Today marks her 90th birthday and TCM is celebrating the event by airing a collection of her films including some of my personal favorites suchLOVE ME OR LEAVE ME (1955) and LOVER COME BACK (1961). I thought I’d join in the fun by sharing some interesting anecdotes and fascinating facts about one of America’s most beloved movie sweethearts.
What’s in a name?
Doris Mary Ann Kappelhoff was born April 3, 1924, in Cincinnati Ohio. Her mother was a film fan and named her daughter after the silent film star Doris Kenyon. Doris eventually started using the stage name Doris Day at the suggestion of bandleader and jazz musician Barney Rapp. Rapp had hired Doris to sing with his band and after hearing her rendition of a song called “Day After Day” he thought she should take Day as her last name because he found Kappelhoff too ungainly for marquees.
Day’s nickname (which she reportedly uses more than her given name) is “Clara” and it was bestowed on her by comedic actor Billy De Wolf after they met on the set of TEA FOR TWO (1950). De Wolf told the actress that she looked more like a Clara Bixby than a Doris Day and the nickname stuck. Day and De Wolf became fast friends during the making of the movie and they remained close until his death in 1974. Before losing his battle with lung cancer De Wolf regularly appeared on THE DORIS DAY SHOW (1968-1973).
Life Is a Song Worth Singing
Day started dancing at age 5 and attended The Golden’s School for Tap as well as Martin’s Ballet school in Cincinnati. At age 13 she won an amateur dance contest and planned on using the prize money to take classes at a prestigious dance academy in Hollywood but the night of her farewell party she was in a car accident and severely broke her legs in numerous places. It took Day almost two years to recover from the accident and during that time she started singing along with Ella Fitzgerald records. Her voice was so lovely that Day’s mother suggested she take voice lessons.
Day went on to have a lucrative career as a jazz singer and worked with a number of popular bands but she found real success with Les Brown and His Band of Renown. In 1944 at the end of WWII Les Brown, along with Ben Homer, released “Sentimental Journey” with lyrics by Bud Green and vocals by Doris Day. The record hit the Billboard charts on March 29, 1945, and remained there for 23 long weeks. The song was particularly popular with servicemen and their families and it eventually became Day’s first #1 hit. Day went on to record many more hit songs including the Oscar-winning “Secret Love” and “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be).” Her most recent album is called My Heart, which was released in 2011. It reached number nine on the UK charts making Doris Day the oldest artist to score a UK Top 10 hit record with new material.
Working with Warner Brothers
Doris Day’s first film role was in Michael Curtiz’ ROMANCE ON THE HIGH SEAS (1948). Curtiz spotted Day singing at a Hollywood party and asked her to take a screen test. She didn’t have any acting experience at the time but Curtiz refused to let her get any formal training. Day natural charisma, singing talent and comedic timing were evident to the director and he captured them in his film, which was a box office success. Soon afterward Warner Brothers signed Day to a 7-year contract. While working with Warner Brothers, Day made 2 or 3 films a year and some of her favorites were ON MOONLIGHT BAY (1951) and its sequel BY THE LIGHT OF THE SILVERY MOON (1953) with costar Gordon MacRae. Day loved working with MacRae and has said, “I adored him. And I think he was one of the best singers ever, ever, ever!”
Another of Day’s favorite films with Warner and the one she most often likes to cite is CALAMITY JANE (1953), which was nominated for Best Original Song at the 1954 Academy Awards thanks to Day’s rendition of “Secret Love.” Day particularly enjoyed playing a spunky, independent and athletic tomboy who reminded the actress of herself.
Top: Doris Day & James Cagney
Bottom: Doris Day & Rock Hudson
Making Movies with Marty Melcher
Marty Melcher was Doris Day’s third husband. The two married in 1951 and he began managing Day’s career in 1954. At Melcher’s suggestion Day choose not to renew her contract with Warner when it ended and she became free to work with other studios including MGM, Universal Pictures and Paramount. Her first film after leaving Warner was the critically acclaimed LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME (1955). The movie was based on the real-life story of the popular actress and singing star Ruth Etting and her husband, a Chicago gangster called Martin “Moe the Gimp” Snyder who was played by James Cagney. The film gave Day the opportunity to really flex her dramatic chops and it was nominated for numerous awards. Day aid of her costar “There aren’t enough words or accolades for Jimmy Cagney as far as I’m concerned. And we had a great time working together. He’s the most professional actor I’ve ever met.” Cagney also enjoyed working with her and once said “Doris Day perfectly illustrates my definition of good acting. Just plant yourself, look the other actor in the eye and tell him the truth.”
Day’s went on to appear in THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1956), JULIE (1956), THE PAJAMA GAME (1957), THE TUNNEL OF LOVE (1958), TEACHER’S PET (1958), IT HAPPENED TO JANE (1959) and PILLOW TALK (1959). The incredible success of PILLOW TALK paved the way for Day’s easy career transition in the 1960s and she went on to star in many popular romantic comedies opposite handsome leading men including Rock Hudson as well as James Garner and Rod Taylor. She had great chemistry with them all and the fun they’re clearly having on screen is contagious.
“Doris Day is my Actor’s Studio. That’s where I learned it all. That’s where I learned everything about comedy and timing.” – Rock Hudson
“Doris was everybody’s darling. I loved her and wish I could have done 50 more pictures with her.” – James Garner
“I love that girl! She’s one of the greatest pros I’ve ever worked with.” – Rod Taylor
Top: Doris Day with Jack Carson
Bottom: (Clockwise) with Frank Sinatra, Ronald Reagan, Louis Jourdan& Patrick O’Neal
Some Affairs to Remember?
Doris Day isn’t the type of girl who likes to kiss and tell but rumors have circulated about her brief affairs with a number of costars and in some cases, she’s been a bit more forthcoming. Particularly about her relationship with former President Ronald Reagan who she first met on the set of STORM WARNING (1951). Day apparently enjoyed Reagan’s company because he was a great dancer and a good conversationalist. The two remanded lifelong friends.
Other costars who she’s been linked romantically with include Jack Carson who starred with Day in a number of movies including her very first film, ROMANCE ON THE HIGH SEAS (1948). There was also Frank Sinatra who knew Day when she was a band singer and starred with her in YOUNG AT HEART (1954) and Louis Jourdan who was somewhat of a notorious ladies’ man and appeared with Day in JULIE (1956).
I also want to single out actor Patrick O’Neal who Day met on the set of WHERE WERE YOU WHEN THE LIGHTS WENT OUT? (1968). According to one biographer, O’Neil was the love of Day’s life. I can’t confirm any of these rumored romances but Day stayed married to her husband Marty Melcher until his death in 1968.
Top: Clint Eastwood and Doris Day
Bottom: Day and one of her furry friends
On Her Own
After Melcher’s death in 1968 Day discovered that the fortune she thought she had amassed during her long career had been squandered on bad investments and illegal financial transactions by her husband and his business partner Jerome Bernard Rosenthal. As a result, Day was deeply in debt and recovered by working on THE DORIS DAY SHOW for television while taking legal action against Rosenthal. The TV show was extremely popular and Day eventually won her case but she stopped making movies and set up home in Carmel, California, the lovely little city by the sea where her neighbors include actor, director, and one-time mayor of the city, Clint Eastwood.
At age 90 Day currently devotes most of her time and energy to The Doris Day Animal Foundation that she founded in 1978 whose mission is to “Reduce the pain and suffering of non-human animals through legislative initiatives, education, and programs to develop and enforce statutes and regulations protecting animals.” Thanks to her organization thousands of unwanted and abandoned pets have found new and loving homes. The Doris Day Animal Foundation is also responsible for many other life-saving programs that benefit our furry friends including the creation of World Spay Day, which encourages everyone to get their pets spayed, and the Doris Day/Terry Melcher Scholarship at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.
The legacy of this vivacious movie star, popular vocalist, television personality and animal rights advocate is truly unparalleled. And knowing Day’s is still here with us doing good work that benefits us all is something worth celebrating!
– Robert Osborne Interviews Doris Day
– Doris Day’s 90th Birthday Celebration on TCM
– Spy Games: Frank Tashlin & Doris Day Go Undercover
– Doris Day Animal Foundation
– Animal Advocates Doris Day and Jane Goodall Share April 3rd Birthday
– Doris Day: Rare Early Photos of a Showbiz Superstar from LIFE Magazine
by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally written for Turner Classic Movies at TCM.com and published on April 3, 2014