Hollywood Legend Doris Day Dies At 97
Que Sera, Sera
Doris Day, a Hollywood icon who first became known as a big band singer in the 1940s and followed up with a movie career that continued well into the next three decades, has died at the age of 97:
Doris Day, the freckle-faced movie actress whose irrepressible personality and golden voice made her America’s top box-office star in the early 1960s, died on Monday at her home in Carmel Valley, Calif. She was 97.
The Doris Day Animal Foundation announced her death.
Ms. Day began her career as a big-band vocalist, and she was successful almost from the start: One of her first records, “Sentimental Journey,” released in 1945, sold more than a million copies, and she went on to have numerous other hits. The bandleader Les Brown, with whom she sang for several years, once said, “As a singer Doris belongs in the company of Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra.”
But it was the movies that made her a star.
Between “Romance on the High Seas” in 1948 and “With Six You Get Eggroll” in 1968, she starred in nearly 40 movies. On the screen she turned from the perky girl next door in the 1950s to the woman next door in a series of 1960s sex comedies that brought her four first-place rankings in the yearly popularity poll of theater owners, an accomplishment equaled by no other actress except Shirley Temple.
In the 1950s she starred, and most often sang, in comedies (“Teacher’s Pet,” “The Tunnel of Love”), musicals (“Calamity Jane,” “April in Paris,” “The Pajama Game”) and melodramas (“Young Man With a Horn,” the Alfred Hitchcock thriller “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” “Love Me or Leave Me”).
James Cagney, her co-star in “Love Me or Leave Me,” said Ms. Day had “the ability to project the simple, direct statement of a simple, direct idea without cluttering it.” He compared her performance to Laurette Taylor’s in “The Glass Menagerie” on Broadway in 1945, widely hailed as one of the greatest performances ever given by an American actor.
She went on to appear in “Pillow Talk” (1959), “Lover Come Back” (1961) and “That Touch of Mink” (1962), fast-paced comedies in which she fended off the advances of Rock Hudson (in the first two films) and Cary Grant (in the third). Those movies, often derided today as examples of the repressed sexuality of the ’50s, were considered daring at the time.
“I suppose she was so clean-cut, with perfect uncapped teeth, freckles and turned-up nose, that people just thought she fitted the concept of a virgin,” Mr. Hudson once said of Ms. Day. “But when we began ‘Pillow Talk’ we thought we’d ruin our careers because the script was pretty daring stuff.” The movie’s plot, he said, “involved nothing more than me trying to seduce Doris for eight reels.”
Following “Pillow Talk,” which won Ms. Day her sole Academy Award nomination, she was called on to defend her virtue for the rest of her career in similar but lesser movies, while Hollywood turned to more honest and graphic screen sex to keep up with the revolution sweeping the world after the introduction of the birth control pill.
Ms. Day turned down the part of Mrs. Robinson, the middle-aged temptress who seduces Dustin Hoffman, in the groundbreaking 1967 film “The Graduate,” because, she said, the notion of an older woman seducing a young man “offended my sense of values.” The part went to Anne Bancroft, who was nominated for an Academy Award.
By the time she retired in 1973, after starring for five years on the hit CBS comedy “The Doris Day Show,” Ms. Day had been dismissed as a goody-two-shoes, the leader of Hollywood’s chastity brigade, and, in the words of the film critic Pauline Kael, “the all-American middle-aged girl.” The critic Dwight Macdonald wrote of “the Doris Day Syndrome” and defined her as “wholesome as a bowl of cornflakes and at least as sexy.”
But the passing decades have brought a reappraisal, especially by some feminists, of Ms. Day’s screen personality and her achievements. In her book “Holding My Own in No Man’s Land” (1997), the critic Molly Haskell described Ms. Day as “challenging, in her working-woman roles, the limited destiny of women to marry, live happily ever after and never be heard from again.”
Ms. Day in fact was one of the few actresses of the 1950s and ’60s to play women who had a real profession, and her characters were often more passionate about their career than about their co-stars.
“My public image is unshakably that of America’s wholesome virgin, the girl next door, carefree and brimming with happiness,” she said in “Doris Day: Her Own Story,” a 1976 book by A. E. Hotchner based on a series of interviews he conducted with Ms. Day. “An image, I can assure you, more make-believe than any film part I ever played. But I am Miss Chastity Belt, and that’s all there is to it.”
Doris Day was born Doris Mary Anne Kappelhoff in Cincinnati on April 3, 1922. (For years most sources gave her birth year as 1924, and so did she. But shortly before her birthday in 2017, The Associated Press obtained a copy of her birth certificate from the Ohio Office of Vital Statistics and established that she had been born two years earlier. After Ms. Day was shown the evidence, she said in a statement, “I’ve always said that age is just a number and I have never paid much attention to birthdays, but it’s great to finally know how old I really am.”) She was the second child of Frederick William von Kappelhoff, a choral master and piano teacher who later managed restaurants and taverns in Cincinnati, and Alma Sophia (Welz) Kappelhoff. Her parents separated when she was a child.
Ms. Day never wanted to be a movie star. At 15 she was a good enough dancer to win the $500 first prize in an amateur contest. Her mother and the parents of her 12-year-old partner used the money to take them both to Los Angeles for professional dancing lessons. The families intended to move west permanently, but Doris’s right leg was shattered when the automobile in which she was riding was hit by a train.
To distract Doris during the year it took the leg to mend, her mother — who had named her after a movie star, Doris Kenyon — paid for singing lessons. She was a natural.
Ms. Day told Mr. Hotchner that another important thing happened during her year of recuperation: She was given a small dog. “It was the start of what was, for me, a lifelong love affair with the dog,” she said.
That first dog, Tiny, was killed by a car when Ms. Day, still on crutches, took him for a walk without a leash. Nearly 40 years later she spoke of how she had betrayed him. During the last decades of her life, through her foundation, Ms. Day spent much of her time rescuing and finding homes for stray dogs, even personally checking out the backyards and fencing of people who wanted to adopt, and she worked to end the use of animals in cosmetic and household-products research.
After the accident, Ms. Day never went back to school. At 17, having traded her crutches for a cane, she sang in a local club where the owner changed her name because Kappelhoff wouldn’t fit on the marquee.
After a few months as a singer with Bob Crosby and His Bobcats in Chicago, she joined Les Brown and His Blue Devils.
Singing was just something to do until she married. “From the time I was a little girl,” she told Mr. Hotchner, “my only true ambition in life was to get married and tend house and have a family.”
But while Ms. Day was instantly successful as a singer and a movie actress, she was fated always to marry the wrong men. By the time she made her first movie she had been married and divorced twice.
Her first husband, Al Jorden, a trombone player, was violently jealous and had an uncontrollable temper. He hit her on the second day of their marriage and continued to beat her when she became pregnant and refused to have an abortion. She was married at 19, divorced and a mother at 20.
But she was undaunted. “All my life,” she told Mr. Hotchner, “I have known that I could work at whatever I wanted whenever I wanted.”
Her second husband, George Weidler, a saxophonist, was a gentle man.
She was happily living with him in a trailer park in Los Angeles when he left, after telling her that he thought she was going to become a big star and that he didn’t want to be Mr. Doris Day.
She was approached at a Hollywood party by the songwriters Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne, who had written the score for “Romance on the High Seas,” a movie planned for Judy Garland. But Garland had turned the role down and Betty Hutton, her replacement, was withdrawing because she was pregnant. Warner Bros. was desperate, and the songwriters insisted that Ms. Day audition for the part.
“Acting in films had never so much as crossed my mind,” she later said.
As candid in real life as her perky screen characters, Ms. Day admitted to the movie’s director, Michael Curtiz, that she had never acted before. But “from the first take onward, I never had any trepidation about what I was called on to do,” she said. “Movie acting came to me with greater ease and naturalness than anything else I had ever done.”
Reviewing “Romance on the High Seas” in The New York Herald Tribune, Howard Barnes wrote, “She has much to learn about acting, but she has personality enough to take her time about it.”
Under personal contract to Mr. Curtiz, Ms. Day followed “Romance on the High Seas” with a series of musical comedies in which she played the pert and wholesome girl with hair and personality the color of sunlight. But even in the early 1950s she was nobody’s fool, and her characters had an unusual resilience, cockiness and competence.
In “By the Light of the Silvery Moon” (1953), about the trials of a small-town family, Ms. Day is first seen repairing her boyfriend’s car. If her fearless sharpshooting title character in “Calamity Jane” (1953) is finally induced to exchange her buckskins for a dress to wed Howard Keel’s Wild Bill Hickock, she still slips her six-shooter into her pocket to take along on the honeymoon.
And when Ms. Day opened her mouth to sing, the effect was magical. She had a perfectly controlled voice that brimmed with emotion. “It’s Magic,” which she sang in “Romance on the High Seas,” and “I’ll Never Stop Loving You,” which she sang in “Love Me or Leave Me,” were nominated for Academy Awards for best song. The two with which she is especially identified, “Secret Love,” from “Calamity Jane,” and “Que Sera, Sera,” from “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” won Oscars.
“Doris Day was the most underrated film musical performer of all time,” said Miles Kreuger, president of the Institute of the American Musical. “If only she had been at MGM instead of Warner Bros., they’d have given her challenging roles.”
More from Variety:
Doris Day, one of Hollywood’s most popular stars of the 1950s and ’60s who was Oscar-nommed for “Pillow Talk” and starred in her own TV show, has died. She was 97.
The Doris Day Animal Foundation confirmed the legendary actress-singer died on Monday at her Carmel Valley, Calif. home.
Though she was marketed as a wholesome girl-next-door type, the comedies for which she was most well-known were actually sexy and daring for their time, and her personal life was tumultuous, with four marriages and a notorious lawsuit.
The vivacious blonde, who also had a successful singing career, teamed with Rock Hudson in “Pillow Talk” and other lighthearted romantic comedies including “Lover Come Back” and “Send Me No Flowers.” Her other significant screen roles included Alfred Hitchcock thriller “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1956), co-starring James Stewart and featuring Day’s Oscar-winning song “Que Sera Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be”); and “The Pajama Game” (1957), based on the Broadway musical.
After many successful films, she starred on CBS in “The Doris Day Show” for five years starting in 1968, and soon after retired to Carmel, Calif. She released 29 albums, most recently “My Heart,” which consisted of previously unreleased songs, in 2011.
In her autobiography, “Doris Day: Her Own Story,” she caused something of a stir while promoting the book by rejecting the “girl next door” and “professional virgin” labels so often attached to her. In the 1975 book she remarked: “The succession of cheerful, period musicals I made, plus Oscar Levant’s highly publicized comment about my virginity (‘I knew Doris Day before she became a virgin’), contributed to what has been called my ‘image,’ which is a word that baffles me. There never was any intent on my part either in my acting or in my private life to create any such thing as an image.”
But her rise in popularity coincided with World War II and the Korean War, and she quickly became a favorite with servicemen. Day leapt into the spotlight in 1945 with the release of her hit song “Sentimental Journey,” recorded with Les Brown and His Band of Renown; the song became symbolic for G.I.s returning from WWII to their families. She had also done early vocal work with the big bands of Barney Rapp and Bob Crosby. She had a second hit record with “My Dreams Are Getting Better All the Time.”
After she separated from her second husband, George Weidler, in 1948, Day apparently intended to leave Los Angeles and return to her mother’s home in Cincinnati. Her agent, Al Levy, convinced her to attend a party at the home of composer Jule Styne. There she performed the song “Embraceable You,” impressing Styne and partner Sammy Cahn; they recommended her for a role in “Romance on the High Seas,” on which they were then working for Warner Bros. The main role was to be recast after Betty Hutton exited due to pregnancy, and Day got it.
The Michael Curtiz-directed musical comedy, her debut feature film gig, provided her with another hit recording, the Oscar-nominated “It’s Magic.” Day starred in a number of Curtiz films in the early and mid-’50s, among them “Young Man With a Horn” with Kirk Douglas and Lauren Bacall.
In the early ’50s she made a series of nostalgic period musicals for Warner Bros., including “Tea for Two,” “On Moonlight Bay” and “By the Light of the Silvery Moon,” for Warner Brothers. Attempting to cut loose from her dainty image, Day began accepting more nuanced parts, including her favorite role as Western tomboy Calamity Jane in director David Butler’s 1953 film of the same name.
The New York Times called Day’s performance in the Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” in which she was well cast as a retired singer, “surprisingly effective.”
Day was apparently not an immediate fan of “Que Sera Sera” and expressed doubts about the durability of the tune that would become her signature song. It was, however, used again in two more Day films — “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies” (1960) and, in a brief duet, in “The Glass Bottom Boat” (1966) — and was subsequently used as the theme song for her CBS TV show.
Day also teamed with James Garner onscreen in 1963’s “The Thrill of It All” and “Move Over, Darling.”
Her last film, 1968’s “With Six You Get Egg Roll,” in which she starred with Brian Keith, was released in the same year as the successful Lucille Ball-Henry Fonda comedy “Yours, Mine and Ours,” employing a very similar premise of two people with children from previous marriages coming together.
It was also significant because of the ambiguity of certain scenes that could be interpreted as meaning that the central characters slept together before marriage — a first for a Day character and interesting at a time when comedians were calling her the world’s oldest virgin. She was offered the role of Mrs. Robinson in “The Graduate,” which could have gone a long way to modernizing what had become a square image, but turned it down because she thought the sexual relationship was exploitative.
Having been born in 1968, when Day made her last film and effectively retired from Hollywood at the relatively young age of 46, I can’t say I was familiar with her work except to the extent that she was a frequent guest on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, and other talk shows of the era. It was also during the 70s and 80s that she became known for her advocacy for animals in an era when the “animal rights” movement was in its relative infancy. Additionally, I can recall seeing several of her movies, particularly those with Rock Hudson that were in many respects the forerunners of the romantic comedies of the 80s and 90s, on late night television. In subsequent years, Day mostly retired from public life aside from occasional appearances at the Academy Awards or other Hollywood events.
When someone dies at such an advanced age, I always feel as though it’s silly to be sad at their passing. A person in such a situation has obviously lived a full life and by all reports this was the case with Doris Day. Instead of mourning, then, I suppose the appropriate reaction is to appreciate the work they did and be glad that it’s still around for others to enjoy.