Arts: Before she was a virgin

Back in the Fifties, nice girls didn't. And neither did she. Or not until she was good 'n' ready. David Benedict harks back to Doris's day
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When Alfred Hitchcock met Doris Day at a party in 1951, he complimented her on her non-singing performance in Storm Warning the year before, and told her that he hoped she would make a film with him. Four years later, she starred in his remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much. It was one of her strongest performances, light years away from the smiling, wholesome, overwhelmingly bland, blonde image that lingers. Like her effortless singing voice, her dramatic range wasn't large, but it was much wider than her critics would have you believe.

For anyone who knows her only from the lush romantic recordings that made her at one time the world's top-selling female vocalist (her records were pop music back then), Day's Hitchcock performance comes as something of a shock. From the moment her son is abducted early in the film, she exhibits a tightly reined emotionalism just one gasp short of hysteria. In the woman-in-peril picture, Midnight Lace (1960), she is even better, spending the entire film being threatened and attacked and building a performance of quite extraordinary power - tearful, tormented and terrified. It's a long way from the perky, no-nonsense girl that audiences had come to expect.

By then, Day was America's No 1 box-office attraction, the first woman to hit that spot since Shirley Temple. She did it by embodying an image that gave rise to the well-worn line, "I'm so old I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin" - variously ascribed to Oscar Levant or Groucho Marx.

In her "pre-virgin" days, a car accident in 1937 at the age of 13 shattered her leg and her dreams of becoming a dancer. After 14 months in hospital, Doris Mary Anne von Kappelhoff began singing along to the radio and found Grace Raine, a voice teacher who knew talent when she heard it. Raine gave her a solid training in technique, but also used connections to win her radio slots. Eighteen months later, having finally abandoned her crutches, Doris beat out 200 hopefuls and won her first job as a band singer with Barney Rapp.

She had been christened after her mother's favourite film star, Doris Kenyon, who had starred opposite Rudolph Valentino. But Rapp knew that in 1940 Von Kappelhoff wasn't exactly a name to pull in the crowds. Doris thought his suggestion of Day sounded phoney, but it was inspired, emphasising her open, bright sound, while its hint of "honest as the day is long" pefectly described the simplicity and freshness that became her screen persona.

By the time of her movie debut in Romance on the High Seas (1948), she had not only married and divorced the trombonist Al Jorden, who used to beat her up, but had a hugely successful career fronting Les Brown and his band, including her first million-seller, "Sentimental Journey".

Romance was the first of 17 films for Warner Brothers. Day was billed fourth but her rendition of "It's Magic" was an enormous hit and Warner's began turning out Day backstage musicals with monotonous regularity. The serious musical talent was with MGM, who had the dream team of producers Arthur Freed and Roger Edens, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, and the script and lyric writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Warner's had Day and wiseacre Jack Carson (with whom she had an off-screen affair), but little else.

In addition to the two-bit back-stagers, she made On Moonlight Bay and its sequel By the Light of the Silvery Moon, two nostalgic small-town tales that set her up as a tomboy. Plucky, perky and purposeful, she wanted the boy next door (Gordon Macrae) but on her own terms. It was a plot device that became a career-long signature. She blew into Calamity Jane (her favourite film) blowsy and bad-tempered, guns and talent blazing, but the American public didn't take to it. Then, six years on, in 1959, came her 25th film, Pillow Talk, and her apple-pie image not only jelled, it was set in aspic.

The first in a string of sex comedies without the sex, Day here played a fashionable interior decorator (gowns by Jean-Louis) who shares a telephone party line with the womanising Rock Hudson. Driven to distraction by Rock's telephone canoodling, which interferes with her work, she calls him up to upbraid him. Rattled Rock replies, "I don't know what's bothering you, but don't take your bedroom problems out on me." "I have no bedroom problems," she retorts sternly, "there's nothing in my bedroom that bothers me." "Oh," he coos, "that's too bad."

At the end of the picture, of course, she finally abandons her independence and marries him. These days, when films are aimed at the under-25s, the notion of audiences empathising with a 40-year-old protecting her maidenhead seems farcical. But both the film and Day are quintessential products of their time.

The Thirties sublimated sex beneath screwball wit - think Katharine Hepburn sparring with Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby; the Forties codified it into smouldering film noir - Barbara Stanwyck descending the staircase and showing her anklet in Double Indemnity. The McCarthyite Fifties banished sex altogether, and the Sixties heralded the arrival of the permissive and the erotic as originally epitomised by Marilyn Monroe, the complete antithesis of Day, whom Pauline Kael described in 1963 as "the all-American middle-aged girl" - a description which accurately covers all her Rock Hudson / James Garner / Rod Taylor hits.

These "no-sex comedies" wanted to be risque - Pillow Talk has a famous split-screen scene with Rock and Doris in bubble-filled baths in adjoining bathrooms with their feet appearing to touch through the wall - but they are about getting married, not getting laid, and Day was that still rare creature, the independent woman. Superficially savvy, well-dressed, healthy and wealthy, the films are set in America's post-war consumerist boom and are about the horn of plenty rather than being horny. In the sex-obsessed Nineties, it all seems hopelessly old-fashioned. Janet Jackson may have (briefly) suggested "let's wait a while", but she and we weren't prepared to wait until marriage. Doris Day was. Why? Because she was a career girl and back then motherhood was the woman's role, something Day only adopted on screen towards the end of her career.

Her decline was inevitable. As Rebel Without a Cause taught us, teenagers were born in the Fifties and cynicism arrived with them. Day's eternal optimism (on and off screen) didn't match the times and she struggled on but collapsed beneath its weight. Intriguingly, How To Murder Your Wife or Sex and the Single Girl, classic examples of the appalling dross that passed for echt Fifties films, now look far more dated than Day's bright and shiny confections. At least she really could play comedy.

The sex comedy died. Once you could actually have sex on the screen, there was shockingly little left to laugh about. It wasn't until Nora Ephron cleaned up with When Harry Met Sally in 1989 that the clock was turned back. It is no coincidence that Meg Ryan is a bright, bubbly blonde.

n `Definitely Doris', a song-tribute to Day, is at the King's Head, London N1 to 26 May. Booking: 0171-226 1916