By Alan Hurst
(This is an updated version of an article originally posted in July 2017.)
Doris Day – one of my favourites since I was a kid – turns 97 on April 3, as good a reason as any to look back at her film career. By all accounts still doing well in her retreat in Carmel-By-The Sea, Day deserves all the accolades and adulation that come her way every year around this time. She was an excellent (if underrated) actress, a sensational vocalist, she was pretty, stylish and she continues to be a tireless advocate of animal care.
If you measure by popularity, Doris Day had one of the biggest movie careers in Hollywood history. Over the course of 20 years – from her debut in Romance on the High Seas (1948) to her last film With Six You Get Egg Roll (1969) she had a run of box office hits like no other female star of the era. With 10 appearances in the annual top 10 box office stars list, she was #1 on four occasions.
But the films that got her there are a mixed bag – a few can definitely be considered true classics but others on her resume can best described as light weight.
It’s unfortunate because the talent was there – with the right film and director, Day delivered in spades. She was one of the best comediennes of the fifties and early sixties – funny, athletic, sexy. She was also the best musical comedy star of the era but it was an era where musical films were becoming fewer, particularly original new musicals. It should be noted that Day was also one of the top recording stars of the forties, fifties and sixties – delivering a wide range of top notch albums and singles that cemented her position as one of the top vocalists of the century.
In the latter part of the 1950’s, Day was America’s sophisticated comedy sweetheart. Usually cast as a smart, successful career woman, sometimes a wife and mother, Day was at her most popular. So popular in fact that she became the victim of her image and what was once sunny and sophisticated became somewhat mechanical as the quality of the films dwindled. Day unfortunately left the management of her career to her husband and his business partner who saw nothing but the dollars she could earn in the present, with no thought as to how to manage the inevitable transition that come with age and changing times. From the mid-sixties onward, she was never allowed to move beyond “the image”.
By the time of her last film, Day was viewed as a relic of a bygone era – an ultra conservative, over the hill virgin (a plot point of just one of her films, but it stuck), hopelessly out of step with the cultural shift. Thankfully time has been kind to Day – she still has a strong fan base and because she essentially walked away from the business in her early 50’s, she’s not really competing with her younger self. There has been a bit of a reappraisal of her film work, all to the positive.
Here are the films I think are Doris Day’s best:
ROMANCE ON THE HIGH SEAS (1948)
Day’s film debut is a typical 1940’s musical – colorful, silly, with some nice production numbers. She’s fourth billed, but this is Day’s film all the way. Although there’s not much nuance in her performance and everything is pitched just a bit over the top, she draws you in with her first appearance on the screen. Sporting the typical lacquered look of the day (not totally flattering), Day shows skill as a comedienne and she excels with the musical number’s, particularly “It’s Magic” – one of the best songs she ever recorded. The plot is a silly mistaken identity story directed by Michael Curtiz with sturdy skill.
I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS (1951)
This is a Warner Brothers biography of lyricist Gus Kahn but told more from his wife’s point of view. Danny Thomas and Doris Day played the Kahn’s. This wasn’t a big stretch for Day – the understanding wife, standing by (and pushing) her husband to significant success. Although it feels cliched now, at the time it was considered a standout among all the songwriter biographies that we’re prevalent. This is primarily due to Michael Curtiz’ straightforward direction and to the strong performances of the two leads. A great catalogue of Kahn songs for Day (and Thomas) to sing also helps. This was one of the biggest hits of the year for Warner Brothers – and a key reason for Day making her first entry into the top 10 box office stars.
CALAMITY JANE (1953)
Described at the time as a second-tier Annie Get Your Gun (1950), this is actually the better film primarily because of Day’s performance and singing. It’s a highly fictionalized telling of the story of the real-life Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok (played by Howard Keel). Day plays Calamity as a brusque, no-nonsense tomboy and you’d be forgiven for thinking the character might actually be gay if it wasn’t for Calamity’s complete infatuation with handsome second lead Philip Carey and, eventually, the ever-growing attraction between Day and Keel. Day was never more physical in a film – her kinetic energy carries every scene. And to top it off she’s funny, endearing and she gets some terrific songs to sing. She had one of her biggest hits with the Oscar winning “Secret Love”. This is one of the times that Oscar should have included Day in the list of Best Actress nominees.
LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME (1955)
This is the one that established Day as a capable dramatic actress. She had semi-successful forays into drama with Young Man with a Horn (1950) and Storm Warning (1951), but this is her breakthrough. She owns the role of the ambitious and slyly manipulative Ruth Etting who uses others to get to the top. This proved Day was as good an actress as she was a singer – and her singing here is spectacular. Sadly, it’s also one of the few chances she had to show her true range. She’s perfectly partnered with James Cagney – and they both deserved Oscar consideration for their work here.
THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1956)
Alfred Hitchcock directed this remake of his own 1934 success – updated to feature James Stewart and Doris Day as an American couple travelling in Morocco with their young son. They witness a murder while shopping and the next day their son is kidnapped to ensure they don’t share what they learned from the dying man. The story takes them back to London to try and save their son – and to stop an assassination. Again, Day delivers with a good script and under Hitchcock’s assured direction. She plays a former entertainer who marries and gives up show business – she’s a little high strung and just resentful enough to make the interplay with Stewart interesting and real. And she’s perfect in the climax when faced with stopping the assassination or saving her son.
THE PAJAMA GAME (1957)
Probably the best musical material Day ever had the chance to perform on screen and one of the best stage to screen adaptations of the fifties. Co-directed by Stanley Donen and George Abbott, it’s a colorful and funny musical comedy about labor relations in a pajama factory. The cast – except for Day – all came from the original Broadway production, but Day fits in just perfectly. She excels in the comedy, the love scenes and in all of her musical numbers, but she’s not the whole show – the supporting cast here is wonderful and choreographer Bob Fosse created some spectacular numbers, particularly the iconic “Steam Heat”.
IT HAPPENED TO JANE (1959)
Day’s career hit a bumpy spot following The Tunnel of Love (1958) – a truly horrible film that deservedly tanked at the box office. She followed it with It Happened to Jane, another box office miss but ironically one of her best comedies. It’s a charming story about a Maine widow trying to get her lobster business off the ground, but runs into challenges in the form of a nasty tycoon whose railway company thwarts her every step of the way. Jack Lemmon co-stars and helps Doris go head to head with the tycoon. Director Richard Quine nicely captures the perfect small-town feel and Day and Lemmon are terrific in nicely judged performances. They’re both supported by a terrific cast that includes Mary Wickes, one of the treasures of movies and TV from the forties to the nineties.
PILLOW TALK (1959)
This is the big one and the one that Day is primarily known for today. It’s looks naïve now, but in its time this was considered quite sophisticated fare. Doris Day plays a single, successful career woman not necessarily looking to find a husband – a definite departure for the era – but she’s wooed by a wolfish Rock Hudson, who’s pretending to be someone other than the guy on the other end of her telephone party line. It’s all very innocent yet still very funny. It presents an ultra-sophisticated view of living and loving in Manhattan with beautiful clothes and apartments but the home runs for this one are four truly funny performances. This was the first teaming of Day and Hudson and it’s clear they’re having a great time – he’s more playful than usual and she’s at the top of her game as a physical comedienne. They’re ably supported by Thelma Ritter and Tony Randall in two scene-stealing performances. Both Day and Ritter received Oscar nominations and the screenplay won. One of the best comedies of the era and a nice throwback to the work that Myrna Loy and William Powell were doing in the thirties.
PLEASE DON’T EAT THE DAISIES (1960)
Based on a best seller by Jean Kerr (wife of theatre critic Water Kerr), it’s the autobiographical story of a couple (he’s a critic, she’s a stay-at-home mom) who decided to move to the country just as his career takes off in a big way. They buy a dilapidated old house that she’s left to deal with, as the lure of the city and an attractive actress beckon him. Day and David Niven are an odd match as the couple, but it works. This is one of the most natural performances that Day ever gave – particularly evident in her scenes with the kids. She is the most matter-of-fact mom the screen had seen in a while, perfectly showing both patience and exasperation in the right measure. It’s a good comedy with nice direction by Charles Walters.
THE THRILL OF IT ALL (1963)
This is probably Day’s best comedy of the 1960’s. It’s a nicely directed satire of television and Madison Avenue with a terrific script by Carl Reiner. It’s the story of an upper middle-class couple (Day and James Garner) and the chaos that ensues when she inadvertently becomes a television spokesperson for a brand of soap. Definitely of it’s time (Garner’s character struggles with the idea of working wife who’s making more than he does), it’s still very funny with some terrific verbal and physical slapstick courtesy of Day. In this one’s she’s the epitome of the perfect wife and mother trying to do it all and not quite achieving it.
Day followed The Thrill of it All with a number of hits that kept her in the box-office top 10, but the quality was decidedly not there. By 1967 her film career was in decline and it never recovered. In 1968 her husband/manager Martin Melcher passed away and she then discovered that she was in in serious trouble. Not only was there no money due to shady dealings on behalf of Melcher and his business partner, she was in significant debt and she was committed to projects she had no interest in taking, one of which was a CBS sitcom. But – given a lack of choice and her strong work ethic – she went ahead with The Doris Day Show and it enjoyed a five-year run. There were also a couple of TV specials showcasing her musical gifts and a well-received auto-biography, but by the mid-seventies she had decided she was done.
There were always rumours of her being wooed back – she was supposedly the first choice for CBS’s Murder She Wrote, she was in the running for Postcards from the Edge (1990) and Albert Brooks’ Mother (1996) but Angela Lansbury, Shirley MacLaine and Debbie Reynolds respectively got those parts and the acclaim. And judging by the occasional rare interview Day has given over the last 40 or so years, there is absolutely no regret.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.