Doris Day was one of the most popular stars of her era: first as a singing sensation in the 1950s and then as the top female box office star in the 1960s. Day, who died May 13, 2019 at the age of 97, could sing the lights out on hits such as “Sentimental Journey” and her signature song, “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be Will Be).” As the queen of ’60s romantic comedies, she starred in hit after hit opposite leading men Rock Hudson, James Garner, and David Niven. She proved she could handle drama, as well, with an outstanding performance in Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller “The Man Who Knew Too Much.” She capped off her legendary career with a five-year-run on television as the star of “The Doris Day Show.”
Young Doris Day wanted to be a professional dancer, but a leg injury in a car accident as a teenager derailed that dream. Day started singing along to the radio and discovered a new talent. Her first professional singing job was on WLW radio in her hometown of Cincinnati, which led to singing gigs with bandleaders Barney Rapp, Bob Crosby, and Les Brown and his Band of Renown. Day’s first big hit came in 1945 fronting Les Brown’s band on a version of “Sentimental Journey.”
Day’s next big hit with Les Brown and the Band of Renown was “My Dreams Are Getting Better All The Time,” a No. 1 song in 1945. Doris Day became one of the most popular singers in America in the 1940s and ’50s, being voted favorite performer by U.S. servicemen in Korea in 1950.
Doris Day so impressed the songwriting duo of Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn that they recommended her to director Michael Curtiz for his 1948 movie “Romance on the High Seas,” after star Betty Hutton became pregnant. Curtiz was looking for an All-American type, and he appreciated Day’s honesty in telling him that she had no acting experience. Curtiz considered Day to be his greatest discovery, according to his Associated Press obituary. The movie was a financial success and started Day’s long film career. Day sang the Styne/Cahn song “It’s Magic” in the movie; it became a solo hit for her and was nominated for an Academy Award.
Day teamed up with Curtiz in 1951 for the box office smash hit “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” a biographical film on the life of legendary lyricist Gus Kahn and his relationship with his composer wife, Grace LeBoy Kahn. The movie was Warner Brothers second highest grossing film of 1951. Day played Grace opposite Danny Thomas as Gus.
Day teamed up with Frank Sinatra for the movie “Young at Heart,” released on January 1, 1955. Sinatra and Day’s version of the song “Young at Heart” was a big hit; the media called it Sinatra’s comeback song, as it had been years since he hit the top of the charts.
Day had great success with light musical comedies, but she wanted to move into more mature roles. Her big dramatic breakthrough came when she played singer Ruth Etting opposite James Cagney in 1955’s “Love Me or Leave Me.” Day’s performance was critically acclaimed, and the movie was a success. Producer Joe Pasternak said in an interview that he was surprised Day did not receive an Oscar nomination.
One of Doris Day’s most popular songs, “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be Will Be)” was recorded for her starring role in the Alfred Hitchcock movie, “The Man Who Knew Too Much.” The 1956 thriller starred Day and James Stewart. The producers were not sure about casting Day in the role — they wanted Lana Turner or Grace Kelly — but Hitchcock wanted Day.
Doris Day kept up her string of hit movies when she starred opposite David Niven in the 1960 comedy “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies.” The movie was based on Jean Kerr’s book and turned into a TV series five years later starring Patricia Crowley.
Besides Rock Hudson, another recurring leading man for Day was James Garner. They starred together in two romantic comedies in 1963: “The Thrill of It All” and “Move Over, Darling.” The screwball comedy “Move Over, Darling” was one of the year’s biggest hits. Based on the 1940 film “My Favorite Wife,” starring Cary Grant, the remake was supposed to star Marilyn Monroe and Dean Martin, but Monroe died during filming. Day sang the title song, which became a top ten hit.
Doris Day’s final film appearance was in the 1968 comedy “With Six You Get Eggroll.” Day and Brian Keith are widowers with children who get married and have to manage their new blended family. The premise is similar to TV’s “The Brady Bunch,” which debuted a year later in 1969; interestingly, the script for “The Brady Bunch” had been written before the movie came out. Meanwhile, Day’s real-life husband, Martin Melcher, died in 1968, following which she discovered that her longtime attorney had mismanaged her earnings and she was deeply in debt. She sued her attorney and won a settlement that was not paid to her until 1979. Day told the press she did not think her husband knew what was happening with her money.
Another situation that Martin Melcher left Doris Day with after he died was a TV series. She was not aware that he had committed her to doing a series and a couple of television specials. Day told OK! Magazine in 1996 that she had been reluctant to do a series: “I was really, really not very well when Marty [Melcher] passed away, and the thought of going into TV was overpowering. But he’d signed me up for a series.” Her TV show proved a success, however, running from 1968 until 1973, hitting the top ten in the ratings its second season. The show had an abrupt plot change for seasons 4 and 5: While the first three seasons featured Day as a widow raising two sons, the last two seasons depicted her as a swinging single career woman, similar to then-popular shows starring Mary Tyler Moore and Marlo Thomas.