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Sunday, May 14, 2006

Monday Glamour Starter --- Doris Day

I could be very much mistaken, but it would seem to me that Doris Day was the biggest and longest running above-the-title female star in all of talking pictures. I’d add the "talking" qualifier as it would be a bit reckless to place Doris above Mary Pickford, who’s probably the all-time champ of the lot, but it’s interesting that two personalities with somewhat overlapping images appear to share that upper berth. I’ve tried to think of a candidate that outranks Doris. If we’re talking post-war names, I don’t think anyone comes close. Betty Grable was as big when she was big --- trouble is, she wasn’t as big for as long, and besides, Grable was effectively finished by 1955. Doris Day was still carrying features in 1968. Elizabeth Taylor was around for at least as many decades, but how many of them had her playing leads, and how many pictures actually revolved around her, as opposed to the leading men playing opposite her? There were major female attractions along the lines of Marilyn Monroe, Susan Hayward, Audrey Hepburn --- but they were never the kind of money stars to rank with Day. Even pre-war titans like Davis, Crawford, and Hepburn were far less reliable at the ticket window. They all experienced slumps, and none enjoyed the boxoffice consistency of Doris Day. Her near unbroken string of hits from her debut in 1948 until her retirement from features two decades later appears to be a record. Did anyone equal, or surpass it? Possibly I’m forgetting a major name that one of you will surprise me with, so by all means, surprise me.

There’s something kinda cool about a big star who walks away while she’s still on top and never comes back again. You have to respect a move like that. Deanna Durbin did it. She sang too. So did Betty Hutton, and she walked. Could it be they just got tired of having to stop the show? Sick of being perky and effervescent? Doris Day has spent the last thirty-five years pampering dogs. She fixes them gourmet dinners --- with her own hands. Her last husband bailed because she preferred sleeping with the hounds (no, it wasn’t like that). She runs a hotel that’s furnished with dog and cat beds in every room. Must be a bitch having to pull maid service in that joint. I checked the fan sites and got the feeling none of them ever hear from Doris. Has anyone out there sent her a fan letter --- and gotten a reply? She’s 82 or so now. If I ever visited Carmel, California (her residence), I’d probably be checking that (dog) hotel lobby for Doris, or hoping to run into her at the super market. When stars retire to small towns, we tend to assume that if we ever went there, we’d certainly encounter them on the street. Wonder why that is. They say Doris’ love of animals came about as a result of her disillusionment with men. The ones she married seem to have been a dreadful lot. The first of these rotters was a band musician, and part-time "schizophrenic sadist", that beat her up on the honeymoon. If they’d filmed The Doris Day Story in the fifties, Ray Danton or Steve Cochran would have played him. One night after they split, the guy pulled up to a stoplight, took out a pistol, and blew his brains out. Imagine sitting behind him waiting for that light to change and seeing a thing like that. Two hubbies later, it was Marty Melcher, who systematically robbed Doris over the twenty plus they were together and left her impoverished. He also made her do lousy pictures, like Julie and It Happened To Jane. He’d make the deals, then tell her about it. After Marty died, there was the guy that didn’t like dogs in the bed, then Xanadu --- just Doris and her menagerie behind secured walls and guarded entrances. As you and I sleep in the early mornings, the star of Pillow Talk and Love Me Or Leave Me is up fixing breakfast for dozens, if not hundreds, of dogs. Do you suppose during those years of stardom she could have seen this coming?

To refresh my memory of Doris, I watched a few of the movies. My favorites are the early ones she did for Mike Curtiz . That’s him directing Doris in her first at Warners, Romance On The High Seas. If I were Doris, I’d be very much afraid of that leviathan of a Technicolor camera hovering over me, cause if that thing falls, she’s powder. Really good show though, as is another one, My Dream Is Yours, which found her romantically paired with Jack Carson for the second time straight (what is it about Jack that makes him so unlikely a leading man?). It’s A Great Feeling was a "Two Guys" comedy with Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson, trying to do for WB what Bing and Bob were doing for Paramount. It isn’t likely we’ll get any Two Guys box sets from Warner Home Video, but these are still good shows, and Great Feeling is loaded with in-joke attitude and big-name cameos. Young Man With A Horn surprisingly put Doris in third position behind Kirk Douglas and Lauren Bacall. I have the same complaint about this one as I do with every genius-who’s-also-an-alcoholic movie. You get all the good music during the first half rise-to-the-top, followed by a sit through agonizing gutter wallows with a hero too dissipated to play anymore, waiting for someone to rehabilitate him/her, so we can hear good music once more before the end (a senario repeated of late with the Johnny Cash bio --- I thought they’d never get him straightened out!). Lullaby Of Broadway is a lesser Doris Day, thanks largely to S.Z. Sakall in "Cuddles" mode whose every entrance and exit is punctuated by irritating tuba themes, comic "stinger" puncuation cueing us to laugh where we otherwise wouldn’t. Well-meaning David Butler was no Vincente Minnelli either. Doris raised Jack Warner’s dander by telling Bob Thomas how she longed to do classy MGM musicals rather than formula clap-trap as assigned by WB. Calamity Jane shows you what she meant. Some good songs, and she’s great, but this and the others suffer in comparison to rival Metros budget-wise, hobbled by recycled sets and overly familiar locations. When Doris approached a backlot theatre front, I expected to see Henry Jarrod’s paddle-ball man come up from behind (that’s Doris on the set with Butler and a visiting Governor and party).

On Moonlight Bay had echoes of Meet Me In St.Louis, even down to casting Leon Ames in yet another flustered patriarch role. Doris referred to Warner make-up artists as "embalmers" --- and they do cake it on thick --- she’s actually more attractive playing against the glamour in tomboy attire (as seen here with Ames) or as pre-transformation Calamity Jane. Whenever they tried to doll her up, she looked waxen and starchy perfect. Note that soundstage backdrop for Young At Heart with Frank Sinatra, a would-be Currier and Ives setting that must have seemed as dated in 1954 as it does today. Her emergence in a class musical, Love Me Or Leave Me, came not a moment too soon. It’s almost a shock to see Doris Day so glum here --- almost bitter at times, but that’s what the not altogether sympathetic part called for, and she’s to be admired for leaving off the glad-girl shtick for what might be her best performance. The Pajama Game was back at Warners, but it was a big step up from the David Butler/Gordon Douglas projects. Major career rejuvenation came with the sex comedies that began with Pillow Talk (although Teacher’s Pet certainly pointed the way), and these kept her going right up to the retirement party. Rock Hudson was so good in ones he did with Doris that even Cary Grant had a hard time measuring up as romantic dueling partner in That Touch Of Mink (here they are with cameo guests Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris). A television series she did for five years in the late sixties was all smiling moppets and sweet old Grandpas. For a kid fourteen into Hammer Films and The Wild Bunch, these things were anathema to me, but Doris must have been doing something right, for here they are announced for release on DVD this summer.


Blogger Kevin K. said...

I've read that Martin Scorsese based his movie "New York New York" on Doris Day's first marriage. Supposedly that scene where DeNiro slaps around Liza Minnelli in the car happened just the way it plays out.

10:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My wife and I are great fans of PILLOW TALK, and to a slightly lesser extent, LOVER COME BACK.

PILLOW and LOVER are skillfully conceived farces, with Saint Doris vexed -- and tempted -- by the more than slightly Satanic Rock, who takes on a pricelessly misleading persona in order to corrupt her. [Even without the inescapable meta-interpretation, Hudson is hilarious and revels in the chicanery of the shy milquetoast character he creates in each picture to take advantage of Day; he's lively and involved in these films in a way he seldom is in the rest of his work.]

Doris' essential decency, charm, pluck and hard working ethic -- all the things that are Doris -- eventually win the, er, day, but the devil must have his due. In PILLOW, it's a great touch to give lothario Rock (and not Doris) the film's central musical joke -cum -plot device, the romantic ballad, "You Are My Inspiration, [insert paramour name here]." In LOVER, Hudson's weakfish Professor persona meekly confesses to Day some of the unspeakable ploys and deeds of her business rival, who, of course, is Rock.

PILLOW TALK has some well-played scenes showing foiled seducer Rock realizing he's actually fallen for Doris and must somehow legitimately win her back. In LOVER, Hudson is a total cad in both business and romance for nearly the entire picture; his acknowledgment of his feelings for Doris comes very suddenly at almost the last minute. Possibly this is because LOVER is more purely a comedy than the romantic PILLOW, perhaps it's because the expository scenes in the previous film would be difficult to top -- or maybe it just didn't seem necessary here.

in contrast to these two hi-octane comedies, the final Doris/Rock picture, SEND ME NO FLOWERS, is relatively pallid. Even given that the movies were starting to change forever, it seems a shame that they never teamed again before Doris' screen farewell in '68.

When Hudson appeared on Day's animal-related talk show near the end of his life -- his weakened, subdued appearance shocked many, and the news of his physical condition made headlines -- the two joked about their movies together, and Hudson said quietly, "Wish we'd made more."

Then Day asked what his favorite of their films was. Hudson took a beat, and with a bit of the old timing said, "ICE STATION ZEBRA." They both laughed -- I believe genuinely.

11:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder where Barbra Streisand ranks on the list of female stars and long term box office? I think she's had a longer run then Doris.

2:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, Ms. Day starred in thirty-eight feature films between 1948 and 1968. Our host could probably advise how many years she was listed among Hollywood's top box office stars.

I much admire Barbra Streisand -- a star by any standard -- but to date she has appeared in seventeen movies in 38 years; I'll bet Ms. Day wishes she could have spaced 'em out like that.

6:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

griff's "off" by one--Doris Day's done 39 films. Plus recorded more than 600 songs. And did the five-year TV series (which didn't interest me much, either, though I've seen the movies as they were released). Then there was the big-band singing career before the movie career (I remember being aware of "Sentimental Journey" at the end of WWII. She reprises that song beautifully at the end of her 1972 special, now on DVD, which had Perry Como as a guest--the other special, with John Denver, called Doris Day Today, has yet to be released.)

John, you say Steve Cochran could have played her husband in an imaginary fifties story of her life--but you know he DID play her husband in 1950's "Storm Warning", with Ginger Rogers as her older sister and Ronald Reagan in his perfect role as the DA..

An easy googling of her name will bring up the extent of her animal charity endeavors, btw.

11:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

p.s. There may be a visiting "governor" in that one photo, perhaps from another state, but isn't that Jane Wyman in the group seeing Doris in costume as Calamity Jane? They'd each been in both "It's a Great Feeling" (1949) and "Starlift" (1951).

12:08 AM  
Blogger Allison said...

No-body will ever top Doris day she is the great icon of them all,she had everything going for her,and its true she was highest paid actress of that era so that must tell people something & thats because she was the best,love your page by way some great pictures of Doris,take a look at mine & leave a comment.

10:35 AM  

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