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.
Exactly. That’s even more the case for someone like Day, who retired in 1973 and has thus not been doing the thing for which they’re famous for nearly half a century.
I’m sure I saw some of the movies when I was a kid but don’t recollect much about them. I’m a couple years older than you so also remember the Carson appearances and almost certainly watched her variety show with my family. But, unlike “Sonny and Cher,” “The Carole Burnett Show,” and even “Donny and Marie,” my recollections are quite vague.
She had a unique voice, all honey but with power and range as well. I’m old enough to have seen a couple of her movies in actual theaters, and later more on TV. She was never my cup of tea, but a great talent.
If you want to get socio-political-historical about it, Day was the avatar of the pre-WW2 social order’s restoration. She wasn’t Rosie the Riveter, or one of those uppity female pilots, she was the personification of femininity devoted above all to finding and pleasing a man, then retiring to the kitchen. (Have to love that her on-screen partner, Rock Hudson, supposed to be the masculine avatar of his age, was gay.) Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Roz Russell before the war – tough, independent women – and soft and compliant Doris Day after. She helped coax women back into their straitjackets.
Vietnam, rock and roll and especially the women’s movement did for Day. Good riddance to the world she represented, but that’s not on her, she was just the actress and singer in an era when actors had very, very little control. And a genuinely amazing, one-of-a-kind voice.
I was a teenager when her movies were popular. I didn’t go to her movies; I would have been a big fan of superhero movies, but we didn’t have them. Instead we had those “biblical” films that had noisy special effects, women in impractical garments, and testosterone dripping men. I thought her films were what I think Lifetime Channel shows today; very pretty, but definitely not sexy, women outsmarting men who are ruled by simple biological urges. (I admit that these thoughts may reflect ignorance.)
The virginity thing is interesting. Her time reflected a transition between the previous society and now. A hundred years ago, most humans worked in agriculture, and the result of hard work and limited nutrition meant that menarche happened around age 15-16 while marriage age was soon thereafter. There was no time for a woman to be sexually active outside of marriage. Social changes including education, better nutrition, and professional opportunities meant that sexual maturity came earlier and marriage later. Non marital sex was the inevitable result. Ms. Day’s films with Rock Hudson feature a mature woman, a handsome man, and a will they/won’t they plot. Not a slice of life.
Doris Day was a much more interesting person than the image that ended up getting pasted upon her by the studios and the public. Her role was to be one of the mechanisms by which WWII women were shooed back out of the factories and back into being housewives.
It’s interesting–the 1950s was so desperate to recreate the theoretical PreWWII moral code that no one realised it was at the same time making itself extremely vulnerable to a complete blowup, which is what happened in the 1960s. (I keep pointing out that it was the children who were raised in the supposed Utopia of the 1950s who were the ones who rebelled in the 1960s. Your “perfect cultural setup” doesn’t work very well if you can’t even transmit it to the next generation.)
I vaguely remember Doris Day from her movies. Some local channel used to show old black and white movies on Saturday and Sunday mornings. But I suppose they made little impression on me. She’s more like a celebrity your parents liked.
I suppose actors who leave their career get forgotten, same as those who can’t find other work, regardless of their talent.
@Kathy: I never got into her musicals, but being a big Hitchcock fan I certainly remember her from The Man Who Knew Too Much.
Weirdly, just a few days ago a family member sent me a video on “actors you didn’t know are still alive,” and Doris Day was actually the only one on the list I wasn’t aware was still living. It was largely because she retired so long ago, whereas people like Angela Lansbury and Dick Van Dyke are still working.
I find all live-action musicals to be faintly ridiculous in essence, as in no time in real life people burst out singing spontaneously. I don’t mind animated musicals, as cartoons are already unreal(*). So, not a fan.
I kind of recall bits from the title song of “Tea For Two,” because my parents made such a big deal about that movie, I watched it with them when it aired one Sunday morning. I don’t recall anything else.
(*) In one of Futurama’s series finales (there are at least two), there is a musical number (such are common on Matt Groening cartoons), involving the Robot Devil interrupting Fry’s holophoner opera. At one point there’s more or less this exchange:
Farnsworth (singing) “I can’t believe the Devil is so unforgiving.”
Zoidberg (Singing): “I can’t believe everybody is just ad libbing!”
I like a lot of the classic musicals of the ’50s and ’60s. The problem is that the conventions of movies have changed so drastically that musicals often don’t seem to “fit” in a modern context. When you watch a movie today, it tries to create the illusion that you’re looking into a window of a real scene. It tries to involve you completely by making everything–the sets, the way the actors speak–look and sound like some approximation of real life.
It wasn’t always that way. When talking movies first appeared in the late 1920s, they imitated what was then the only comparable art form: the stage. So for the next few decades, the movies around that time aren’t all that different from simply watching filmed stage plays. Not only are the sets less realistic-looking than they would be today, but just the way the actors enunciate their lines is different: they often seem to speak in an almost sing-song way. It’s very unlike the understated, naturalistic acting that would eventually become the norm, and it takes some getting used to if you’re only used to watching more modern films.
This is why traditional musicals made a lot of sense in this period. Indeed, it’s striking the amount of movie musicals that would probably not be musicals if they were made today. For instance, a live-action fantasy like The Wizard of Oz would almost certainly be a nonmusical if it had been a 21st-century film. (Imagine if the Harry Potter films had been musicals.) Then there are all those comedies by the Marx Brothers and Danny Kaye, which happen to be musicals in that the actors suddenly burst into song at various points. But it’s almost offhanded and casual. That sort of thing seemed completely natural with movies around that time, whereas it would seem very odd if some modern-day comedian like Adam Sandler or Eddie Murphy were to suddenly burst into a musical number in one of his comedies (and even then it would be done more as nostalgic parody–think of the musical numbers in Mel Brooks films).
I think it was the 1970s, that era of gritty realism, when this all changed. That’s when the “window into a real-life scene” effect became almost universal in movies. There were other forces at work, as well: the rise of rock and roll music, the rise of music videos. A Hard Day’s Night probably did more to kill the traditional musical than any other film.
Live-action musicals did make a sort of comeback following the success of Chicago in the early 2000s. But one thing notable about that film is that it avoids the convention of people bursting into song in mid-conversation. The song-and-dance numbers are presented for the most part as fantasies the characters are having; it’s all happening in their head, not in the “real” world.
A lot of other so-called “musicals” in the past few decades are barely musicals in the traditional sense. They include biopics of musicians like Walk the Line, or oddball films like O Brother Where Art Thou. And when there are more traditional musicals, I often find them hard to adjust to. I remember the first time I saw Dreamgirls, a low-key drama, how confused I was when about 30 minutes into the film a character suddenly just starts singing while walking down the street. Up to that point, there had been songs in the film–but only in scenes where the characters were on stage or in a studio. There was no break in the realism. So when a character just suddenly started singing out of the blue, I found it rather jarring–I thought to myself, “Wait a moment, this is a musical?!” I never get that feeling with the old, classic musicals, because they don’t have anything to apologize for.
Thanks, that’s lots of good info on your post.
My dad for some reason liked musicals, so I wound up seeing several. I won’t deny some have good songs, but I still find them ridiculous. about the least ridiculous, in some scenes, might be “The Sound of Music,” as Maria often sings when she’s teaching the children music, which makes perfect sense. Also the opening scene where she’s alone in the mountain singing; you’re alone, you do lots of crazy things.
Cartoons being unreal, having people, or drawings of people (or animals), burst into song, is not that different from Elmer Fudd discovering gravity, or the Road Runner entering the solid rock with the tunnel painting on it. So I can see and enjoy several Disney musicals, without just laughing at the absurdity of it all.
I wonder if it would be worth remaking the “Airplane!” movies, but now as musicals.
@Kathy: I grew up watching musicals, so I’m heavily used to them. Several of the defining films of my childhood (Wizard of Oz, Mary Poppins, Oliver!) were musicals. As for finding them “ridiculous,” it really depends on how much realism you demand in a movie. Musicals, as I said, are closer in form to stage plays than they are to modern films, and if you can handle stage plays, I don’t see what the problem should be. (I’m not a regular stage-goer, largely because I’m not rich enough.) Modern cinematic realism is something I only find essential depending on the type of film. For instance, it’s why I generally have trouble appreciating horror movies from before the ’60s. I can’t get scared when everything looks like stage props, and the actors don’t talk like real people. I don’t need that level of deep sensory involvement when watching a musical.
I saw plays growing up, but mostly musicals. I did not find them any less, well, let’s say “odd.” I recall seeing “The sound of Music,” “Cabaret,” and a Spaniard import called “The Coming Deluge” (this is about an abortive second Flood by the Christian god).
Two straight-up plays I recall seeing were “Deathtrap” and “The Dresser.” I vaguely recall seeing a play version of “The Elephant Man,” and a couple of comedies.
I’ll confess there is one musical I did like. “The Producers.” But more for the story, the characters, and the jokes, not so much for the music. I should look up the original movie.
See it. I never saw the play, but I know it was a big hit. I did see the movie-of-the-play, released in 2005, and I found it very disappointing. Of course people who never saw the original film might not be able to tell, as it simply copies many of the scenes from the original. But Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder were just better in the roles than Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. I also felt most of the musical numbers detracted from the film. The original film had just one musical number (Springtime for Hitler), which was enough. The ones they added in the remake made the whole production seem overdone, lacking in the spontaneity of the original.
I admit I did like their 2016 parody “Trumped” on Jimmy Kimmel.
I applaud the blogmasters’ decision to start featuring alluring photos of attractive young women.
My all time stage favorite is still The Music Man, by a lot. For movie musicals, Singin’ in the Rain. For kidlit, Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews version) and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (Gene Wilder version).