The Matchless Presence of Doris Day
The voice came first. Doris Day, who died on Monday, at the age of ninety-seven, made her film début in 1948. The film was called “Romance on the High Seas”—you’ll never guess what it’s about—and was directed by Michael Curtiz. He needed someone for a supporting role, as a singer. He thought of Betty Hutton, but she was pregnant. He tried her sister, Marion. No joy. How about Day? She’d already had a hit record, “Sentimental Journey.” So she auditioned, and she got the part. Everything went well until, on her own initiative, she started taking acting lessons. Curtiz, the belligerent director of “Casablanca,” who had been born in Hungary and was engaged in a perpetual wrestling match with the English language, did not approve:
You have very, very strong personality. Is you. Is unique. That’s why
I don’t want you to take lessons. You have a natural thing there in
you, should no one ever disturb. You listen to me, Doris. Is very rare
thing. Do not disturb.
Was he building her up or cutting her down? Either way, it was sensible advice. Day doesn’t risk too much acting in “Romance on the High Seas,” but she doesn’t need to. She opens her mouth and sings, and there she is. Is her. Is unique.
To an extent, her success was due to physiognomy. Plenty of people have music in their soul; Doris Day had music in her face. So often, and so instinctively, did she break into a smile that her lips were already parted; it somehow seemed easier to carry on, open wide, and unleash a tune than to shut down and clam up. The song began where the smile left off. “You sigh, the song begins / You speak and I hear violins / It’s magic.” That’s her big number from “Romance on the High Seas,” and 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. Those are good vibrations.
Consider the movies that Day made in the wake of her début. The titles alone are like a postwar pick-me-up, toasting the transition from the Truman era to the Eisenhower years: “My Dream is Yours” and “It’s a Great Feeling,” from 1949; “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” from 1951; “Lucky Me” and “Young at Heart,” from 1954. Such are the stories that a successful nation—or the part of it that’s in power, in luck, and in the pink—likes to tell of itself, and to hear. Day was the patron saint of that persuasion: industrious, uplifting, dependable, and brisk. Her private life was a calamity, which only proved how valiant she was, onscreen, at putting on a good show. Her popularity soared. If you’d told her that she was the very incarnation of the Pax Americana, she would have said, “Oh, phooey,” but it was true. Talk about a heyday.
Two of the major hits from that period are “On Moonlight Bay” (1951) and its sequel, “By the Light of the Silvery Moon” (1953). Both are based on the Penrod stories of Booth Tarkington, and set during and after the First World War. (The conflict scarcely intrudes; we see a bunch of soldiers back from the trenches, unwounded and untraumatized, singing in lusty chorus on a train.) Day plays a tomboy named Marjorie Winfield, handy with a wrench, and Gordon MacRae—one of those likable lunks whose stardom, from this distance, seems inexplicable to us—plays her sweetheart, Bill. At a small-town soirée, they sing not merely while dancing in each other’s arms, which is fine, but while other folk are dancing around them, which seems a little weird. Marjorie also waltzes through the Winfields’ kitchen, during the preparation of Thanksgiving dinner, carolling “Ain’t We Got Fun?” Well, ain’t we?
Such scenes are bewildering when compared with another Tarkington adaptation, Orson Welles’s “The Magnificent Ambersons” (1942). That film, likewise, is fixated on family and casts a fond gaze upon the past, but Welles, as usual, hungers for the shadows and for the difficult truths that they conceal, whereas Day’s two Tarkington films have a hand-tinted blush to them, and the moon silvers everything in sight. The Winfields and the Ambersons might as well inhabit different universes. It’s tempting, as a movie addict, to feed upon masterworks and nothing else, and, as a worshipper of stars, to favor those whose lives were measured out in crackups, meltdowns, and cutoffs—Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift, James Dean. Too heavy an emphasis on the exceptions, however, can lead you to forget the rule, not to mention the business end. Day was a staple of the box office well into the mid-nineteen-sixties. The troops in Korea voted her “the girl we would most like to take a slow boat back to the States with.” She was the rule.
That, at any rate, is one way of looking at Doris Day. The person she most resembles, from a certain angle, is Bing Crosby: the same commercial pull, the same hard shell of wholesomeness, the same astonishing vocal control—musical phrases that flare with rapture and then drift away like smoke. (In both cases, it should be added, their offscreen existences bore no such traces of ease. Crosby was reportedly rigid as a father; Day was left bankrupt by the third of her four husbands. No wonder she preferred the company of animals.) Time and again, in her movies, her character is simultaneously praised and patronized by other people, as if she cannot hope to match their convolutions or, by extension, share their woes. This is Lauren Bacall, as a trainee psychiatrist, in “Young Man with a Horn” (1950), analyzing Jo, a singer played by Day:
So simple and uncomplicated. Must be wonderful to wake up in the
morning and know which door you’re going to walk through. She’s so
And this is Cary Grant as Philip, a playboy in “That Touch of Mink” (1962), who takes note of the unmarried Cathy Timberlake (Day) after his Rolls-Royce splashes her with mud:
Cathy, you have rare qualities. You’re direct, sincere,
uncomplicated. You’re the type of woman who brings out the worst in a
man: his conscience.
That film is remembered for a nervous rash that envelops Cathy all over, when she realizes, on a trip to Bermuda, that she is expected to spend the night with Philip. Rarely, in the chronicles of Day, was the preservation of maidenhood manifested in such dramatic form. (Although, to be fair, the ending provides an itchy comeuppance: once they are married and the wedding night looms, it is is Philip who breaks out in spots.) We laugh, of course, at this neo-Victorian fretting, amazed that it was still in evidence as late as 1962, and that any audience would buy it for a minute; but here, again, pause for a moment. Check the figures. “That Touch of Mink” was the fifth most lucrative release of the year. You think it earned less than “To Kill a Mockingbird”? No way.
Admirers of the actress treasure a vital document from 1955. It is an article, from the fan magazine Motion Picture, written by Day, or maybe written for her, since it proudly bears her byline. The heading is “Sex Isn’t Everything,” with the first word blazoned in capitals and underlined, in case we miss it. (The note of defiance is peculiar, coming from Day. Who said that she said that sex was everything?) In the body of the text, the author contends that “I’ve come to believe not only that sex isn’t everything but that, in fact, it isn’t anything if it’s divorced from the rest of a girl’s personality.” Go tell ’em, Doris! That’ll bring ’em out in spots! Yet the joke’s on us, for the movies that sprang from this demurely principled attitude—the sexless sex comedies that Day went on to make with Rock Hudson and James Garner—have lasted rather better, with their folly and their freshness intact, than some of the more liberated flicks that succeeded them. Be honest: if “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” (1969) comes on TV at the same time as “Pillow Talk” (1959), which one do you sit down and watch?
All of this, I would say, is a reason to feel not only bereaved but bereft at the passing of Doris Day. There was a depth, despite everything, to her fabled simplicity, and a courage to her lack of complications; even as the world was curdling around her, she insisted on the milk of human kindness. Romantic narratives of the kind that she preferred to impart were never going to survive the sexual revolution, but she had the wit and the stubbornness (think of that firm-chinned, hard-staring look she gave, when out of sorts) to grasp that, if romance were really doomed to fade away, it should do so most gracefully in the comic mode.
Thus, who else would sing “Makin’ Whoopee” not atop a grand piano, in a blood-red dress, as Michelle Pfeiffer does in “The Fabulous Baker Boys” (1989), but in a tightly belted robe, on a night train with her husband, as they unpack and hang up their clothes? That is what Day does, in “I’ll See You in My Dreams” (1951), blinking in mock shock before every “whoopee.” In a similar vein, who else would mark the end of her girlhood and the start of her life as a wife, on board an ocean liner, by throwing her hot-water bottle out of a porthole? She has her man to keep her warm. Mind you, that man is Ray Bolger, best known as the Scarecrow in “The Wizard of Oz,” so there’s no need to get too fired up. He may be full of straw.
The sequence is part of “April in Paris” (1952), in which Day plays a chorus girl who, through a clerical error, is picked to represent her country at a festival of culture, in France. (“I must be a kind of cross-section or something!” she exclaims—the perfect summation of her appeal.) One beauty of the film is that Day first delivers the title number not in Paris, as you might imagine, but immediately after being given the bad news, back in America, that she won’t be going to Paris after all. In other words, it’s a song of deprivation. No account of Day’s career can afford to neglect those times when the shadows do fall, when the Day-light dims, and when she is compelled, however briefly, to lay aside her blessings and count her troubles instead—things lost or forbidden or wished for or never had.
High on the list, for many fans, would be the song “Secret Love” from “Calamity Jane” (1953), where the intensity of her confiding, plus sheer lung power, seems to loft her away from the aw-shucks bonhomie that sustains the rest of the film, toward a more heartbreaking realm. I revere her, too, in “Young Man with a Horn,” when she sings “The Very Thought of You” to a crowd of revellers and then, when they’ve all gone, walks alone around a low-lit hall, an echoing barn of a place, and hears the moan of a trumpet from the basement. It’s Rick Martin (Kirk Douglas), practicing after hours. She goes downstairs, in the half-darkness, to find him: a duet, as it were, for a couple of solitary souls.
Notice the presence of Douglas. In the firmament of film, Day wasn’t always paired with the dwarf stars—the Bolgers and the MacRaes. On many occasions, she found herself (and proved herself) in the presence of serious luminaries. She acted with Douglas and Grant; with James Stewart, in Hitchcock’s “The Man who Knew Too Much” (1956); and, two years later, in “Teacher’s Pet,” with an aging Clark Gable, for whom, as a bonus, she supplied a mocking impersonation of a vamp.
Her most co-star is James Cagney, himself a song-and-dance man of distinction. He is with her in “Love Me or Leave Me” (1955), the film she considered her best, and the one that, if you wish to pay rightful homage, you should watch tonight. I dare you not to melt at the finale, when Day, gowned in deep green, sings the title song. As she hits the first notes—clear as a bell, as ever—Cagney enters the room and stops dead. The look on his face is one of ferocious reckoning. More extraordinary, and unthinkable in most musicals, is the way in which the camera now attends not to her, as she sings, but to him, as he listens. Cagney stands at the bar, with his back to us. His entire being, we sense, is invested and engrossed in the sound that this woman pours forth. He nods and says to the guy beside him, “You gotta give her credit. The girl can sing.” And how. Doris Day, alas, is no longer with us. The voice remains.