This beloved one-time big band singer parlayed her powerful pipes and peppy personality into a position as one of the most prolific and popular screen presences of the ’50s and ’60s. Born in a Cincinnati suburb in 1924, Doris Mary Ann Kappelhoff began displaying her vocal gifts at an early age (injuries from an auto accident curtailed her plans of pursuing a dancing career), and a local radio appearance singing “Day After Day” inspired bandleader Barney Rapp to offer the teenager a contract and rechristen her for the stage as Doris Day. By the time she reached her early 20s, she was established as Les Brown’s female vocalist and ultimately landed a solo recording contract with Columbia Records in 1947. She was later to say, “The happiest times in my life were the days when I was traveling with Les Brown and his band.”
Still, strife in her personal life had her ready to chuck it all when the opportunity came to replace a pregnant Betty Hutton in the 1948 Warner Bros. musical Romance on the High Seas. Her big-screen debut boasted a script written by Julius and Philip Epstein, Oscar-winners for their Casablanca screenplay, and an ensemble cast of some of the studio’s top contract players: Janis Paige, Don DeFore, Oscar Levant, Jack Carson and the always delightful S.Z. Sakall. Doris sings her big hit, “It’s Magic,” the first of six songs she sang over her career that were nominated for an Academy Award. Although they only worked together once, Levant, always known for his unexpected remarks, once quipped long after the actress became a household name, “I’ve been around so long, I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin.”
It would be many years later when Doris, always a trouper and good sport, commented, “The succession of cheerful, period musicals I made, plus Oscar Levant’s widely publicized remark about my virginity, contributed to what has been called my ‘image’, which is a word that baffles me. There never was any intent on my part either in my acting or in my private life to create any such thing as an image.”
Warners quickly followed up on Romance’s succeess the following year with two more Technicolor gems crafted to showcase Doris Day’s musical and comedic talents, My Dream Is Yours and It’s a Great Feeling. My Dream Is Yours had widowed working mom Doris being groomed for success as a radio singer by talent agent Jack Carson. The film boasts another great WB cast: Eve Arden, Lee Bowman, Adolphe Menjou, Edgar Kennedy, and Sakall, as cuddly as ever. Taking its cue from MGM’s Anchors Aweigh, the studio included an Easter Bunny dream sequence, combining live-action with animation, to “guest star” one of their other big stars, Bugs Bunny. Carson was back, teaming with Dennis Morgan (as themselves) as actors determined to make commissary waitress Doris a star in It’s a Great Feeling. Along with its three main players, the lively romp featured an array of big-name WB notables making cameo appearances. Joan Crawford is very funny in her “serious” bit that’s sure to delight fans of her classic Mildred Pierce, and also on hand for the ride are Errol Flynn, Ronald Reagan, Eleanor Parker, Jane Wyman and some stars rarely seen in Technicolor, Edward G. Robinson and Sydney Greenstreet.
The public response encouraged Warners to continue to roll out sprightly vehicles for its new find, but along the way Day surprised the studio and film critics with her ability to handle more dramatic fare. The first of these roles came in 1950’s Young Man with a Horn, a jazz-soaked soaper very loosely based on the life of real-life musician Bix Beiderbecke. Kirk Douglas starred in the title role of the brash trumpet player who tosses aside band singer Doris for troubled socialite Lauren Bacall, only to later find redemption with Day after his life hits rock bottom.
Meanwhile, a pair of musicals entertained fans of the singing Doris. Tea for Two (1950), a reworking of the Broadway smash, No, No, Nanette, was her first of five films opposite Gordon MacRae, and was followed that same year by The West Point Story with co-stars MacRae and James Cagney. Remembering Cagney’s success in Yankee Doodle Dandy, the studio couldn’t resist the tagline on the movie poster, “It’s Another Dandy! A Song-Spangled, Colors-Flying Salute to Uncle Sam’s Own Cadets!”
Two 1951 movies with co-star and good friend Ronald Reagan continued to showcase her acting talents. the “message picture” Storm Warning found model Ginger Rogers visiting sister Doris in a small Southern town, only to discover that Day’s husband is involved in Ku Klux Klan activities and under the eye of local prosecutor Reagan. It was a special treat for Day to work with Rogers on Storm Warning, since Ginger was Doris’ childhood idol. And The Winning Team, based on the true story of baseball great Grover Cleveland Alexander, featured Reagan as the talented pitcher who struggled against epilepsy and alcoholism with the support of devoted spouse Aimee (Day).
I’ll See You in My Dreams (1951) starred Doris as the wife of legendary songsmith Gus Kahn (Danny Thomas) in a dramatic true story. Breaking from reality–and co-starring again with MacRae–Day pleased her growing legions of fans with the lively musical-comedy On Moonlight Bay (1951). Due to that picture’s overwhelming popularity, Warners followed it with a spirited 1953 sequel, also with MacRae and the same cast, By the Light of the Silvery Moon.
Doris was box office magic when she appeared opposite Howard Keel in 1953 as Calamity Jane, singing that year’s Academy Award-winning song, “Secret Love.” The story goes that Doris fell in love with the song and was so good during the pre-recording rehearsal, the musical director Ray Heindorf said smiling, “That’s it. You’re never going to do it better.” It was the first and only take they did. Of her films, Calamity Jane became Miss Day’s personal favorite.
After 1952’s April in Paris with Ray Bolger and Lucky Me (1954) with Robert Cummings, the studio formula was wearing thin, and Warners called it a day with Doris following her co-starring turn opposite Frank Sinatra a the tear-jerker Young at Heart, a musical remake of 1938’s Four Daughters. Now a freelance actress, Doris used the opportunity to show her range as an actress with projects like MGM’s colossal 1955 hit, Love Me Or Leave Me appearing with old Hollywood friend James Cagney in the biopic based on the life of song stylist Ruth Etting. The next year found Day back at Metro and menaced by husband Louis Jourdan, causing her to run for her life, in the high-flying thriller Julie.
Paramount came calling and Doris was perfectly cast opposite James Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock‘s The Man Who Knew Too Much, in which she sings her trademark song, “Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera, Sera),” another Oscar-winning crowd-pleaser she introduced. She returned to Warner Brothers to play the lead in the movie version of the Broadway smash The Pajama Game in 1957 and got a chance to work with more Tinseltown royalty when she fell for “The King” Clark Gable in George Seaton‘s rom-com Teacher’s Pet (1958). Her starring role in It Happened to Jane (1959) couldn’t lift the weak comedy, even with stellar co-stars Jack Lemmon and Ernie Kovacs. In some theaters, it played under the disguised title Twinkle and Shine, but that didn’t help.
A brief career lull in the late ’50s pointedly ended with the success of Pillow Talk (1959). Fans of the movie will always remember the final scene where she redecorated Rock Hudson‘s apartment as a hideous “man cave.” She would reach the crest of her popularity in two more crowd-pleasing romantic comedies opposite her handsome Pillow Talk co-star. In Lover Come Back (1960), Doris and Rock battle it out in the cutthroat world of advertising, while Send Me No Flowers (1964) finds hypochondriac Hudson–thinking he’s dying–wanting a hand in picking a replacement husband for wife Day.
The popular MGM comedy Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (1960), based on Jean Kerr’s novel, featured Day and New York drama critic spouse David Niven attempting to raise their boys in the country, and also at that studio, Doris joined the circus in Billy Rose’s Jumbo (1962) alongside veteran vaudevillians Jimmy Durante and Martha Raye. Later that year, she appeared as the wholesome “girl next door” opposite suave millionaire Cary Grant in That Touch of Mink. 1963 found the actress continuing her golden streak of box office successes by pairing with James Garner in two domestic comedies that are still pleasing fans around the globe. The Thrill of It All casts Doris as a typical suburban housewife who reluctantly becomes a bath soap TV spokeswoman, while Move Over, Darling, a remake of 1940’s My Favorite Wife (and salvaged from the ill-fated Marilyn Monroe project Something’s Got to Give) finds her playing a woman thought to have been killed in a plane crash five years earlier who returns home to find husband Garner about to remarry. Not surprisingly, she was named the top box-office star of 1963.
As the ’60s waned, though, Doris’s big-screen vogue followed suit, but her fans wanted more. She obliged with two films with co-star Rod Taylor: the transatlantic domestic comedy Do Not Disturb (1965) and a 1966 spy spoof, The Glass Bottom Boat, where she was a sometimes “mermaid” for dad Arthur Godfrey‘s tour boat business. In 1967, she was an on-screen fashion show in the spy thriller Caprice with Richard Harris, and her last film appearance would come in 1968’s precursor to The Brady Bunch, With Six You Get Eggroll, also with Taylor. One film from this time that Day turned down–and which certainly would have been a change of pace–was Mike Nichols‘ groundbreaking The Graduate. Doris was considered for the role of married temptress Mrs. Robinson, but as she later stated in her autobiography, “I could not see myself rolling around in the sheets with a young man half my age whom I’d seduced”.
Off-camera, Doris discovered after the sudden death in 1968 of her handler/third husband Martin Melcher that the bulk of the earnings over the prior 17 years had been squandered. She successfully sued Melcher’s partner and–along with the success of her CBS sitcom The Doris Day Show, which she headlined from 1968-1973–helped recoup her losses. She essentially retired from acting at that point, directing her energies toward business concerns and animal-rights activism.
Remaining upbeat throughout her career, Doris Day told it like it is when she said, “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 it. I like being happy. I want to make others happy.”
An earlier version of this article originally ran in 2017 and it is being reprinted today as we mourn the death of Doris Day, who has passed at the age of 97.