Film Studies: Wholesome, kind and as blonde as fresh butter. Come back Doris, we miss you!

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The Independent Culture

It is said that she is too shy now to come out for such occasions, but if she would give the faintest hint of being ready, willing and able, then Doris Kappelhoff of Cincinnati could write her ticket to the next Academy Awards for an honorary tribute. And the audience would go wild, for we are talking about one of the most deeply beloved personalities on screen and records. For a decade, from about 1955 to 1965, Ms Kappelhoff was the biggest box-office attraction at the movies, bigger than John Wayne, Elizabeth Taylor, Elvis or Sinatra. (She is also the only woman who has held that lofty position.) Yet even now there may be a few readers who can't guess that I am talking about Doris Day.

Well, this last 3 April, Doris was 80, and I daresay she prefers to keep to her house in Carmel, California (otherwise inhabited by cats, I believe), because at that age she fears she might disappoint us. After all, Doris Day was the personification of health, spunk, cheek, charm, bounce and being as blonde as fresh butter. She was the girl next door, a wholesome, right-minded woman, honest, enthusiastic and kind. All of which could have been dull if it had been calculated by so much as an atom. But her singing voice, and its dramatic potential, was second only to that of Judy Garland. I can't say Day's voice was better, because when you hear Garland sing you know she's going to crack apart and perish, along with every hope of romance and happiness she's singing about. Whereas Doris Day made happiness acceptable by the sheer radiance of her voice.

As a kid, in the early Forties, when a bad traffic accident cut short her dancing ambitions, she became the girl singer with several bands - those of Bob Crosby and Les Brown, in particular - and she was perfect for that spotlight role: bright blonde, a terrific figure, and with a smile that the troops might remember 5,000 miles away.

It was in 1948 that she replaced Betty Hutton in Romance on the High Seas, a Warner Brothers musical at a time when that was nearly a contradiction in terms. Indeed, Day had the Warners attitude to overcome, as well as the strictly light-hearted, second-rank musicals made there after the war. The films were hits, so Warners kept them coming - My Dream is Yours, It's a Great Feeling, The West Point Story, Tea for Two, I'll See You in My Dreams, Starlift, Lullaby of Broadway, April in Paris, By the Light of the Silvery Moon, On Moonlight Bay. Her co-stars were lumps like Gordon Macrae, Danny Thomas, Ray Bolger, or misfit character actors like Jack Carson and Oscar Levant. If only she had been at MGM, there might have been someone to see that she could really act, and that she was ideal casting for a lot of those pictures (like Annie Get Your Gun) for which Garland was late, ill, or too unstable.

Nevertheless, in those Warners years, Day did put together a few great songs - "It's Magic" in Romance on the High Seas; "I'll String Along With You" in My Dream is Yours; "I'll See You in My Dreams"; and, of course, "April in Paris". But then in 1953, someone at the studio woke up to what they had on their hands: Calamity Jane was a vehicle designed for the tomboy Day. It was very close in material to Annie Get Your Gun. And it had this song - the great opening swoon of which is a mountain pass in some of our rocky souls: "Once I had a secret love". The song is by Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster. It didn't really fit the Calamity character (it's so romantic), but boy did it fit Day's lush voice! In addition, the song became a kind of secret anthem for the homosexual community. It was a smash hit and the plain fact was in view: the public ached to see and hear Doris Day.

After two disastrous early marriages, she had just married a manager, Marty Melcher, who took her career in hand. In 1955, she made two extraordinary films. The first is Young at Heart in which a very conventional happy family is intruded on by a depressive, anti-social heel, played by Frank Sinatra. Her good spirits rubbed against his sourness and an amazing chemistry was born. It is a tragedy that no one ever put them together again, for they were as startling and apposite as a sundae laced with vodka. The second picture was Love Me or Leave Me, in which Doris played the 1920s torch singer Ruth Etting, and Jimmy Cagney was her abusive manager-husband. That's the film where she sang "You Made Me Love You", "Ten Cents a Dance" and "Mean to Me" as well as the title song. And Cagney and Day together were so good that Melcher could now promote his wife as a dramatic actress.

It seemed she could do anything: the wife in Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much (where she sang "Que Sera, Sera"), high-powered melodramas like Midnight Lace, where she was threatened by Rex Harrison; and a string of romantic comedies which became increasingly risqué as censorship turned senile: Teacher's Pet, Pillow Talk, Lover Come Back, That Touch of Mink, Move Over, Darling. For co-stars she had her pick: Clark Gable, Rock Hudson, Cary Grant, James Garner.

When I say that this is the Doris Day who won the heart of the American novelist, John Updike, you may gather the strange ways in which these rather coy films were the perfect expression of the middle American wife and mother's urge to rebel, to be independent, to work, to have lovers, orgasms and great clothes. Women who had grown up trusting Doris were thrilled at the way she took on a new life. Her throaty chuckle became a flirtatious trick across the dark fields of the republic.

This was the height of her box-office appeal, and the means of considerable wealth. But by 1968, Doris decided no more. She was only in her mid-40s, but a younger age of actress was coming in, ready to take off their clothes, and Doris Day was too nice a girl for that.

There was another problem. The marriage to Melcher (considered very happy) broke up as Doris discovered that the scoundrel Marty had gone off with or lost $20m of her money. She had a breakdown, and it was a full decade before she got anywhere near legal recovery of the money. It was a sign, too, that compared with Barbra Streisand (the new age, and a singer who learned diction from Day), Doris never had the wit or the confidence to run her own career. That may be why she now lives with loyal animals; I hope she sings to them.

The public still remembers that. It's one reason why people of a certain age sigh and smile if you just put together those two words that mean the Fifties. It's no secret anymore - Doris, we loved you.