Doris Day sings Cuttin' Capers in My Dream is Yours (1949)
By Maureen Lee Lenker
We love Doris Day! She’s the epitome of everything wonderful about classic movies – a sunny burst of happiness and energy, with a one-of-a-kind voice to match. Day rose to fame as a torch singer and a featured player in Warner Brothers musicals, but she quickly found her own path as a distinctive representative of a mid-century woman. She’s most popularly associated with her girl-next-door image at the heart of her romantic comedies opposite Rock Hudson, but her career spanned the gamut of genres from suspense thrillers to melodrama to darkest noir to musicals.
Doris Day stars in film version of the Broadway Musical, The Pajama Game (1955)
Though she only made a little less than 40 films (a small number when you compare the 100-plus titles of the likes of Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, etc.), she made an indelible impression on classic film. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but here are five of ours...
5. That Touch of Mink (1962)
Day’s most iconic screen partner is, of course, Rock Hudson, but she had another unforgettable outing opposite one of the most quintessential movie stars of all time – Cary Grant – in That Touch of Mink. Day is Cathy Timberlake, a New York City career woman who is saving herself for marriage while she focuses on her professional ambitions. When she meets wealthy businessman Philip Shayne (Cary Grant), he tries to talk her into having a love affair. He woos her, all the while falling in love with her. The romantic comedy is a delightful romp, featuring two of the best actors to ever feature in the genre. For sports fans, there’s an added bonus – Philip is a co-owner of the Yankees and Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, and Roger Maris all appear as themselves when Philip brings Cathy to a game with seats in the dugout.
4. Love Me or Leave Me (1955)
Because many assumed Day’s sunny disposition was just an onscreen version of herself, she sadly never won an Oscar – but if she had, it should have been for her portrayal of Ruth Etting in Love Me or Leave Me. Day stars as real-life jazz singer Ruth Etting in this fictionalized biopic that recounts her rise to stardom and her tempestuous relationship with husband and manager Marty Snyder (Jimmy Cagney). The film calls upon Day to do some of her most intense acting ever, including a devastating rape scene opposite Cagney, much of which was left on the cutting room floor due to Production Code censors. Not only does she get to feature her acting chops, but also Day still gets to showcase her signature voice, including a jaw-dropping take on “Shaking the Blues Away.” Day faced a lot of criticism (and had much internal uncertainty) for taking on a role that required her to drink, smoke, dress scantily, and generally display far more vulgarity than she portrayed onscreen. Still, oddly, the role possessed more parallels to her real life than many of her comedies – she herself had begun her career as a dancer and switched to singing after a devastating injury, and she also suffered greatly at the hands of husbands who mismanaged her money and her career.
3. The Man who Knew Too Much (1956)
Day stars opposite Jimmy Stewart in The Man who Knew Too Much, Alfred Hitchcock’s remake of his own suspense thriller about a kidnapped child and a murder plot involving a concert at Royal Albert Hall. Hitchcock made the original film while still living and working in Britain, but this remake obliterates any memories of the moderately decent thriller featuring Peter Lorre in his first English language role. The reason – Doris Day and her performance of “Que Sera Sera.” She initially dismissed it as a silly children’s song, but it went on to win an Academy Award and become her signature song. Viewers were first introduced to the tune in this film as a shared bond between Day’s Josephine McKenna and her son. When he is kidnapped after his father, Benjamin McKenna (Jimmy Stewart), is suspected of knowing too much, the song becomes instrumental in the climactic hunt to rescue him. The film was also key in establishing another aspect of Day’s life – her commitment to animals and their welfare. After seeing the ill treatment of the animals on set during the film’s early marketplace scenes, she became determined to work for their protection and better treatment.
2. Pillow Talk (1959)
It doesn’t get more iconic than Pillow Talk – Doris Day immortalized herself and her onscreen partnership with Rock Hudson in this film about two neighbors who share a party line and can’t stand each other. The problem is – when they meet in person, sparks fly and Jan (Doris Day) doesn’t realize that the hunky Texan she’s falling for is actually the detestable playboy she shares a phone line with. The part took Day’s relatable girl-next-door persona and added some extra oomph and sex appeal to her image (amazingly, Marilyn Monroe originally wanted to play Jan). Though this is now his most recognizable film, this marked Rock Hudson’s first comedy, as he’d largely made a career playing handsome leading men in melodramas prior to this point. Dripping with romance, tenderness, and hilarity, Pillow Talk is one of the most blissfully perfect films out there. It also marked the beginning of a lifelong friendship between Hudson and Day, leading many to hope (or speculate) that they were also lovers off-screen – a hope decidedly proven false when he tragically died from complications from AIDS in 1985.
1. Calamity Jane (1953)
Though she is probably most fondly remembered for her sex comedies with Rock Hudson, Doris Day is her most inimitable as the title character in Calamity Jane. The film is an effervescent, candy-colored musical ode to Wild West heroes Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok (Howard Keel). Day is at her most peppy and zany here as tomboy sharpshooter Calamity Jane who secretly loves her frenemy Wild Bill, but finds herself fighting against his attraction to the more overtly feminine Katie Brown (Allyn Ann McLerie). From the ballad “My Secret Love” to the opening whipcracks of the “Deadwood Stage,” Day gets to showcase her phenomenal vocal range, while also featuring her unique persona as a tomboyish girl-next-door. She veers from expert displays of physical comedy to genuinely touching scenes of heartbreak. Calamity Jane is the epitome of everything that made Day great – her pep, her relatable-ness, her sense of humor, her deep well of emotions, and her one-of-a-kind voice. Throughout the years, Day has often listed it as her favorite of her 39 film roles.
Whether she’s crooning an American standard or making us laugh in a romantic comedy, there’s no one who puts a smile on our face quite like Doris Day.