Doris Day was hip.
I know, that may come as a shock. The actress-singer, who died Monday at the venerable age of 97, spent the final chapter of her professional career playing America’s goody two-shoes, and she did it just as the cynical, sexed-up ’60s came rushing in. Groucho Marx — or Oscar Levant; sources vary — allegedly quipped that he’d been around so long, he knew Day “before she became a virgin.” She was very popular, then a popular joke, then a joke, and then she closed up shop and devoted herself to animal welfare for a half century.
That’s the acknowledged persona, at least. But it’s wrong. Give a listen to Day’s early hits on “Golden Girl: Columbia Recordings 1944-1966,” and you’ll hear the acknowledged influence of Day’s idol Ella Fitzgerald — a gracious, genuine sense of swing, along with a wit and fire that never got the attention it deserved. It’s there in “Sentimental Journey,” Day’s 1945 breakthrough and a song that still defines its era. And it’s there in upbeat numbers like “Cuttin’ Capers,” from her second movie, “My Dream Is Yours” (1949).
As a singer, Day wasn’t hot and she wasn’t cool, but you know how those middle temperatures can feel just right on your skin? Doris Day was a perfect 70 degrees and a much smarter vocalist than anyone outside the music industry understood. That intelligence is there, along with a lot of infectious pep, in Day’s early Hollywood output. Watch her spar with Kirk Douglas’s mercurial trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke in “Young Man With a Horn” (1950), or stretch her dramatic chops in the anti-KKK thriller “Storm Warning” (1951).
Above all, watch “Love Me or Leave Me” (1955), a drama about 1920s singer Ruth Etting and her relationship with gangster Martin “Gimp” Snyder (James Cagney) that contains what most critics and Day herself considered her finest performance. It’s a daringly dark film — with some fine vocal numbers — that was decades ahead of its time in its awareness of the psychology of abusive relationships and how women stay trapped in them.
Nor should you forget Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1956), which contained one of Day’s final and most defining hits — “Que Sera, Sera” — and let her character sing it while knowing her kidnapped son can hear it from where he’s being held. The shades of emotion she conveys in that scene are as infinite as any she put on record.
And then came “Teacher’s Pet” (1958) with Clark Gable, “Pillow Talk” (1959) and “Lover Come Back” (1961) with Rock Hudson, and “That Touch of Mink” (1962) with Cary Grant — all huge hits that remain enjoyable today, with Day’s characters more empowered and self-sufficient than you may remember. Unfortunately, “strong and empowered” in the early “Mad Men” era meant her characters were sexless until warmed up and brought to bay by the male leads, and the decade wasn’t half out before those sexual politics seemed laughable to the cresting counterculture.
By 1968, when her record producer son Terry Melcher became entangled with the Charles Manson family, Day had become a symbol of clueless old Hollywood. And as she largely receded from sight and popular culture hurried on without her, it was handy for some to think of Doris Day as a relic, the Norma Desmond of Carmel-by-the-Sea.
Which doesn’t square, not at all, not given her personal oversight of the Doris Day Animal Foundation charitable organization and lobbying group the Doris Day Animal League, which merged with the Humane Society in 2006. (She also founded and funded a Doris Day Horse Rescue and Adoption Center in Murchison, Texas.) In 2011, at 89, she released an album of material mostly recorded during the 1980s, some produced by her son, who died in 2004. She had a perfectly fine life, by all accounts. She just didn’t feel like playing “Dodo” anymore.
And who can blame her? Go take a look at “Love Me or Leave Me,” or listen to the early recordings. There’s a woman there the movies never properly figured out what to do with.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.