Her roles have been stereotyped and her acting dismissed for decades. She has become a parody of herself, with songs like “Look at me, I’m Sandra Dee, Lousy with virginity…” and the famous Oscar Levant quote, “I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin”. But she is part of the mythos of Hollywood and is indelibly linked with the fifties persona of the American Dream. She was a major part of Hollywood box-office business for almost two decades and she was a powerhouse who shaped her image and influenced many women who have followed in her footsteps. She knew how to craft an image and to give the public what they wanted. And in the fifties, after two World Wars and the Cold War in progress, America wanted to be entertained. They wanted to be “bathed in banality” at times, the way Marshall McCluhan described the newspaper we “slip into” in the mornings. People often go to the movies to absorb nothing more than beautiful images and to relax in much the same way one goes to get a massage. That is the point of the Doris Day era. She was better than a relaxing massage at times and the public loved her. She was definitely “cornball” and “hokey” and “banal” and eventually syrupy sweet, but she did have talent and made the most of it and some of her films were quite good.
My picks for the best of Doris Day:
1. Love Me or Leave Me: With Jimmy Cagney, she plays the real-life Ruth Etting and she is never better belting out the bluesy theme song, “Love Me or Leave Me”.
2. Pillow Talk: She made several movies with Rock Hudson, and this is the best of the lot. Rock Hudson makes fun of himself in this and that is usually a good thing with movie stars. Day plays a strong, determined woman who in the end, will always “get her man”. Her image is shaped from the first frame to portray a “modern” female who works as an interior decorator and doesn’t like the way the smooth-talker on her party line treats women. That, in a nutshell, is a good reason for women to champion Doris Day’s characters.
3. Calamity Jane: A favorite of mine, she is a frontier woman who is portrayed as a loveable tomboy. Her quirks and comic turn as a rough and tumble pioneer with a characteristically feminine side is one of her best roles
4. Please Don’t Eat the Daisies: Doris Day is surprisingly good with David Niven in all of their scenes together. She doesn’t ham it up as she tended to do in later years. And the sophisticated Niven was equally effective as her mate in this adaptation of the popular bestselling book of the same name. There is a touch of schmaltz that went into overload in her later projects, but in this film the couple is believable and her part as a wife and mother who is navigating the sophisticated world of New York Theater is a nice touch.
5. That Touch of Mink: No self-respecting critic likes this movie. It does look like Cary Grant, the lodestar for all sophisticated male leads, is simply walking through and collecting a paycheck in this part. However, the role suits him and there are some great comic turns. Doris Day is working at one point in the film at an early-fifties era computer company and the size of the computer is so outdated and hilariously large that it, by itself, is enough to make anyone laugh! But the comic overtones tend to wear well even in this day and age. This film almost has the feel of one of those British sex comedies that someone like Terry Thomas would have played in. John Aston has a small but extremely funny part as the “louse” that is used to make Grant jealous. This is not intended to be rocket science, therefore, if you see this on the small screen, it is not to be dismissed so lightly. Day made many pictures far worse than this piece of fluff.
Other films worth seeing with Doris Day are her one Hitchcock film, “The Man who Knew Too Much” with Jimmy Stewart and the James Garner film, “The Thrill of It All”. The scenes in the latter are funniest when they spoof commercials and mass marketing early in the film. And with Hitchcock, Day is never allowed to run away with the syrupy goodness that was a trademark element and a fatal flaw in her later films. Today, some of the actresses linked to Doris Day by 6 Degrees are Renee Zelwegger, of Bridget Jones fame, plus Drew Barrymore, who has her own production company. Goldie Hawn, who shaped her image as the loveable and kooky ditz used that image to carry her to many successes at the box office. And there’s also Sandra Bullock, who has shaped an image, formed her own successful production company and starred in many light comedies that should make Doris herself proud!