Doris Day was the Julia Roberts of her time…only bigger. For two decades, she was America’s Sweetheart. If the term didn’t already exist, it would have been created for her.
Before her film debut in 1948 with the hit romantic comedy, Romance on the High Seas, Day was already a massive recording star. Her first two singles “Sentimental Journey” and “My Dreams Are Getting Better All the Time” (with Les Brown’s band) went straight to #1 in 1945. By the end of 1948, Day had accumulated nineteen top 40 hits to go along with a successful movie debut.
She was off to the races after that.
From 1948 to 1955, Day had a succession of hit movies and songs. 1951’s I’ll See You in My Dreams directed by Michael Curtiz and co-starring Danny Thomas was the most notable success of her early film career. Another 36 songs hit the Billboard Top 40 over this period, including #1 hits “A Guy Is A Guy” and “Secret Love.”
Looking to stretch her acting muscles, Day turned to drama in 1955, co-starring with James Cagney in Love Me or Leave Me. The film became her biggest hit up to that point and received considerable critical praise as well. The next year would bring what was arguably the greatest movie she ever did, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. Starring across from the great Jimmy Stewart, Day was a marvel as one half of a married couple on vacation in Morocco whose young son is kidnapped. It’s one of Hitch’s finest thrillers, and Day dug deep as a frantic mother desperate to get back to her child. Conveniently cast as a popular singer in the movie, she had the opportunity to perform what may be the most iconic song of her career, the #2 hit, “Que Sera, Sera.”
Day would come back to her lighthearted base with 1957’s The Pajama Game. Another hit comedy/musical that is well-loved to this day. Two years later she found what is probably her signature role, that of Jan Morrow, an interior decorator who is squired by Rock Hudson’s charming cad of a composer in the hugely successful Pillow Talk. Often referred to as a “sex comedy” in its time, the relatively mild double entendres in the dialogue wouldn’t raise a holy man’s eyebrow today. What does hold up is the picture’s relentless charm – much of which I think can be attributed to Day’s performance. Rock Hudson was no Cary Grant, but I’ll be damned if Day didn’t open up the (sometimes too) stolid Hudson and make you forget how Grant would have been the perfect choice for the role. For her work in Pillow Talk, Day received her first – and only – Oscar nomination. So successful was the union of Day and Hudson – along with their co-star, Tony Randall – they reprised their connection two more times. First in 1961’s Lover Come Back, and then again in Send Me No Flowers from 1964. Both were successful, if not on the same scale as Pillow Talk.
Alongside these three films, Day added Please Don’t Eat the Daisies and That Touch of Mink to her list of blockbusters. But as times changed, Day did not. Her box office returns started to slip, and with The Glass Bottom Boat in 1966, Day had her final hit movie. Both her and the film studios she worked for were fiercely protective of her image. Perhaps too protective – because when offered the chance to step into the era of frankness and explicitness that was coming to film at an expeditious pace, Day stepped aside. She was offered the iconic part of Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate but turned it down because it was “vulgar and offensive.” The mind reels at the thought of Day seducing Dustin Hoffman in the Mike Nichols directed classic, not only for what she might have brought to the performance, but for how it might have changed her career.
After Day stopped her film career cold at the end of the 60s, she moved into TV. The Doris Day Show ran for 128 episodes from 1968 to 1973. Of course, it was a hit. But while the sitcom was successful (Day scored a Golden Globe nomination for it in 1969) she had no love for it. She thought of TV as a step down from film, and only did the show because her third husband (Martin Melcher) signed her on for it without her knowledge. When the show came to its close, Day’s gifts were no longer en vogue. Film had entered the auteur era, becoming more graphic and far edgier. She seemingly realized there was no place for her on the much-changed silver screen, and after five years on the small one, she never acted again.
Day owned the box office through the 50s and 60s. Her fresh-faced wholesomeness and sparkling effervescence, combined with her singing talent and remarkable facility with light comedy, made her one of the biggest stars in the world. One hit seemingly begat another. And then another, and another. She was prolific: from her 1948 debut to her final film in 1968 – With Six You Get Egg Roll – Day made 39 films while recording over 600 songs for Columbia Records. Not only was she everywhere for all that time, but her audience took over a quarter of a century before they finally tired of her. Her greatest gift may have been how easy she made it look to dominate both the Billboard charts and the box office for 20 years.
There may have been someone working harder than her during her career peak, but I can’t think of who. All you have to do is look at the numbers. It’s almost unimaginable: at a time when her contemporaries were Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, and Marilyn Monroe, she was bigger and busier than all of them.
Doris Day died today. She was 97 years old.