Sunday, May 19, 2019

Bidding Adieu to a Wonderful Day

        Possessing a truly phenomenal career in music, film and television, Doris Day, who passed away May 13th, remained beloved by fans worldwide for over forty years after leaving the entertainment business in the mid-1970’s with a move to Carmel and an admirable dedication thereafter to animal welfare. Following some eventful early years which included a car accident that put an end to a planned dancing career and a recovery process wherein a wonderful singing voice was discovered, the perennially buoyant former Doris Mary Kapplehoff (the song “Day By Day” from her early career as a band singer was responsible for the moniker switch) first achieved fame with Les Brown’s band in 1945 via the memorable “Sentimental Journey,” then went from success to success thereafter, from her movie debut in 1948’s Romance on the High Seas, wherein she gained another signature tune with “It’s Magic,” throughout a 1950’s heyday as one the most popular singers and film stars before gaining (for better or worse) even greater fame in the early-to-mid 1960’s in a string of sex-comedies wherein hunks such as Cary Grant, Rod Taylor and (iconically) Rock Hudson attempted to break through Doris’ prim, steely reserve (James Garner also figures prominently among her leading men during this period, but he plays her spouse in both their outings, and therefore the chase was essentially over).

Although Molly Haskell has argued Doris was ahead of her time in playing a modern, independent career woman in offerings such as 1959’s career-altering Pillow Talk and the follow-up Lover Come Back, it’s clear even if the term “virgin” isn’t specifically mentioned, these movies center around the “will-she-or-won’t she” question, which reaches its apex in 1962’s Grant-costarred That Touch of Mink, wherein Day’s character’s virginity is clearly made the somewhat tiresome focal point. Doris is a skilled comedienne, with good mugging and double take reflexes and a keen, wry way with a line (one of my treasured viewing experiences occurs during the opening scene of 1960’s Please Don’t Eat the Daisies wherein, after one of her kids mentions all the family dog does is sleep, Day states “Well, he’s a dog,” then, with perfectly underplayed sarcasm, tosses off, “Whaddaya want from him, blank verse?”) but she sometimes resorts to a simpering, coy delivery style in these box-office blockbusters; the more straightforward comedy playing found in Daisies, Teacher’s Pet, The Thrill of it All (wherein Doris has a great scene screwing up a live television commercial for “Happy Soap”; it’s not an easy acting feat to make flubbing look this spontaneous and natural while still convincing audiences her on-screen housewife would nevertheless prove to be a perfect sponsor for the product, but Day absolutely nails it, as she does her uncontrollable and hilarious crying jag in Pillow Talk, which probably helped Day score her sole Oscar nod) and in her intelligent, spot-on work as Jane Osgood, a young widow trying to save her Maine-based lobster business as she takes on corporate bureaucracy in the under-appreciated, lovely It Happened to Jane (with Day appealingly paired with Jack Lemmon), show the star at her unforced, charming best.

Day also scored in a change-of-pace role as a tough, ambitious Ruth Etting in 1955’s Love Me or Leave Me (granting Day with one of the 1950’s biggest albums, as the soundtrack logged 17 weeks at #1 on the Billboard album chart) and as the distressed wife in 1956’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, which gave Day the song forever identified with her, “Que Sera, Sera”; although Day’s optimism was a perfect fit for the song’s practical message, she initially didn’t think much of the tune and was taken by surprise when it became a smash in both the U.S. and U.K. The dark, fascinating Storm Warning provided one of the star’s few excursions into grimmer film subject manner, but many fans feel (with good reason) Day reached her zenith onscreen in 1953’s more characteristically sunny Calamity Jane. Although most of the star’s Warner Brothers musicals are cheerful but underwhelming and mainly illustrate what an admirable pro Day was in any circumstance (check out what she pulls off in the otherwise woeful Lucky Me), here her home studio (but not for much longer) came though. Playing the tough, often overbearing title character, Day was gifted with an inventive storyline, terrific costar in Howard Keel and a wonderful original score, which offered several showcases for Day, from memorably riding into town at the film’s outset singing and dancing to “The Deadwood Stage,” impressively shuffling and belting her way through “Just Blew in From the Windy City” and her gentle, touching deliveries of “The Black Hills of Dakota” and the film’s signature Oscar-winning tune, “Secret Love,” which became her biggest solo hit, reaching #1 on the Billboard pop charts in early 1954 (“Que Sera” and “It’s Magic” both just missed with #2 peaks, although “Que Sera” went to #1 in England). Day’s energy and good spirits drive the movie, and her avid commitment to the role took so much out of Day she later stated a nervous breakdown after filming was completed was the result.

Unfortunately Day seldom had a Calamity come her way to demonstrate her awesome musical comedy talents. As Day gained her place as filmdom’s top comedienne and #1 box-office attraction after Pillow Talk (and eventually lost much of her stature in the process as the quality of these light excursions dwindled- her one attempt at a musical during this time, 1962's Jumbo, unfortunately did not find an audience, through no fault of Day's, as she is splendid), two roles that got away could have aided Day’s reputation immeasurably; although Day turned down Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate due to the adult subject manner (which is unfortunate considering she could have carried it off with aplomb), the fact she’s wasn’t given the lead in 1958’s South Pacific makes a Day and/or film musical fan either weep or want to go back in time and kill South director Josh Logan, especially following Day’s A-1, seemingly effortless work in the previous year’s film adaptation of The Pajama Game, which features a wonderful moment wherein Day movingly sings “Hey There” live onscreen to fully capture the character’s emotions, as opposed to doing the standard pre-recording method for a number- in general throughout Pajama, Day brings a freshness to the material that helps alleviate some of the prepared, overtly stage-bound work found elsewhere in the film. Regarding South, I’m convinced Logan must have existed in another dimension at the time, as anyone in this universe could clearly assess a perfect match of role and performer with Day as Nellie Forbush (according to his autobiography, Logan refused to consider Day after she didn’t sing at a party- yes, he was a complete fool in this case), and listening to Day’s superb 1960 recording of “A Wonderful Guy,” we’re left to rue what should have been her biggest screen triumph. As it turned out, the 1960’s comedies mostly grew ever-lamer, resulting in Doris’ bowing out of films with 1968’s With Six You Get Eggroll, which actually provided Day with a final box-office success. Immediately thereafter, Day was forced into a five-year run on television with The Doris Day Show, as her shiftless third husband died after signing Doris up for the gig without her knowledge while also going through 23 million dollars of her money. After a rough start, Day worked hard and made revisions to turn the show around, with its eventual success helping her gain back some financial solvency.  


Personally Day has heavily factored in my entertainment enjoyment, particularly as I favor films and music from her prime performing years, wherein she created a wealth of riches via movies and memorable recordings. Day's movies and her consistent effervescence in them led me to cull clips for a tribute video 10 years ago, which can be viewed here. Pillow Talk (along with other Day comedies which gained lesser but significant viewings) was a go-to movie to put in the VHS (and later, DVD) player when I was in the mood for a mindless diversion and, although I can’t think of a time Day didn’t sound pitch-perfect and terrific, her singing of “With a Song in My Heart” in 1950’s Young Man With a Horn is one of the most beautiful vocals I’ve witnessed in a movie. Off-screen Day’s vocals have resonated just as strongly, and over the years I’ve listened to her as much as any other popular singer. My first CD purchase was her “Hooray For Hollywood,” which features sublime renditions of “Cheek to Cheek” and “The Way You Look Tonight,” and other Day recordings (her killer take on “April in Paris” is nirvana) support the notion Day simply possessed one of the greatest instruments ever, as she seldom failed to provide definitive, note-perfect versions of a multitude of songs, including her own long string of hits and such standards such as “It Had to Be You,”  “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” and “When I Fall in Love”; the 2008 Hall of Fame Grammy Day received was as well-earned as a lifetime achievement award can be. Rest in peace, beautiful songbird.