Doris Day: Iconic, Irrepressible, Misunderstood

Doris Day in Pillow Talk (1959)

In remembrance after remembrance of Doris Day, who passed away on Monday at the age of ninety-seven, writers have been seeking to dispel the notion that there was anything about her, either as a performer or as a person, as simple or straightforward as her sunshiny persona. In the 1950s and early ’60s, at the peak of the American century, as the country was parading out onto the world stage fresh icons with a tinge of threat about them, a hint of rebellion, and a whole lot of sex appeal—James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley—Doris Day reigned at the box office and on the Billboard charts. More than half a century after she walked away from the movies, she appears to many as the apotheosis of all that was wholesome and pure.

As Carrie Rickey points out at, she was “both revered and reviled for the cornflower-blue eyes and cornsilk blonde hair that reflected her Middle-American roots . . . For Sarah Vaughan, Day was a favorite singer, while for James Baldwin, she was the quintessence of oblivious white America.” In the New York Times, A. O. Scott argues that those who have dismissed or even disdained her have tended to view her as “the prim, prudish, all-American avatar of Eisenhower-era repression, with her hair in a neat chignon and her figure sheathed in a soberly tailored suit. To see her that way is to take at face value an archetype that she did everything in her formidable power to subvert.”

Growing up in Cincinnati, Doris Mary Kappelhoff dreamed of becoming a dancer like her idol Ginger Rogers. When she was fourteen, she won a dance contest that would have taken her to Hollywood, but her right leg was broken in a car accident. As she convalesced, she listened to the radio, and Ella Fitzgerald became a favorite. “I’d sing along with her,” she told biographer A. E. Hotchner, “trying to catch the subtle ways she shaded her voice, the casual yet clean way she sang the words.” Within a couple of years, she was on the radio herself and began touring with band leader Barney Rapp, who deemed “Kappelhoff” too unwieldy for marquees. He liked the way she sang “Day After Day,” so a new stage name was right at hand.

Beginning with “Sentimental Journey” in 1945, Day was scoring hit after hit, and in 1948, she landed her first movie role. She wasn’t looking for it. Warner Bros. was desperate to find a replacement for the lead in Romance on the High Seas after Betty Hutton became pregnant and had to back out. The studio persuaded Day to audition, and director Michael Curtiz was immediately won over by her singing, dancing, and “sparkle.” In his appreciation for the New Yorker, Anthony Lane writes that, when it comes to her big number in the film, “It’s Magic,” it “doesn’t take her long—two words, two syllables, one note—to vent that famous vibrato. ‘You sigh. . . .’ It’s more of a throb than a sob, and it instantly distinguishes Day from Judy Garland, who can stretch her vowels into a quivering so dense with need and regret that it’s often hard to bear. Day is made of tougher stuff, determined not to surrender or to crumple, and reluctant to expose her heart in its entirety. Some of it should always be kept back, and there’s no shame, and plenty of solid sense, in holding out for the bright side.”

Day had insisted to both Warners and Curtiz that she didn’t know the first thing about acting, but she was soon surprised by how easily it came to her. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw finds that Day’s occasional penchant for “goofy tomboyish silliness came off best in the tremendously enjoyable Calamity Jane (1953) in which she was on uproarious form as the whip-crackin’, gun-totin’ cowgirl.” By the mid-1950s, she was looking to broaden her range beyond musical comedies and earned some of her best reviews starring alongside James Cagney in Charles Vidor’s Love Me or Leave Me (1955), a film based on the true story of the fraught relationship between singer Ruth Etting and Chicago gangster Martin Snyder. “Day and Cagney are both so stripped bare here,” wrote Sheila O’Malley for Film Comment last year, “and their scenes together shatter the conventional musical genre and move into truly harrowing territory.” But it was her turn in the 1951 noir thriller Storm Warning that caught the eye of Alfred Hitchcock. In 1956, he cast her in his American remake of his own 1941 British success, The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Day plays Jo, the wife of a doctor (James Stewart) vacationing in Morocco with their son (Christopher Olsen) when the family becomes entangled in an assassin plot and the boy is kidnapped. “Although Hitchcock fans seldom speak of Day in the same breath as the director’s preferred screen heroines such as Grace Kelly or Vera Miles,” writes Peter Tonguette for the BFI, “the Cincinnati native had a quality lacking in those carefully coiffed emblems of perfection: rough-and-tumble common sense.” When she first hears that her son is gone, Jo breaks down, and Tonguette quotes from Jean-Luc Godard’s review of The Man Who Knew Too Much in Cahiers du cinéma: “We can believe in Doris Day’s tears, and no other Hitchcock heroine’s tears seem so unlike face-pulling.” But Jo bucks up and fights back. “She’s practically feral, so distraught over the loss of her son that she reverts to a state of wildness,” writes Time’s Stephanie Zacharek. “This is one of the great women’s performances of the 1950s.”

Day was still one of the top-selling female vocalists in the land, and perhaps it was only natural that she’d gravitate back toward musical comedies. The Pajama Game (1957), codirected by George Abbott and the late Stanley Donen and featuring choreography by Bob Fosse, is a unique entry in that it’s an adaptation of a Broadway musical about the power of organized labor. But the true roaring success of her career, the film with which Day is probably most immediately associated, is Pillow Talk (1959). The eye-popping Eastmancolor rom-com dazzled audiences with the sort of design porn we wouldn’t see again until Mad Men, all sliced into cleverly juxtaposed split-screen compositions spread across a wide CinemaScope frame. Pillow Talk is also, of course, Day’s first pairing with Rock Hudson, and arguably just as crucial to the winning formula, there’s a go-between played by Tony Randall.

The biggest hit of 1959 naturally led to Day, Hudson, and Randall teaming up again in Lover Come Back (1961) and Send Me No Flowers (1964). As A. O. Scott puts it, every line in these movies “sounds like a double-entendre. Every encounter is full of implication and innuendo, every character a collection of mixed signals. These movies are naughty beyond imagining, and as clean as a whistle. . . . Day is the key to it all, because her presence simultaneously upholds the pretense of virtuous normality and utterly transgresses it. She is a walking semiotic riot with a pert nose and a winning smile, keeper and scrambler of a whole book of social norms and cultural codes.”

As the 1960s became The Sixties, Doris Day and the culture at large began to part ways. She was offered the role of Mrs. Robinson in Mike Nichols’s The Graduate (1967) but turned it down, declaring the screenplay to be “vulgar and offensive.” (Anne Bancroft took the role and ran with it, of course, and was nominated for an Oscar.) Day eventually decided to make With Six You Get Eggroll, in which she starred alongside Barbara Hershey and—sign of the times—George Carlin, her last feature-film appearance. Released in the summer of 1968, the film that Roger Ebert called “a pleasant enough comedy, some good moments, some dull ones, more or less routine,” did surprisingly well.

That same year, Day lost her third husband, Martin Melcher, and discovered that he’d not only squandered her fortune, leaving her around half a million dollars in debt, but he’d also, behind her back, committed her to a television sitcom she wanted no part of. But The Doris Day Show had a strong five-year run, allowing her to regain financial stability. A life long animal lover and advocate, she founded what would become the Doris Day Animal Foundation in 1978. By this point, she was living quietly on what Aljean Harmetz, writing in the New York Times, calls “a seven-acre estate with many more dogs than the zoning laws allowed.”

Those peaceful days were shattered when Day lost her only child, Terry Melcher, in 2004. He was sixty-two, a musician, producer, and perhaps the true target of the Manson Family murders in 1969—but that’s another story, and Karina Longworth tells it well in a 2015 episode of her podcast, You Must Remember This. In her later years, Day often claimed in interviews that not a day would go by without her missing Terry. In 2011, at the age of eighty-nine, Day released My Heart, an album of covers produced by Terry—the Beach Boys, Joe Cocker, the Lovin’ Spoonful—and spoke about it in the Telegraph with one of her most ardent admirers, Paul McCartney.

Last month, the Hollywood Reporter ran the last interview Day would give, conducted by Laurie Brookins a day or two before her ninety-seventh birthday. “I get so many love letters from fans as young as eight years old, telling me they were introduced to my films and music by their great-grandmothers, and my movies make them happy,” said Day. “Different films resonate with viewers for different reasons, but the common thread seems to be that my films are uplifting.”

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