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Doris Day appreciation: A showbiz survivor's double life

Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Entertainment News

"Boys, Chicag-ee's the biggest noise in Ella-noize!" With that line, Doris Day busts out the song "Just Blew in from the Windy City," portraying the titular whirlwind in the 1953 Warner Brothers hit "Calamity Jane."

In the annals of screen musicals the number's not groundbreaking or one for the ages. But it's delightful, and Day is fantastic. The song showcases so much of what this triple threat could do on command. In her hectic career, amid stormy off-screen chaos in her personal life, she sang, danced, and acted forcefully, memorably, in both comedy and drama.

People loved Doris Day. People still love Doris Day. News of her death at the age of 97 came Monday morning, and I can't be the only one out there taking a sentimental journey of her career.

By the time of "Calamity Jane" the woman born Doris Mary Ann Kappelhoff in Cincinnati, Ohio, of German immigrant stock, had won the affection of millions, starting with her 1948 Hollywood debut "Romance on the High Seas." The song she sang in that one, "It's Magic," sold a million copies in a month.

Five years earlier, with Les Brown's big band, she scored with "Sentimental Journey." Convalescing after a serious car accident as a teenager, Day had studied and then copied the vocal stylings of Ella Fitzgerald, fascinated by her clean, pure tone and forthright connection with the lyric.

So much happened to Day so quickly. Her live appearances led to Hollywood, and along the way she played Chicago's College Inn at the Hotel Sherman, among hundreds of other dance halls and nightclubs across America. A 1944 Chicago Tribune review mis-named her Dorothy Day, and noted the Les Brown Orchestra's featured vocalist as, simply, "good." A year later the same reviewer checked the spelling and came up with: "Neat treatment by the band and beautiful Doris Day."

 

By 1949, she cemented a reputation for herself as a reliable heartbreaker to millions of male fans, and a relatable next-door-type pal to millions of women. A typically lecherous Tribune Tower Ticker nightlife column from that year, confessing "our own crush on this buoyant blonde," wondered: What does Doris Day have "that makes the difference? Was it the little girl grin? The off center freckles? The ski jump nose? Or that 'Hey, fellas!' approach?" By that time, Bob Hope had starting calling her "J.B." on his radio show, sponsored by Pepsodent. The initials stood for "jut-butt," as Day acknowledged in her autobiography, and she claimed it didn't bother her. She was the Jennifer Lopez of her day; in "Teacher's Pet" (1958), opposite Clark Gable, the movie exploited that nickname, shamelessly.

All this belongs to the era immediately preceding the one that made Doris Day into the so-called "professional virgin" of late '50s/early '60s romantic comedy. She'll forever be linked to films such as "Pillow Talk" in 1959, for which she received her sole Academy Award nomination. Working with James Garner, Rod Taylor and other leading men, Day ran through the paces of what became the standard American rom-com template. The women she played -- bright, uptight, besieged by hungry male wolves -- ended the masquerade at hand by getting what the movie was telling her she wanted all along: a ring on it, followed by a happy swell of end-credits music.

Off-screen, Day's life careened from one rough, unreliable, often violent marriage to the next. She wrote about her first husband, musician Al Jorden, beating her nearly to death when she was eight months' pregnant, at 17. The movies she made popular years later may have been contrivances, but Day believed in their underlying promise of fulfillment and clearly drawn lines in the battle of the sexes.

"It was the only ambition I ever had," Day told one interviewer. "Not to be a dancer or Hollywood movie star, but to be a housewife in a good marriage."

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