Bittersweet heart: the conquests and calamities of Doris Day
The actress and singer brought confidence and robust wholesomeness to her films - often at great personal cost
Doris Day, who has died aged 97, was cast so frequently in roles requiring her to assume an air of cheerful chastity that the film composer Oscar Levant was once prompted to boast that he had met her “before she was a virgin”.
Off-screen, she acquired a reputation for eschewing traditional Hollywood recreations like indulgence in alcohol and drug-taking in favour of ice cream and soft drinks (she had a soda fountain specially built into her Hollywood home).
This, together with her habit, acquired in her later years, of roaming the Californian countryside on a French bicycle in search of neglected domestic pets, meant that she became associated with the robust wholesomeness of her roles in films like Calamity Jane and Young at Heart.
Unlike many prominent Hollywood actresses of the 1950s, the American ideal which she was felt to represent was not confined to the realm of male sexual fantasy, although many of her more fervent admirers (including James Garner and John Updike) found her full figure, gleaming smile, and general air of unattainability intensely alluring.
Her reputation as an actress determined to “keep the party polite” remained oddly untarnished by lines like “Come in, big boy, 10 cents a dance” (in Love Me or Leave Me). Such flirtatiousness – like her claim in Young at Heart that she was “Ready, Willing and Able” – served only to underline her apparent lack of awareness of her own sexuality.
Doris Day frequently declared herself to be puzzled by the public’s perception of her as a girl who wouldn’t say yes, and pointed out that she was more varied in scope than was commonly appreciated.
Her parts in Love Me or Leave Me, in which she was “slugged and raped by Jimmy Cagney”, and Midnight Lace, where she was “stalked by a murderous Rex Harrison”, proved to be so reminiscent of her own disastrous experience of matrimony – her first husband was a wife-beater, the second deserted her, the third was a womanising fraud, and the last a health-food restaurateur – that she more than once collapsed on set.
It was, above all, the string of inoffensive but unremarkable comedies which she undertook with the encouragement of her third husband, bungling entrepreneur Marty Melcher, and her refusal to have anything to do with films that showed what she called “naked bodies thrashing about” – one of the parts she turned down was that of Mrs Robinson in The Graduate – that effectively finished her cinema career in 1968.
Before her premature retirement, Doris Day had become one of the few film performers who could equally be regarded as a bona fide pop star; she was largely responsible for the 1950s vogue for the soundtrack album, and she had several international successes with pop singles, notably Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be), her biggest hit, from Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much.
Her own vocal style was, she said, based on the principles taught by her childhood singing teacher – to “project and feel” – though some less partisan members of her audience argued that her instinct for conveying soul and sentiment was never quite up to her diction, especially when compared with Ella Fitzgerald, one of her more detectable influences.
Her most impressive screen performances, in films like Love Me or Leave Me and The Pyjama Game, were not generally the most lucrative: for most of Doris Day’s admirers her magnum opus was Calamity Jane, which had her dressed in buckskin and confronting, with swaggering bravado, “Injun arrows thicker than porkypine quills” as she travelled to Chicago to convince Adelaid Adams (Gale Robbins) to come out west but mistakenly engaged Adams’s starstruck maid instead.
The youngest of three children, she was born Doris Mary Ann Kappelhoff on April 3 1922 in Cincinnati. Her father was a music teacher and choir master and her grandparents on both sides were German immigrants.
She was named Doris after her mother’s favourite actress, Doris Kenyon, a silent-screen star of the 1920s.
Doris Day’s first “live” performance – a rendition of I’se goin’ down the Cushville hop, delivered at her Cincinnati kindergarten – was probably the most risqué and traumatic of her career: it ended abruptly when her anxiety got the better of her, with disastrous consequences.
The experience left her with a nervousness of making stage appearances which was in marked contrast to the supreme confidence with which she met other demands of showbusiness.
A car crash which shattered her right leg and left Doris on crutches well into her teens frustrated her mother’s ambitions to take the child to stage school in Hollywood: instead, she arranged for her daughter to sing part-time at a Chinese restaurant in Cincinnati.
At 16 she was singing numbers like St Louis Blues and Jeepers, Creepers with Barney Rapp’s local band, and by 1940 she had found her niche touring North America with Les Brown and his Blue Devils (the “Devils” were known in the business as “the Milk Shake Band” for their “no booze or dope” policy).
She left the band to marry Al Jorden, a trombone player she had met in her time with Rapp. Jorden was fiercely unpopular with his fellow musicians: after months of attempting to come to terms with his maniacal jealousy, and suffering savage beatings, she began to incline towards the majority view. She left Jorden, rejoined Les Brown, and was rewarded almost immediately with her first major hit, Sentimental Journey.
An impetuous marriage to a Blue Devil, George Weidler, then took her to California, where the couple lived in a trailer before Weidler left her for good and took a job as a sideman to Stan Kenton.
With the benefit of hindsight, Embraceable You was probably not – considering such turmoil in her recent private life – the best choice of song for her 1948 audition with Warner Brothers, and she was offered her first screen part, in Romance on the High Seas, despite having burst into tears during the audition.
In her seven years under contract to Warners between 1948 and 1955 she was subjected to a hectic schedule which produced 17 films, 15 of which were musicals. By the time she had completed Lullaby of Broadway in 1951, her only serious box-office rival was Betty Grable.
In the same year Doris Day played opposite her girlhood idol Ginger Rogers in Storm Warning – the film that first attracted Alfred Hitchcock’s attention – and, also in 1951, she married her manager Marty Melcher, a man she would later describe as “venal and devious”.
Though she appeared to be the picture of tomboyish good health on board the Deadwood Stage, she collapsed with a nervous breakdown following the completion of Calamity Jane in 1953. She recovered under medical care after a fruitless attempt at a cure suggested by the Christian Science movement which she had joined in the late 1940s.
Two years later there were signs of more trouble to come: during the making of Young at Heart Frank Sinatra refused to continue the film unless Marty Melcher was banned from the set; it later transpired that Melcher had approached Sinatra with a business proposition which was, in the singer’s judgement, inequitable. (“You don’t get too close to a guy like that,” said James Garner of Melcher. “Just ‘Good Morning’. And keep your hand on your wallet.”)
Doris Day almost turned down the part of Jo McKenna in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). In 1948, before beginning My Dream is Yours, her second film for Warners, she had spent a period with Bob Hope’s show, and the constant travelling left her with an intense fear of flying. Eventually, however, she was persuaded to travel to North Africa by train and boat.
Although uneasy with Hitchcock’s “uninterventionist” style of directing, she gave an appealing, intuitive performance opposite James Stewart (though many Hitchcock critics, notably François Truffaut, gave scant regard to her contribution).
Towards the end of the 1950s her choice of films was increasingly dictated by Melcher; his growing influence led to her appearing in movies like his own production, Julia (1956), a low point even by his own lamentable standards. Her difficulties in finding films which would be both artistically and financially rewarding were compounded by the growing realisation that she lost a good percentage of her regular public by choosing not to play “to type”.
She had returned to Warner Brothers in 1957 to play Katie “Babe” Williams of the Sleep-Tite Pyjama Factory in The Pyjama Game, probably her finest musical role. Despite songs like Hernando’s Hideaway and I’m Not at All in Love, the production was not a success at the box office.
It Happened to Jane (1959), in which she played a widow running a mail-order lobster business who enlists the help of Jack Lemmon to sue the railway company for the death of a lobster shipment, was one of her most pleasing films but did poor business, while money-spinners like her next film, Pillow Talk, with Rock Hudson, or A Touch of Mink (1962), which also starred Cary Grant, failed to extend the public’s perception of her range as an actress.
The resulting temptation to play safe – tirelessly fostered by Melcher – coloured her last seven films, of which all, with the arguable exception of The Glass-Bottomed Boat (1966), were dreadful. Caprice, another Melcher production, from 1967, was so abysmal as to have established a certain grim cachet with cult film enthusiasts.
When Melcher died in 1968, Doris Day learnt that he had left her debts totalling half a million dollars and a signed contract for an ill-scripted television series. The strain imposed by her financial worries was hardly eased by her discovery, in 1969, of the possibility that the intended victim of Charles Manson’s followers had been not Sharon Tate, but Terry Melcher, Doris Day’s only child (by her first husband, adopted by her third), who had moved out of the property at 10050 Cielo Drive eight months before the Sharon Tate murders.
The young Melcher had rejected the cult leader’s audition for a record contract.
With new scripts and production staff, Doris Day eventually managed to gain some success with the television shows, and went on to host several lavish TV specials, notably in 1971 (with Rock Hudson) and 1975 (with John Denver). In the late 1970s she devoted her energies increasingly to the Actors and Others for Animals organisation, and founded the San Fernando Valley Kennel, which housed more than 300 dogs.
She founded such enterprises with $22m of compensation awarded against Melcher’s business associate, and occasional television work.
By 1980 her fourth husband, Barry Comden (divorced in 1981) had been moved out of the house because, as he told a newspaper, Doris needed the space for “extra dogs”.
It was ironic that Doris Day’s supremacy in the art of the musical should have coincided with a marked decline in the genre as popular entertainment. Though she was, with the odd exception, never a critic’s performer, she enjoyed immense popularity with her fellow actors as well as with her public. Bob Hope said she was the greatest natural talent he ever worked with; James Stewart and Jack Lemmon both praised her untaught grasp of “method” acting. John Updike, in an extraordinary chapter in his book of essays, Hugging the Shore (sandwiched between pieces on Proust and Karl Barth), described her as “a sheer symbol of a kind of beauty, of a kind of fresh and energetic influence, wrapped in an alliterating aura”.
Doris Day, interestingly, loathed her “alliterating aura”; she considered her stage name – invented by Barney Rapp who heard her singing Day After Day – to be “phoney”, and preferred to be known under the noms de guerre of “Eunice”, “Clara Bixby” and “Suzy Creamcheese”.
In 1989 Doris Day was awarded the Golden Globe’s Cecil B DeMille Award for lifetime achievement. In 2004 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom but declined to attend the ceremony because of her fear of flying. For the same reason she was honoured in absentia with a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement in Music in 2008.In 2011 she announced that she was releasing her first album in nearly two decades. My Heart was a compilation of previously unreleased recordings produced by Terry Melcher before his death in 2004. Tracks included jazz standards such as My Buddy, which Doris Day originally sang in I’ll See You in My Dreams and which she dedicated to her son. She became the oldest artist to enter the UK Top Ten with an album featuring new material.• Doris Day, born April 3 1922, died May 13 2019.– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)