With so many aging actors finding opportunities to appear in movies and television shows, one actress recently retired from film and TV, leaving modern audiences unfamiliar with her screen persona. Throughout the years, Doris Mary Ann Kappelhoff’s career would move from big band singer to international movie star and a name change to Doris Day. One of the great stars of the 20th century, Day could convincingly play drama or comedy. Not only that, but she was also a top recording star. Yet how many people today have seen a Doris Day film?
With words like perky, sunny or sweet used to describe Day’s characters in films, it’s surprising how much pain Day faced in her life. She was married four times, once to an abusive alcoholic. She handled a huge financial loss late in her career. Hardship started when her first dream of being a dancer was destroyed after a car accident. Still wanting to be in show business, she became a singer. Here’s where her talent helped her succeed, as big-band leader Les Brown hired young Day, and in 1945 she sang one of the great big-band hits “Sentimental Journey.”
A cute blonde with a good voice, it didn’t take long for Hollywood to try Day out in movies. Warner Bros. cast her in 1948’s Romance on the High Seas, a musical that took advantage of Day’s voice and comic timing. She’d appear in other middling musicals in the next few years, usually co-starring with Jack Carson or Gordon MacRae, like 1949’s It’s a Great Feeling and 1950’s Tea for Two. She’d also get a chance to appear in more dramatic films like Young Man with a Horn (1950).
The 1950s provided her with some popular roles, including 1953’s Calamity Jane, where she sang the Academy Award-winning song, “Secret Love.” More serious films like Love Me or Leave Me (1955) and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) helped build her filmography. The latter movie gave her the song that would be the song most closely connected to her, “Que Sera, Sera.”
It’s a 1959 comedy that changed Day’s career. Pillow Talk made Day’s character an independent working woman who shares a telephone line with a confirmed bachelor played by Rock Hudson. A box-office hit, the film also gave Day her only Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. It would lead to several years of box-office success in her movies. She was the top female at the box office for several years in the early 1960s.
Her sunny and perky acting style felt natural, and her songs still sound good. Day would stop making movies by the 1970s, but we shouldn’t forget that she achieved a popularity not seen by many actresses. That’s the Doris Day that film fans should remember.