June/July/Aug 2008

Blond Ambition

Doris Day sacrificed a lot for box-office success. But that doesn’t mean she was a victim.

Marc Weingarten


A film professor I had in college, a hard-core Jesuit who swore by Doris Day, had convinced himself that she was the greatest actress in Hollywood history. The reasoning went something like this: She 1) was conversant in all genres, 2) was an accomplished actress, singer, and dancer, and 3) projected a complex persona that was demure but with an undercurrent of feline menace. It annoyed me to no end. For any young and precious cineast, Day was not a subject for serious inquiry, as were, say, the Nouvelle Vague and Buster Keaton. But everyone who took that class—the History of Musicals—knew that, once we savored Astaire, Kelly, and Richard Rogers, we would have to endure a few hours of proselytizing for Day, along with a screening of what is arguably her best film, the Ruth Etting biopic Love Me or Leave Me.

The professor had fallen prey to a common distemper in American filmgoers: He had fallen in love and couldn’t separate his ardor from his judgment. In the prime of Day’s career, he had lots of company. Day was the most successful star of the ’50s and early ’60s; her box-office receipts crushed those of the other film giants of her day—Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando. It’s not hard to suss out the basis of this appeal: Day was a consensus starlet in an era of profound (if also nervous) consensus. Whether you regard her as a symbol of repressed sexuality or as a domesticated ideal of the 4-H Club homemaker, she embodies the postwar cultural zeitgeist: She will forever be our ’50s girl. It’s no surprise that Day’s fame coincided with the rise of Technicolor and the slow death of black-and-white moviemaking. With her cornflower-blue eyes, crimson lips, and golden hair, she was a movie star as a child with crayons might have conceived one.

Because Day is as much signifier as star, it’s astonishing that few have tackled her work in relation to the mores of her time and ours. In Doris Day: The Untold Story of the Girl Next Door (Virgin Books, $30), David Kaufman has certainly made a nice run at it. His book is, in all senses of the word, exhaustive: It omits no detail of Day’s life and career. But it fails to provide the sort of intellectual heft the subject warrants—the synoptic detail in Kaufman’s narrative consistently crowds out context and analysis.

Kaufman, author of a biography of the playwright Charles Ludlam, is as much in love with Day as my old professor was. And he exhibits the same missionary zeal, especially when it comes to film trivia. This obsessive focus on the minutiae of Day’s career can occasionally yield some striking insights in the tale’s margins. The book offers a close- up look at how movies were put together in the waning days of the star system, together with some stark evocations of the studio-mogul mindset that propelled such projects. For example, you can see the feverish box-office calculations behind Jack Warner’s memo indicating that he would hire Frank Sinatra as a lead in The Pajama Game if his fee was within reason, or the aesthetic resignation that director Michael Curtiz—of Casablanca fame—voiced when he read a draft of the screenplay for the Gus Kahn biopic I’ll See You in My Dreams: “It’s the same story we’ve been seeing for years and years.”

But when it comes to the woman herself, there’s a notable silence here on what should be the core interpretive challenge for any biographer of hers: How could this open-faced star, so next-door accessible as a movie personality, be so stubbornly inscrutable to the world at large? Day spent the decades-long sunset of her career as a virtual recluse, shielded from public view and unapproachable by her fans. Needless to say, she didn’t cooperate with Kaufman on this book, and so he is perhaps not to be faulted for relying on a raft of press releases and gossip-magazine articles to fill in the black hole at the story’s center.

But even in its barest, most accessible outlines, Day’s story cries out for greater critical enterprise than Kaufman musters here. On the surface, her life reads like something George M. Cohan might have cooked up: The girl from the Midwest pulls herself up by her nylons and wows the world. But there are plenty of darker currents as well, suggesting that Joseph Mankiewicz could have done the screenplay’s second draft: The daughter of second-generation German parents living in Cincinnati, Doris Mary Ann von Kappelhoff was a stage child captive to her mother, Alma, a domineering shrew who held Day’s career in her iron grip for years, until Curtiz and Day’s husband Marty Melcher supplanted her. Day’s father, William, was never around, and so, as Kaufman notes, the precocious urge to perform was a substitute for the “attention her father denied her at home.”

Dance lessons led to talent shows, and a trip to Hollywood in 1937. The inevitable move to LA was delayed, however, when a car Day was in was struck by a train in Hamilton, Ohio. Her leg was shattered and bent nearly in half. But the unstoppable Alma kept her eyes on the prize, using the convalescence as an opportunity to strengthen her daughter’s singing voice.

Once he’s transported Day to Los Angeles and her career starts in earnest, Kaufman doesn’t dwell on such fraught formative experiences. The sunny Day, Kaufman writes, was cosseted and victimized by overbearing men; in that sense, she was truly a product of her era. Day married four times—thrice quite badly—and her big break came at a price. Curtiz, who had acceded to pasha status in 40s Hollywood after the success of Casablanca, cast Day in her first film, Romance on the High Seas (1948). Convinced that she was bound for greatness, he signed Day to an odious, ironclad contract, which Warner Bros. took over when it bought out Curtiz’s production company. Her husband and manager Melcher wriggled her out of the contract eventually, but skull­duggery was afoot. After Melcher’s death in 1968, Day’s son, Terry, discovered that her manager Jerry Rosenthal had blown through a twenty-two-million-dollar fortune. Holly­wood’s golden gal was now deeply in debt, and she was compelled to squander her gifts in the service of a sitcom called The Doris Day Show.

The problem with all this unhappy starlet melodrama, though, is that it loses sight of the flesh-and-blood Day. While it’s true that she made some disastrous choices, to think of her solely as a victim is to underplay the very active hand she took in shaping her success. It’s clear from Kaufman’s account that Day was ferociously ambitious: performing with big bands even though she suffered from debilitating stage fright, plunging into movie acting without benefit of any prior thespian experience, making canny choices that shored up her sharply defined public persona.

No bigger star of the era appeared in more forgettable films. But Day had a way of rising above meretricious junk by virtue of her unstoppable charisma. It’s hard not to be charmed by her. She made one flat-out classic, 1955’s Love Me or Leave Me, a tart, cynical biopic of the nightclub singer Ruth Etting, whose career, not unlike Day’s, was controlled by a ruthless rube. Pushed around both physically and professionally by her Mobbed-up husband Marty Snyder (James Cagney), Etting comes off in Day’s portrayal as a complicated figure, both personally and professionally. She’s vulner­able but never wilts, pouring her anguish into the torch songs that made her a Jazz Age star. Perhaps because Day’s best work has been obscured by the wildly popular Rock Hudson collaborations, she has never gotten her due for films like Love Me or Leave Me. As with John Wayne, the cultural preconceptions surrounding Day have obscured the real achievements.

Kaufman theorizes that some of Day’s films suggest a certain protofeminism in her work. But a chauvinist teaser like 1961’s Lover Come Back, which has Hudson’s scheming ad-exec character posing as a doctor to coax Day into the sack, hardly fits that profile. It is, rather, pretty hoary—and patriarchal—battle-of-the-sexes fare, depicting the big-game hunter’s efforts to bag the most coveted quarry, a chaste looker whose surface hostility masks a purring and submissive bedmate. Day may give as good as she gets in the film’s half-naughty banter, but by the final reel, she is a virgin possessed, in the tradition of conquered heroines going back at least to The Taming of the Shrew. Despite the questionable sexual politics of this film, it is well crafted. The chemistry between Day and Hudson is palpable and appealing, and she showcases a new, and heretofore unsuspected, gift for comedic acting, a tart and snappy flair for cutting dialogue making her a PTA version of Rosalind Russell.

But that’s all, folks. Day never made another decent film; by the late 60s, she was making piffle like With Six You Get Eggroll. She then gently rode her television career into the sunset of retirement, still as enigmatic as she was at the height of her fame. Kaufman’s encyclopedic survey may serve to briefly raise her reputation from its long state of neglect. But to take true measure of the Doris Day mystery, we need someone to place it firmly within a broader ambit of cultural tensions that survive to this day, rather than preach another variation on the gospel of Saint Doris.

Marc Weingarten is a writer in Los Angeles. He blogs at twojakes.blogspot.com.

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