Films to Love: The Drama of Doris Day


While Doris Day is ordinarily known for her perky, funny roles in musicals and comedies, she did have several hard hitters under her belt where dramas and thrillers are concerned. These next four are particular favorites of mine.

Though Love Me or Leave Me is a musical, do not be deceived. It is not some frivolous piece of fluff. Rather, this film is meaty, pulling dramatic performances from its leads that are astounding. This fictionalized account of real life jazz singer Ruth Etting, played by Doris Day, and her tumultuous marriage to gangster Marty Snyder, played by James Cagney, is a superb vehicle to showcase two things about Doris Day. Firstly, she is a fantastic singer as well as dancer. In fact, prior to a car accident in the early ‘30s, Doris Day was well on her way to becoming a professional dancer. When those dreams were dashed asunder, she fell back onto singing. (Imagine that. Singing was Doris Day’s second option.) The second thing this movie presents is Doris Day’s ability to take on the role of a femme fatale. Ruth Etting is not Doris Day’s typical fare. Rather, she’s a hard woman who does not quibble to use a man she has no affection for because she knows he will further her career. For the time in which the movie was made, Love Me or Leave Me pushed a lot of boundaries. For Doris Day, it was the first time she took on the role of a woman who was not a sweetheart. For a large portion of the film, you don’t like her character. You see all the mistakes she’s making for her own selfish gain and it bothers you. In fact, Doris Day’s performance was so exemplary that veteran actor James Cagney told the powers that be to give her top billing. Cagney ranked this film in the top five best films he ever made, and Doris Day considered it to be her strongest performance. But, be forewarned, this movie deals with a lot of tough stuff, and while it does adhere to the rigid censors of the time, there is no missing the allusions to rape and domestic abuse. However, do not let that dissuade you from watching it. The film is worthwhile for many reasons, and it will leave you satisfied with its conclusion. I promise.

Doris Day is customarily known for the many musical roles that she played. However, this black and white thriller showcases how well Doris Day could tackle suspense. She’s superb. Day plays Julie Benton, a former flight attendant who has been widowed. She remarries a family friend, Lyle Benton, played by Louis Jourdan. However, the honeymoon period is short and anything but sweet. After witnessing her new husband’s fiercely jealous nature and finding out that her first husband’s death is now being ruled as suspicious, Julie begins to unravel her own suspicions about Lyle. When she confronts him, he confesses to murdering her first husband. Armed with that knowledge, she flees to the police, but they can do nothing without evidence. Now Lyle is pursuing her, intent to kill her. Julie goes into hiding, shifting her looks and her life to remain hidden from her husband. But… I’ll not tell you how Julie ends as that would be dirty pool. However, there are a few notables about this movie. The location is idyllic taking place up and down the coast of California from Carmel to San Francisco. And it is the first film that features the trope of a flight attendant being called on to pilot a plane in an emergency. Furthermore, that scene is praised for its accuracy. Years later, Julia Roberts would star in a similar plot line called Sleeping With the Enemy. But, Doris Day did it first.

On the subject of thrillers, Doris Day plays a wholly different sort of woman in Midnight Lace. Rex Harrison plays Anthony Preston, the doting husband, the put upon husband, who must endure the frightened ravings of his wife Kit, who seems to be losing her mind. Or is she? There’s some dark work afoot in this film. Is someone playing with Kit for his or her own nefarious purposes? Or is she truly insane, making up all of these sightings and events to get attention? When this film was finished shooting, Doris Day vowed to never make another thriller. In order to accurately portray the true terror and hysteria necessary for several scenes in this movie, Doris Day dug deeply into her past, all the way back to one particular event during her first marriage to trombonist Al Jorden. While pregnant and ill, Doris was ripped from her bed by Jordan and slammed against the wall in a fit of acute violence. To draw on those memories so exhausted Doris emotionally that she even collapsed after the filming of one harrowing scene, resulting in having to be carried to her dressing room. Graciously, the director shut down production for several days to let her recover. But, the emotional strain was one Doris did not wish to revisit. After Midnight Lace, she only took on comedies.

Thankfully, Alfred Hitchcock got ahold of Doris Day before she swore off thrillers. The Man Who Knew Too Much could never be the same film with anyone else other than Doris Day playing the part of Josephine McKenna, a former singer who has since retired, married, and mothered a child. While on vacation with her husband, Dr. Benjamin McKenna, play by Jame Stewart, and her son, Hank, her son is kidnapped and held for ransom. Josephine and Benjamin follow the kidnappers all the way back to London where they uncover an assassination plot at the crux of their son’s kidnapping. As always for Hitchcock films, The Man Who Knew Too Much is a tightly twisted thriller with some of the most memorable scenes captured on film. In fact, the entire scene film in Albert Hall is twelves minutes of mounting suspense were not a single word is uttered. That’s superb direction and acting right there. Two important things occurred during the filming of this movie for Doris Day. The first was when Doris encountered the heinous treatment the animals received. She was so appalled by the treatment of the camels, goats, horses, etc that she refused to return to work until their working conditions were made humane. It was on this film’s set that Doris’ lifelong commitment to the prevention of animal abuse and the liberation of animals in abusive conditions started. Second is the song Que Sera Sera. Doris Day didn’t want to record the song Que Sera Sera for popular release; she considered it a silly lullaby featured briefly in one of the movie’s scenes. However, she was persuaded. The song went on to win an Academy Award, be song by her in two more films, and become the theme to the Doris Day Show. Furthermore, during filming, Doris Day became increasingly upset at the lack of direction she received from Hitchcock, a known perfectionist. She concluded that he was unhappy with her performance and confronted him about it. His reply was,

My dear Miss Day, if you weren’t giving me what I wanted, then I would have to direct you!

Kind of weighty subjects to encounter in a post all about Doris Day, huh? Well, have no fear, if you’re in the mood for something on the lighter side, then follow the link to Films to Love: The Joy of Doris Day and read about some of her delightful, comedic roles.