Every year is regarded by pop culture fans as a “celebrity deathyard” year. 2019 is no different with the passings of directors Stanley Donen, Larry Cohen, and John Singleton, Ingmar Bergman muse Bibi Andersson, Creature of the Black Lagoon actress Julie Adams, legendary British thespian Albert Finney, veteran character actors Morgan Woodward and Richard Erdman, and Richard Bucket AKA Clive Swift, to name a few. Doris Day, who died May 13th at the ripe old age of 97, is the newest saint to march on.
In one section of her fascinating book on the Hollywood Studio System, The Star Machine, Janine Basinger writes about two blonde singer-actresses on whom the studio took big gambles: Rosemary Clooney and Doris Day. On paper, both should have risen to meteoric movie stardom. But Clooney’s frigid, stiff screen presence didn’t endear her to a mass audience.
Day, on the other hand, possessed the It factor right away in her debut film, Romance on the High Seas, where she portrayed a plebeian band singer hired to masquerade as a socialite on a cruise. Despite her total inexperience and deep insecurity as an actor, veteran filmmaker Michael Curtiz intentionally provided minimal direction, wisely sensing that her natural vivacity and charisma was perfect for the role. He was right, and even today it remains one of her most endearing performances and established her as one of the top box office stars for the rest of her career. Her earnest and charming rendition of the sweet ballad “It’s Magic” (vastly superior to the hokey “Que Sera Sera”) kickstarted her solo recording career.
Although the majority of her films throughout 1957 were musical-comedies, she was occasionally cast against type. The most striking example in her early career was Storm Warning, a gritty crime expose reminiscent of the gangster movies Warner Bros. made in the 30s about a small town ruled by the KKK (interestingly, the movie never delves in white supremacy, instead focusing on corruption). Day is poignantly naturalistic as a battered wife of a Klansman, who…SPOILER, is murdered at the end!
Perhaps the best performance in her early career is in the underrated musical biopic I’ll See You in My Dreams. Day finds the right balance between presenting Grace Kahn, wife of songwriter Gus Kahn, as a well-meaning woman who believes in her husband’s talent with all her soul which leads her to become an overbearing manager.
In spite of her varied career, Day is cemented in the minds of many as a sunny, plucky wholesome girl next door. This perception also led cultural critics to single her out as the face of sterile midcentury repression amongst a turbulent, transformative sociopolitical era. The backlash at the time is understandable considering that the nonconfrontational air of her films is starkly different from theatrically adapted melodramas starring method actors. In the 1960s, the disparity between movies made by the old-guard studio moguls and rebellious, transgressive films from a newer crop of artists in the US and worldwide reached its zenith, in the process rendering Day and her work as “square.” Day rejected the role of Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate, which became 1967s top grosser and helped make “New Hollywood Cinema” popular and lucrative.
Looking at her films fifty years later, most are undoubtedly old-fashioned, but with the exception of a few cringeworthy cornball duds such as Lucky Me or the tepid musical drama Young at Heart, they remain infectiously entertaining in large part due to Day’s unpretentious optimistic can-do charm.
The first film to give Day critical acclaim was Love Me or Leave Me, a dramatic musical biopic based on the life of 20s singer Ruth Etting and her stormy marriage to gangster Marty Snyder who bankrolled her career. She is effective at frankly conveying Etting as a highly ambitious woman willing to do anything to get to the top (Etting reportedly found Day’s performance too hard bitten). Day falters somewhat in the third act when required to be histrionic and gets outacted by James Cagney, an experienced hand at scenery chewing rage.
She’s even better in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, where the master of suspense drew a beautifully realized performance as a mother whose family is unwittingly foiled in an assassination plot while on holiday in Morocco. (Other distressed women films, Julie and Midnight Lace, veer towards camp).
She survived the decline of movie musicals in the late 50s with a series of romantic comedies, the first being Teacher’s Pet a gentle comedy, where Day is charming as the idealistic journalist who mellows cynical reporter Clark Gable. The following films have a more manic bent, including a trio of battle-of-the-sexes comedies in which she is cheekily deceived by Rock Hudson. She received her sole Oscar nomination for Pillow Talk, probably in large part due to her hilarious sobbing montage.
While lacking the sophistication of the aforementioned films, other vehicles such as Move Over Darling and The Glass Bottom Boat are fun in a very 60s madcap way. In the former Day attacks the role of a wife who returns from a shipwreck the same day her husband remarries with zany gusto and is aided by equally vivacious co-stars. In the latter, Day is a good sport as she is continually harassed by several oddballs who think she is a Russian spy in Frank Tashlin’s cartoony camp fest.
Part of Day’s enduring legacy was her constant resolution in the face of adversity. A major blow came early in her life when a car accident prevented her from pursuing her dance career. She instead learned singing and became a popular vocalist with several Big Bands throughout the 1940s. Her third husband, Marty Melcher gambled all her money and committed her to a sitcom without her consent. Nevertheless, she dutifully did the soul-crushingly awful show for five years and recouped enough money to retire and live on her own terms for the rest of her life, converting her estate to an animal shelter.