Remembering Doris Day

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TEN cents a dance, that’s what they pay me
Gosh how they weigh me down
Ten cents a dance, pansies and rough guys
Tough guys who tear my gown

Seven to midnight I hear drums
loudly the saxophone blows

Trumpets are tearing my ear-drums
customers crush my toes

Sometimes I think, I’ve found my hero
But it’s a queer romance

All that you need is a ticket
Come on big boy, ten cents a dance!

MANY have warbled that old Rodgers and Hart ditty about a “dance hall” girl, spreading her talent around, but I am always drawn back to Doris Day’s version in the  1955 movie, “Love Me or Leave Me.”This is a dramatic re-telling about the life of singer Ruth Etting. (James Cagney plays her volatile, abusive manager/hubby/gangster Martin “Moe” Snyder.)

Of course Day sings it wonderfully, despite the fact that you know DD herself never ever had to fend off “butchers and barbers and rats from the harbor.” (Although as a girl singer with big boy bands early on, she surely had her harassments.  And she did suffer physical abuse at the hands of her first husband — and financial mistreatment from at least one of the others.)

But her rendition is as rough and tough as Day can make it, and when she gets to “come on, big boy,” she puts her hands on her hips, and swaggers that shapely but athletically well-toned body like — yeah, maybe she did  know a few rats from the harbor!

Doris Day as Ruth Etting spatting with Martin “Moe” Snyder, played by James Cagney.

WHEN the news came Monday that Doris Day had died, I felt sad, of course.  But not too sad.  She’d lived a long life, loved her work, retired from that work willingly, found a cause that occupied her fully (her passion for animal care) and when she passed Doris was  surrounded by those she loved. Mostly, I was pissed off.  

I’d made it a running joke here for years: Doris Day has never won an Oscar!  I didn’t really expect my genuine outrage over that shunning to get results.  On the other hand, it had begun back when Liz Smith was still here and Liz’s name still meant something.  I’d harbored hopes.  Those hopes are dashed now.  

Miss Day will be noted among the stars who have passed at next year’s Academy Awards ceremony.  All the “woke” hypocrites will applaud politely as Day’s face appears briefly on the screen.  Few will truly understand who and what she was, as an actress, singer and a role model. And so, here today I’d like to explain, from my point of view who and what Miss Day was, onscreen anyway.

“THERE was never any intention on my part either in my acting or in my private life to create such a thing as an ‘image.’”

That was Doris Day, shortly before she retired from movie-making, musing on what the hell had happened?  How she had been cast, in the public consciousness, as an uptight “eternal virgin,” despite a career and personal life quite at odds with that absurd moniker.

Day’s career — the “image” — has been one of the most grievously misinterpreted in Hollywood history.  Perhaps only Mary Pickford was so similarly skewered by future generations that fell for the myth that Pickford “only played children.”  Miss Day, at her peak, was, if not the polar opposite of what she came to represent, then a role model with more independent grit and feminist virtues than she is given credit.

There were two great blondes in 1950’s Hollywood — Marilyn Monroe, who exploded to prominence in 1952, and Doris Day, who had already been a hot band singer, a recording star and a movie star since 1948. (Her first film was “Romance on the High Seas.”)

Why do I tell me myself these things that happen are all really true
When in my heart I know the magic is my love for you?

Monroe was exploited as a sex symbol.  But as it turned out, she was a comedienne performing a dazzling parody of glamour — oozy and luscious and over-the-top; a sweet cartoon with a disturbingly un-girdled body and a vague air of despair.  She played showgirls and gold-diggers.  Deeply neurotic and often unprofessional, Monroe was generally disrespected by the industry.

Miss Day was something else altogether.  She had honed her magnificent voice with Les Brown and his Band of Renown.  Her hit records led to a movie contract with Warner Bros. where she quickly became a very big star.  She played show biz hopefuls, nostalgic heroines, the patient wives of impatient men — “Tea for Two”, “By the Light of the Silvery Moon”, “Lullaby of Broadway”, “On Moonlight Bay.”

Doris Day, Leon Ames, Rosemary DeCamp, and Mary Wickes in By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1953)

Day inherited the spunky mantle of another musical blonde, Betty Grable. (Film fans still battle over who was the greater box office draw.  Day has the edge, but not by much.)   Like Grable, Day was independent and nobody’s fool.  She was never dumb, rarely even naïve.  Her characters almost always worked for a living and were never indolent, bored or aimless.  What Day had that Grable didn’t was a little edge, simmering below the sunshine.

“The best ass in show business,” according to Clark Gable.

Nothing about Miss Grable suggested inner turmoil, but Doris Day did. It wasn’t a falling-all-over-the-place messiness, it was just that little catch in her throat when confronted or (as in the silly plots of some of her films) tricked. It’s a hurt-but-don’t-push-me-around quality.  By the time she became a movie star she’d been twice married and divorced.  She knew from hurt, but it hadn’t stopped her. (Day would marry twice more, to Marty Melcher, who would manage and then mismanage her fortune and finally, to a man named Barry Comden, who perhaps came along too late.)

She was sexy.  Day had a terrific, athletic body, with “the best ass in show business” as connoisseur Clark Gable noted.  She had a figure that both men and women could admire — not too much of anything and admirably toned.

And then there was that voice.  When she spoke, there was urgency in her lighthearted enthusiasm and more when she was required to go dramatic.  Her singing voice was unquestionably sensual.  It was surely this elastic, mellow instrument that caused Korea’s GI’s in 1950 to vote her their favorite star. When, at the climax of “Romance on the High Seas” she launches into “It’s Magic,” abandoning herself to the lyric “You speak and I hear violins…” she raises goosebumps.  

Freckles and sunshine be damned, when Doris Day sang, she was the girl next door you wanted to sleep with — a lot!  Warbling “Secret Love” as tomboyish Calamity Jane, she was the girl next door many girls wanted to sleep with. (“Secret Love” became a theme song for gays in the unenlightened 1950’s.)  Her recording career would produce 28 best-selling albums for Columbia Records. And yet, like her film career, she is rarely noted among the most adored singers of her era — she was as potent and powerful and unique a sound as Ella, Judy, Peggy Lee, Billie Holiday, etc.  But again, I feel her image got in the way.

As her star rose, she was allowed heavier material, most famously, “Love Me or Leave Me,” the biopic loosely based on the life of singer Ruth Etting. Despite the confines of an era that didn’t allow anything too gritty, Day expertly conveys Etting’s ambition and her ambivalence in regard to a relationship with Moe “The Gimp” Snyder (James Cagney.) Her best moment comes after Cagney has essentially raped her into a marriage.  They are backstage in her dressing room.  Cagney is boasting about a great deal he has made for her.  Day, her long legs propped up on her dressing table, is unimpressed.  “Would it be too much to show a little enthusiasm?”  Cagney asks.  Without looking up, Day mutters, “What do you want? A thank you note?”  It is presumptuous to assume, but we must — is this a scene she played in her own life, and why she gave it her all?

Day was frantic but strong in Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”  She is even more frantic — and stronger — in “Julie” where she is tormented by a crazed Louis Jourdan and — as an airline attendant — must land a pilotless plane. Doris Day was the first of many airborne women-in-jeopardy to take control, 30,000 feet above the ground.

Doris Day as wife in peril in “Julie.”

She enjoyed her greatest musical role in the screen version of the Broadway hit, “The Pajama Game” as a factory worker/union rabble-rouser.

In the same year, 1957, Day co-starred with Clark Gable in “Teacher’s Pet.”  The daughter of a famous newspaper editor, she teaches journalism.  He is a cynical reporter.  They meet, they clash, he tricks her (the usual rom-com ploy), they reconcile.  But in many ways “Teacher’s Pet” is Day’s most well-rounded portrait of the kind of woman she had come to represent onscreen. It is not even a terribly glamorous representation, filmed in realistic back-and-white.  She clearly find Gable attractive.  There’s no sense that she would not sleep with him, or that she has not known other men, but … she operates on her own terms.

Doris Day and Clark Gable in Teacher’s Pet (1958).

Day rises above all the clichés of the genre — she is so appealing, intelligent, good-looking.  And when Day gently mocks her “rival” in the film, Marilyn Monroe wanna-be Mamie Van Doren, she performs a master class lesson of less is so much more! 

With Miss Day offering her personal best in “Teacher’s Pet,” it is with some wariness we approach “Pillow Talk” for Universal, where she would reign for a while.  The movie, a huge hit, placed her in an even more valuable position. Paired for the first time with Rock Hudson, Day plays a crisp, successful, single interior decorator.  She is forced to share a telephone line with lothario Hudson.  She is offended by him.  He is intrigued by her. The usual deceptions and revelations ensue.

Sharing a party line with Rock Hudson in “Pillow Talk.”

Day is very good, as is Hudson. But, sun-worshipper Day was now well into her thirties and required the help of softening filters.  Her character’s repulsion at Hudson’s womanizing seems at odds with her own vibe, which is hardly frigid.  And yet she is required to be alternately starchy or coy.  As an independent single woman, are we expected to believe she has never encountered a crude man or that she has never been with a man?  The script does not enlighten, but somehow, suddenly Doris Day’s screen image changed from strong woman to punchline. “I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin” remarked Oscar Levant. (Interestingly, Marilyn Monroe wanted “Pillow Talk” but no producer or director envisioned her as a successful career woman.)

For the next five years, Doris Day would be worth more than ever at the box-office, with films such as “Please Don’t Eat the Daises,” “Midnight Lace,” “Lover Come Back,” “That Touch of Mink,” and “Do Not Disturb.”  In most of these films, Day was a married woman or a widow — clearly she was no virgin!  (In “Midnight Lace” she is terrorized by hubby Rex Harrison.  But Day is not at her best when falling apart, being a victim — even dressed to the chattering teeth by Irene.) 

Playing the victim in “Midnight Lace.”

Despite the success of her films, the convention of the “sex-comedy” wasn’t giving the actress much to do, although she performed with vigor.  Times were changing—film critics were more critical, and eventually Day’s audience stayed home to watch TV. Newer filmgoers had no use for Day, who seemed to be trying too hard in some of her final movies — Mod wardrobes and spy plots and even more careful photography when the camera came close.

Faced with increasingly inferior scripts (“The Ballad of Josie,” “Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?”),  Doris Day would end her great movie career in 1968, starring in “With Six You Get Egg Roll” (widow and widower fall in love and have problems with their children.)  She had turned down director Mike Nichols’ (perhaps semi-serious) offer to appear as Mrs. Robinson in “The Graduate.”  A good thing, too.  The Doris Day of 1957 would have nailed it.  The Doris Day of ’68 would have been a stunt, obliterating the rest the of Nichols’ groundbreaking movie.

As Abby McClure in her last film, “With Six You Get Egg Roll.”

With her son, Terry Melcher.

There would be a popular five-season TV show that she really didn’t want to do (a legacy of  late husband Marty Melcher’s mishandling of her affairs),  some specials, an increase in her lifelong devotion to animals, the death of her only child, music producer Terry Melcher.  As she seemed to recede from public life, there was increasing interest in that life and her career.  David Kaufman produced a massive biography and Tom Santopietro delivered an intense, detailed and brilliantly thought-out book on her career and the eventual damaging strangeness of her image after “Pillow Talk.” (Tom’s “Considering Doris Day” is the go-to treatise on Miss Day’s career.)

There was still music, too, including what would be her final album titled “My Heart.  It was a compilation of  treasures from the vault when her voice was pristine, liquid velvet. Others had been recorded more recently. On the later songs, such as “You Are So Beautiful,” “Disney Girls,” “Daydream,” “Hurry, It’s Lovely Up Here” and “Heaven Tonight,” there is an exquisite maturity to her voice, a deeper tone and even more care taken to express the meaning of the lyrics. Her diction is, as ever, perfection.

Doris also spoke in a moving dedication to her son, Terry Melcher, introducing his own singing on “Happy Endings.”

DD,  life-long animal lover and advocate.

Day at the Oscars when she was nominated for “Pillow Talk” in 1959.

DORIS DAY received only one Oscar nomination, for “Pillow Talk,” a performance that no matter how entertaining or popular does not even come close to her work in “Love Me or Leave Me,” “Calamity Jane,” “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” “The Pajama Game” or “Teacher’s Pet.”  Hell, it’s not even as effective as “Young at Heart” or her first dramatic role in “Young Man with a Horn” (Faithful and true to Kirk Douglas, who is fascinated with the sexually fluid Lauren Bacall.)  

I know that Doris Day herself did not crave honors or pointless adulation.  She was a super professional who loved her work and the joy she got out of her work.  That and the knowledge that she’d given so much pleasure to others was enough for her.  I’m sure if she ever knew of our Doris Day has never won an Oscar! campaign she was probably amused but with some realistic eye-rolling. She was beyond such superficiality, if indeed she’d ever cared at all.

But I cared.  And I think all who love movies and music and professionalism should care as well.  Doris Day deserved the respect of an industry for which she made millions. And whether or not she wanted to show up onstage to accept it — and she did not — she was entitled to a thank-you note, in the shape of a little golden guy.  Shame on you, Hollywood.

But Hollywood, you are not worth my anger and disappointment. So, banish that and hooray for Doris Day!  

RIP you lovely, talented human being.  You will live forever on film, CD and vinyl, in our memories and in our hearts.  You have traveled to a place where Oscars don’t matter, but goodness does.  

Que Sera, sera.

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