Film Studies: The petite blonde with a voice that did sex

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If ever you're driven to screaming point by the stupid generalisations we all make about decades, and what they meant, try this: the essential American girl singer of the Fifties was Doris Day – fresh, cheerful, decent, optimistic.

She acted, too, and in 1956 even Alfred Hitchcock had to agree that if she starred in his film, The Man Who Knew Too Much, she would get to sing a song – "Que Sera Sera", the sentiments to which are so silly, vacant and Fifties-ish you'd rather not use the word "sentiment". But then, two years later, another singer (who resembled Day in her looks) took an existing song, changed a few lyrics (so a girl could sing them), arranged it for just drums, bass and clicking fingers and the result was one of the most sophisticated pieces of singing ever done. It was "Fever", and she was Peggy Lee. Then and now you listen to it and hear a half-chance that the world might be grown-up one day.

Now, you can say that Peggy Lee doesn't quite fall within "Film Studies", to which I will offer this bit of legalese: that Doris Day, still alive, bless her, is surely "Film Studies" material – but Doris only ever got one Oscar nomination (for Pillow Talk). And so did Peggy Lee (for Pete Kelly's Blues). If this sounds like special pleading, just remember that this paper doesn't have a column called "Sophistication", and go out and get yourself a copy of "Fever".

I'm not even going to tell you that Lee deserved the Oscar for Pete Kelly's Blues, a very clichéd movie about white jazz musicians in the Thirties, written and directed by Jack "Dragnet" Webb, who played a trumpet-player in love with the singer of the band. That was Peggy Lee's part. She was shy and even a little awkward, until she sang "He Needs Me" and "Sugar", and then, somehow, she was a voice that might have belonged to Kim Novak in Vertigo. People said Peggy Lee was a jazz singer (she had begun with Benny Goodman in the early Forties), a blues expert or a ballad singer. But all of those labels miss the point: that this petite blonde from a tiny town in North Dakota had a natural a capella voice that did sex – in the range from ecstasy and anticipation to regret. The other singer in Pete Kelly's Blues was Ella Fitzgerald, and Peggy Lee was in no way overshadowed. There was a tentative air to her singing, as if the husky thought of lyrics and tune had cracked like eggshells way back in her throat and the band would join her as soon as they picked up the melody.

Pete Kelly's Blues was a poor film – and it was mere justice that Peggy Lee lost the Oscar to Jo Van Fleet in East of Eden (Natalie Wood in Rebel Without a Cause was another contender). And it would have taken a great film, with a very passionate idea of what it was doing, to really use Peggy Lee properly as a burning torch singer. But there is that other movie.

Not that she actually appears in it. I am thinking of Disney's The Lady and the Tramp, done in 1955, and still one of the best stories ever told in animation. It's the story of a mongrel, Tramp, and a pedigree spaniel, Lady (or Peg), for which Lee and Sonny Burke wrote the songs. She also sings the part of Peg, which means she gets the song, "He's a Tramp". In addition she did the voices of the two Siamese cats.

That's part of the story, and it would be enough, with "Fever", to guarantee Peggy Lee's place in heaven (or at Crufts). But there's more, and it's the kind of extra that warms the heart more reliably than "Que Sera Sera". Peggy Lee didn't manage the best of lives. She had a lot of poor health that seriously interrupted her performing career. She was married at least four times (the men included Goodman guitarist Dave Barbour, and actors Brad Dexter and Dewy Martin).

But when she did the songs and the voice-overs for The Lady and the Tramp she was paid $3,500. In 1987, Disney put the movie out on video cassette, and offered the singer nothing. She took the company to court. She pushed them into admitting that they had had revenue of $90m from the cassette.

Whereupon there was a hush in the court, and Peggy Lee was home, with a multi-million dollar settlement.

Well, she's dead now – she suffered a heart attack last Monday – and it's easy to write her off as a phenomenon of the Fifties. Until you hear her.