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Doris Day: The life of the Hollywood icon

American actress and singer Doris Day still stands out as one of the biggest names from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Over the course of her illustrious career, she received several prestigious accolades including the hallowed Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004. On the second anniversary of her sad death, we take a closer look at Doris Day’s life and career as a celebration of her work.

Born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1922 as Doris Kappelhoff, Day was named after the famous actress Doris Kenyon. Her father was a music teacher and a choirmaster who was inclined towards classical music. While growing up, Day was attracted to dancing and even performed at local venues as a part of a dance duo until a serious leg injury put an end to her ambitions of being a professional dancer. However, it was this interim period during her recovery which helped her discover her talent for singing as she sang along to the tunes on the radio. “During this long, boring period, I used to while away a lot of time listening to the radio, sometimes singing along with the likes of Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey, and Glenn Miller,” she recalled.

At the young age of 15, she started performing with various musicians including Les Brown who once said: “She was every bandleader’s dream, a vocalist who had natural talent, a keen regard for the lyrics and an attractive appearance.” It was around this time that she decided that the surname Kappelhoff wasn’t catchy enough and went with the iconic name of Doris Day. Within a few years, she managed to achieve mainstream success with two recordings that became number one on the billboards; Sentimental Journey and My Dreams Are Getting Better All the Time. Day’s popularity as a singer put her in a prime position to transition into the glamorous world of cinema.

Day had already been appearing as a singer in many films when she was cast by Michael Curtiz in his 1948 musical Romance on the High Seas. While fondly remembering the audition process, Sammy Cahn said: “I’ll remember this to my grave. We all walked into a room to see the screen tests. The first screen test was Marion Hutton’s. Then came Janis Paige [who ended up with a part in the film].  Then on the screen came Doris Day.  I can only tell you, the screen just exploded. There was absolutely no question.  A great star was born and the rest is history.” It’s Magic, a recording she made for the production, was also a major success and solidified her status as a celebrity.

She continued her career in cinema with multiple musicals like Tea For Two and On Moonlight Bay among others, building on the her on-screen persona of the “all-American girl” (as Curtiz called her). With the 1951 musical I’ll See You in My Dreams, Day broke all sorts of financial records and kept making successful musical collaborations with the likes of Frank Sinatra and Bob Cummings. She also started her famous radio program called The Doris Day Show (which would eventually become the name of her sitcom) but her real breakthrough as an actress was yet to come.

Cameron Mitchell, Doris Day, and James Cagney. (Credit: MGM)

Starting with a more dramatic role in Charles Vidor’s Love Me or Leave Me where she portrayed Ruth Etting, Day began her ascent to the very top of the film industry. She also starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much alongside none other than James Stewart. However, her most popular on-screen collaboration was with Rock Hudson beginning with the 1959 romantic comedy Pillow Talk for which she earned an Academy Award nomination. This period in her career was marked by the commercial success she enjoyed, giving her the opportunity to work with some of the biggest stars in the world including Clark Gable, Cary Grant and James Garner in films like That Touch of Mink and The Thrill of It All.

The public attitude towards Day’s image of being a sexualised virgin started changing with the sexual revolution of the late ’60s. She had the chance to play Anne Bancroft’s iconic role of Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate but she turned it down because she found the material to be “vulgar and offensive.” Day’s legacy is complicated because of the invalidity of her artificial construction of gender values and conservative sensibilities, engineered specifically for the screen. “My public image is unshakeably that of America’s wholesome virgin, the girl next door, carefree and brimming with happiness,” Day told her biographer. “An image, I can assure you, more make-believe than any film part I ever played.”

Doris Day soon found herself in an undesirable position, trying to maintain relevance with the television series The Doris Day Show in order to clear the debts created by the men in her life who had wasted her savings. Her unsuccessful personal relationships and disastrous financial decisions, combined with the growing public indifference towards her, soon ensured the end of her acting career. After retiring from the film industry, Day worked as an animal welfare activist and even founded the Doris Day Pet Foundation. She rescued and looked after many animals in need, simultaneously raising awareness about the widespread mistreatment of these helpless creatures. To combat this injustice, she formed several organisations and led the fight against animal abuse.

In the latter half of her life, Day finally received the critical recognition that had been missing all these years. She received Grammy Hall of Fame Awards as well as several lifetime achievement Awards for her contribution to the world of cinema. A few years before her death, Day even released an album titled My Heart which became a huge success. Even after all these years, her achievements in cinema and music are safely preserved in the minds and hearts of the people who have witnessed her brilliance.