Doris Day: a great entertainer, not a symbol of repression
Joan Merrill remembers a singer and actress whose work will chime with many jazz fans
By Jazz Journal-June 1, 2019
She never won an Oscar, never won a Grammy. But, except for perhaps
Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, no other American entertainer left such
an impressive legacy as Doris Day. She did 39 movies, 600 recordings
which include 18 albums and five seasons of the sitcom
The Doris Day Show, plus television specials. Nearly 60
percent of Day’s movies topped $100 million in domestic gross box office
sales, according to Ultimate Movie Rankings. She was the No. 1 box
office female star for four years - matched only by Shirley
Temple - in the 1960s. Two of Day’s songs won Oscars: “Secret Love”
from Calamity Jane (1953) and “Que Sera, Sera” from The Man
Who Knew Too Much (1956). Day was awarded the Presidential
Medal of Freedom in 2004, five Golden Globe awards - including the Cecil
B. DeMille Award - as well as the Grammy
Lifetime Achievement Award and the LA Critics’ Career Achievement Award.
She might have been honoured by the Kennedy Center or received an
honorary Oscar if she had wanted them, but she shunned the spotlight and
never sought fame. Her fans, however, thought differently. They thought
she deserved these honours and were disappointed she didn’t get them.
Will Friedwald, author of A Popular Guide
to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers
(Pantheon, 2010), said of Day’s singing: “At her very best, she’s
worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Frank Sinatra or Ella
Fitzgerald, yet she’s never gotten a fraction of their respect.” And
renowned film critic Molly Haskell said, “I think Doris Day is the most
underrated, underappreciated actress that has ever come out of
But now, in death, Day is still underappreciated. Obits mention how, due
to the roles she sometimes played - a
virtuous woman resisting the advances of playboys
- she symbolized the sexual
repression of the 50s. As if she chose those roles, as if she declared
that image for herself. It was a great entertainer who died, not a
symbol. Critics also seem to blame her for the inferiority of some of
her songs and movies, as if she had chosen them. Day was perfectly aware
that the material given her was often bad, but she didn’t have control
over the matter. She gave each project her best effort and should be
lauded for that. Let’s take a closer look at her legacy.
Doris Day had parallel careers as movie star and recording artist. Her
film career lasted from 1948 to 1968 and her recording contract with
Columbia Records from 1947 to 1967. From 1968 to 1973, she appeared in a
TV sitcom, The Doris Day Show,
which was among the top 20 in the Nielsen ratings for two straight
years. (Her husband and manager Marty Melcher, who died suddenly in
1968, had signed a contract for this show without her knowledge.) And
she excelled in each field: recording, movies, and television. When CBS
offered to renew the sitcom, Day declined and moved to Northern
California in 1973, spending the rest of her life concentrating on her
animal welfare foundation, The Doris Day Animal Foundation. In her
animal activism, Day also helped launch World Spay Day, opened a
pet-friendly hotel and encouraged people to adopt pets from
When Day died on 13 May 2019, she hadn’t made a record or a film for
almost fifty years. Does her work have lasting value? What exactly is
her legacy? Her recordings will be of interest longer than her films.
She worked briefly as the featured singer
with Bob Crosby’s
orchestra and then with Les Brown’s, recording “Sentimental Journey,”
which was a huge and lasting hit, marrying a sideman in this band, the
first of her unfortunate marriages. She was
one of the great vocalists of the classic age of popular music and so
long as the Great American Songbook exists, so will Doris Day’s best
recordings, such as Day by Day,
Day by Night, Canadian Capers and Latin for Lovers,
Her films fall into two broad categories, those with music and those
without. And of those with music, some are Broadway-originated musicals,
and some are movies where music is an integral part of the story. The
musicals are Calamity Jane, Pajama Game
and Billy Rose’s Jumbo.
Calamity Jane (1953): Day plays an Annie
Oakley type, dressed in buckskin and speaking rough.
Howard Keel plays Wild Bill Hickok. Some of
the musical numbers call for elaborate acrobatics from our girl.
This is a fun movie with Day’s characterization of Calamity worthy of an
Oscar. She introduced “Secret Love,”
which was a huge hit and won an Academy Award for Best Song.
Pajama Game (1957): Film version of the
Broadway hit, with Day as the only performer not from the original cast.
John Raitt plays the male lead with Carol Haney and Eddie Foy as comic
relief. Very enjoyable, clever staging, and good songs.
Billy Rose’s Jumbo (1962): Another film
version of a Broadway show. Day plays the daughter of the circus owner
(Jimmy Durante). The male lead is Stephen Boyd and, of course, it
features Jumbo the elephant. Martha Raye is Durante’s fiancée. Lots of
circus acts and beautiful songs written by none other than Rodgers and
Hart. (“My Romance,” “Little Girl Blue.”)
The movies with music are more numerous. Day was hired by Warner Bros
director Michael Curtiz (Casablanca,
Mildred Pierce) mainly for her singing. Curtis saw
potential star power during her screen test, saying “She said her lines
like a human being.” In fact, he advised her
not to take acting lessons, and he was proven right. In Romance On
the High Seas (1948), she introduced “It’s Magic” and sang a few
songs with the Page Cavanaugh Trio. Her singing combined with her
looks and charisma made her an instant star.
Of her subsequent 16 Warner’s movies, she played a singer in most of
them. Though the stories are sometimes silly, a few of these movies are
charming, even today.
My Dream Is Yours (1949): Agent
Jack Carson helps Day’s character become a star while their love
blossoms. Eve Arden is a great presence, as usual. While not perfect,
the movie has enough good singing to
make up for its flaws. Included are the title song, “Someone Like You,”
“Canadian Capers” and the tender “I’ll String Along With You.”
Lullaby of Broadway (1951): With excellent dancer
Gene Nelson and comic character actors, S.Z. Sakall and Billy de Wolfe.
The plot involves Day dancing and singing on Broadway with Nelson. Day
had wanted to be a dancer as a girl but was involved in a horrendous car
crash. Her leg was shattered, and doctors feared she would never walk
again. In Lullaby of Broadway,
she fulfilled her dream. She danced some very complex numbers with
Nelson, drawing praise from one of the film’s
Curtiz directed Day in two biographical movies, in which she played a
Young Man With a Horn (1950): Based on the
life of jazz trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke, this is an overwrought story of
a disturbed musician (Kirk Douglas) and his equally disturbed wife
(Lauren Bacall) with Day playing a band singer. The music is terrific
throughout with Harry James on trumpet accompanying Day on standards
such as “Too Marvelous For Words” and “With A
Song In My Heart.” This is among
the best singing she does in movies.
I’ll See You In My Dreams (1951): Bio of
lyric writer Gus Kahn, played by Danny Thomas, with Day as his wife, who
can sing like a dream. Frank Lovejoy is Kahn’s songwriting partner. A
drama with plenty of music from the Songbook.
Both these movies are worthy of being included in Day’s film legacy.
Doris Day may have gotten her tagline “the girl next door” from the
movies On Moonlight Bay (1951)
and its sequel
By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1953).
In these she plays the tomboyish
teenage daughter of a bank manager in an idealistic small town in the
early 1900s. She falls in love with the boy, not next door but across
the street, the handsome, golden-voiced Gordon MacRae. With her hair
natural and no makeup, the 29-year-old actress is believable as a teen.
Nevertheless, the films are sitcoms, not movies, and have
little appeal today.
When her contract with Warner’s ended in 1955, Day and
her husband formed Arwin Productions.
Their first film as independents was based on the life of 1930s torch
singer Ruth Etting and her relationship with her husband/manager
gangster Marty Snyder.
Love Me Or Leave Me (1955): It’s a
misnomer to call this a musical, since we associate the genre with
pleasant fun. This movie is a drama, bordering on tragedy, with lots of
music. Day’s acting (doubtful producers only gave her the part on James
Cagney’s recommendation) is superb and she holds her own with the
dynamic Cagney. This is without doubt Day’s best film, worthy of an
Oscar. She demonstrates her great skill as both a singer and actress.
And another Class A film was directed by Alfred Hitchcock.The
Man Who Knew Too Much (1956): The film is about a tourist
couple (James Stewart and Day) who are innocently drawn into a sinister
plot, with their son being kidnapped. As part of the story, Day sings “Que
Sera, Sera.” A very good movie, pure Hitchcock. Fine acting by
In 1958, 1959 and 1960, Day made three
excellent movies, with no music to speak of. (She usually did a title
song for each romantic comedy, but no singing in the film.)
(1958): With Clark Gable (clearly too old for
Day, but still….!) and Gig Young for comic bits. A journalism teacher
(Day) and a newspaper editor (Gable) have opposing ideas as to what
makes a good story. A logical script (for a change). This is by far the
best of the romantic comedies.
It Happened To Jane (1959): A lobster farm owner (Day) is
thwarted from delivering a big order by a mean railroad company owner
(Ernie Kovaks). Jack Lemmon assists in getting the lobsters delivered on
time. Very good movie.
Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (1960): Based
on a popular book, this is the story of a wife and mother of four boys,
Day, who talks her New York drama critic husband (David Niven) into
moving to the country. With Janis Paige as a sexy actress who tempts
Niven. Good solid movie.
In 1958, producer Ross Hunter decided to co-star Day with handsome hunk
Rock Hudson in Pillow Talk, which is about neighbours who
share a telephone party line. The story revolved around her resisting
his advances. It was extremely popular and the first of similar movies,
which resulted in Day being called the “perpetual virgin” and deemed the
representative of sexual repression in the
1950s and early 1960s. (Several factors contributed to this
societal attitude and Doris Day wasn’t one of them!) The main plot line
of Pillow Talk - Brad Allen’s quest to bed Jan Morrow - is not as amusing today
as it was in 1958. If Jan Morrow (Day) is ridiculous for trying to
protect her virtue, then Brad Allen (Hudson) is a prime candidate for a
The Ballad of Josie
(1967) had real potential. A widow (Day)
decides to raise sheep on her land to make a living. She shocks the town
folk by donning jeans and annoying her male neighbours who raise cattle.
When the cattle ranchers threaten her, the sheriff (Peter Graves) comes
to her rescue. She falls into his arms and throws her jeans into the
fireplace, another sitcom plot. Imagine what it could have been with a
good script and John Wayne - a great movie with the top box office stars
of the time. (Wayne once said, “I would crawl on my hands and knees to
Beverly Hills to be in a movie with Doris Day.”)
Of Day’s 39 movies 12 are of lasting interest, a pretty good record. Her
later films might have been better were it not for Melcher, who refused
to allow Day to get another agent who might have gotten her better
parts. Melcher cared for money, not artistic merit.
But despite the sometimes poor material she was forced to work with,
Doris Day was a phenomenon: a first-rate dancer, one of America’s
greatest vocalists, and a popular actress who did musicals, drama and
comedy at their highest level and with the greatest of ease. She was
culturally influential in that she was one of the first actresses to
play a successful career woman, as she did, for example, in Pillow
Talk (interior decorator) and on her television show (magazine
writer) in the years before women’s liberation. She played a career
woman much more often than “the girl next door” or the “perpetual
virgin.” As Tom Santopietro says in his excellent book, Considering
Doris Day (St. Martin’s Press, 2007), “Doris Day could do it all,
and did it so naturally, in such an unintimidating package, that people
didn’t realize just how great she really was.”
Joan Merrill is the producer of two Doris Day tribute shows, Que
Sera! Celebrating Doris Day and Everybody Loves Doris Day
with Palm Springs-based vocalist Kristi King.
To learn more about Doris Day’s life, read her autobiography,
Doris Day: Her Own
Story (with A.E.
To learn more about her career, read Considering Doris Day by Tom
To keep up with the latest
news, see Discovering
Doris Day at www.dorisdaytribute.com.
COPYRIGHT, 2019, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED,