Sunday, August 5, 2012

Doris Day: A Great Cincinnati Native in Relation to Some Other ‘50s Icons

     This is the 50th anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s death.  Audrey Young, Billy Wilder’s wife, always thought that she accidentally overdosed on pills because many stars were taking such medications at that time.  I think she was right.  All of the conspiracy theories are artfully reasoned ‘docudrama.’  Monroe was an extraordinary screen presence – her skin really does shimmer when she’s onscreen and even in a third rate James M. Cain knockoff like Niagara, she’s the only element worth watching.  So, let’s take a moment to remember MM, but now I’d like to focus on the biggest star of that era, who also replaced MM in the film that eventually became Move Over, Darling.  

     Doris Day’s With a Smile and a Song is a recently released two-disc compilation that she selected, produced by TCM, and released by Sony.  As she states in the notes, “I am so thrilled
to have the opportunity to work with Sony Music on this collection of my recordings.  I sang hundreds of songs but because I was so busy singing, I rarely had the time to be involved in the compilation of the albums.  So in this collection are some of my favorites, ones that I loved singing, and I hope you like them too.”   What she modestly doesn’t point out is that she was also the biggest female movie star of the ‘50s and most of the ‘60s and was also a producer, housewife and mother.  

     This collection shows her strengths as a singer.  She had a warm, extraordinarily supple instrument that critic Will Friedwald described as “bottled sunshine.”  Actually, her voice expresses complex shadings on “Fools Rush In” and “In Love in Vain” recorded with the André Previn Trio in the early ‘60s.  In the 1998 musical Dinah Was, a biography of Dinah Washington that deserves a wider audience, Washington expressed her frustration with being overlooked in favor of Day because of the segregated Pop and R & B charts.  She even sings in a blonde wig, lampooning Day’s image, though it backfires on her.  Both women could practically sing anything and they 
Dinah Washington Dons Blonde Wig
both recorded gorgeous versions of “Our Love Is Here to Stay.”  The difference between their voices is that while Washington’s was raw silk, Day’s was satin.  Day is strongest when she sings solo; the studios’ choirs always glop things up by sounding simultaneously giddy and soused, rather than heavenly.  Day acknowledged a debt to Ella Fitzgerald’s ‘30s recordings that she listened to on the radio after recovering from the auto accident at fifteen that ended her dancing career, but inadvertently ushered in her singing one.  

     There were other ‘girl singers’ as Day would have described herself, but they didn’t achieve the same overwhelming success she did.  In ‘30s and ‘40s Big Band Jazz, the girl singer was just another instrument that would solo.  She was not a star singer or diva as ‘50s cabaret singers such as Nina Simone, Julie London and, later, Barbra Streisand were and she was not a rock or pop lead singer in the manner of ‘60s and ‘70s vocalists Janis Joplin, Grace Slick, or Chrissie Hynde.  Day grew up in the Evanston 
Rosemary Clooney and Bing Crosby
neighborhood of Cincinnati, while another Big Band blonde singer – Rosemary Clooney – grew up in Maysville, KY and both of them débuted on Cincinnati’s powerful WLW radio station.  Clooney had a number of novelty pop hits in the ‘50s and made a few movies, most notably White Christmas.  She was a good actress – she convincingly seemed like she could fall in love with Bing Crosby who was twenty-five years her senior – but she had a large family, a difficult husband, and emotional issues that derailed her career.  She came back in the ‘70s because of Crosby’s support and never stopped recording the great American Songbook classics she’d loved and earned the respect she’d deserved all along.  Jo Stafford and Patty Page weren’t in the same league.  They were good singers with material that seems quaint or even goofy nowadays.

Doris Day Moves Into Movies
     “Sentimental Journey” released with Les Brown’s band as World War II was ending made Day a singing star.  Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn pushed her into movies, namely Romance on the High Seas (1947) where she sang “It’s Magic” and never looked back.  It’s a great performance because it’s timeless.  The first time I heard it was as background for a stage show I was working on in 1979 and I thought the singer was Melissa Manchester or Carly Simon because the voice sounded that contemporary.  Our current Miss Sunshine, Katy Perry, should consider recording it some time.

Hear Doris Day sing "It's Magic":

     Once Warner Brothers signed her, Day starred in two to five films a year through 1954, most of them musicals.  Young Man with A Horn is excellent, though Lauren Bacall has the more intriguing part, and Calamity Jane holds up because of Day’s boisterous good will.  She left Warner’s for more dramatic roles, but the movies didn’t catch fire except for Love Me or Leave Me.  Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much is only 
memorable because she sings “Que Sera, Sera” and that’s a shame because he was in the middle of a great run of movies.  Instead, she landed on top with the romantic and domestic comedies she made with Rock Hudson (Pillow Talk, Lover Come Back, Send Me No Flowers), David Niven (Please Don’t Eat the Daisies), Cary Grant (That Touch of Mink), and James Garner (The Thrill of it All, Move Over, Darling).  

     Although these box-office successes (primarily those with Hudson) seemed to imply that she was a ‘professional virgin,’ a disparagement from the late ‘60s, she’s neither innocent nor dependent.  Her characters always had a career and usually children as Molly Haskell noted in From Reverence to Rape.  Though the plots with Hudson revolved around whether they’d end up in bed, the real conflict was about defining their roles in relation to one another.  She was not about to be anything but an equal.  She’s smart, funny, and delightful in all of them.  Day’s movies ranged from pleasant to good.  She didn’t waste her time and talent on them the way that Elvis Presley did when he started a decade later.  The lure of Hollywood movies then and even more so today is that it’s big money and doesn’t require the wrenching schedule required of touring or performing nightly.  Like Presley, though, Day also suffered from being mismanaged professionally (by her third husband who died suddenly) and that led her into TV for a while so that she could pay off a ton of legal bills and stay afloat financially.  

     The problem with Day’s Hollywood oeuvre is that her songs are classic but, unlike her contemporaries, she doesn’t have any legendary movies that are revived continually today because she worked with studio professionals, rather than great directors (except for Hitchcock, though it wasn’t one of his best).  Elizabeth Taylor made A Place in the Sun and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, while Susan Hayward starred in I Want to Live!, Deborah Kerr made From Here to Eternity and The King and I, Grace Kelly made Rear Window and To Catch a Thief, Judy Garland made The Wizard of Oz, Meet Me in St. Louis, and A Star is Born, and Marilyn Monroe starred in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Some Like It Hot.  Monroe and Garland are the antithesis of Day.  Though she has dealt with many hardships throughout her long life, she never made that part of her image and her onscreen confidence was matched by her off-screen professionalism and stability.  However, she also never rose above her material in terms of roles.  Garland’s and Monroe’s movies cannot be easily dismissed or forgotten because it’s practically impossible to take your eyes off them:  they’re both simultaneously revelatory and on the edge of being a train wreck.  Audrey Hepburn had the 

Two Elegant Ladies of the '60s
good fortune and taste to appear in Roman Holiday, Sabrina, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Charade, and Two for the Road.  She made a couple of mediocre movies (Paris When It Sizzles, Green Mansions, and My Fair Lady feels like the stage show was embalmed), but her batting average was extraordinary in terms of movies that have stood the test of time.

    Much has been made of Day turning down Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate.  She has said it was for moral reasons and then later amended that to say that she didn’t realize her husband had turned it down for her.    Mark Harris pointed out in Pictures at a Revolution how strong an influence Truffaut and Godard were on younger American directors of the 1960s.  Unconsciously, I think Mike Nichols was looking for an American equivalent of Jeanne Moreau.  Although Day had the acting chops to play Mrs. Robinson, Nichols needed someone who could be funny, sullen, and profound.  He and Anne Bancroft found that performance.  That would not have happened with Day.  In playing ‘What if?’ casting, the parts I wish Day had played were the leads in Imitation of Life and The Birds.  In both cases, strong movies would have benefited from blonde puppets being replaced by a warm, empathetic star.
Doris Spends Time With Her Special Friends
     Doris Day is emblematic of an era when American can-do optimism had won World War II and was determined to win the Cold War through accentuating the positive, to misquote a popular song of that time.  She knew tastes had changed and that she was no longer au courant with Vietnam and then the somber seventies.  She was an ebullient personality whose art was her singing, which will last.  She displayed the pragmatic wisdom to step away from the spotlight and the guts to remain out of the public eye.  That is an admirable act that requires the fortitude that few other stars (or celebrities – usually famous, but not discernibly talented) have displayed.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the great story highlighting Cincinnati native Doris Day and her incredible career. I have been a fan since age 10 and eventually made the move to Los Angeles where I befriended Doris Day in the late '60s and ended up working for and living with her while she was filming her hit TV show at CBS. You can read all about this "dream come true" in my book "DAY AT A TIME - An Indiana Girl's Sentimental Journey to Doris Day's Hollywood and Beyond" from Hawthorne Publishing. Just go to:

You can also hear Doris sing several times an hour on Baltimore Net Radio - go to:

Thanks again for sharing your wonderful story on Doris Day!

Mary Anne Barothy