Doris Day

It is usually hard for me to explain to people why I love Doris Day like I do, so one day I promised myself I would write a great exposition articulating everything I've always wished I could say. I hope that what I am composing here will finally amount to that.

If you don't know me well personally, you don't know how much I love Doris Day. Admiration of her is wrapped up closely in who I am and is an integral part of my earliest memories. My close friends and relatives, particularly those who have lived with me at some point, are witnesses to my Doris Day fanaticism and will testify to its fervor. This is serious business.

For that reason, I proudly unveiled the beginnings of this new page of my blog on April 3rd in honor of Ms. Day's 87th birthday, and am now debuting it again in its entirety.

First, for those of you who don't know Doris well, or at all, I would like to present some materials (posted below) that will make you better acquainted with her talent and personality. For those of you who know and love Doris, you need no excuse to spend hours enjoying these resources.
Second, I refer you to the first film review published in this blog, in which I alluded to my love of all things Day.

And now I will get down to the nitty gritty business of explaining why Doris Day was and still is the most exquisitely glorious star to emerge from America's Golden Age of entertainment.

Doris Day was one of the most talented, most beloved, most popular, and most successful stars in her day... in human history, really. Yet today she is one of the most publicly disregarded, underrated, forgotten, and unknown stars of her era. 

It is a puzzling paradox, one difficult to explain. Faithfully followed and adored by scores of fans worldwide (who to this day send her as much mail as she got in her hey-day), yet simultaneously snubbed by critics, the media, and the Academy, Doris Day must rank as the most loved star who was ever ignored.

Part of this, certainly, is due to Ms. Day's deliberate avoidance of public attention, which has often made her the butt of bizarre tabloid ruminations. Yet I contend that the bulk of the blame must be attributed to other causes, ones that are complex and unproven (I might add perhaps improvable). 

What kind of success are we talking about here?
Doris Day is the top female box office star of all time. She is ranked at number six on the list of All Time Top Ten Number One Stars, where she is tied with John Wayne and Shirley Temple with 4 years in the top slot each. *A note about this list. It is a ranking of the ten stars who reached the number one spot at the box office more than three separate times* Doris is the only woman on that list (Temple was a child at the time she earned her spot). Famous stars such as Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Bette Davis, and Judy Garland are not to be found there. 

Doris appeared in the top ten list in ten different years between 1951 and 1966. In 1962, 1963, and 1964, she made a clean sweep of the number one spots. 

She starred in 39 pictures over the course of 20 years opposite 28 leading men, including Ronald Reagan, Kirk Douglas, James Cagney, Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable, David Niven, Rock Hudson, Cary Grant, and James Garner. Ms. Day sang in most of these films and danced in many, besides releasing over 600 song recordings between 1947 and 1967. 

In short, she was what we would call a triple threat
To be competent in acting, singing, and dancing was not uncommon among stars in the Golden Age. Many stars that were accomplished at all three graced the silver screen in those years, but no one did them all as well as Doris Day. That is a verifiable statement, and one that I will endeavor to support on this page. There is some obvious competition that I will have to work hard to retire (I'm thinking Judy Garland in particular), but I think it can be done. To do that I will have to break it down to manageable pieces. I will discuss Ms. Day's acting, singing, and dancing in turn, but I will do so with a heavy emphasis on personality and spiritual/emotional connection to the audience, which we might call the "It Factor.” My argument will ultimately rest on an assessment of Doris Day as the most warm, natural, and effortless star of her time and since her time. 

Acting is, very simply, the art of making fantasy seem real. The best actors are those who make us forget that they are acting and draw their audience that much more deeply into their made-up world. Doris Day was such an actress. She was America's Sweetheart, the ultimate Girl Next Door, and is remembered as such today because the American public fell hook, line, and sinker for the idea that Doris Day wasn't acting at all on the screen, but that she was truly being her own bubbly, sunny self. That such a star could be at the top of America's box office for so long without the public having an inkling of how unhappy her life was is a testament to her impeccable acting ability.

That image of the bubblegum-blowing, baseball-throwing, fresh freckle-faced smiling, tune-belting, Rock Hudson-hugging Doris that is unshakable to this day was born substantially from her natural acting talent, which was not coached, prodded, nor indoctrinated. When Doris Day broke into Hollywood through the leading role of her first picture, Romance on the High Seas, she didn't know the first thing about acting, and that was precisely what A-List director Michael Curtiz (of Casablanca fame) liked best about her. As he observed in his broken English, "It was not like actress reading. This was something I was not used to. The little lady read like human being..."

And there we come to the heart of what made Doris Day's acting so disarming and transcendental: it was not like acting at all.

This is one of the elusive facts that explain why Doris Day soared to such heights on what was often bad material, for the truth of the matter is that Day rarely had a chance at the meaty, serious roles that other stars were used to eating for breakfast. Take, for example, such films as It's a Great FeelingJulie, and Caprice, which were all bizarre in their own right. The plots may be ridiculous and the scripts horrendous, but Doris is so fascinating that you forget all about it.

There are two basic types of acting: comedy and drama. Within those categories are gray areas that are hard to classify, like acting in musicals and acting while singing. Besides that there is acting in television, which is different from acting in film, and acting through song which is different from acting while singing, or acting in a funny drama. It can get very complicated. The good news, which simplifies the discussion, is that Doris Day was good at all of it. She was one of the funniest people on film, and also one of the best dramatic actors in films like Love Me or Leave Me, but she was never a comic or heavy drama queen to the movie-going public. She was just Doris Day.

The key to that success was Day's natural ability to connect with her audience on a personal level. Doris wasn't funny because of the situations she was in, or the jokes she made, or the way she manipulated her body, though she was able to integrate those successfully into her performance. She was funny, and still is, because she was able to effortlessly, seamlessly, and subtly embody all of the Everyman qualities that allowed her audience to relate directly to her.

As in this clip, you don't see the comedy coming, because it flows in a way that most of us can relate to by experience. This is particularly true when Doris gets mad. It is funny because it is a believable expression of feelings we have all had from time to time.

This is the “It Factor”: the ability to connect with an audience not by acting, but by simply being. Doris Day had that in full, and it explains her success, not only in the box office, but in music and television as well. The “It Factor” translates across all mediums.

When Doris did get a chance at truly great roles in films like The Man Who Knew Too Much and Love Me or Leave Me, which depicted elements of emotional trauma and pain that were more akin to her own life than the carefree scenes of April in Paris, the public was stunned and the Academy struck deaf, dumb, and blind. In her memoirs, Doris even remembers receiving a significant volume of "hate" mail for her performance in Love Me or Leave Me, which was so consummate it made some fans angry. A smoking, drinking, manipulative Doris Day was not what fans were accustomed to seeing, and it made them uncomfortable. She responded to all of that mail personally. In one of the greater travesties of Academy history, Day was not even nominated for best actress that year, and, had it not been for Pillow Talk, she never would have been. To this day she remains wholly unrewarded by the Academy.

This is simply astonishing given that Doris can be described as the most successful woman in film history. What did/does the Academy have against Doris Day? Was she overlooked because of her quiet lifestyle and low-profile social behavior? Was she maliciously snubbed out of resentment? Did they honestly think that she was undeserving of such a high award? It could be a combination of all three. I have always suspected that Day’s disinterest in the play-hard lifestyle so typical of Hollywood alienated some of her peers, possibly the Academy, and certainly the press. They snorted at her simplicity and looked down on her as a “goody two-shoes” because she would rather ride on a bicycle than in a limo. In other words, she didn’t fit in.

On the other side of the coin, Day’s “acting” was so good it drew attention away from her. Her performance in Love Me or Leave Me comes across as so natural that attention is diverted from the fact that she is acting. These kinds of performances do not bode well for Oscar wins, while “louder” and more dramatic acts, such as Susan Hayward in I Want to Live! and Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce are engineered for Oscars. The winning performance of the year in which Love Me or Leave Me was released was by Anna Magnani in The Rose Tattoo. Honestly, I had to look them both up.  

Love Me or Leave Me was a hit, and James Cagney’s insistence that Doris Day be sought to act in it speaks volumes. He ceded top billing to her in that film, making her the first actress to have such an honor in the past 30 years of his career.  He said of Day: “As an actress, she perfectly illustrates my definition of good acting; just plant yourself, look the other actor in the eye, and tell him the truth. That’s what she does, all right.”

Love Me or Leave Me was one of the 27 top-grossing films of the year and number eight on Film Daily’s “10 Best” list. It won one Oscar and another five nominations, while the soundtrack album (sung by Day, of course) held the number one spot on the charts for seventeen weeks.

If we are going to keep running tabs on Doris Day’s competition for the “Best Star Ever” title, we will see the field dramatically narrow after considering the “singing” element of the triple threat criteria. In acting only, the competition is heavy indeed. Greats such as Claudette Colbert, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Greta Garbo, the Hepburns, Vivien Leigh, Barbara Stanwyck, and Elizabeth Taylor crowd the picture, but add singing, and they are all eliminated instantly. That really leaves us with a much smaller crowd, which could include Deanna Durbin, Shirley Jones, Kathryn Grayson, Lena Horne, Barbra Streisand, Jane Powell, Julie Andrews, Debbie Reynolds, and of course Judy Garland. If I keep the scope of this discussion to major stars in the studio era of Hollywood, which is the time-frame I’m interested in, only Debbie Reynolds and Judy Garland remain.

While most stars in the Golden Age were capable of carrying a tune, serious singing ability was much less common, and Doris’s caliber was unparalleled. There are a few assessment points on which I base this claim, and I will discuss each briefly: pitch, quality of voice, phrasing, versatility, and expression. Now, I am no professor of music, so I’m not polished in the jargon, but I think I have a solid layman’s understanding of what makes a particular musical performance better than others.

Songs are composed of notes, which singers express through tones composed of pitches. Put simply, pitches are the frequencies of the vibrations that reach the ear of the listener and allow him or her to discern tonal progressions in the melody and harmony. There is an element of subjectivity to pitches because the same pitch may be interpreted differently by different people and because so many variables influence both pitch and perception, although there is ultimately an objective standard regarding the general “correctness” of pitches (individuals who have perfect pitch may be trusted to judge pitch whereas those who are tone deaf cannot).

For this reason, two vocalists may sing the same note, but, due to the differing frequencies of voice, their pitches may sound different. The number of pitches and gradients that fall within the realm of any one note can be quite impressive. There are about 1,400 pitch steps discernable by human ears, whereas there are only 120 notes. This is why, when you watch the final ten on American Idol, you hear the judges warning finalists from time to time that they were “pitchy.” Their pitches, or frequencies of voice, were not falling within the center range of the note. This may be compared to the really terrible contestants you laughed at in the tryouts, who sang the wrong notes entirely.

Knowing that there are roughly 11 ½ pitches by which any one note may be sung imparts a greater appreciation for the way in which truly fine singers hit the note in the middle, in a way that cooperates best with the melodic anticipation of the listener and the instrumental accompaniment. If you have a sensitivity to pitch, you will have noticed that most vocalists will hit at least some of their notes on either high or low pitches within the note’s range. A good example of this is Marlene Dietrich, who rarely hit a note in its center pitch range, usually landing in the low range of the note instead. The more often a vocalist lands a note in its middle, the better he or she sounds on the whole. Listeners who are pitch sensitive may develop more confidence in those vocalists and find their recordings better to sink into.

Doris Day was such a vocalist, and it explains why she was, in biographer Tom Santopietro’s words, “the number one female recording star in the nation from the mid-1950s through the early 1960s, garnering multiple gold albums.” Listener confidence was high. She sounded good.

Quality of voice
By quality of voice I mean the tone quality or timbre, which can also be described as texture. It is what makes a trumpet and clarinet, playing at the same pitch and volume, sound different. There is a lot of room for preference in quality of voice because it is a largely subjective attribute, but there are some general objective guidelines. Individuals who have been trained in voice and studied it seriously list a number of no-no’s, including nasal sound, breathiness, screeching, voice breaks, etc. The general public is more forgiving, embracing as stars many of the vocalists who cause classical singers to cringe. Even if a voice teacher gets a sore throat just listening to Louis Armstrong, America still loves him!

One of the most gratifying characteristics of Doris Day’s voice is that it doesn’t encourage bad habits among aspiring singers. She projects a sound that is healthy, polished, and incredibly smooth. Its fullness is enveloping, its color warm, and its vibrato skillfully done.

There is far more to singing than pitches and sounding good. One of the attributes separating a truly great singer from the rest of the pack is the ability to phrase a song. Doris Day was the queen of song phrasing. Her ability to put the right emphasis in the right places, to breathe, shade, crescendo and decrescendo, and even smile at precisely the right moments resulted in the distinction of her singing talent from her peers. Most people who loved Doris Day when she was current will remember that she had a special way of singing to each audience member individually that made them feel as if they were being personally serenaded. This is the difference between singing to an audience, as her peers did, and singing as if into someone’s ear, as only Doris did so well.

Ballads, jazz, big band, swing, Broadway, torch songs, ditties, lullabies, just about anything that was popular in America in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, Doris Day sang it successfully, and her voice seemed perfectly suited to everything it vocalized.

This is where it gets really fun. I mentioned earlier that Doris’ smile can be heard very plainly in her voice. That is a remarkable feat of expression and one that I have never noticed in anyone else. But it goes beyond that. What we as an audience have in Doris Day is not a multitalented performer who can sing as well as act, we have a delightful person who is living out the expression of – rather than just giving voice to – the words of her songs. I’ve long thought the key to describing Day’s unique singing capability to be that her singing was simply a melodic outpouring of her personality. Just as her acting doesn’t seem like acting at all, her singing was so natural, seamless, and effortless that it almost doesn’t seem like singing at all. This is due in great part to her unequaled expression.

I can use a concrete example to prove this:

Musicals were almost always dubbed over with studio recordings of the featured songs. Ever notice how nobody sounds out of breath even when they are dancing and running around all over the place while singing? That was because the scene would be filmed for the visual effects and then the audio from that shoot would be replaced with studio cuts, which were of much better quality. In a rare exception to this rule, the number “I Can Do Without You,” performed by Doris Day and Howard Keel in Calamity Jane, made it into the film with its original audio intact. The quality of the take was so good that the director and producers didn’t see any compelling reasons to dub over it. If you listen carefully to the part where Doris is vaulting herself back over the counter after Howard pushes her down from it, you can hear that her volume drops when she turns her head away from the camera. You can even hear the little grunt as she hoists herself.

Compare this to any of Day’s other song performances, particularly ones in which she is involved in physical action. The point is that her expression is equal across the board. If I hadn’t read that “I Can Do Without You” was not studio dubbed, I might never have noticed. The point? Her expression was so masterful that she was able to recreate in the studio all of the physical actions, emotions, facial expressions, and intonations she used during the visual take, providing for an incredible continuity between her physical and vocal expressions.

Doris Day did this with a mastery never achieved by any other star.

By now I have dismissed most of Day’s competition on the grounds of inferior musical performance. I am about to dismiss the rest on the grounds of either inferior dance performance or inferior overall performance. This may be a good time to remind readers that I am not seeking to insult or degrade anyone else’s favorite star. I realize that not everybody’s favorite star is Doris Day and that some people love their favorites as much as I love mine, and I thank God for that. If everyone loved Doris Day as much as I do it would mean that everyone was too much alike and the whole world would implode. I am not arguing that anyone should stop loving their favorite star and start loving mine. I am not even saying that loving a star as your favorite and believing them to be the best at what they do have to go together. The innate criteria by which we pick our most favorites and least favorites is far more complicated, subjective, and personal than that, and I am glad for it, because that makes it more mysterious and unique a process. What I am arguing is that the star I believe to be the best (who also happens to be my favorite) has been under appreciated and unrecognized, and I want that to change.

I know that Doris Day had an undeniable talent for dance because she had demonstrated it by the time she came into adolescence. In fact, she was already signed for a dance career in Hollywood when, at the age of fourteen, her right leg was crushed by a train that hit the car she was riding in. Tragic as it was, this event can be seen as a blessing by her fans because it was while convalescing and learning again how to walk that Doris learned to sing.

I also know that Doris Day can dance because I’ve seen her flawless performances in multiple films. It was demonstrated time and again, though not as often as her voice. In fact, very few stars in Hollywood built their careers on dancing.  Astaire and Rogers and Cyd Charisse are perhaps the only mega stars who became famous for dancing while not also singing. Other stars, Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Donald O’Connor, are all remembered for special dance routines, but these routines were all tied to some popular song that has lived on and carried the dance with it as a complete package. It was a fairly rare thing for a star to be carried along in the public eye based on the merit of their stupendous dancing, while it was very common for both acting and singing.

Doris Day’s talent in dancing, for that reason, is a super-powered bonus in terms of the overall shape of her career. She could have gotten along just fine as a major star without ever tapping out a beat. But she did, time and again, and she did it very well. Better than Debbie Reynolds, and better than Judy Garland.

As a top tier performer in each of the triple threat categories, then, Doris Day was a force to be reckoned with. If she had been competitive, ambitious, determined, and driven to conquer, as some of her counterparts were, she would have been out there hiring publicity agents and battling it out with Crawford and Davis.  But Doris Day was not any of those things during her career, and she isn’t now. She was, and still is, the warm, loving, and private person who was just working on her own pursuit of happiness. Doris Day was never concerned that the public eye be turned to her. She didn’t crave the awards and accolades. She just sincerely hoped to bring joy to movie audiences.

"I like joy; I want to be joyous. I want to smile and I want to make people laugh. And that’s all I want. I like being happy. I want to make others happy." – Doris Day

She’s made me happy, like my mother and grandmother before me. Wherever her work goes today, that joy goes with it. I am happy to have a hand in spreading it. 

YouTube lists:
Doris Day: The Early Years
Doris Day: The Recording Legend
Doris Day: The Movie Star
Doris: The Later Years
The Real Doris: Interviews and Documentaries
Doris Sings Christmas

Favorite Websites:
The Official Site
Best Fan Site
TCM Page
Greatest Doris Film Site
High Quality Photo Gallery
Most Vibrant Message Boards
Her Animal Care League
...And Foundation
Her Hotel

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* Some sources insist that Doris was born in 1922, which would actually make her 89, but I am sticking with the 1924 tradition, as that is more commonly accepted and given on her official site.

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