Toe to Toe with Doris Day

Doris Day died this past week, at the age of ninety-seven and retaining her luster to the end. On Monday I recalled parts of a long-ago conversation with her. We talked that day, aside from the dogs, more about her music than her pictures – because I don’t think anyone would dispute that she was a much better singer than actress. That’s not to disparage her thespian side: In the Thirties and Forties many big-band canaries got shoved before the cameras, but very few parlayed the warbling into a two-decade career as a bona fide A-list movie star. Nevertheless, I would say she put more emotional nuance into a lyric couplet than a line of dialogue, so that, certainly in the first half of her film career, her characters in non-musicals seem more two-dimensional than those in musicals.

In an obvious sense, her best films harness her bouncy vivacity, specifically “The Deadwood Stage” (“Whip-crack-awaaaaay!”) in Calamity Jane and pretty much everything in The Pajama Game. (You can hear Doris singing some other songs by Pajama composer Richard Adler here). But the three biotuners in which she hit her stride make the point more broadly: The eponymous gunslinging heroine of Calamity Jane, songwriting spouse Grace LeBoy in I’ll See You in My Dreams and torch singer Ruth Etting in Love Me or Leave Me are all very different people, but Doris doesn’t act them terribly differently and it’s mainly in the songs that she brings light and shade to the parts – particularly “Secret Love” in Calamity, and the gritty “Ten Cents a Dance” in Love Me. As an actress she is easy to confine to the wholesome airbrushed past of On Moonlight Bay or By the Light of the Silvery Moon or any of her other early films named after ancient songs redolent of backporch spooning. Doris is a bright shining Day to the nocturnal promise of most Fifties screen sirens. Radiating wholesome good health rather than sex, tireless as a puppy, freckled, chipmunk-cheeked …anything else? Come in, John Updike, with a late-in-life poem:

Bob Hope called you Jut-Butt, and your breasts
(Molly Haskell reported)
were as big as Monroe’s but swaddled…

When musicals faded, she found a home in Sixties sex comedies – today a genre whose conventions are even more obsolete than musicals. She’s great with James Garner in Move Over, Darling (1963), even though you vaguely feel he’d be more suited to Polly Bergen, and the famous Pillow Talk split-screen bathtub scene is sexy because it’s Doris Day, as it wouldn’t be if it were Monroe or Kim Novak or Lana Turner. The point where her lathered leg and Rock Hudson’s more hirsute one lift up and appear to meet, courtesy of the screen’s split, and touch toes has a frisson simply because it seems inconceivable that she would ever twiddle tootsies with him in the same room. In some ways, it prefigures the Age of Sexting – coupling by telephone while naked. When we chatted, she mocked that “I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin” crack, but she understood its power and deployed it very shrewdly until she was almost fifty, at which point she decided to quit while she was very much ahead.

But sex comedy is a lost world to a society jerking spasmodically from hook-ups to #MeToo to friends-with-benefits to #BelieveAllWomen. Of her non-musical roles, I have always liked Young at Heart (1955), which has a few songs but mostly for Sinatra, and so from Doris’ point of view is pretty much a dramatic role. It’s set in fictional but generic “Strafford”, Connecticut, so cue the small-town picket-fencery and Ethel Barrymore in the spinster-aunt part, and even the decision to rename the film after Frank’s Number Two hit record makes the picture appear cutesier than it is. It is, in fact, a rather dark story, with Sinatra, liberated from his inherently preposterous MGM persona of girl-shy naïf fending off ravenous man-eaters like gal cabbie Betty Garrett, developing the unusual anti-social screen identity he’d introduced as a presidential assassin in the previous year’s Suddenly. His slouching, sunken-cheeked depressive loser subverts the apple-pie Americana of the Tuttle sisters’ world (Doris, Dorothy Malone, Elisabeth Fraser) and is meant to be in contrast to bland, clean-cut, oleaginous Gig Young – his rival for Miss Day’s favors. But, in fact, the real contrast is between Frank’s quarter-to-three sourness and Doris’ irrepressible sunny disposition. It’s a grand example of why casting is critical, and you can see why Miss Day’s character wouldn’t shirk the challenge of redeeming Sinatra.

The following year she worked with Alfred Hitchcock on The Man Who Knew Too Much. She doesn’t seem an obvious addition to Hitch’s pantheon of cool blondes – Grace Kelly, Eva-Marie Saint, Kim Novak – and indeed he’d never sought her for the role. He wanted Jimmy Stewart for the male lead, but Stewart’s agent said they’d only agree if he took another client, Doris Day, for the gal. So he agreed. And, when she demanded a song, he figured he might as well integrate it into the plot.

The opening scenes in French Morocco are the best. James Stewart, as a doctor, and Miss Day, as a Broadway star retired to domesticity, are riding with their son (Christopher Olsen) on a bus to Marrakesh, when the boy stumbles and in his panic accidentally grabs a Muslima passenger’s veil. The angry husband gets up and a showdown ensues. The kid protests that it was an accident, but as the charming Frenchman who intercedes puts it, “The Muslim religion allows for few accidents.” (In the self-castrating Hollywood of today, barely a word of the opening scene would make it past a first draft: Africa? “In school we call it the Dark Continent…”)

The Gallic charmer introduces himself, and within a few moments Jimmy Stewart is chirruping away, disclosing he’s a family doctor from Indianapolis taking a side-trip from a medical conference in Paris down to Morocco, where he’d been in an army field hospital during the war… Day’s character is sharper: She notices that, while her husband is disclosing every material fact about their lives, the Frenchman is saying nothing about his. And she grows suspicious. These scenes would be drier with Grace Kelly and cooler with Eva Marie Saint, but it’s the very normality of Doris that gives them their heft. And, back on the hotel balcony, when she asks the alleged Parisian deadpan whether he’s ever been to Paris, it’s as audacious as any other Hitchcock blonde.

For the song she’d insisted on, Hitch ordered up one from Livingston & Evans for a mother to sing to her child. Miss Day and Christopher Olsen bat verses and choruses back and forth to each other very naturally as they busy about the kid’s hotel room getting him ready for bed. It is, of course, “Que Sera, Sera” – and its near Islamic fatalism seems very appropriate to a night in Marrakesh. When she reprises it later in the picture, as a desperate maneuver to connect with her now kidnapped son, she fair bellows the number in such a harrowing way you wish she’d dial back the acting and remember she’s singing. The second half of the picture, when the action moves to London and becomes a bit too dependent on the director’s bag of tricks ( a fight in a taxidermist’s, an assassination timed to the orchestration of a choral work at the Royal Albert Hall), is a little formulaic. But the first part, in Morocco, is very good indeed, and the relationship between Stewart and Day, tetchy and quarreling through cocktails and dinner, is more interesting than one would expect from such casting.

As I mentioned the other day, Mike Nichols wanted her for Mrs Robinson in The Graduate, but she turned it down because of the nudity. As Bagehot said of monarchy, one cannnot let daylight in on the mystery – and that goes for real movie stars, too. The bubbles in that Pillow Talk bathtub cannot be seen to dissolve and subside and reveal what’s beneath. She was wise enough to understand that Doris Day naked is not Doris Day. For the same reason, she declined to settle into old-timer roles – no Cocoon or Driving Miss Doris. And that too was on balance the right choice. She sang well almost to the end, and secure within the canine confines of Carmel she died as Doris Day.

~Mark will return in a few hours with a Tales for Our Time audio special.

There’ll be plenty of movie talk on the Second Annual Mark Steyn Club Cruise, sailing up the Alaska coast in early September. Among Mark’s guests will be Dennis Miller, star of Disclosure, The Net, What Happens in Vegas and, of course, Bordello of Blood, as well as Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinney, producers of last year’s Gosnell. And Kathy Shaidle, who covered for Steyn in Mark at the Movies last summer, will also be aboard. Cabins are going spectacularly fast – and we’re all but sold out. If your preferred accommodations are showing up online as unavailable, do call or email Cindy, our excellent cruise manager, and she might be able to pull a few strings: If you’re dialing from beyond North America, it’s +1 (770) 952-1959; if you’re calling from Canada or the US, it’s 1-800-707-1634. Or you can email your query here.

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