Actress And Singer Doris Day, Hollywood's Girl Next Door, Dies At 97

May 13, 2019
Originally published on May 13, 2019 8:36 am

Actress and singer Doris Day made nearly three dozen films and more than 600 recordings. At the height of her career, she topped both the billboard and the box office charts. Day died of pneumonia on Monday at the age of 97.

Day remains one of the most successful female movie stars of all time. She embodied the "girl next door" even in her 40s, which is probably why her films with Rock Hudson were so successful. A scene from 1959's Pillow Talk shows a split screen with Day and Hudson in their separate bathtubs, only it looks like they're in the same one — with their feet touching. Kind of risqué for 1959.

That was Day at the height of her film success, but her career began as a big band "girl singer," and with Les Brown's big band she had one of the biggest hits of World War II: "A Sentimental Journey." For many GIs, Doris Day represented the kind of girl you'd want to fight for and come home to.

The end of the war brought the end of the big band era and the beginning of Day's film career. Alfred Hitchcock used Day's voice as a plot device in The Man Who Knew Too Much, in which a distraught Day sings a distress signal, "Que Sera, Sera," to her kidnapped son. It became her signature tune and went to the No. 2 spot on the charts.

Will Friedwald wrote a book on jazz singing. He said Day's success with pop and novelty songs overshadowed a simple fact: She was a phenomenal singer, both technically and artistically.

"She really is sort of the mother of all tuneful, sunny blondes," he said, "but at the same time there's definitely a dark side to her. You know, she can explore that kind of emotion very effectively in song."

In the musical drama Love Me or Leave Me, Day played '30s torch singer Ruth Etting opposite Jimmy Cagney, who plays her jilted mobster husband. And throughout the '50s, Day took on similarly meaty roles in films like Calamity Jane, The Pajama Game and The Man Who Knew Too Much. But at the end of the decade, she settled into romantic comedies and a persona that would stick — the girl next door.

Norman Jewison directed Day in two films in the '60s. He said her persona and her personality were able to attract men and women alike and were perfect for the times.

"She was a good girl," he said. "She wasn't snide. She wasn't too smart. She brought a kind of an honesty and a freshness. And she was also strangely sexy."

But David Kaufman, one of Day's biographers, said the real Day was anything but the girl next door.

"She's was a woman who was an extremely sensual woman," he said. "She had affairs with a number of people. She was never happily married. She had a son but was never really a mother; he was more like a brother to her. She in many ways was the opposite to the girl next door."

Day's husband and manager, Martin Melcher, died suddenly in 1968. But before that, he lost her entire fortune and signed her to a television series without her knowledge. Day slogged through the five seasons of The Doris Day Show and then left Hollywood. And after a very long legal battle, she eventually won back some of her money.

Tabloids often caught Day doing simple things in retirement: going to the grocery store, caring for scores of abandoned pets or dining out with friends. And it seems if she couldn't be the girl next door in her youth, as the years passed, she came close — sort of.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We have sad news this morning. Doris Day has died. The great singer and actress succumbed to pneumonia at age 97 at her home in California. Sonari Glinton has this remembrance.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: She was the girl next door even in her 40s, which is probably why her films with Rock Hudson were so successful. I mean, who wouldn't want to see a young Doris Day in the bathtub?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PILLOW TALK")

DORIS DAY: (As Jan Morrow) You'll find that most people are willing to meet you halfway if you let them.

ROCK HUDSON: (As Brad Allen) Am I going to see you tonight?

DAY: (As Jan Morrow) Oh, I'd love to, Rex, but I already have a date tonight.

GLINTON: In this scene from "Pillow Talk," the screen is split. Day and Hudson are in their separate bathtubs. But it looks like they're in the same one with their feet touching - kind of risque for 1959.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PILLOW TALK")

HUDSON: (As Brad Allen) Course, you ain't the kind of gal who'd break a date.

DAY: (As Jan Morrow) No, I'm not.

HUDSON: (As Brad Allen) And I ain't the kind of guy who'd ask you to.

DAY: (As Jan Morrow) I know you're not.

HUDSON: (As Brad Allen) I'll pick you up at 8.

DAY: (As Jan Morrow) I'll be ready.

GLINTON: That was Day at the height of her film success. But her career began as a big band girl singer. And with Les Brown's big band, she had one of the biggest hits of World War II.

(SOUNDBITE OF LES BROWN AND HIS ORCHESTRA FT. DORIS DAY'S "SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY")

DAY: (Singing) Going to take a sentimental journey. Going to set my heart at ease. Going to make a sentimental journey to renew old memories.

GLINTON: For many GIs, Doris Day represented the kind of girl you'd want to fight for and come home to.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH")

DAY: (As Josephine Conway McKenna, singing) When I was just a little girl...

GLINTON: The end of the war brought the end of the big band era and the beginning of Day's film career. Alfred Hitchcock used Day's voice as a plot device. In "The Man Who Knew Too Much," a distraught Day sings a distress signal to her kidnapped son.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH")

DAY: (As Josephine Conway McKenna, singing) Que sera, sera. Whatever will be, will be.

GLINTON: "Que Sera, Sera" became her signature tune and went to the No. 2 spot on the charts. Will Friedwald wrote the book on jazz singing, literally. He says Day's success with pop and novelty songs overshadowed a simple fact - she was a phenomenal singer, both technically and artistically.

WILL FRIEDWALD: I mean, she really is sort of the mother of all tuneful, sunny blondes. But at the same time, there's a very - definitely a dark side to her. You know, she can explore that kind of emotion very effectively in song.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME")

DAY: (As Ruth Etting, singing) There'll be no one unless that someone is you.

GLINTON: In the musical drama "Love Me Or Leave Me," Doris Day plays '30s torch singer Ruth Etting opposite Jimmy Cagney, who plays her jilted mobster husband.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME")

DAY: (As Ruth Etting, singing) I aim to be...

JAMES CAGNEY: (As Martin Snyder) You got to give her credit.

DAY: (As Ruth Etting, singing) ...Independently...

CAGNEY: (As Martin Snyder) The girl can sing.

DAY: (As Ruth Etting, singing) ...Blue.

CAGNEY: (As Martin Snyder) About that, I never was wrong.

DAY: (As Ruth Etting, singing) I want your love, but I don't want to borrow...

GLINTON: In the '50s, Day played a lot of these meaty roles in movies such as "Calamity Jane," "Pajama Game," "The Man Who Knew Too Much." But it wasn't until the end of the decade that she settled into the romantic comedies and the persona that would stick - the girl next door. Norman Jewison directed Doris Day in two films in the 1960s. He says her persona and her personality were able to attract men and women alike and was perfect for the times.

NORMAN JEWISON: She was a good girl. She wasn't snide. She wasn't too smart. She brought a kind of an honesty and a freshness. And she was also strangely sexy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PERHAPS, PERHAPS, PERHAPS")

DAY: (Singing) You won't admit you love me. And so how am I ever to know? You always tell me perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

GLINTON: Doris Day's husband and manager, Marty Melcher, died suddenly in 1968. Not only had he lost her entire fortune, but he signed her to a television series without her knowledge. Doris Day slogged through the five seasons of the "Doris Day Show" and left Hollywood. After a very long legal battle, she won back some of her money. In retirement, tabloids often caught Day doing simple things - going to the grocery store, caring for scores of abandoned pets or dining out with friends. And it seems if she couldn't be the girl next door in her youth, as the years passed, she could come close - sort of.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PERHAPS, PERHAPS, PERHAPS")

DAY: (Singing) Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

GLINTON: Sonari Glinton, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF DORIS DAY SONG, "PERHAPS, PERHAPS, PERHAPS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.