“I don’t understand why I got this, but I love it,” said Doris Day while collecting the Cecil B. DeMille lifetime achievement award at the 1989 Golden Globes. “This business has given me great happiness. I’ve worked with the cream of the crop.” She certainly had, counting Frank Sinatra, James Stewart, Cary Grant and, of course, Rock Hudson among her co-stars.
Her reputation was apple-pie wholesome, a generalisation that underestimates her considerable talent for comedy, and willingness to step outside her comfort zones, not least when it came to the hoofing department — and that’s before we even get to that voice.
From her beginnings as a vocalist on the stage circuit in 1939, Day would record more than 650 songs, amass millions of record sales, and launch a screen career that would cement her position as a mid-century musical icon.
With news of her death today at the grand age of 97, we picked out five of Doris Day’s most memorable screen moments.
Romance on the High Seas (1948)
Director Michael Curtiz
“This will make you a big, important star,” said director Michael Curtiz of Doris Day’s feature debut, the ocean-bound musical-comedy Romance on the High Seas. Day had been swinging with big bands across the US before her first hit record with Sentimental Journey back in 1945, and it wasn’t long before Hollywood came calling. It was Curtiz who advised Day against taking the acting lessons she wanted, telling her, “No matter what you do on screen, no matter what kind of part you play, it will always be you. What I mean is, Doris Day will always shine through the part.” Her rendition of the film’s big number, It’s Magic, secured its writers, Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn, an Oscar nomination.
Calamity Jane (1953)
Director David Butler
When Warner Bros wanted their own share of MGM’s Annie Get Your Gun cash, they tapped its male lead, Howard Keel, to star as Wild Bill Hickok in Calamity Jane. The lead would prove an iconic role for Day, and her own personal favourite. The film’s ballad, Secret Love, would be the one to take home the Oscar for Best Original Song, but there’s much more fun to be had in uptempo numbers Just Blew in from the Windy City and The Deadwood Stage. Whip-crack-away!
Love Me or Leave Me (1955)
Director Charles Vidor
This early CinemaScope musical saw Day take on one of her greatest roles as Ruth Etting, a real-life gangster’s moll who makes it big in 1920s New York. James Cagney plays the scheming manager, but it’s Day’s film, a real, complex surprise to any viewer only familiar with the actor’s more wholesome roles. It took home Best Screenplay at the Oscars, and Cagney secured a nomination for Best Actor. Day deserved one too, but she’d have to wait a few more years.
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
Director Alfred Hitchcock
Day was never the most confident of screen performers, and the pressures of the job came to a head during the production of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. Her co-star, James Stewart, offered reassurance, but Day was convinced the reason she wasn’t getting any direction from the boss was down to her own failings as an actor. The director set the record straight with a typically Hitchcockian twinkle: “Dear Doris, you’ve done nothing to elicit comment from me.” The Moroccan-based thriller set Day and Stewart up as witnesses to a murder and parents of a kidnapped boy, held hostage while a visiting diplomat is taken out. Day gets to lay an earworm with her immortal Que Sera, Sera, which takes on an emotional, dramatic register for its climactic reprise.
Pillow Talk (1959)
Director Michael Gordon
While it’s not a musical, Doris Day was still given a chance to sing in the only film to secure her an Oscar nomination. She didn’t win, losing out to Simone Signoret for Room at the Top, but it remains one of her greatest performances in one of her best films. Pillow Talk was a smash, even if today’s viewers may need to look up the concept of the ‘party line’ (a communally shared phone number) around which its breezy plot revolves. Day plays interior decorator Jan Morrow, unable to make a phone call due to the line’s habitual hogging by Rock Hudson’s playboy. It’s hate at first sight, in the best romcom fashion. Two more films with Hudson would follow in Lover Come Back (1961) and Send Me No Flowers (1964), resulting in a screen pairing for which Day will be indelibly remembered.