Doris Day — RIP

“She embodied our national will-to-happiness,” James Monaco observed in his essential Movie Love in the Fifties. Typical of Monaco’s generosity is a chapter-length study of what the late Doris Day projected onscreen that captivated Ike and JFK-era audiences enough to keep her as the top female box office draw years after her peak. Already the obits stress her “wholesome screen presence” and its relation to her times.

Having seen about a dozen entries in her not vast filmography, I find it impossible not to miss the signs of disquiet (“She never made happiness look easy exactly — though she was mostly confined to movies and songs that asked her to do precisely that,” Monaco writes). She wasn’t June Allyson, whose projection of normality has the depth of a Woolworth tureen; she was a solid and often excellent actress, solid in comedy and drama, who responded when a co-star excited her. In 1955’s Young at Heart, her steely pathos has the authenticity of an Austen heroine; this remake of Four Daughters asks her to choose between Gig Young and Frank Sinatra, and despite some uproar about Sinatra’s insistence on a new happy ending it turns out his instinct was correct. “In spite of the plasticene look and deadness of the film itself, there really seems to be something at stake between these two,” Monaco notes. Day would work with Young again in Teacher’s Pet, a PBS favorite when I was growing up in which journalism instructor Day endures mild ridicule from Clark Gable, in the ridiculous role of a reporter who enrolls in her course to teach her lesson about the limits of classroom experience. Of course, “classroom experience” and “sexual inexperience” are synonymous in fifties Hollywood; like Martha Hyer in the same year’s Some Came Running (starring Sinatra) she’s a blonde schoolteacher, which means she must be frigid and humorless.

Besides Calamity Jane and Alfred Hitchcock’s remake of his own The Man Who Knew Too Much (singing “Que Sera Sera”), though, the public loved Day for her Rock Hudson pictures. Pillow Talk strains a bit; the partnership is at its most charming in Lover Come Back, although one needs no knowledge of Hudson’s sexuality to conclude that despite the script and direction’s efforts Day is the wisecracking heroine with a gay best pal. Send Me No Flowers is even better – like 1963’s Charade, one of the last times the public and Hollywood were in sync about a movie could ignore about developments in understanding human sexuality.

Two other movies worth mentioning: the thriller Midnight Lace (1960) with Rex Harrison, in which she is credibly menaced; and, best, 1955’s Love Me or Leave Me, opposite James Cagney. In his last great lead performance, Cagney plays Martin “The Gimp” Snyder, husband and Svengali to Day’s Ruth Etting. Charles Vidor handles the domestic abuse with a tact that doesn’t cheapen the adult material. “Doris Day is a little less butch than usual, though you can’t tell what makes her Ruth Etting a star,” Pauline Kael wrote, advancing a criticism that took hold when the collapse of the studio system and Production Code turned audiences into snickering know-it-alls. Singing “Ten Cents a Dance”, Day epitomizes the bizzer as survivor.

Despite the often awful material she accepted (not that she had other options), I found her the most intelligent person in those pictures; there’s a no-nonsense vigor, which at worst hardened into the inflexibility for which she was unfairly blamed. Bankruptcy and a series of marriages made her life its own Love Me or Leave Me. I would love to have seen her acting in her sixties or seventies. Audiences liked her because she was a little butch and wary of bullshit; they could watch Natalie Wood or Elizabeth Taylor if they wanted sensuousness. The problem was that few scripts during her peak had female characters who were a little butch and wary of bullshit. Day, like the rest of us, soldiered on.

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