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Ben Mankiewicz - TCM Host
Remind Me

Ben's Top Pick for June

TCM Remembers Doris Day - June 9

It's been a few weeks, but I find that Doris remains on my mind. She died last month at 97. I never met her. When she retired from movies in 1968 - and from television five years later - she largely retired from public life too. I was invited to her birthday celebration at the end of March, which was an honor. I hosted a question and answer session with some of her friends before a screening of her first film with Rock Hudson, Pillow Talk, from 1959. The guests included Rich Little, the great impressionist; Peter Marshall, the former host of Hollywood Squares; and Jackie Joseph, who played opposite Day on two seasons of The Doris Day Show. The night was a lively celebration, and it remains the only time in my life a screening of a classic film was preceded by an animal auction. As Doris wanted it. Dogs first. Movies second.

I spent the day she died doing television interviews discussing her legacy. Though I praised the breadth of her talent and the sparkle that ignited her likeability, I'm not sure I ever quite hit on what made Doris Day so treasured, what thrust her into the very top tier of mid-century American stars.

Then I read a piece in People magazine about Michael Feinstein, the singer and pianist. Over that same weekend, Feinstein got an invite to Doris' home (they'd been pen pals for years), where he sang for her, including a number of her hits. "I've performed for presidents and royalty," Feinstein told People, "but performing for her was truly thrilling."

With that, I was reminded the best way to properly convey Doris Day's considerable impact on movies and the recording industry is to let other great talents, artists like Feinstein, tell the story of her greatness.

So, let's start with Doris as a singer. For years, she sang with bandleader Les Brown and His Band of Renown. "As a singer," said Brown, "Doris belongs in the company of Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra."

She made a single movie with Jack Lemmon, a two-time Oscar winner who moved in and out of comedy and drama as well as any actor of his generation. The picture they made together, It Happened to Jane, from 1959, wasn't either of their best, but Lemmon quite clearly experienced the Doris Day magic. "I think she is potentially one of the greatest actresses I'll work with," he said, "because in every scene she is so open, simple, and honest that I found myself in the position of having to play up to her. Which, in the parlance of actors, means she's so good that I automatically reacted to her."

Then there's James Cagney, who made two pictures with Doris, The West Point Story, from 1950, and Love Me or Leave Me, a 1955 musical biopic about Ruth Etting, played by Doris. Cagney considered a couple of veterans of the American stage: Pauline Lord and Laurette Taylor, two of the finest performers he'd ever seen. Of Doris, he said, "You know, girl, you have a quality I've seen twice before. Both (Taylor and Lord) could really get on there and do it with everything. They could take you apart playing a scene. Now, you're the third one."

James Garner described Doris as "the Fred Astaire of comedy." He starred with her in two romantic comedies, Move Over, Darling and The Thrill of It All, both from 1963, similar in tone and structure to the three pictures she made with Rock Hudson. "I'd rather have Doris than Liz Taylor," said Garner. "Everything Doris does turns into box office gold. I think Doris is a very sexy lady who doesn't know how sexy she is. That's an integral part of her charm...Whether it was Rock Hudson or Rod Taylor or me or whoever, we all looked good because we were dancing with [Doris Day]."

Michael Curtiz, whose directing credits include Casablanca, Mildred Pierce and Cagney's Oscar-winning turn in Yankee Doodle Dandy, directed Doris in her first feature, a musical from 1948, Romance on the High Seas. After landing the part on her own, she started taking acting lessons. Curtiz objected. Strenuously. He feared the essence of Doris Day would get lost in the coaching. "You have a very strong personality," Curtiz told her. "No matter what you do on screen, no matter what kind of part you play, it will always be you. What I mean is, Doris Day will always shine through the part. This will make you a big, important star."

Count one for Curtiz.

by Ben Mankiewicz