Wednesday 22 January 2020

Doris Day: not quite the girl next door

Squeaky clean: Doris Day in the 1959 film Pillow Talk.
Squeaky clean: Doris Day in the 1959 film Pillow Talk.

Tomorrow, Doris Day turns 92. The actress retired from show-business over three decades ago, and has been living as a virtual recluse for longer than that, but still exercises a powerful hold on the public imagination, particularly in America, where her memory is especially revered. Last year, the entertainment media got themselves in a flap when a rumour emerged that Day was about to make a comeback in a film directed by her friend and neighbour, Clint Eastwood.

Everyone got pretty excited for about five minutes, till a spokesman for Day emerged to announce that the story was nonsense.

"She adores her long-time friend Clint Eastwood," we were told, "but Doris's recent and current focus remains on her Doris Day Foundation, which continues to help animals and the people who love them." And just to put that rumour in perspective, her last screen appearance was in 1968, and apart from a few TV shows in the 1970s and 80s, that has been it.

But back in the 1950s, Doris was huge, a talented and charming leading lady who sang like a dream and had a rare talent for comedy. She co-starred with everyone from Cary Grant and James Stewart to Rock Hudson and Frank Sinatra, and became a kind of every-woman heroine to millions of American females.

A rosy-cheeked symbol of Eisenhower-era wholesomeness, she fell radically out of fashion as soon as the 1960s counter-culture emerged. But her typecasting as a squeaky clean girl-next-door was totally at odds with who she really was, and prematurely ended the career of a luminous cinematic talent.

Nobody summed up the contradictions in Doris Day's life better than Oscar Levant. The mercurial pianist, composer, actor and Algonquin wit famously commented that he "knew Doris Day before she was a virgin". What he was referring to was the stark contrast between Day's overbearingly wholesome public image and the messy reality of her private life.

She's been through the ringer over the years, survived abusive relationships and bad marriages (four in total), and battled back from ill health, financial ruin and scandal.

"I've been through everything," she said some years back. "I've always said I was like those round-bottomed circus dolls - you know, those dolls you could push down and they'd come back up? I've always been like that. No matter what happens, if I get pushed down, I'm going to come right back up."

Known to most by a stage name she never liked, she was born Doris Mary Ann Kappelhoff in Evanston, Cincinnati, on April 3, 1924. Of Dutch and German heritage, Doris was greatly affected by the divorce of her parents when she was eight, but sought and found consolation in her first great love - dance.

In fact, she showed great promise in that discipline until a serious car accident in the mid-1930s ended her dreams of becoming a professional. Blonde, pretty and vivacious, Doris seemed to have an inbuilt need to perform, and while recovering from her accident she started learning to sing. Confined to a wheelchair and bored stiff, she spent most of her time listening to the radio. She became entranced with jazz and in particular Ella Fitzgerald: "There was a quality to her voice that fascinated me," she recalled later, "and I'd sing along with her, trying to catch the subtle ways she shaded her voice".

By the age of 17, she was performing locally with band leader Barney Rapp, and it was he who suggested she change her unwieldy surname to the shorter and more manageable Day. Her pure, sweet voice began to get her noticed, and after working with other band-leaders including Les Brown, she recorded a single called Sentimental Journey. Released in early 1945, the song became an anthem for the returning GIs, and Day's curvaceous looks made her a natural pin-up.

In the immediate post-war period, she toured America with Bob Hope and others, and became a popular radio performer. She moved to Los Angeles in 1948, and had an almost immediate stroke of luck: when Betty Hutton withdrew from a film called Romance On The High Seas because she was pregnant, Day was chosen as her replacement.

Her on-screen charisma impressed everybody, and she was cast in a string of nostalgic period musicals. But she only became a bona fide star when she appeared in Calamity Jane in 1953, delivering a tremendous and infectiously exuberant performance as the raucous legend of the American West.

What that film proved was that Doris had a real flair for comedy, and through the 1950s, Day became the number-one choice for female leads in romantic comedies, culminating in three sparkling films with her favourite co-star, Rock Hudson (see below). It was those films as much as anything else that cemented Day's public image as a wholesome and unspoilt mid-western gal to whom a dirty thought had never occurred. But the reality was that by the end of the 1950s, the 36-year-old star was already well into her third marriage.

At 16, Doris had wed a trombone player called Al Jorden, with whom she had her only child, a boy called Terry. But the marriage was not a happy one, and Jorden was allegedly both abusive and violent. The couple separated in 1943 and Jorden later committed suicide. By 1946, Day was married again, this time to a saxophonist, Georg Weidler, but the union proved no more successful and they were divorced within three years. In 1951, her romantic fortunes seemed to have finally changed when she tied the knot with independent-film producer Martin Melcher.

He became her de-facto manager, and produced many of her most successful films. He also adopted her son Terry, and the marriage lasted until his sudden death from a heart attack in 1968. That was when Doris discovered that all was not what it had seemed. Friends like James Garner and Frank Sinatra had long had their suspicions about Melcher, and these proved all too well-founded when Day discovered that her husband of 17 years had secretly squandered her $20 million fortune, and left her deeply in debt.

She subsequently sued his business partner, Jerry Rosenthal, to recover a portion of the estate, but was forced to appear in a prime-time TV light-entertainment series that her husband had agreed to without telling her.

The shock of all this coincided with the decline of her popularity. Up to that point she'd made over 40 films and as many hit albums, but by the late 1960s, flower power and the sexual revolution had began to make Doris Day seem irrelevant. Other stars were able to adapt, but Day was so indelibly associated with the wholesome hausfrau image that there seemed no place for her among the 1960s swingers.

So, she gracefully withdrew. She popped up on television now and then, and made a few more records, at which amused session musicians reported that Day still used a 'swear jar' - Doris does not approve of cursing. But by the late 1970s she'd retreated to the privacy of her Carmel mansion where she cared for hundreds of rescued animals.

As a teenager, Doris had apparently been traumatised when her pet dog was hit and killed by a car while she was walking it, but it was while filming in Marrakesh for Alfred Hitchcock's Man Who Knew Too Much that her fierce commitment to animal welfare was activated.

Day was shocked at the brutal treatment of camels, goats and other animal extras during a scene at a market, and she's devoted herself to the cause of animal rights ever since. She's set up rescue centres, launched a 'national spay day' and poured a lot of her own money into animal welfare initiatives.

She married again, in 1976, but predictably her union with restaurant maître d' Barry Comden did not last. They were divorced in 1981, and thereafter Doris devoted herself to the animal-welfare foundation she'd established. In this, she was helped by her son Terry, a successful record producer, but he sadly died of cancer in 2004 at the age of 62.

Reclusive in the extreme, she remains an object of fascination for the Hollywood tabloids, who feverishly report occasional sightings of her rescuing dogs abandoned on the LA freeways. But to her legion of loyal fans, she will forever remain the buxom but wholesome perfect girl next door.

Doris the actress

Doris Day is often dismissed as a bland and one-dimensional actress, but this is grossly unfair. Early on in her career she showed a darker side in Storm Warning, playing a southern newly-wed who's terrorised by the Ku Klux Klan, and was even more impressive opposite James Cagney in Love Me or Leave Me, a biopic of troubled torch singer Ruth Etting. And in Teacher's Pet, she was stern and poised playing a journalism professor who's wooed by Clark Gable's rakish city editor. But Day was best at comedy, so good in fact that she can be fairly compared to great comic actresses like Katherine Hepburn and Carole Lombard.

In 1959 she was paired with Rock Hudson in Pillow Talk. She'd never done a rom-com before, but stole the picture playing a woman who becomes infuriated by the arrogant composer with whom she shares a phone line. She and Hudson had great chemistry, and appeared together in two more hit comedies, Lover Come Back and Send Me No Flowers. But Day was good enough to hold her own against the master himself, Cary Grant, in That Touch of Mink, and was perfect opposite James Garner in The Thrill of It All and Move Over Darling. By the late 60s, however, and far too soon, her acting career was over.

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