When I was growing up in Birmingham in the ‘60s, local television station channel 6 ran a show called “Films of the ‘50s” on Saturday evenings.
I assume the show’s opening was in black and white; at least that’s how I remember it since we didn’t have a color television at the time. The opening sequence is an elaborately produced nighttime scene for what was essentially a two-hour slot featuring movies from the previous decade. A limousine drives up a circular drive in front of a grand Colonial-style mansion (actually, channel 6’s headquarters then and now). The background music is the lush, romantic score for piano with orchestra of Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (18th Variation).”
The limo stops at the mansion’s front steps and a couple in formal evening attire emerges and walks into the building. My young mind assumed they intended to view the film while eating caviar and sipping champagne in some dark paneled room somewhere in the recesses of that big house.
After the much ado of the opening segment, there would be a showing of some 1950s movie. This was before NBC’s “Saturday Night at the Movies” and ABC’s “Movie of the Week” so I suspect that much of my earliest viewing of semi-recent films was courtesy of “Films of the ‘50s.”
In my memory (faulty as it may be), it seems like the Marilyn Monroe thriller Niagara was shown on the series every couple of months. Perhaps my memory of that film’s frequency is stoked by the fact that I had the nagging suspicion that I wasn’t quite old enough to be watching Niagara. However, we had television, and my parents were pretty lenient about bedtimes and television viewing, so I checked out what I could on the two commercial channels and one public television channel that made up Birmingham television in those early days of the medium.
Doris Day died a few days ago and another of my Baby Boomer touchstones is gone. I was a fan.
My boyhood crush on Doris Day, with her honey-tinged voice and dewy, freckled complexion, was potent and irrevocable. I suspect that my earliest exposure to Doris Day movies was on a black and white television screen on Saturday night watching “Films of the ‘50s.”
Doris Day began her career as a big band singer in the 1940s. Her voice in those early recordings is crystal clear, flirtatious, and wistful. She has a sure feel for the lyrics and she embraces the listener with the fullness of her sound. Her first #1 recording, “Sentimental Journey,” inspired one of my lamest punch lines in the ’70s: “My name is Edward, but you can call me ‘Sentimental’.”
With her interpretive skills, it’s little wonder that her talents were tapped for an acting career by the time the 1940s were over. Doris Day’s movies were a little too adult and suggestive for prepubescent me back then, so I know my first exposure to the films was on the television screen and not at a movie theatre. As wholesome as the image was, Doris Day’s virginal tease of a succession of leading men throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s was not the sort of thing my parents would take me to the movies to see.
So I watched her on TV. Sticking to the “Films of the ‘50s” theory, that’s probably where I first saw Day in Teacher’s Pet with Clark Gable, Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much with James Stewart (where she introduced “Que Sera, Sera,” which would become her theme song), the Ruth Etting biography Love Me or Leave Me with James Cagney, and the musicals Calamity Jane and The Pajama Game.
1959’s Pillow Talk, with Rock Hudson, was the comedy that set the standard for the Doris Day genre – and the “Doris Day film” did indeed become a genre unto itself. It’s a silly “rom-com” premise: Successful New York interior decorator Jan (Day) is frustrated that she is on a telephone “party line” with successful playboy/composer Brad (Hudson). She can’t use her phone because he’s always on the line seducing a succession of women. When Jan and Brad accidentally meet in person, Brad pretends to be a naïve Texan, Rex Stetson, who charms Jan with his down-home ways and corn-pone accent.
Tony Randall is on hand as Brad’s best friend who carries a torch for Jan and Thelma Ritter is Jan’s wise-cracking and scheming housekeeper. It’s a formulaic comedy with elements – starting with a party line – which instantly date the movie. Other elements include Brad’s insinuations to Jan – over the party line – that her new boyfriend Rex (who, of course, is really Brad) just might be gay. The fact that Rock Hudson was one of the first major celebrities to succumb to AIDS – when it was still known as “the gay cancer” – makes this footnote of his first collaboration with Doris Day even more intriguing.
Pillow Talk was an instant success that cemented the public perception of Doris Day. She and Hudson did two more comedies together (Lover Come Back and Send Me No Flowers). Doris Day did subsequent comedies, using similar formulas, with a string of leading men. She was always perky and smart, successful in whatever career she had, and a formidable challenge for the men who sought to seduce or minimize her.
As the ‘60s changed the world and Doris Day’s movies began to be seen as old-fashioned, and as she dealt with a much-publicized bankruptcy suit following the death of her third husband, she moved (unwillingly) to television. “The Doris Day Show” premiered in 1968. The show began as a pastoral sit-com about a widow with two young sons who moves to her father’s ranch across the bay from San Francisco. The show aired for five years and transformed itself radically from season to season. By the fifth and final season, Day was a single career woman living in San Francisco with neither ranch, father, nor kids in sight – and dating Peter Lawford.
With the end of “The Doris Day Show,” in 1973, Doris Day basically retired from acting. She was famously an activist and advocate for animals and animal rights and her 1980s syndicated program, “Doris Day’s Best Friends,” focused on that mission. She had her old buddy, Rock Hudson, as a guest on the show; his gaunt and sickly appearance fueled the speculation that he had AIDS. A year later, Hudson was dead.
When “Doris Day’s Best Friends” ceased to exist, Doris Day essentially moved out of public view. She apparently lived an active but private life for the past thirty years, advocating for her animals and eschewing multiple opportunities to make public appearances or to receive awards.
Doris Day’s film persona became a joke for some people over the course of her career. She was referred to as “the world’s oldest virgin” and people would smirk about her innocent but suggestive movies.
I always felt like her characters were in on the smirk.
Doris Day’s various personae, from my vantage point, represent an era when privacy and discretion were still cultural values. Her characters were not prudes or ingenues; they were simply women who wanted control over their lives and destinies. They wanted their own say over how their lives were lived, and with whom.
I suspect those values haven’t completely gone out of style.