Movie Stars: Day, Doris–Oscar-Nominated Actress and Popular Singer, Dies at 97

It may come as a surprise to those who have denigrated her puritanical screen image (the smiling, eternal virgin), but Doris Day was not only a good singer, she was a good actress as well.

The evidence is provided by the new Warner DVD collection of eight of Day’s films, musicals like “Calamity Jane,” “The Pajama Game,” and “Lullaby of Broadway,” romantic comedies like “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies,” and best of all, the musical drama, “Love Me Or Leave Me,” in which Day gave the best performance of her career.

There was always a disparity between Day’s “good girl” image and the roles she actually played, independently minded women proud of their careers. Day’s no-nonsense approach to life, her impulse to get ahead, rather than get a man, made her appealing to both female and male audiences.

Day began her career singing on radio and in clubs; she was a vocalist with the Bob Crosby and Les Brown bands. By the mid 1940s, Day was a successful recording artist. She entered films in 1948, as a last minute replacement for Bette Hutton, in the Warner musical, “Romance on the High Seas,” directed by Michael Curtiz.

In 1959, Day was the fourth “Moneymaking Star” in the country, according to a poll of exhibitors, a result of her smash hit sex comedy, “Pillow Talk.” The following year, Day shot to the number one spot, and Rock Hudson, her co-star in “Pillow Talk” and “Lover Come Back,” a close second. For seven years, between 1959 and 1968, Day was America’s top female star.

Day appeared in 39 films and remained a dominant screen personality for 20 years, a major achievement in an industry known for the short lifespan of women stars. Her staying power at the box-office, the ultimate definition of stardom, was phenomenal.

To be sure, there were better singers, comedians, and actresses than Day, but there was something uniquely American about her screen persona that touched a chord with the mass audience. Unlike other female stars of her era (Liz Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn), Day reflected more positively the self-image of the American woman.

Day was provincial in the positive sense of this term: She was “so American” that she had never traveled outside the borders of the U.S. until Hitchcock cast her in “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” in 1956, which may explain why the experience proved unsettling to her–and shocking to her director.

Unlike her contemporary stars, Day didn’t define herself as a mirror of men’s fantasies and desires. She created an existential woman who embodied the values of individuality and self-reliance. Day was a teacher in “Teacher’s Pet.” a lobsters breeder in “It Happened to Jane,” the head of a labor grievance committee in “Pajama Game,” a top decorator in “Pillow Talk,” an advertising executive in “Lover Come Back.”

Day’s Career Phases

Day’s career can be divided into three distinct phases. In the first, from 1948 to 1954, she was under exclusive contract to Warner and starred primarily in musicals, playing tomboys (“On Moonlight Bay”), ingenues (“Tea for Two”) and career-minded singers (“My Dream Is Yours”). She made 17 films at Warner, in which she displays energy and upbeat attitude.

With few exceptions, most of her Warner films suffered from weak directors and even weaker scripts. In most of these pictures, she played the “girl-next-door,” all smiles and good disposition. In “On Moonlight Bay,” for example, she embarrasses the boys with her ball-playing ability. After falling in love with Gordon MacRae, she willingly but painfully undergoes a training program (how to dress) through which she’s transformed into a lady.

By the mid-1950s, Day developed into the best musical screen actress, showing her talent in “Calamity Jane,” “Pajama Game,” “Billy Rose’s Jumbo.” Unfortunately, her growth coincided with the decline of the musical as a popular genre. To survive, she was forced to find alternate outlet for her talents.

In 1955, Day changed directions radically with her appearance as Ruth Etting in “Love Me or Leave Me,” a musical biography of the Ziegfeld star whose career was “sponsored” by a petty gangster (played by James Cagney). After this movie, Day embarked on a short period in which she gave the best performances of her career, including “Pajama Game,” and “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” directed by Hitchcock. She gave a marvelous performance in this remake of Hitchcock’s 1934 thriller, as an overbearing mother, too attached to her son, too frustrated with her husband, too dependent on pills; in short, utterly neurotic

The third phase of Day’s career is the one with which she is most closely identified. With musicals becoming a vanishing breed, she shifted her energies into a different direction. The sex farce “Pillow Talk” became a model for most of her later comedies, such as “Lover Come Back,” and “That Touch of Mink.” Day’ physical appearance was transformed, and she was made to be tougher and more resilient. She went on to make this type of comedy too many times. At the end, they became interchangeable. The only element that changed was her leading man: Rock Hudson, Cary Grant, James Garner, David Niven, and Rod Taylor.

In “Lover Come Back,” as an account executive in a Madison Avenue advertising firm, Day takes the initiative, both professionally and romantically, with her leading man (Rock Hudson). Day played self-assured, free-willed, free-spirited women, who renounced domesticity while questioning society’s assumptions about female subservience. Her signature qualities were honesty, vitality, energy, and upbeat outlook on life. However, Universal’s romantic comedies limited her persona to that of the “fastidious spinster,” women who were suspicious of powerful men and rejected promiscuity and pre-martial sex.

Day’s virginity and puritanical innocence were criticized, and later ridiculed. But in her drive, ambition, and energy, she was truer and closer to the American reality than most 1950s female stars. In her seminal book, “From Reverence to Rape,” the critic Molly Haskell has observed that like Debbie Reynolds, she was enterprising, wholesome, brash, and bold, but unlike Reynolds, she was more giving and vulnerable. Day exercised, consciously or unconsciously, the right not to be a mother.

Day’s rational qualities appealed to women, who perceived her lack of glamour as non-threatening. Indeed, devoid of the good looks and grace of an American beauty, Day had to exert herself assertively in a man’s world. Unlike Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly, she had to work hard.

There were anomalies in Day’s career. She shocked the movie industry, when she turned down Mike Nichol’s offer to play Mrs. Robinson in “The Graduate” (a role that went to Anne Bancroft) because she found it “distasteful,” claiming: “I’ve always avoided vulgarity, which I truly despise.”

Her popular weekly TV series, “The Doris Day Show,” lasted five seasons, from 1968 to 1973. In the first year, she was a widow living on a farm with her father and two small children. She changed the format the next year, by leaving the farm and taking a job in San Francisco, a locale that offered better opportunities for comedy and witty dialogue.

In 1975, “Family Weekly” magazine asked its readers to single out their “All-time Favorite Actress.” Doris Day was placed behind Barbra Streisand and Julie Andrews, both of whom had made a film that year. Significantly, Day had not made a picture in seven years, she was still loved and remembered by the public.