Doris Day: The girl next door ... maybe

May 17, 2019

There’s a superstition in Hollywood that show business celebrities die in threes, and this past week, we lost comedian Tim Conway, actress Peggy Lipton and the celebrated singer-actress who became an icon of good old fashioned clean fun, Doris Day.

Julia Rubin managed to capture Doris Day’s biography in a few words: “Doris Day, the sunny blond actress and singer whose frothy comedic roles opposite the likes of Rock Hudson and Cary Grant made her one of Hollywood’s biggest stars in the 1950s and ’60s and a symbol of wholesome American womanhood, died Monday. She was 97”.

People “of a certain age” will remember Doris Day as everyone’s favorite mom, girlfriend or teacher on the screen. My parents took me to see “Teacher’s Pet,” a clever comedy where an older but still macho Clark Gable plays a news reporter who has to take a journalism class. Of course, Doris Day was the proper teacher we would expect to see in the late 1950s.

Doris Day, a gifted jazz blues singer with the World War II hit “Sentimental Journey” and many formulaic comedies may seem out of date to younger audiences, but in her time, she was the top box office draw for four consecutive years. Among the films were “Pillow Talk” with Rock Hudson and “That Touch of Mink” with Cary Grant, and songs like “Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera, Sera)” from the Alfred Hitchcock film “The Man Who Knew Too Much.” In this film, Doris Day showed she had formidable acting skills, an opinion held by James Cagney who made “Love Me or Leave Me” with her. Cagney compared Day to the legendary actress Laurette Taylor, famous as the original Amanda in “The Glass Menagerie.”

Hollywood during the 1930s, ’40s and early ’50s, molded star performers into a preferred image. Doris Day represented the essence of G-rated innocence, a sharp contrast to her contemporary, Marilyn Monroe. The running joke, attributed to both Groucho Marx and actor-composer Oscar Levant, was that they had known Doris Day “before she was a virgin.”

Doris Day responded with a 1976 memoir, “Doris Day: Her Own Story,” which chronicled her money troubles and failed marriages. Her third husband lost Doris Day’s multi-million dollar estate and, at his death, left her in debt.

Her book had a quote that may have shocked a few fans: “I have the unfortunate reputation of being Miss Goody Two-Shoes, America’s Virgin, and all that, so I’m afraid it’s going to shock some people for me to say this, but I staunchly believe no two people should get married until they have lived together.”

Doris Day also had a few affairs, a fourth failed marriage and held platonic friendships with fellow actors, including Rock Hudson. “Pillow Talk,” a somewhat risqué film for its time, uses a split screen scene showing Day and Hudson in opposite bathtubs while talking on the phone. Their feet seem to touch, even though they are in different bathrooms. At the time, both Doris Day and Rock Hudson had secrets. She wasn’t the squeaky clean girl next door and he wasn’t the heterosexual ruggedly handsome leading man Hollywood had created. When Rock Hudson appeared on her 1985 TV show about rescuing animals, he arrived gaunt and gravely ill, shocking reporters. He died shortly after the show was taped but put a famous face on the tragedy of AIDS.

Doris Day’s last film, “With Six You Get Eggroll,” was a 1968 comedy about a widow and a widower who blend families. It did well, despite an audience informed by the Vietnam War, rock ‘n’ roll and the issue of racism. Tastes had changed. Casting against type, Mike Nichols offered the role of Mrs. Robinson in “The Graduate” to Doris Day, but she found the script “too vulgar.” Anne Bancroft took the role that could have made Doris Day relevant for a new generation. Doris Day retired and lived the rest of her long life working to save lost and abused animals.

Paul McCartney, a friend, called Doris Day “a true star in more ways than one. Visiting her in her Californian home was like going to an animal sanctuary where her many dogs were taken care of in splendid style,” he said in a statement. “She had a heart of gold and was a very funny lady who I shared many laughs with.”

He cited films like “Calamity Jane,” with a buck-skinned androgynous Doris Day, “Move Over,” “Darling” and others and said he would “always remember her twinkling smile and infectious laugh” (quoted in Rolling Stone).

As an actress, Doris Day’s performance in “Love Me or Leave Me” verifies James Cagney’s high praise, shared by Helen Mirren. Perhaps her dated films will eventually become “period pieces” like “Casablanca.” Some of Doris Day’s recordings might stand the test of time because of her sultry sensuous voice. In 2011 when she was 89, Doris Day released an album, “My Heart,” of unreleased recordings from the 1980s when Day was in her early 60s. The songs are covers but include one original by her son, producer Terry Melcher, who died of melanoma in 2004. The album went to No. 3 on the British chart. It was a hit in America, as well.

Perhaps the “Girl Next Door” will endure.

Michael Corrigan of Pocatello is a San Francisco native and a retired Idaho State University English and speech communication instructor. He studied screenwriting at the American Film Institute and has authored seven books, many about the Irish American experience.