personality. Is you. Is unique. That’s why I don’t want you to take lessons. You have a natural thing there in you, should no one ever disturb.” Day felt it too: “Movie acting came to me with greater ease and naturalness than anything else I had ever done.”

Steve Cochran, Doris Day, and Ginger Rogers in Storm Warning

While still with Warner Brothers, Day got her first entirely dramatic role, in 1951’s Storm Warning, as the girlfriend of a twitchy dimwit who, she finally realizes as the Ku Klux Klan menaces their small town, is a Klansman (duh). It might have been a thankless part for Day – the movie was really a Ginger Rogers vehicle – if Alfred Hitchcock hadn’t seen her in it. He told her at a party that he intended to use her one day, and he made good on his promise half a decade later by hiring her for 1956’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. (The Oscar-winning song she sang in the film – “Que Sera, Sera” – was both a plot point and a bone thrown to moviegoers who missed her song-and-dance pictures.) Day not only fit in with Hitchcock’s lineup of standard-bearing blondes (Kelly, Hedren, Novak); she bested them with her fluid delivery and her command of every scene she was in.

Poster for Julie

That same year, she was plausibly unhinged as a stalking victim in Julie, a thriller in which she played a stewardess (I do not mean a flight attendant). Day handled her zero-hour scenes in the cockpit supremely well, especially given that they had to have been grist for the mockery-making creators of Airplane! Hardly anyone saw her and Jack Lemmon in 1959’s It Happened to Jane (she and Lemmon blamed the title for the bad box office), but people should have come out for it: Day, at her sympathetically unsinkable best, played a widowed Mainer who raises lobsters for a living and takes on the Man, in the form of Ernie Kovacs. She received her only Oscar nomination for that same year’s Pillow Talk (she lost to Simone Signoret for Room at the Top), the first of three crowd-pleasers that paired her with Rock Hudson and pretty much sealed her fate as the girl no longer next door: Doris was in the house.

Doris and Rock: screenshot from Pillow Talk

She celebrated the move to sex comedies: “I had always felt that I was too contemporary-looking for all those period films I had made … In Pillow Talk, the contemporary in me finally caught up with a contemporary film and I really had a ball.” But she had her limits when it came to being coquettish on film: she turned down the role of Mrs. Robinson in 1967’s The Graduate because “it offended my sense of values.” Yet that film was hardly more preoccupied with sex than 1962’s That Touch of Mink, in which Day is paired with velvety predator Cary Grant. She played the era’s paradigmatic Pillar of Female Virtue, and the movie’s look is all elegance, crisp lines, and cool colors – bucket-of-cold-water blues and greens. But the plotline amounts to an hour and a half of Grant trying to get in her pants, with Day biting her knuckles over whether she can hold on to both her principles and her man. (Perhaps the premise is all the more tawdry because Grant, cinema’s forever paragon of guileful male charm, was pushing sixty when they released the film.) What’s at stake is Day’s hymen, putting That Touch of Mink in tastefulness terms alongside an episode of Three’s Company, but with better clothes. Much better clothes.

With bandleader Les Brown, July 1946. Licensed for the public domain by Wikimedia Commons.

Day detested her virginal image. She knew that “a ‘Doris Day movie’ had come to mean a very specific kind of sunny, nostalgic, sexless, wholesome film.” When the actor-musician Oscar Levant famously said of her, “I knew her before she was a virgin,” the world took them as fightin’ words. But Levant was on Day’s side. In her book she says, “I have the unfortunate reputation of being Miss Goody Two-Shoes, America’s Virgin, and all that, so I’m afraid it’s going to shock some people for me to say this, but I staunchly believe no two people should get married until they have lived together.” She loathed the pristine image in part because it was a lie – she was against artifice, from taking a stage name (she acquiesced, having been born Doris Kappelhoff) to faking orgasms – and in part because the image was impossible for someone with her biography to live up to.

Anyone committed to uncomplicatedly reminiscing about Day – who is today ninety-one by some estimates, ninety-three by others – as a living embodiment of the steel-willed characters she was known for would do well to keep a distance from the clear-eyed, sentimentality-averse Doris Day: Her Own Story. Poor judgment and worse luck, beginning during her Cincinnati childhood, resulted in a life story that is grim and a little creepy, even by Hollywood standards.

Three of four marriages failed, the first when Day had to ward off her musician husband’s blows while she was pregnant. (A more promising romance: for a while Day dated Ronald Reagan, twice her costar and about whom she says, “Ronnie was a very aggressive liberal Democrat at that time, and I approved of most of what he said.” Like Ronnie, Day would flip Republican.) Her seventeen-year third marriage to her unpopular and money-besotted manager, Marty Melcher (his detractors called him Farty Belcher), wasn’t going well when he died of a heart ailment; for too long he had resisted medical attention due to his too-literal adherence to Christian Science, to which the couple was devoted. Thanks to either his duplicity or imbecility – Day never knew which – Melcher invested her twenty-year-career’s worth of money with his business partner, Jerry Rosenthal, who turned out to be the Bernie Madoff of his time. After Melcher’s death, Day was flabbergasted to learn that she was financially ruined. She successfully sued Rosenthal and got much of her cash back.

With James Cagney: screenshot from Love Me or Leave Me

In her book, Day is quick to say that it’s a misconception that Christian Science forbids medical treatment in all circumstances. Still, the religion’s imperative to first try to will oneself well through spiritual healing was deadly in Melcher’s case and personally costly to Day, whose resistance to medical attention years earlier led to a hysterectomy at age thirty-two, eliminating the possibility of a second go at biological motherhood – something she said she dearly wanted. Already a lapsed Catholic, Day ultimately left Christian Science for “my own personal religion,” but she maintained a lifelong belief in predestination – que sera, sera, indeed – which was probably a psychological necessity, given the nightmarish real-life plot twists that popped up with the frequency of holidays.

If only it was just a script. Hospitalizations and accidents of the debilitating, bone-shattering kind figure prominently in her book. (Day said that all the crying she did primed her for when it was time to cry on film.) She outlives both siblings, who died young, as well as her only child, the music producer Terry Melcher, whom adoptive father Marty treated appallingly. Terry figured peripherally but chillingly in the Manson killings of 1969: he used to live in the house where the Tate murders took place, and word was that Manson had sent his people to go after Terry because Doris’s boy wouldn’t record his attempts at music. At police suggestion, Terry and his mother had bodyguards until the Manson trial was over.

With Lew Ayres on the set of The Doris Day Show. Licensed for the public domain from Wikimedia Commons.

Since her eponymous milquetoast sitcom went off the air in 1973 (Marty Melcher had committed her to the series without her say-so), Day has dedicated her life to activism on the pet population’s behalf, and no wonder. “I have never found in a human being loyalty that is comparable to a dog’s loyalty,” she says in her book, but then her lifetime’s sampling didn’t recommend the human animal. An offer to play the lead in television’s Murder, She Wrote failed to tempt her to return to public life. (Jean Stapleton had also passed on Jessica Fletcher, parting the waters for Angela Lansbury.) Throughout her book, Day insists that she never wanted fame and would have gladly exchanged her celluloid success for a happy home life. But such sentiments (“I’m just a hausfrau at heart”) have that touch of malarkey, of the guilt of career women of a certain generation. Day says a hell of a lot more convincingly, “It has been my good fortune that, at those times in my life when tragedy has struck, I have had to work.”

She made thirty-nine films and is the last surviving celluloid colossus of her generation other than Kirk Douglas, her onetime costar; her book attests that there was no love lost between those two. (If you’re a scorekeeper: Olivia de Havilland, eight years Day’s senior, is still with us.) Also still going is the great Carl Reiner, who made his screenwriting debut in 1963 with The Thrill of It All, the whoopee-preoccupied Doris Day–James Garner charmer, at least until the anti–working mom/pro-hausfrau message at the end.

Screenshot: the breakdown scene in The Man Who Knew Too Much

Day knew which of her movies were good and which stunk (The West Point Story was “a real idiot picture”), just as we do. Watch The Man Who Knew Too Much, especially for the scene in which Jimmy Stewart has to break it to her that their son has been kidnapped. Watch Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, in which she flails with unmistakable joy alongside a tornado of children presumably like the one the actress said she always wanted. Watch It Happened to Jane for her rat-a-tat exchanges with the lovesick Jack Lemmon, but especially for her masterful double take fifty-nine minutes into the movie, when she realizes that he is questioning – that’s right – her virtue. Watch the borderline unwatchable Caprice for Day’s no-nonsense spy shtick and state-of-the-art wardrobe. Watch her, and see how little you see Doris Day.