Doris Day stopped being Doris Day decades ago. Even though she spurned the limelight, she never left our televisions or our hearts. Radio, concerts, records, television and film, she made her mark in every medium.
During her lifetime she lived several lives, all of them quite fascinating. First she was a big band singer, including performing with Les Brown and his Band of Renown. Her musical career was quite extraordinary and it led her to appearing weekly on radio and then a tremendous film career.
She was one of the biggest box office stars of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Day was married to husband number three during these years, Martin Melcher, who also managed her career, and unfortunately, trusted the wrong people to managed her finances.
When her film career wound down, she discovered, to her dissatisfaction, that Melcher had signed her up for a television series, which she would do for the next five years. After that, her finances back in the black, she essentially left show business and began devoting herself to her interests, chiefly the care and welfare of animals. She settled in Northern California where she opened a pet-friendly hotel, established an animal foundation, and lived out the rest of her life, far from Hollywood and the spotlight, and mostly far from the Doris Day persona. Occasionally, she accepted an award and released one final album of songs.
Many of us have a favorite Doris Day period. Mine are the last 12 years of her film career. She still had a recording career going but as the country’s musical tastes were changing, she focused on her film career.
Day made her first film in 1948, Romance on the High Seas, and a total of 17 films before she stepped into her role in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). Most of her early films focused on her musical-comedy talents, but she proved her acting chops with a dramatic lead in, Love Me or Leave Me, with James Cagney. Alfred Hitchcock wanted her for a dramatic role in his thriller, opposite James Stewart, in part because her character had been a popular singer. In this film, she did get to sing “Que Sera Sera,” which became her signature song.
Her next big film was opposite Clark Gable in Teacher’s Pet, the comedy-drama of a hard-boiled newspaper editor and younger college journalism professor. This is one of my favorites, Gable is the crusty self-made man who has no use for egg-heads, until he meets the professor and must confront some of his views. Day holds her own opposite Gable, who was nearing the end of his own career.
Of the next nine films, her three films with Rock Hudson and two films with James Garner are gems. Day proved she was a master of light comedy and even physical comedy. Her first two film with Hudson, Pillow Talk and Lover Come Back, were very 1950’s sex comedies, innuendo but nothing offensive in the material. In all three of her films with Hudson, he’s the laid-back, suave and dishonest male who gets her wound-up, before trying to get back in her good graces.
The Tunnel of Love (1958)and It Happened to Jane (1959) were minor hits, very formulaic but the chemistry with Richard Widmark and Jack Lemmon did not spark.
Pillow Talk (1959) moved Day into a new category. Not only was the film a hit, and her chemistry with Hudson proved exceptional, and her comedic performance gained greater depth. She was now in her late 30’s, but had a grasp of the film persona she would often rely upon for the rest of her career.
In 1960, she scored with Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, a family film that continued her hot streak and earned a nice profit. She could move back and forth between sex comedies and family fare, but honestly there wasn’t a huge gap between them.
Lover Come Back was the next pairing with Hudson, another “sex comedy” that continued the hit formula. Day and Hudson had great chemistry and the innuendos were just enough to get the audiences in the seats. Sex, advertising and mistaken identity propelled this film to sizable profits.
Her next film, A Touch of Mink, teamed her with Carey Grant as his career was still hot but beginning to wind down. Day played a virginal character (yes, really) who started an affair with Grant’s character, except she breaks out in hives before they can consummate their relationship. Of all her films in this period, this one had the least amount of energy, it’s a very talky film.
Day changed gears and co-starred with James Garner for The Thrill of it All. Garner was more 1960’s than Hudson. Day played a housewife with kids, but got caught up in the advertising game with a job, much to the chagrin of her doctor husband. This was very much a comedy about gender roles and a changing society, excellently written by Carl Reiner. One of the best comedies of the early decade.
Next she starred with Rex Harrison in a thriller, Midnight Lace, a remake of Gaslight. This film never was believable to me, it seemed of a different generation. Day does a fine job and carries the film, but it all made little sense.
For her next film, Day re-teamed with Garner for a remake of My Favorite Wife, called Move Over Darling. It’s sassier than the original but not as good. Of her two films with Garner, this was not as good as the first. It tries to be a screwball film but also tries to mix sentimentality, and that doesn’t work very well.
Doris Day must have been doing something right because from 1960-1965 she would be the top box office earner.
Her final film with Hudson, Send Me No Flowers, is actually their best film together. Most people don’t think so, but I do. Yes, it for a formula film but it had some very creative and funny scenes. Tony Randall, who had been along for the ride in the other films is terrific as the best friend. Hudson never got the credit for his laid-back and slow-burn scenes with Day. She bustles with frustration at Hudson’s many characters but he coolly and calmly went about business. They balanced each other in style. Garner was more like she was, and even more so; but Hudson gave her something special to play off of with her amped-up emotions.
Her last six films were light-weight and were mediocre fare at the box office. Do Not Disturb (1965), The Glass Bottom Boat (1966), Caprice (1967), The Ballad of Josie (1967), Where Were You When the Lights Went Out (1968) and With Six You Get Egg Roll (1968), her last film. These films were retreads of film roles she had been playing for years. She was 46 when she made her last film and her persona had not really evolved. She has moments in these films but the writing and directing is average at best, considering more daring film comedies of the era.
Two of them, The Glass Bottom Boat and The Ballad of Josie are the best of the group.
The Glass Bottom Boat is rather silly and I never felt she had chemistry with Rod Taylor. Still, the scenes with Paul Lynde and Dom DeLuise are worth the price of the ticket. Day always surrounded herself with the best character actors and this time it really pays off because the screenplay is not very good.
The Ballad of Josie could have been a much better film. The premise is good and the story sets up some nice conflict points, and as usual, a fine supporting cast, plus a talented veteran director of Western films. Day plays a female rancher, with sheep in cow country, which is a great story idea along with her battle to be accepted in a man’s world. That’s a great storyline for a film, but here, it falls flat. Peter Graves was an okay leading man but I couldn’t feel the chemistry. The ending of the film was a total cop-out, with Day easily giving up her hard-fought independence and respect to become Graves’ wife. Still, I like the film except for the last couple of minutes.
You have to admire Doris Day. She had tremendous talent but had to exist in a man’s world. Her husband Martin Melcher did her no favors, making bad deals, trusting the wrong people and not encouraging Day to change with the times. Mismanagement derailed her film career. Imagine Doris Day as Mrs. Robinson, it could have happened. Where would her career have gone after that? Instead, she dealt with deep financial trouble, her husband died suddenly and discovering she had a television series commitment. She rallied, made the series a hit, rebounded financially, and began to steer her own life. No wonder she reinvented her life and didn’t look back.