Doris Day Appreciation: Sweetness and Light Met Grit and Tenacity, Both on Screen and Off

She was the sunniest of singers and actresses, but that sparkle came from a place of strength

Last Updated: May 13, 2019 @ 12:49 PM

When teenager Doris Mary Ann Kappelhoff sang along to Ella Fitzgerald on the radio, the Cincinnati native could never have predicted that, as Doris Day, she would go on to become one of the 20th century’s most beloved performers, first as a vocalist, then as an actress and then finally as an outspoken champion for the rights of animals.

But it was those radio sing-alongs that inspired Alma Welz Kappelhoff to send her daughter to a vocal coach, and by the time Doris was 17, she was singing for bandleader Barney Rapp, who convinced her to change her name to a more marquee-friendly length.

Day would go on to sing for the likes of Jimmy James and Bob Crosby, but it was her collaboration with Les Brown and His Band of Renown in the late 1940s that would rocket her to national stardom with hits like “Sentimental Journey” and “‘Till the End of Time.”

In 1948, she made her screen debut with “Romance on the High Seas,” and by the early 1950s she was a fixture at Warner Bros., making tune-filled nostalgia pieces like “On Moonlight Bay” and “By the Light of the Silvery Moon.” 1953 brought her to what she recently called her favorite of all her films, the musical “Calamity Jane” — her performance of the song “Secret Love” was both one of her career highlights as a vocalist and the subject of subtextual scrutiny in the documentary “The Celluloid Closet” — while 1955’s “Love Me or Leave Me,” in which she played singer Ruth Etting opposite James Cagney as gangster Marty Snyder, featured what many consider to be Day’s most intense and affecting acting work. (The film’s soundtrack, featuring Day singing Etting’s most famous numbers, became a chart-topper.)

Day made one more film that allowed her to display both her singing prowess and her dramatic chops: Alfred Hitchcock’s remake of “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1956). Her anguish over the kidnapping of her son feels genuine, and her performance of “Que Sera, Sera” not only dazzled audiences (the song won an Oscar) but it also becomes a key part of the plot. After playing the victim in lesser thrillers like “Julie” and “Midnight Lace” (which Day helped turn into hits all the same), she leaned into comedy, and in so doing became one of the biggest box-office attractions of the decade to come.

In 1959’s “Pillow Talk,” Day scored her sole Oscar nomination as a woman who, in pure farcical fashion, falls in love with a man without realizing that he’s the guy she despises on her shared telephone party-line. (It’s sort of a reverse “Shop Around the Corner.”) The cad in question was played by Rock Hudson, and the two became an iconic film pairing, even though they co-starred only three times. The other films were the underrated “Lover Come Back” and the goofy “Send Me No Flowers,” all of which co-starred Tony Randall.

Her best acting work displays both sides of Day’s onscreen personality: She could be sunny and upbeat, but if push ever came to shove (literally, in the case of “Love Me or Leave Me”), she had a backbone of iron propping up that sweetness and light. (Because no woman who came up through big bands and 1950s Hollywood could survive without one.) Her vengeance upon swinging bachelor Hudson in “Pillow Talk” is a sight to behold, even if it counts as the movies’ only example of revenge via interior design.

Despite her massive popularity, her onscreen image became frozen as a repressed goody-two-shoes type. Oscar Levant once famously noted, “I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin,” and the musical “Grease” would eventually devote an entire verse of “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee” to her. As the late 1960s approached, those virginal characters made her something of an outsider as the world in general, and Hollywood in particular, was moving in a new direction.

Movies like “The Glass Bottom Boat” and “Caprice” tried to position her in a more mod mode, with fluffy, 007-lite espionage plots, but they don’t stack up to her finest comedies. She vehemently turned down Mike Nichols’ offer to play Mrs. Robinson in “The Graduate” (in her memoir, she noted that she found the script “vulgar and offensive”), and by 1968 she retired from the big screen after her final film, “With Six You Get Eggroll.”

What came next was television, although not under her own volition; when her manager-husband Martin Melcher died suddenly in 1968, she discovered that not only had he and his business partner squandered most of her money but he had also contracted her to do a TV series, which would become “The Doris Day Show.” In its five-year run (she kept at it because by that point, she needed the money), the program changed formats and casts on multiple occasions, with the show shifting from a ranch setting to San Francisco as part of the CBS network’s overhauling of its rural shows to more urban-centered programming. After the series wrapped in 1973, Day hosted a pair of TV specials, then did one season of the animal-centric “Doris Day’s Best Friends” for CBN in 1985, and that was the end of her TV career.

By 1978, she had founded what is now known as the Doris Day Animal Foundation (and in 1987, the Doris Day Animal League) to promote animal-rights causes, and it was this work that dominated her later years. Happily ensconced in Carmel, California, Day turned down most invitations, whether they were for work (Albert Brooks wanted her to star in “Mother,” Clint Eastwood reached out with an acting offer in 2015) or acclaim (she passed on an AFI offer for a lifetime achievement award over the organization’s insistence she come down to Los Angeles to claim it, which is perhaps the reason why she never received similar plaudits from the Academy).

She did give some interviews in 2011 for the release of the CD “My Heart,” which features previously unreleased tracks that had been produced by her son, Terry Melcher, and in 2012, she accepted (via Skype) the Los Angeles Film Critics Association’s Career Achievement award.

At the age of 97, Day was one of the last of Hollywood’s Golden Age stars (and certainly one of the last of the big-band singers) still among us. As a vocalist, an actor and an activist, she has one of the truly rare show-business legacies: Virtually no one speaks ill of her. She may not have been the uncomplicated, virtuous paragon she so often played on screen, but she was immensely talented, she leaves behind some truly unforgettable film appearance  and she saved the lives of lots of animals. She was an icon who set out to do good — and she did.

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