A tribute today to the great star Doris Day (Doris Mary Ann Kappelhoff).
Day came along too late for vaudeville, our usual stomping grounds (she was born in 1922, just as big time vaudeville was winding down). Instead, she came up through radio and big bands, which led to recording contracts and then films. But, that said, her films, especially her early ones, are part of the LORE of vaudeville, because so many of them are either celebrations of show business, or filtered through a nostalgic aesthetic that evokes the turn of the last century. To do a festival of these movies would be almost like having some kind of 2nd hand vaudeville festival. Note how many are named after Tin Pan Alley song titles.
Young Man with a Horn (1950)
A jazz picture loosely based on the story of Bix Beiderbecke, with Kirk Douglas as the musician, and Day as one of countless characters she would play named “Jo”.
Tea for Two (1950)
The script for this started out as No, No, Nanette, set in the 1920s, with Day as the titular socialite who bankrolls a Broadway production just so that she can star in it. Her frequent foil Billy deWolfe is the Broadway producer who two times her.
Lullaby of Broadway (1951)
An entertainer (Day) returns from abroad expecting her mother (Gladys George) to be the working Broadway actress her letters have claimed — only to learn that she is a broken down Greenwich Village singer, and the letters were written by her friends. Billy deWolfe and Cuddles Sakall round out the cast.
On Moonlight Bay (1951)
This one is not a show biz story, but has a turn of the century setting that you can’t help associating with things like Meet Me in St. Louis. Loosely based on Booth Tarkington’s Penrod stories. The soporific Gordon MacRea is once again Ms. Day’s co-star.
I’ll See You in My Dreams (1951)
The Gus Kahn story with Danny Thomas as Kahn and Doris Day as…Mrs. Kahn. Directed by Michael Curtiz. This was Warner Bros’ second biggest grossing film of the year.
April in Paris (1952)
Ray Bolger as a minor American diplomat who sends for Ethel Barrymore as part of a cultural exchange with France, and through a mix up gets a chorus girl named Ethel: Day, who sings the requisite menu of standards.
By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1953)
The sequel to On Moonlight Bay. That poster is the best thing to happen to me all day.
Calamity Jane (1953)
Musical bio-pic of the titular cowgirl, with Howard Keel as Wild Bill Hickock. You can’t help but feel she is sort of doing Betty Hutton in Annie Get Your Gun (which is a higher level of pluckiness than even the Doris Day level of pluckiness — a sort of insane amount of pluckiness), but it’s hard not to like this movie — at least I do.
Lucky Me (1954)
An all-star Cinemascope musical about an out-of-luck, stranded vaudeville troupe that schemes really hard to put on a show! With Day, Phil Silvers, Eddie Foy, Jr., Bob Cummings, and Nancy Walker (whose dad, we can’t help pointing out here, was in the team of Barton and Mann).
Young at Heart (1954)
Into the lives of three singing sisters (Day, Dorothy Malone, Dorothy Fraser) comes songwriter Gig Young and arranger Frank Sinatra. Do the math! There aren’t enough fellers to go around!
Love Me or Leave Me (1955)
This bio-pic about Ruth Etting and the Roaring Twenties has a lot going for it — great dramatic acting by Day as Etting, and James Cagney as her husband/manager/gangster Moe the Gimp (nominated for an Oscar), with Cameron Mitchell in third place as her second husband and accompanist Myrl Alderman. And lots of great singing by Day, of course.
One of MGM’s last big budget musicals, was the long developing adaptation of of Billy Rose’s Jumbo, the largest show ever put on Broadway at least until that time (the 1930s). Like the stage show, the movie isn’t just set at a circus, but contains an entire real circus, full of dozens of actual world class stage performers. The main plot is about Day’s efforts to keep the circus out of the hands of creditors after her dad the circus’s owner (Jimmy Durante) has literally bet the house and lost. More in the film here.
Starting in the mid 50s the show biz pics started to be replaced with rom-coms (often very light sex comedies by the standards of the day), heavy dramas, and thrillers. And then of course her tv show, which we wrote about here. Our beloved Doris Day passed away in 2019.
To learn more about vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.