Doris Day, honored as the TCM Star of the Month for March, was a true superstar – a blonde beauty with a dazzling smile who was adored by audiences and a shining talent equally at home in musicals, comedies and romantic thrillers.
I interviewed Day in 1986 during the run of her show “Doris Day’s Best Friends” on the Christian Broadcasting Network. Our phone conversation was scheduled over the Christmas holidays, and Day told me at the time that she had house guests and a bad cold. Nonetheless, she kept our appointment and proved to be friendly, responsive and patient in answering all my questions. So, I remember her as a thoroughgoing pro, a good sport and a real charmer. As a longtime fan, I came away thinking she seemed exactly as Doris Day should have.
Musically speaking, Day placed among the great American song stylists of the 20th century, right up there with Sinatra, Fitzgerald and Crosby. Her approach could be light and airy or charged with emotion, and her style was so natural and authentic that her singing seemed not only an extension of her personality but a reflection of something deeper and more expressive. Critic Rex Reed called her “one of the really flawless singers of all time.”
Day starred in 17 popular film musicals, often showing off the skills of a trained dancer along with her vocal prowess and proving more than a match for such dancing talents as Gene Nelson and Ray Bolger, as well as singers Sinatra and Gordon MacRae. Donald Saddler, a classical dancer who choreographed two of her films, said of Day: “Of all the stars and principals I’ve ever danced with, I think she was one of the most gifted.”
Day also burned up the box office with her movie comedies. Her comedy style was praised by such experts as Lucille Ball and Jack Lemmon, and James Garner called her “the Fred Astaire of comedy.” Day’s dramatic ability was showcased in such films as Love Me or Leave Me (1955), which also features perhaps her best musical soundtrack. Alfred Hitchcock recognized her strengths as an actress and sought her out for The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). Director Norman Jewison described her as “an exciting actress” with a special gift for improvisation.
Day was one of the top box office stars in Hollywood history, with a ranking of No. 1 for four years during her peak in the early 1960s. In addition to her movies, she had an equally successful career at Columbia Records, recording more than 600 songs that were assembled into more than 30 albums. She earned nine gold records, three Grammy Hall of Fame Awards and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
She was born Doris Mary Anne Kappelhoff on April 3, 1922, in Cincinnati, Ohio, to music teacher William Joseph Kappelhoff and his wife, Alma, both of German extraction. Doris was named for the silent film actress Doris Kenyon, a favorite of her mother. She had two older brothers, one of whom died before her birth. The young Doris wanted to become a professional dancer and formed a dance duo with a young male friend. Her dream was shattered at age 15 by an accident; she was a passenger in a car that was struck by a train, crushing her right leg. While convalescing, she turned her attention to singing and studied the styles of performers she heard on the radio, especially an emerging singer named Ella Fitzgerald.
Doris’s mother arranged for her to study with local voice coach Grace Raine, who was so impressed with the young singer that she offered lessons at a discount. In later years, Day credited Raine with influencing her technique, especially her analysis and delivery of lyrics.
While still a teenager Doris began singing with local bands, including Barney Rapp’s. He told her she should find a shorter name than Kappelhoff and was inspired by the song “Day After Day” to suggest “Doris Day.” Under the new name she moved on to work with other bandleaders, including Bob Crosby and Les Brown.
Day’s breakthrough 1945 single, “Sentimental Journey,” was co-written by Brown and recorded with his orchestra. It was a runaway hit, becoming the anthem of soldiers returning from World War II and their loved ones waiting at home. After hearing Day sing at a party, songwriter Jule Styne arranged for her to make a screen test for the lead in Romance on the High Seas (1948), a Warner Bros. musical directed by Michael Curtiz with songs by Styne and Sammy Cahn. Despite her lack of experience as an actress, she easily won the role, which originally had been intended for Betty Hutton.
Curtiz was so impressed by her work that he signed Day to a personal contract for further film work at Warners. She created a sensation in her debut role, especially in her delivery of the song “It’s Magic,” which provided her with a No. 2 hit single.
Day told me she was so naïve at the time about the ways of moviemaking that, knowing the film was set on an ocean liner, she showed up on the first day of shooting with her bag packed for an actual cruise to Rio! She was quickly swept into a schedule of making two to five films per year for her home studio. She began with two more musical comedies with Romance costar Jack Carson: My Dream Is Yours (1949) and It’s a Great Feeling (1949). She remembered Carson as “a sweetheart who taught me so much.”
Next, she tried her first dramatic role in Curtiz’s Young Man with a Horn (1950), costarring Kirk Douglas as the troubled trumpeter of the title. The film also offered Day a chance to perform several songs, including an exquisite version of “The Very Thought of You” with Harry James on trumpet (dubbing for Douglas).
Tea for Two (1950) was the first of a popular series of nostalgic musicals teaming Day with clean-cut baritone Gordon MacRae. Others included On Moonlight Bay (1951) and By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1953). Day said that the latter two films were close to her heart “because of their nostalgia for the way home life used to be… My parents were divorced, and I missed that in my own life.” MacRae also joined Day, along with fellow Warners stars James Cagney, Virginia Mayo and Gene Nelson, in helping cadets to put on a show in The West Point Story (1950).
Storm Warning (1951), a film about the Ku Klux Klan directed by Curtiz, brought another dramatic role for Day, who costarred with Ronald Reagan, Ginger Rogers and Steve Cochran. This was on the only movie in which Day plays a character who dies (because of Klan violence). It was also the film that convinced Alfred Hitchcock she was a talent with whom he wanted to work.
One of Day’s most profitable films of this period was I’ll See You in My Dreams (1951), a musical biography of the life and marriage of lyricist Gus Kahn. Danny Thomas played Kahn, and Day was his wife. This was her final film for Curtiz. She continued, however, as a contract player at Warner Bros. In quick succession she did Starlift (1951), an all-star tribute to the U.S. Air Force; The Winning Team (1952), a biography of major league pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander (Ronald Reagan) and his wife, Aimee (Day); and April in Paris (1952), a musical with Ray Bolger.
Day enjoyed one of the triumphs of her career with Calamity Jane (1953), a boisterous musical comedy in the vein of Annie Get Your Gun. Her peppery portrayal of “Calam” became an instant classic, and her Sammy Fain/Paul Francis Webster song “Secret Love” became a No. 1 hit and an Oscar winner as Best Original Song. Day told me that “Secret Love” was her favorite among the songs she sang in films. And she felt her role as Calamity Jane was the closest to her own persona: “That was the real me, just blasting off at everybody!”
Her contract at Warner Bros. wound up with Lucky Me (1954), a comedy costarring Robert Cummings; and Young at Heart (1954), a musical drama with Frank Sinatra.
Her first vehicle as a free agent was a spectacular one – Love Me or Leave Me (1955), a film biography of 1920s singer Ruth Etting, costarring James Cagney as Marty “The Gimp” Snyder, Etting’s husband and sparring partner. Day delivered her strongest dramatic performance to date and vividly performed a dozen or so musical numbers. Cagney snagged an Oscar nomination, and many were surprised that Day did not.
Hitchcock got his chance to work with Day in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), in which he draws a powerful performance from her as the mother of a kidnapped child. James Stewart plays her husband, and Day introduces what would become her theme song, the Oscar-winning “Que Sera, Sera.”
At MGM, Day starred in another thriller, Julie (1956), with Louis Jourdan as her psycho husband. She returned to Warners for one of her best musicals, The Pajama Game (1957), then went to Paramount for the comedy Teacher’s Pet (1958). Other comedies included The Tunnel of Love (1958) for MGM, directed by Gene Kelly, and It Happened to Jane (1959) for Columbia, in happy partnership with Jack Lemmon.
A film that revitalized and reshaped Day’s screen career was Universal’s Pillow Talk (1959), a “sex comedy” with producer Ross Hunter giving her a sleek, sexy new look and casting her for the first time with ideal leading man Rock Hudson. The film may seem somewhat quaint by contemporary standards, but in its day it was considered daringly racy. When asked to name the director she most enjoyed working with, Day mentioned Hitchcock but quickly added, “Michael Gordon did a superb job with Pillow Talk.”
Day and Hudson would make two more comedies together, the even brighter and more enjoyable Lover Come Back (1961) and the more sedate Send Me No Flowers (1964), in which they play a married couple dealing with the husband’s hypochondria. The costars shared not only a vibrant onscreen chemistry but a warm friendship that lasted until Hudson’s death in 1985.
At MGM, Day returned to more wholesome comedy in the sprightly Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (1960), based on the Jean Kerr book. That same year saw the release of Universal’s Midnight Lace (1960), marking a return to the “terrified wife” thriller, with Day as the threatened American spouse of suave British businessman Rex Harrison. This time the hysterics in one scene were so intense that Day reportedly collapsed and had to leave the set. This was the last of her “super-emotional” roles. She told me that, while she found them challenging, she decided that they were “dangerous to one’s health and well-being.”
After another Universal “sex comedy,” That Touch of Mink (1962), in which Cary Grant replaces Hudson as the womanizer who pursues her, Day made her final musical with MGM, Billy Rose’s Jumbo (1962). Despite a supporting cast that included Jimmy Durante and Martha Raye, and a charming score highlighted by Day’s exquisite delivery of “Little Girl Blue,” the film was a disappointment at the box office.
Her other pictures of this era include: The Thrill of It All (1963), The Glass Bottom Boat (1966), The Ballad of Josie (1967), Where Were You When the Lights Went Out? (1968) and With Six You Get Eggroll (1968), her last film.
In addition to her multi-faceted career, Day was a passionate, decades-long animal-rights activist. She co-founded Actors and Others for Animals in 1971, founded the Doris Day Pet Foundation in 1978 and in 1987 founded The Doris Day Animal Foundation. In 2006, the latter organization merged into The Humane Society of the United States.
Day had four husbands. Trombonist Al Jorden (married to Day 1941-43) was the father of her only child, son Terry Melcher (1942-2004). Saxophonist George Weidler (married to Day 1946-49) introduced her to Christian Science, which became very important in her life. Producer Martin Melcher (married to Day from 1951 to his death in 1968) produced many of her films and managed her career during her peak years. He adopted her son Terry, who became a successful songwriter and music producer. Barry Comden (married to Day 1976-82) was a maître d’ who Day met at a favorite restaurant.
After Melcher’s death, Day discovered that he and his business partner had mismanaged her millions of dollars in earnings and left her deeply in debt. Melcher had also, without her knowledge, committed her to film a television sitcom for CBS. Despite her misgivings, The Doris Day Show was a success that ran for five seasons, 1968-73.
Day also did two entertaining specials for CBS-TV, The Doris Mary Anne Kappelhoff Show (1971) and Doris Day Today (1973). In 1975 Day and author A.E. Hotchner published Doris Day: Her Own Story, a biography/autobiography in which she, along with family and friends, shared intimate details of her life. Her show for the Christian Broadcasting Network ran during 1985-86.
Day lived in retirement in Carmel Valley, CA, where she provided a home for many of her furry friends and for a time co-owned a dog-friendly hotel, The Cypress Inn, in Carmel. In 2004 President George W. Bush awarded Day the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award. In 2011, she released an album, “My Heart,” a compilation of songs that had been recorded earlier but never before released. It was an artistic and commercial success, rising to No. 1 in the United Kingdom.
Day died of pneumonia on May 13, 2019, at the age of 97, in her home in Carmel Valley. Noted author John Updike, a Day enthusiast, spoke for so many of us when he said, “She just glowed for me.”
By Roger Fristoe