A Centennial Celebration: The Sounds of Doris Day

Doris Day was born Doris Mary Ann von Kappelhoff on April 3, 1922. Celebrations honoring the 100th anniversary of her birth will be found throughout our classic film community. Neither I nor this blog want to ignore this important centennial celebrating a beloved entertainer.

“I like joy; I want to be joyous; I want to have fun on the set; I want to wear beautiful clothes and look pretty. 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

Day in director Michael Curtiz’s film Young Man With a Horn (1950)

By my estimation Doris Day fulfilled her dreams and, speaking as one of her legions of fans, I know she brightened many a day with her talent and grace. Doris was born in Cincinnati, Ohio to first-generation German Americans. From the start she aspired to be a dancer, a ballerina who dedicated her energies to with the same vigor with which she would work all her career. Doris always said she thought her mother Alma fulfilled her own aspirations of being an entertainer through her daughter. Alma ensured Doris started dancing early, gave her dramatic and voice lessons. Only a train wreck could and did sideline Doris’ and Alma’s dreams when as a youngster Doris was in a terrible car accident. She was in a car with friends when a train ran into it. Doris couldn’t walk for a year, and it took her three years to recuperate from her injuries, a time during which she refocused her energies toward singing.

Doris began to get professional singing work at age 15 on Cincinnati’s WLW radio program Carlin’s Carnival and in a local restaurant. She was working with local bandleader Barney Rapp when she adopted the stage name Day at his request. Doris recounted in a 1988 interview that Rapp heard her sing Day by Day on the radio and hired her based on that song. Day seemed a natural choice of name even though Doris thought the name sounded cheap as if she were a burlesque performer.

During that time Doris met Al Jorden, a trombonist who would become her first of four husbands. In 1940 Bob Crosby, (brother of Bing) hired Doris as a singer for his popular swing band. Doris began to tour the country as Crosby’s singer and was spotted and hired by Les Brown that same year when he saw her perform in New York City. Although her star was on the rise, Doris walked away from show business to marry Jorden in 1941. The marriage produced her son Terry, but it ended in divorce two years later.

After Doris Day’s marriage ended, she reunited with Les Brown who was a mentor to Doris and who, among other things, helped her get rid of her Southern accent which (apparently) Southern Cincinnatians possess. Now during World War II Doris was touring again and doing what she could to help the War effort. She was also recording with Brown and his orchestra reaching number one on the charts in 1945 with Sentimental Journey, music by Les Brown and Ben Homer, and lyrics by Bud Green. Doris described how letters poured in the first time the song aired from the Pennsylvania Hotel in New York City. It was an instant hit. In fact, future friend and co-star Rock Hudson first became aware of Doris Day when he heard Sentimental Journey on the radio while he was in the Philippines. I love that. Anyway, that song was one of the seven top-ten hits Doris had with Les Brown that year. Of Doris Brown said, “She was every bandleader’s dream, a vocalist who had natural talent, a keen regard for lyrics and an attractive appearance.” 

Les Brown and Doris

The ‘attractive appearance’ part of the quote is really something. No doubt Doris Day’s beauty was part of her appeal and that audiences throughout the country couldn’t get enough of her sweet voice and distinctive style with a lyric, something Doris always credited her vocal coach for. Grace Raine would tell Doris singing a lyric was like acting a scene, “you are singing to one person,” she’d say, helping to make each of Doris Day’s most popular songs a unique experience for whoever was listening.

In 1947 Doris went solo signing a recording contract with Columbia Records. During that time she was appearing regularly on the radio on programs like Your Hit Parade and sang standards like this beautiful rendition of You Do in 1947. Here is another radio appearance with Les Brown from September 1945 on the variety show One Night Stan:

Doris Day also made weekly appearances on Bob Hope’s radio program from 1948 to 1950. Following are two, one from 1948 and the next from 1949:

Following is an Armed Forces Radio presentation where Doris does a memorable rendition of “Would I Love you”

In 1952 Doris Day got her own radio show. Although it ran for only over a year it’s a lot of fun to listen to. From May 2, 1952, with guests Donald O’Connor and Liberace, here is “The Doris Day Show” on radio:

In 1946 Doris married saxophonist George Weidler (older brother of Virginia) and the two eventually moved to California. Sadly, Doris Day was unlucky in love to put it mildly, and her second marriage was over in about eight months. Stinging from the separation, Doris attended a party at George and Ira Gershwin’s where she performed Embraceable You. Also in attendance were songwriters Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn who, impressed with Doris’ emotional performance, recommended her for a role in Michael Curtiz’s Romance on the High Seas (1948). Curtiz hired her for the part even though Doris cried through Embraceable You in his office. A few days later, Doris was sure she didn’t get the part but Jack Carson called Doris to give her the good news.

“I’ll remember this to my grave. We all walked into a room to see the screen tests. The first screen test was Marion Hutton’s. Then came Janis Paige [who ended up with a part in the film]. Then on the screen came Doris Day. I can only tell you, the screen just exploded. There was absolutely no question. A great star was born, and the rest is history.” – Sammy Cahn

I mirror Mr. Cahn’s sentiments. It is hard to believe Romance on the High Seas is Doris Day’s first movie. She is at ease and as natural as anyone who’s ever appeared on a big screen. Alongside a cast that sparkles: Jack Carson, Janis Paige, Don DeFore, and S. Z. Sakall, Doris’ star sparkles brightest.

Romance on the High Seas tells the story of married couple, Michael, and Elvira Kent (DeFore and Paige) who suspect each other of cheating. Elvira wants to celebrate their anniversary with a cruise to Rio de Janeiro, but Michael tells her he can’t go because he has too much work to do. Elvira then concocts a scheme to tell Michael she’s going on the cruise alone but sends Georgia Garrett (Day) in her place so she (Elvira) can stay behind and spy on Michael. Meanwhile Michael suspects Elvira because she’s just too eager to go on the cruise alone so he hires private detective Peter Virgil (Jack Carson) to spy on Elvira on the cruise. Long story short, Georgia pretends to be Elvira, Georgia falls in love with Peter and he with her all the while Georgia’s friend Oscar (Oscar Levant) also goes on the cruise and is also in love with Georgia.

The mistaken identity plot in Romance in the High Seas is hardly new. Have you ever seen a Fred and Ginger picture? But with the cast of veteran supporting players, it can’t help but be delightful. That is particularly true of the moments when Doris Day sings especially the Academy Award-nominated, It’s Magic, which makes for as magical a moment on film as you can find. Doris’ voice soars with confidence, a sound that transports you to another dimention. It’s Magic lost Best Original Song at the 1949 Oscars to Buttons and Bows from The Paleface, but Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn’s song hit number two on the Billboard charts. Movie lovers were crazy about it then – and are crazy about it now.

In its review of Romance on the High Seas, Variety wrote of Doris Day, “A charming and talented newcomer…Miss Day is a winner, any way you look at her!” That remained true for the entirety of Day’s three-decade, 39-film career. Following the success of Romance on the High Seas, Michael Curtiz placed Doris under a personal contract for more films at Warner Bros. In all Doris made 17 pictures during her seven years at Warner Bros. and all but two of them were nostalgic musicals.

Singing ‘Secret Love in Calamity Jane (1953)

Doris Day’s musicals are among my favorites with Calamity Jane (1953) tops on the list. I must have seen that one dozens of times as a child. The songs featured in her movies often hit the charts too with her unique, silky voice a highlight on any day. Sammy Fail and Paul Francis Webster’s Secret Love from Calamity Jane hit number one in 1954 after winning Best Song at the Oscars. And by the way, Doris walked into the recording studio on the Warner lot and without ever having rehearsed with the orchestra recorded Secret Love in one take. She worked for about 3 minutes that day and made another exhilarating sound.

Day also proved she was a terrific dramatic actor in movies like Storm Warning (1950), Love Me or Leave Me (1955), and Midnight Lace (1960). Jack Lemmon who stands among our greatest screen actors of all time said that Doris was a method actor without ever having attended the Actor’s Studio. That’s quite the statement.

In 1956 Day co-starred with James Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much wherein she introduced what would become her signature song. Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be) won the Academy Award for Best Song and when she recorded it later it became a huge hit. Doris later admitted to not having liked that song much when she first heard it, but she must have grown into it because she chose it as the theme for The Doris Day Show which ran on CBS from 1968 to 1973. I want to roll my eyes when someone mentions Que Sera, Sera, written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans. It is overplayed and it sometimes feel like people think that is all Doris Day did. But then I hear it and the possibilities of the unknown resurface with the sound. It is a beautiful song.

Doris worked with some of the best actors in the business and proved aces in romantic comedies. As you know, of all her co-stars and all those pictures her most popular was Rock Hudson with whom she made three movies. Their first together, Pillow Talk (1959), earned Doris her only Academy Award nomination. As enjoyable as the Day-Hudson movies are, I have a special affection for the two movies Doris made with James Garner, Move Over Darling and The Thrill of it All both from 1963. The Day-Garner chemistry is superb.

As far as Doris’s movies go, I don’t think anyone said it better than Lucille Ball who interviewed Doris at 20th Century Fox in 1964 during the making of Do Not Disturb. Lucy thanks Doris and the producers for making the “wonderful, beautiful pictures…that allowed people to escape, to dream a little, see some beauty, and not have to be weighted down with the worries of the world.” And the world agreed because Doris Day was voted the Top Box-Office Female Star four years in a row in the early 1960s. Her reign as screen queen ran from about 1955 to 1965. Doris Day remains the biggest female box office star in Hollywood history. And at the height of her career, she topped both the billboard and the box office charts.

Doris presented the Gold Record for “Que Sera, Sera” in 1956

Day’s popularity in movies did not hurt her success as a recording artist although she could easily have done one without the other and still have a legendary career. In her solo career she made more than 600 recordings at Columbia Records. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Columbia released songs and albums of music from her movies. Between 1950 and 1952 Day had four albums in the Top 5 three of which reached number one. Doris Day had gifts for show tunes, standards, and jazz. She had the gift of sound.

Here are a few of my favorite Doris Day albums, the ones that accompany me on long drives…

“When asked to name her favorite singers, she replied “I dig Doris Day!” – Sarah Vaughan

Doris Day received numerous awards and accolades throughout her distinguished career. You can look at the full list here. What Doris Day never took home was an Academy Award. She never needed one, but I think her fans needed her to receive at least a lifetime achievement Oscar which she more than deserved. You can find my formal argument here.

Although one can see how much Doris Day cared about her work by watching any one of her movies or listening to any one of her songs, she went with her true passion after she retired from performing. That is, doing what she could to help animals eventually starting her own organization, the Doris Day Animal League and later the Doris Day Animal Foundation, which can always use our help. In fact, I can think of no better way to honor Doris Day’s legacy than to donate to help those animals. If you want to learn more about the history of the Doris Day Animal Foundation you need only watch this video narrated by Robert Osborne. In 1985 Doris came out of retirement to star in the series Doris Day’s Best Friends, which featured some of her furry friends. In this episode Rock Hudson visits Doris.

Doris Day died in 2019 at the age of 97, a full life by anyone’s estimation. One hundred years after her birth she remains one of the most beloved figures of the screen and one who could make you sigh with her sounds. Day’s appeal and the depth of her talent are timeless. We owe her a debt of gratitude for sharing herself with us, for all those golden moments, for her style, for being one of a kind. I wonder if she was aware of how much we loved her and love her work still. It is all beautiful music.

“There’s no star, past or present, who brings forth more enthusiasm and interest from dedicated move fans than – Cincinnati’s gift to show business…Doris Day.” – Robert Osborne

Doris Day (April 3, 1922 – May 13, 2019)

Be sure to tune in to Turner Classic Movies (TCM) on April 3rd. The network is airing 4 movies and 6 specials in Doris Day’s honor. Philip Brown, who played Doris’ son on her TV show, will join host Ben Mankiewicz to introduce the primetime programming. I plan to be home watching all day.

5 thoughts

  1. I have loved Doris Day all of my life. I love her movies and I think she was one of the greatest singers around. I once told someone how much I love her singing and the response was, “Doris Day? You mean that Que Sera, Sera woman”? Talk about annoying and clueless! I have the DVD celebration of her 90th birthday. I wanted to go, but was unable to. I think my favorite song by her is I’ll Never Stop Loving You from The Man Who Knew Too Much. I never cared for all of those big band recordings with all the instruments. I think all of that production gets in the way of her singing. There’s nothing like Doris Day and just a piano. I was devastated by her death.

  2. What an awesome, epic tribute to Doris Day! I learned so much that I didn’t know. And I look forward to listening to the recordings — I’ve always loved her voice. Kudos, Aurora!

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