Doris Day: the wholesome face of postwar American optimism

The actor, who has died aged 97, worked with the greats of Hollywood’s golden era and rivalled the crossover success of Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley

The face of Doris Day, eerily beautiful in all its buttery-blond wholesomeness, beamed over Hollywood in the 50s and early 60s like a gigantic roadside billboard advertising the American way. In that extraordinary period of white America’s postwar prosperity and patriotism, Doris Day was the biggest box office and recording star in the US: easily equalling the music-movie crossover success of alpha males such as Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, although somehow without being entitled to the guys’ iconic status.

A talent without irony ... an early promotional image of Doris Day.
Talent without irony ... an early promotional image of Doris Day. Photograph: Warner Bros/Rex

Day’s career was a roll call of studio-era greatness. She worked with Michael Curtiz (who discovered her) and Alfred Hitchcock, and played opposite James Stewart, Clark Gable, James Cagney and Cary Grant. But her uncoolness – a vital, mysterious ingredient of her success even in her extraordinary heyday – was soon held against her. No one ever says that Doris Day is their favourite star, in the way that no one says vanilla is their favourite ice-cream flavour. Yet a heck of a lot of vanilla ice-cream gets sold.

Day was utterly without irony and she radiated a can-do straightforwardness, optimism and good nature that resonated with millions of filmgoers. She rolled up her sleeves and got on with whatever she was contractually obliged to do: a lot of good pictures, one or two brilliant ones – of which, more in a moment – and a lot of embarrassing nonsense. But she didn’t complain. Day was in her way the presidential first lady of Hollywood’s early 60s: dignified, a good sport, lovable.

John Updike, a fan of Day’s, found something fascinating and alluring in just this niceness. I think she would be a great subject for contemporary author Curtis Sittenfeld. She was the quietly heroic epitome of what Betty Friedan called the feminine mystique, and nothing was more misconceived than Oscar Levant’s sneery wisecrack about knowing Day “before she was a virgin”. Day actually often played a wife and mother, or a sensible modest person. She was a public figure whose desires and woes were (mostly) private, and in her private life was a staggering array of misfortunes.

By 18, she was a divorced single mother of a son, having extricated herself from a violent husband. She then divorced another controlling, jealous husband. Her third husband, Martin Melcher, became her manager and died in middle age, leaving her with the news that he had embezzled her entire personal fortune and without her knowledge signed her up for a TV show. But Day just did it, quitting the movie business at the age of 44, and her new small screen career restored her finances and turned her into middle America’s sitcom queen.

The grisliest footnote of all is that Doris Day’s son Terry became a record company executive who was pestered for a contract by cult leader Charles Manson. Melcher previously lived in the house occupied by Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, where Tate was brutally murdered, and it is an open, chilling question as to whether Melcher was in fact Manson’s intended target.

Day as the ‘tremendously enjoyable’ cowgirl Calamity Jane.

Doris Day’s tendency to goofy tomboyish silliness came off best in the tremendously enjoyable Calamity Jane (1953) in which she was on uproarious form as the whip-crackin’, gun-totin’ cowgirl “Calamity” Jane Cannary, playing opposite Howard Keel. She actually sets up home in a shack with the female love interest, and this remarkable plot turn, together with her song Secret Love has led to suggestions that Doris Day is a gay icon – although she is lacking the imploringly passionate woundedness of someone like Judy Garland that truly qualifies her for that status.

Full of optimism and good nature ... Doris Day in 1950
Full of optimism and good nature ... Doris Day in 1950. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty

Her broad romantic comedy Pillow Talk (1959) and its sequels famously paired her with super-dreamboat Rock Hudson, and Day was supportive to her old friend when he later came out as being HIV positive. But a lot of that film, quite apart from its terminal unfunniness, grates now: Rock does a swishy “homosexual” impersonation, as part of his cunningly indirect seduction plan – and it’s a world where it’s all right for men to get fresh with women in cars, and to slap them occasionally. Day was also paired with James Garner, with whom she did a lot of closed-mouth kissing in The Thrill of It All (1963), playing a housewife promoted to superstar status in TV ads.

It is a film much admired by Day fans, and is almost perfectly tailored to her persona: ordinary girl next door, or married lady next door, for whom fame is a happy accident. In Teacher’s Pet (1958) she was the journalism professor sparring with Clark Gable’s hardbitten newspaperman, but had little or no chemistry with Cary Grant in That Touch of Mink (1962), another genteel and shrill comedy in which the heterosexual attraction seems underpowered. Ronald Reagan was rumoured to have a tendresse for his leading lady in The Winning Team (1952) when she played the wife of Reagan’s baseball legend Grover Alexander. Lifelong Republican Day certainly admired Reagan in the White House. In another of Day’s laboured comedies, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (1960) she wearily dealt with the kids, saying: “I’m just a kissless mother, that’s all I am!”

On set with James Stewart and Alfred Hitchcock, filming The Man Who Knew Too Much
On set with James Stewart and Alfred Hitchcock, filming The Man Who Knew Too Much. Photograph: REX

For some, Day’s best film is Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), playing a married ex-Broadway star whose child is abducted. She certainly has a powerful sequence in the legendary final scene in London’s Albert Hall, when a dignitary is about to be assassinated: in anguish, her character realises that screaming out a warning to the intended victim could put her child in fatal danger. But it is a strait-laced performance from Day, and I’ve never got the sense of real emotion here. Rather better – in an inferior film – is her appearance in the strident psychological thriller Midnight Lace (1960) with Rex Harrison. Weirdly, and perhaps as a result of disliking her cold-fish co-star so intensely, Day’s emotional unsteadiness and fear look much more genuine.

Day’s greatest film is genuinely great – her musical Love Me Or Leave Me (1955) in which she gives an authentically excellent performance in the true story of Ruth Etting, the dancer and singer who was abused by her mobster husband, Moe Snyder, played by James Cagney. Day’s chemistry with Cagney is terrific and her quiet unhappiness is moving and very real. Perhaps, for the one and only time in her career, she was letting her guard down and really tapping into her private emotions. Her delivery of the song It All Depends On You is a joy: there is such a richness and intensity to her interpretation. What might Day have achieved if she surrendered more to the passion of acting and singing, or if she found directors and producers who could encourage her to go beyond what the public were told to expect of her? Who knows. But we can watch her in Love Me Or Leave Me. It is such a pleasure.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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