It’s amazing how certain twists of fate, good and bad, can impact a Hollywood career (perhaps many of us worker bees have the same sort of influences in our lives but, since no one really gives a hoot about us, it isn’t as closely examined or as well known!)
Today’s sunny subject, Miss Doris Day, has had several curves head her way, but a positive outlook and some dogged determination (not to mention a significant work ethic) got her through and helped her provide entertainment to millions of people.
Born in the Cincinnati, Ohio suburb of Evanston in 1922, Doris Kappelhoff (as she was then known) was the daughter of German immigrants. Her father, a music teacher, was an alcoholic, a fact that eventually broke up her parents’ marriage. Day wanted more than anything to be a dancer. In fact, she and Vera-Ellen, who hailed from nearby Norwood, carpooled to the same ballet class.
In the mid-30s, Day and a male partner had formed a successful dance duo and by 1937 (when she was still only 15!) they made plans to head to Hollywood. Sadly, in what was one of her first major setbacks, the night before their departure, she was involved in a serious car accident that damaged her legs!
Her dance career now in shambles, Doris turned to singing as an avocation and took lessons. Within a couple of years, she was singing locally to good response and finally wound up on local bandleader Barney Rapp’s stage. Her first song for him, Day After Day, was what inspired him to rename her Doris Day. She met and married a trombonist in Rapp’s band, but it was a dismal scenario with him beating her while pregnant with their son, among other things. They divorced by 1943.
In 1945, she was singing with Les Brown and recorded the song Sentimental Journey, which became a smash hit, striking a chord with soldiers returning from WWII as well as their waiting wives and girlfriends. She then married a second husband, but the marriage didn’t even last a year. She continued to tour heavily with hit records springing forth here and there.
In another one of those twists of fate (this time a good one), she was in Los Angeles, but readying to come home to Cincinnati, weary of the demands of being a traveling girl singer. Her agent persuaded her to attend a party at which she was coerced, almost against her will, into singing Embraceable You. Her emotional delivery captivated the host Jules Styne and his writing partner Sammy Cahn and they decided to push for her to appear in their forthcoming film Romance on the High Seas, which had lost its leading lady Betty Hutton due to pregnancy.
Day now had a leading role in a colorful musical film and a contract with Warner Brothers! She was paired three times in a row with husky, but charming, Jack Carson, also working thrice, later, with handsome Gordon MacRae. In 1950, she was given a dramatic role in the Kirk Douglas/Lauren Bacall film Young Man With a Horn. Doris felt shut out by the other two stars and didn’t enjoy the experience at all. It would be a recurring situation in her life that dramatic roles tended to wind up being unpleasant projects to work on for one reason or another.
Day married for a third time in 1951, this time to Martin Melcher, a man who would become her manager and to whom she would stay married the longest. He adopted her son from the first marriage, who then went by the name Terry Melcher.
She continued to make many colorful and bright musicals, offering cheerful, perky performances, but ones that were generally pretty undemanding. Though Day had taken dancing and singing lessons, she had not taken acting lessons and adopted a very honest and genuine style that came from feeling the scenes as much as she was able to had they been occurring with her in real life.
In 1953, she made Calamity Jane, a zesty musical that cast her as the tomboyish, rough and tumble title character. Her garb, mostly consisting of buckskin and an old hat, along with scenes showing her setting up house with a female friend, did much to engender a massive lesbian following. This was further encouraged by the tune Secret Love, which won the Oscar that year as Best Song. She recorded the number in one take, the producer exclaiming that there was no point in doing it again because she’d never do it any better.
James Cagney was her costar in the film Love Me or Leave Me, a bio-pic of singer Ruth Etting, and though Ava Gardner had wanted to play the role, Cagney pushed to have Doris in it. She was hailed for her ability to enact dramatic scenes within the framework of a heavily musical film. This movie also presented Day in a somewhat sexier light, with more figure flattering (and in some ways revealing) costumes.
Next was the chance to work for The Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, in The Man Who Knew Too Much. She played the ex-singer spouse of doctor James Stewart, on an extended trip with their young son through Marrakech and other locales. When a mysterious man befriends them and later dies in their presence, it kicks off a sequence of events, not the least of which is the kidnapping of their boy.
Day, who looks appealing in tailored Edith Head clothes, went places in the role that dredged up hysterical feelings and it’s a very authentic portrayal. She, however, having little or no acting training, felt insecure about her work, especially since Hitch said almost nothing to her during filming. Finally, distraught, she went to him and asked to be taken off the picture since she was not giving him what he wanted. He replied, in typically dry fashion, that the reason he hadn’t given her any direction or spoken to her was because she was doing exactly what he wanted her to! After that, she was able to relax and continue on with more confidence.
The script required her to sing (and sing!) a song as part of the rescue attempt of her son and she reluctantly recorded Que Sera Sera, a ditty that she found lacking. Her remark at the time was, “That’s the last time you’ll ever hear that song,” but it became a big success, won an Oscar as Best Song that year and eventually became her own personal theme music!
During the filming of Man, Day witnessed some unkind treatment towards various animals being used in and around the location site of Morocco and it awakened in her the desire to guard against cruelty to animals. Though this wouldn’t completely manifest itself in every way at first, it was the start of a new chapter in her life nonetheless.
That same year, 1956, she took on another dramatic role, this one featuring no singing at all (other than over the opening credits.) She played the title character in Julie, an early (and overwrought) example of a stalker flick, in which Louis Jourdan obsessively tracks and chases Day all over the place as she runs and runs for her life (check out this hooty magazine page featuring her on the go!)
The climax involves her character, a stewardess, having to land a passenger jet after Jourdan takes out the flight crew! A precursor to Karen Black’s frantic piloting in Airport 1975, this nail-biter is equally hysterical, even more so because of the hilarity of the scenes that come before it and the desperate voice-overs Day provides. And Day flies the plane very frequently with her eyes closed! Still, the nature of the story, with a cruel man trying to hurt her, dredged up many unpleasant feelings for her of her two prior marriages and she was unhappy during the shoot.
She actually had reason to feel bad beyond the emotional aspects of the filming. She discovered after wrapping the movie that she had a large ovarian cyst and it required a hysterectomy. Two positives came from the experience. One was that she discovered the stunning district of Carmel, California, where some of the scenes were shot and the other is that she made friends with Jourdan and later lived across the street from him in Beverly Hills.
When The Pajama Game (an adaptation of a hit Broadway musical) was made, practically the entire cast was brought along to film it. Out, however, was female lead Janis Paige, whose role was played by Doris. Here she and costar John Raitt (father of famous singer Bonnie) share one pair of pjs.
A major shift in Doris’s career came about in 1959. Producer Ross Hunter decided to cast Day in his romantic comedy Pillow Talk, about the unlikely love affair that springs up between two very differing people who share a party line on their telephone (almost inconceivable now, there was a day when more than one household would share the same telephone line and courtesy was expected if the other person wanted to make a call!) Doris hilariously portrayed intense exasperation with the suave womanizer on the other end of the line.
Rock Hudson was cast as the leading man (after having said no three times!) and Tony Randall played a key supporting part as Rock’s rival for Doris’s affection. Hunter (rightly) suspected that Doris Day was hiding a rocking figure and enlisted designer Jean Louis to bring it out in an eye-popping series of suits and gowns, giving her a completely new glamorous image. The repartee between the stars, enhanced by their own off-screen camaraderie, played beautifully and the film (which almost no one outside the project had any faith in) was a roaring success.
Day received her first (and only) Oscar nomination for the film. It has been suggested that her nomination was accidental - a backfire caused by a sliding scale process that studio heads utilized to secure nominations for their chosen few. (During the "Studio Era" nomination choices were weighted, depending on the order they were listed on Academy member ballots, with first place gleaning five votes, second choice four votes, etc... Chiefs encouraged voters from their studios to list the golden boy or girl in spot one and fill out the rest with lesser lights, in order to ensure that their selections made it through with ease. The story goes that Doris won enough of the lower tier votes to secure a nomination.) Nonetheless, the fact remains that she is expert in the film and it’s gratifying to see someone rewarded for comedy rather than the usual “sturm und drang.”
Rock and Doris proceeded to make two more such films together, Lover Come Back and Send Me No Flowers, always with the inimitable Tony Randall along for the ride. His contributions to these films’ success cannot be underestimated as it is really the combination of the three performers that helps put them over the top, especially his work in Flowers as Rock’s devoted friend.
One of my favorite Day moments is in Flowers when she steps outside in her nightgown and robe to collect some groceries and gets locked out. She goes through a series of pitfalls before making it back indoors. Despite her amazing figure and her pretty looks, she is truly one of the greatest (and somehow unsung) physical comediennes of all time and never hesitated to make herself look goofy, messy or awkward if it meant a great sight gag.
Just before Rock and Doris teamed up for the second time, she filmed the glitzy and now-hilariously campy mystery Midnight Lace, a star-laden (Rex Harrison, Roddy MacDowall and Myrna Loy costarred), glossy movie in which Doris is terrorized by creepy phone calls. Once again, the effects of filming these disturbing scenes put her through the wringer and this time she made sure it was the last. At least she was once again decked out in Jean Louis confections and got to work with gorgeous John Gavin. (Later, she would express regret at the fact that she wore so much fur without having fully realized the cruelty of it.)
Doris had been paired with some huge stars over the years: James Cagney (Love Me or Leave Me), Frank Sinatra (Young at Heart), Cary Grant (That Touch of Mink – pictured here in a fantasy sequence involving a bed floating in a pool – Check out Cary’s li’l white trunks!) and, of course, Rock. However, her biggest costar ever was in 1962 when she starred in Billy Rose’s Jumbo. The title character was a massive elephant! Also featuring Stephen Boyd, Jimmy Durante and Martha Raye, the circus-themed musical was long-delayed (based on a 1930’s Broadway show), first having been considered for filming a decade prior and as a vehicle for Debbie Reynolds. Jumbo was one performer, anyway, with a schnozz bigger than Durante's!
Many folks are surprised, considering how connected they are as a unit, that Rock and Doris only made three of their big screen romps together. Filling in for Rock on two occasions, and generally doing very well as a matter of fact, was James Garner. First was The Thrill of It All, in which Doris found success as an advertising spokeswoman to the chagrin of her physician husband and then, most memorably Move Over, Darling. This one was the result of the discarded project Something’s Got to Give that fell apart when Marilyn Monroe died and Dean Martin refused to continue with another costar (Lee Remick was offered to him at the time.)
In it, Day has been shipwrecked for 5 years and comes back to find herself declared legally dead and her husband Garner freshly married to Polly Bergen. All sorts of contrived complications ensue, but it’s generally a good time and the film was the 6th most successful one of its year, 1963. Presumably, Doris’s almost white hair and its bouffant style is a holdover from the design scheme determined when Marilyn had the part?
Day’s next two films, Do Not Disturb and The Glass Bottom Boat, paired her with hunky Rod Taylor, who also proved to be a complimentary costar. Though the first film is more than a little tiresome at times (and it was one she did not want to make, but was pushed into by her husband), she was still giving 100% and looked great, notably in this tangerine sequined concoction with complimentary evening coat.
The second film was far wackier (and far more fun) and featured Doris in a mermaid get-up and had her acting as a spy and running into amusing costars Dom DeLuise and Paul Lynde (who appears in drag at one point in the movie!) By now, Day’s husband Melcher was coercing her into appearing in film after film, sometimes of a sub-par quality, and not too much unlike the treadmill-like existence that Elvis Presley was enduring under Colonel Tom Parker’s career “guidance.” The cookie-cutter films continued even as public tastes changed and Doris, who had enjoyed being a top money-making star, was fast becoming old hat and passé.
One thing that might have changed this course was an offer to play Mrs. Robinson in Mike Nichols’ The Graduate (the mind reels!), but Day turned the offer down, fearful of what her core fans would think of her playing such a sexually aggressive role. The films she’d been doing had cultivated a persona of virtue and purity, prompting Oscar Levant to quip that he had known Doris “before she was a virgin!”
In 1968, after working steadily for all those years and having earned millions of dollars, Melcher died and Doris was horrified to find that, not only had he and her attorney squandered all of her lifelong earnings, but that she was deeply in debt and, to add insult to injury, had signed her up without her knowledge to headline a television series!!
Day, to that point, had scarcely ever appeared on TV and never in an acting capacity. Now she was faced, freshly widowed, with a mountain of debt and a series to work on. In true indomitable Doris Day spirit, she dove into the work and got through the first season. However, before long, she took the reins and demanded that the program be suited to her own tastes. Her sit-com The Doris Day Show went through many permutations over its five-year run, but was generally a success. She chose Que Sera Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be) as the theme music and adopted a zany, distinctive, mod sense of fashion style for herself that made the series visually interesting in any case. She also displayed an astonishingly fit body (keep in mind she was pushing 50 here and looks better than a lot of the skanky starlets who roam California beaches today!)
The legal entanglements of her financial debacle went on for years and years in an almost indecipherable quagmire. Finally, she was awarded a settlement and that, paired with her income from the series, meant that she basically didn’t ever have to work again. She fulfilled (still more!) obligations to do a couple of specials on TV, but never acted again after 1973. On one of her specials, she had Rock Hudson on as a guest. She moved to Carmel and devoted herself to the care and feeding of many, many dogs, quite a few of them rescued strays.
Years later, in 1985, she would unwittingly become part of an international uproar when she hosted a pet oriented show called Doris Day’s Best Friends and, naturally, selected as her first guest Rock Hudson, who was by then in the final stages of AIDS and appeared shockingly emaciated and unhealthy. She was crestfallen to see him that way, but didn’t let on to him that anything was wrong.
In 1989, Day was selected to receive the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award by The Hollywood Foreign Press and she made a very rare public appearance to accept it in person. At the podium, she spoke of her long hiatus from acting and appeared ready to make a return, but nothing ever materialized for one reason or another. It’s been more than two decades since that and Ms. Day lives a very quiet life as proprietor of a Carmel bed & breakfast and still cares for her army of dogs. A fourth husband (from 1976 – 1981) divorced her because he felt that he came after them in her life, and he probably did!
Her son is recently deceased (and, to be honest, only survived death during Charles Manson’s killing spree years before because he happened to move out of the house prior to The Roman Polanskis moving in!) and she doesn’t fly anywhere thanks to some close calls in the air during trips to entertain troops during WWII. A grass roots proposal to honor her with an Honorary Oscar has been stifled here and there which is a shame because she was a monumental entertainer and, even now, remains the top-ranking female box office star of all time (and 6th overall.) Her contributions to the cinema are practically unparalleled when you get right down to it.
Because of her reclusiveness and the fact that she won’t allow her singing voice to be used in any film that includes profanity, her recognizability these days is severely limited. It doesn’t change, however, the many hours of entertainment she provided while at her peak. She retains a legion of fans and Poseidon must be counted among them.