Has there ever been another actress so popular and so ignored, so revered and so mocked? Even now, more than 30 years after her last theatrical feature, 1968's "With Six You Get Egg Roll," she is both the darling of her die-hard fans (an annual Doris Day convention is held in Leeds, England) and the plaything of academics in articles with daunting titles like "That Ain't All She Ain't: Doris Day and Queer Performativity."
Anyone who worked up so many contradictory passions deserves a reexamination, so the 12-film UCLA Film and Television Archive series that starts tonight, "The Girl Who Knew Too Much: A Tribute to Doris Day," is especially welcome.
On view are musical dramas and straight musicals, films with Ronald Reagan ("Storm Warning") and directed by Alfred Hitchcock ("The Man Who Knew Too Much"), the slick comedies she co-starred in with Rock Hudson, everything that made her what the UCLA program notes summarize as "a top box-office star of the 1950s and '60s [who] has been decried and deconstructed by feminists while embraced as a gay icon." Quite a journey for a woman born Doris Mary Ann Von Kappelhoff in Cincinnati in 1924.
Though she had a dance act from age 12, an automobile accident helped turn Day to singing. She worked with Bob Crosby's band as well as Les Brown's, and she was always best at those film roles in which her wonderful way with a song could carry some of the dramatic weight. Day's voice invariably adds honesty and dimension to her characters, and it's through the freshness and vitality of her singing that we come to know and care more about the people she plays on screen.
UCLA has shrewdly chosen to start its series tonight at 7:30 p.m. with a double bill of Day's signature musicals, 1953's "Calamity Jane" and 1957's "The Pajama Game."
For those who haven't seen it and think of Day largely in the context of her cloying Hudson vehicles, experiencing (and that is the right word) "Calamity Jane" will be something of a revelation. This happy and high-spirited musical captures many of her best qualities, as the actress gives the most cheerful performance imaginable as the shotgun rider on the Deadwood stagecoach whom everybody knows as "Calam."
Costumed in jeans, boots, a red bandanna and a buckskin jacket that was a present from Custer himself, Day seems to be having the time of her life playing the complete tomboy who's a comically ferocious force of nature in the bargain. As she stomps around saying things like, "Gosh almighty," Calamity Jane is feisty, forthright and fearless, qualities that Day herself came to epitomize.
Given that he's played by the film's other major vocalizer, it's in the cards that the guy Calam is eventually going to be sweet on is Howard Keel's Wild Bill Hickok, but until that happens there's enough confusion, of both the transgender and the ordinary kind, to keep teams of academics happy. As for the rest of us, there's Day singing, among others, the classic Sammy Fain-Paul Francis Webster "Secret Love" that won that year's Oscar.
Day's co-star in "The Pajama Game" was, if anything, more intensely masculine. That would be John Raitt, in his only starring role, as Sid Sorokin, the new ramrod at the SleepTite pajama factory. That job puts him squarely in the path of Day's tough-minded Babe Williams, a committed union maid with a no-nonsense hairdo who's also the head of the grievance committee.
Directed by George Abbott and Stanley Donen from Abbott's Broadway success (and with most of the original cast intact), this "Pajama Game" is distinguished by Day's insinuating singing, classic Richard Adler-Jerry Ross songs like "Hey, There" and "Hernando's Hideaway" and choreography by a young man named Bob Fosse. Although "Pajama Game" can seem dated at times, Fosse's dance routines, especially his "Steam Heat" number for dancer Carol Haney, still look fresh and modern.
Saturday night will see the best of Day in the musical dramatic mode with a double bill of 1950's "Young Man With A Horn" and 1955's "Love Me or Leave Me."
Based loosely on the life of Bix Biederbecke, "Young Man" is best remembered for its classic Kirk Douglas performance as Rick Martin, a trumpet man whose quest to "hit notes nobody ever heard of before" turns him into a tower of self-absorbed intensity. Day plays perky Jo Jordan, the singer with a band Martin hangs with for a while, and it's no surprise that her sophisticated, seductive voice singing "The Very Thought of You" makes a strong impression. Lauren Bacall and Hoagy Carmichael also co-star.
"Love Me" is also based on a famous show-biz life, that of 1920s torch singer Ruth Etting. Day, in one of her stronger performances, plays Etting as spunky but vulnerable, a strong woman prone, in the screenplay that won writer Daniel Fuchs an Oscar for best story, to making big mistakes.