Doris Day: a great entertainer, not a symbol of repression
Joan Merrill remembers a singer and actress whose work will chime with many jazz fans
By Jazz Journal-June 1, 2019
She never won an Oscar, never won a Grammy. But, except for perhaps Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, no other American entertainer left such an impressive legacy as Doris Day.
She did 39 movies, 600 recordings, which include 18 albums, and five seasons of the sitcom The Doris Day Show, plus television specials. According to Ultimate Movie Rankings, nearly 60% of Day’s movies topped $100 million in domestic gross box office sales. In the 1960s she was the No. 1 box office female star for four years, a record matched only by Shirley Temple. Two of Day’s songs won Oscars: Secret Love from Calamity Jane(1953) and Que Será, Será from The Man Who Knew Too Much(1956).
Day was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004, five Golden Globe awards – including the Cecil B. DeMille Award – as well as the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and the LA Critics’ Career Achievement Award. She might have been honoured by the Kennedy Center or received an
honorary Oscar if she had wanted them, but she shunned the spotlight and never sought fame.
Her fans, however, thought differently. They thought she deserved these honours and were disappointed she didn’t get them. Will Friedwald, author of A Popular Guide To The Great Jazz And Pop Singers(Pantheon, 2010), said of Day’s singing: “At her very best, she’s worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald, yet she’s never gotten a fraction of their respect”. And renowned film critic Molly Haskell said, “I think Doris Day is the most underrated, underappreciated actress that has ever come out of Hollywood”.
But now, in death, Day is still underappreciated. Obituaries mention how, due to the roles she sometimes played – a virtuous woman resisting the advances of playboys – she symbolized the sexual repression of the 1950s. As if she chose those roles, as if she declared that image for herself. It was a great entertainer who died, not a symbol.
‘Day was perfectly aware that the material given her was often bad, but she had no control over the matter’
Critics also seem to blame her for the inferiority of some of her songs and movies, as if she had chosen them. Day was perfectly aware that the material given her was often bad, but she had no control over the matter. She gave each project her best effort and should be lauded for that.
Let’s take a closer look at her legacy. Doris Day had parallel careers as movie star and recording artist. Her film career lasted from 1948 to 1968 and her recording contract with Columbia Records from 1947 to 1967. From 1968 to 1973, she appeared in a TV sitcom, The Doris Day Show, which was among the Top 20 in the Nielsen ratings for two straight years. (Her husband and manager Marty Melcher, who died suddenly in 1968, had signed a contract for this show without her knowledge.) And she excelled in each field: recording, movies, and television.
When CBS offered to renew the sitcom, Day declined and moved to Northern California in 1973, spending the rest of her life concentrating on her animal welfare foundation, The Doris Day Animal Foundation. In her animal activism, Day also helped launch World Spay Day, opened a pet-friendly hotel and encouraged people to adopt pets from shelters.
When Day died on 13 May 2019, she hadn’t made a record or a film for almost 50 years. Does her work have lasting value? What exactly is her legacy?
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