Doris Day appreciation: One of the sunniest stars in Hollywood’s golden era and devoted animal rights activist, dead at age 97

Yes, Doris Day, who died on May 13 at age 97 after a bout with pneumonia, was the all-American girl next door — but she was so much more. The funny, sunny blonde with the perky disposition, a sprinkle of freckles and a dazzling smile started off as a big band singer whose first hit was 1945’s “Sentimental Journey” with Les Brown & his Band of Renown. She would record more than 650 songs from 1947 to 1967, making her one of the biggest-selling recording artists of the 20th century, and was honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 20008.

But the former Doris Mary Ann von Kappelhoff would make an even bigger splash as a star on the silver screen in a series of romantic comedies opposite Rock Hudson — who would become a lifelong friend — starting with 1959’s “Pillow Talk,” the source of her only Oscar nomination, along with 1961’s “Lover Come Back” and 1964’s “Send Me No Flowers.” The smirky humor in these rom-coms often came in the form of the battle of the sexes, complete with hanky-panky jokes and naughty innuendo. At least Day often played a confident career women in figure-flattering designer apparel while trying stave off male predators in a not-quite-liberated era.

Day also had cred as a ticket-selling powerhouse, becoming the first female since Shirley Temple to rule the box office, a run that lasted roughly from 1955 to ’65. She made 39 films that ranged from light-hearted fare like her debut in 1948’s “Romance on the High Seas,” directed by “Casablanca’s” Michael Curtiz to disturbing melodramas such as 1960’s “Midnight Lace,” a remake of “Gaslight” co-starring Rex Harrison. (watch video of her most notable roles above)

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Other handsome male stars besides Hudson wanted in on Day’s money-making light comedies. The bright ray of femininity would star with Clark Gable in “Teacher’s Pet,” Cary Grant in 1962’s “That Touch of Mink” and in “The Thrill of It All” and “Move Over, Darling” with James Garner, both from 1963.

Of course, the master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock would see the wholesome bouncy blonde in a less cheery light. When they met at a party in 1951, he saw something dark and deeper inside her. That is how he came to cast Day opposite James Stewart in 1956’s “The Man Who Knew Much,” as the distressed mother of a kidnapped boy. Her compensation for being put through the emotional ringer was being able to sing what would become her signature tune, “Que Sera, Sera,” which would would win an Academy Award for Best Original Song. But she considered her best performance to be her dramatic turn as Roaring ’20s torch singer Ruth Etting in 1955’s “Love Me or Leave Me” with James Cagney as her rotten scoundrel of a manager/husband.

However, Day’s favorite of her films is mine as well, considering that I grew up at a time that being a cowgirl was a career option, at least according to Hollywood. She dropped her feminine wiles and donned buckskin and jeans while bellowing her way through the tomboy title role in the 1953 musical-comedy Western “Calamity Jane,” with gosh-darn gumption as she mooned over Howard Keel‘s Wild Bill Hickok. She would perform another Academy Award-winning Best Original Song, “Secret Love.”

In real life, Day had lousy luck with men. As teenager in 1941, she would wed trombone player Al Jorden, whom she alleged abused her. Jorden fathered her son and only child, music producer Terry Melcher, who died in 2004 from cancer. In 1946, she married a saxophonist, George Weidler, who resented her growing fame as a singer. Marty Melcher, who adopted Terry, became her third husband and manager in 1951. When he died in 1968, it was found that he lost about $20 million of her money. She worked her way out of debt and later sued to get the cash back. Her last marriage was a brief one to restaurateur Barry Comden that ended in 1982.

Thus her quote: “If it’s true that men are such beasts, this must account for the fact that most women are animal lovers.”

Day was smart enough to realize that her virginal image wasn’t going to cut it in the Vietnam War era of free love, protests  and societal unrest in the later ’60s. She famously turned down the role as Mrs. Robinson in 1967’s “The Graduate” that would go to Anne Bancroft, considering it vulgar and offensive.  Her final feature film was the family comedy, “With Six You Get Egg Role.”

Her last big hurrah as an actress was the CBS series “The Doris Day Show,” which ran for five seasons from 1968 to ’73. Her late husband Melcher had committed her to it without telling her but she kept the promise.

Day, who was not fond of awards hoopla, managed to win enough to fill a bookcase. She won six Laurel Awards in a row from 1957 to ’64 for Top Female Star from “Motion Picture Exhibitor” magazine. She also won five Henrietta Awards for World Film Favorite -Female at the Golden Globes between 1955 and 1964. The organization also bestowed her with a 1989 Cecil B. DeMille honor, for her outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment.

In her later years, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom but her fear of flying prevented her from attending the White House ceremony in 2004.

Day kept busy overseeing two animal welfare groups and generally only made public appearances if it helped her adored creatures. As the notoriously private star once quipped, “I’ve never met an animal I didn’t like, and I can’t say the same thing about people.”

While she might have gone to that big animal shelter in the sky, Day’s legacy endures as her warm radiance can still be felt by those who were touched by her films and her music. To this day, just hearing her name alone can bring a smile to someone’s face — that is how much pleasure she gave to the world.

She stated her mission thusly: “I like joy. I want to be joyous. I want to have fun on the set. I want to wear beautiful clothes and look pretty. I want to smile and I want to make people laugh. And that’s all I want. I like it. I like being happy. I want to make others happy.” Amen to that.

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