Top Ten Doris Day Films
Doris Day, the personification of the ultimate girl next door, as well as, the chic and driven career woman. She managed to play perpetual good girls who were rarely wilting flowers but, were often feisty, opinionated, and (dare I say it) even sexy. Approachable and eternally likable, Doris still remains the 6th greatest box office star of all time and is the top female star of all time (tied only with Shirley Temple).
Doris is, also, widely regarded as one of the greatest singers of the 20th century. Her latest album, "My Heart" (released in late 2011), actually, topped the charts in the UK! So, it might be surprising to hear that Doris, originally, planned on being a professional dancer. But, when a horrific car accident shattered that dream forever, the resilient Doris shifted her plans towards becoming a singer. A decision for which the world is forever grateful.
Although she retired long ago to focus on her passion for animal welfare, you still have the chance to hear the voice of Doris Day every April around her birthday (April 3) on various radio stations. Doris’ birthday radio interviews have become somewhat of a tradition for her and it’s a one-of-a-kind treat to hear her joyful laugh again. Long live the great Doris Day.
FYI: I chose the order of my Doris Day top ten by considering each film's importance in Doris’s overall career, the size/importance of her role in them, and their overall popularity today as evidenced by their ratings on sites like, IMDB, Netflix, and Rotten Tomatoes. Naturally, feel free to watch them in any order you like (this is merely a recommended top ten). You might watch them in the order listed here, chronologically (like I did), or in a way that corresponds with your own movie tastes. If you discover your favorite Doris Day film is missing, feel free to post a comment explaining why you would recommend it.
Top 10 Doris Day Films
- Pillow Talk
- The Man Who Knew Too Much
- Love Me Or Leave Me
- Calamity Jane
- Lover Come Back
- The Pajama Game
- Young At Heart
- The Thrill Of It All
- Move Over, Darling
- Send Me No Flowers
1. "Pillow Talk" (1959)
Given Doris’ traditionally virtuous screen personae, it might seem ironic that her most famous film would be this adorably tongue-in-cheek sex comedy. But, that’s exactly what makes Pillow Talk a classic. The first of three movies that Doris would make opposite Rock Hudson, the movie depends entirely on the juxtaposition and chemistry between these two stars. Doris plays Jan Morrow, a successful interior decorator living in New York City. Jan has a nice apartment, but the downside is that she has to share her phone line with one of her neighbors. Unfortunately for her, that neighbor is Brad Allen (Hudson), a womanizing songwriter who constantly monopolizes the phone line by talking up his many conquests. This frustrates Jan to no end and the two have a number of hostile phone conversations. But once Brad, actually, sees his uptight (and attractive) neighbor, he quickly makes it his pet project to seduce her. In an effort to put her guard down, he introduces himself to Jan as Rex Stetson, a naïve out-of-towner. At first, it seems like Brad's ruse might work, but Jan is not an easy conquest and the more Brad gets to know her, the more he, actually, finds himself caring about her. Immensely popular during its first release, Pillow Talk has become known for its frequent and clever use of double entendres (even winning an Oscar for Best Screenplay). But the real draw of this movie is watching these two likable stars, proving why they’re still considered one of the greatest screen duos of all time.
2. "The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1956)
Directed by the legendary Alfred Hitchcock, The Man Who Knew Too Much is a remake of Hitchcock’s original 1934 film of the same name. Generally considered to be superior to the original (even according to Hitch), the film pairs ultimate girl-next-door Doris with America’s favorite everyman, Jimmy Stewart. Filmed mostly on location in Marrakesh and London, The Man Who Knew Too Much gave Doris the rare chance to prove herself as a dramatic actress. In the movie, she and Stewart play Jo and Benjamin McKenna, who along with their son, Hank, are vacationing around Morocco. While on their way from Casablanca to Marrakesh, they meet a charming Frenchman named Louis Bernard. Bernard seems eager to make friends, but Jo remains wary of him, noticing how he manages to ask personal questions without ever answering any. Soon Jo’s suspicions appear to be validated when she and Benjamin witness Bernard being stabbed to death in the local marketplace. With his dying breath, Bernard manages to whisper a volatile secret to Benjamin. The knowledge of that secret soon puts the entire family in danger, particularly, the Mckennas' young son, Hank. Both Doris and Stewart give strong emotional performances in this film and though this is not a movie lacking in suspense, it’s, also, just as well-known for its lighter moments (particularly, it’s tongue-in-cheek ending). One of the film’s most famous scenes is, actually, one of its sweetest: when Jo (a retired singer) sings a nursery song to her son. The song, “Que Sera, Sera” would, eventually, become Doris’ trademark and even won the Academy Award for Best Song of that year.
3. “Love Me Or Leave Me” (1955)
Based on the life of popular torch singer, Ruth Etting, Love Me Or Leave Me provides a great showcase for Doris’ vocal talents. Be aware though, this is not the sunny Doris Day most people remember. This film is very much a musical drama, not a comedy. Set in the 1920s, it tells the story of the ambitious Ruth, who dreams of becoming a professional singer. Instead, Ruth is stuck working as a taxi dancer to make ends meet. Impatient to become a successful singer, Ruth begins to use the unwanted attentions of gangster Martin Snyder (Jimmy Cagney) to her advantage. Although her technique seems effective at first, it, also, comes at a price, as the insecure and hotheaded Marty, eventually, gets tired of being used. In her role as Ruth, Doris manages to show some real darkness under her girl-next-door façade and, at times, even verges on being unlikable. In fact, Doris was hesitant to accept the role of Ruth Etting (she found the character somewhat vulgar) but, lucky for us, she took the role and seems to have taken it very seriously. Cagney, also, gives a powerful performance as Marty, giving the brash gangster relatable humanity. in fact, it was Cagney who suggested Doris for the role of Ruth in the first place, and he, graciously, deferred top billing to her (the first time since the '30s he'd ever been billed under another star). Of course, where Doris truly shines is in the film’s musical numbers (most of them taken straight out of Ruth Etting’s original repoitoire). The film’s soundtrack even hit number one on the charts and remained there for 17 weeks straight.
4. “Calamity Jane” (1953)
Often cited as Doris’ favorite role, this delightful musical provides a perfect showcase for her considerable musical talents. Originally made as a response to the popular movie, Annie Get Your Gun (the film even features Annie Get Your Gun cast member Howard Keel in a lead role), Calamity Jane uses the life and legend of the Western folk heroine as inspiration for this enjoyable musical comedy. Set in the Wild Western town of Deadwood City, the story kicks in when the owner of the town’s only theater, accidentally, hires a male actor instead of a female. The outrage of the town’s largely male population threatens to put the theater out of business, but rough cowgirl Calamity Jane (Doris) jumps to the theater owner’s defense. She boasts that she will make up for the mistake by bringing the famous actress, Adelaid Adams, to perform at the theater and she takes off for Chicago to do just that. But, when she gets to the big city, Calamity mistakes Adelaid’s maid, Katie Brown, for Adelaid Adams, herself. When the amateur Katie comes to Deadwood to perform, it seems Calamity’s boastful ways may have finally come back to bite her. And bringing another woman to town may cause other problems for Calamity, as well. Particularly, when it comes to her hopes of a relationship with the handsome Lieutenant Gilmartin. Doris really flings herself into the role of the boisterous Calamity and those familiar with her feminine good girl roles might be surprised by her portrayal. She even worked to drop her voice down several registers to better suit Calamity’s tomboyish personality. Naturally, Doris’ crystal clear singing voice bolsters a number of catchy songs in this film, including the well-known “Secret Love”. At the time, the song topped the Billboard charts at number one and even won the Oscar for Best Song. If you enjoy energetic musicals like Annie Get Your Gun and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, this is the one for you.
5. “Lover Come Back” (1961)
Made to capitalize on the success of Pillow Talk, Lover Come Back reteams Doris with her Pillow Talk co-stars, Rock Hudson and Tony Randall. Much like their earlier teaming, this film revolves around a case of mistaken identity. Doris stars as the ambitious Carol Templeton, who works for a successful ad agency in Manhattan. When her clients start getting wooed away by swinging playboy and fellow ad executive Jerry Webster (Hudson), she makes it her mission to one up her unseen rival. So, when Carol hears rumors that Jerry is going after a mysterious new product named Vip, she, immediately, rushes off to woo the inventor before Jerry has a chance to seal the deal. But, what Carol doesn’t realize is that the man she believes to be the Vip inventor is, actually, Jerry Webster, himself. Worse than that, the miracle product, Vip, doesn’t even exist! A fact that Jerry is hoping to rectify before Miss Templeton gets wise to his ruse. Naturally, this sparkling comedy has plenty of tongue-in-cheek double entendres thrown about along the way and Doris even manages to fit a couple of songs in. She sings one during the opening credits and another as a voiceover as Carol considers her growing feelings for the sweet “Dr. Tyler”.
6. “The Pajama Game” (1957)
Based on the popular Broadway musical of the same name, The Pajama Game stays very true to its theatrical roots. With the exception of Doris, the film features most of the original Broadway cast, including Eddie Foy Jr., Carol Haney, and Broadway legend John Raitt (father of country star Bonnie Raitt). In fact, The Pajama Game represents John Raitt’s only performance as a leading man in a feature film. The movie tells the story of Sid Sorokin (Raitt) and Babe Williams (Doris), both of whom work in a pajama factory, but in very different respects. Babe is the head of the grievance committee and an active member of the worker’s union. Sid is the factory’s new superintendent and is eager to prove himself (since he, actually, has very little experience in the industry). Eventually, Sid and Babe start dating, but their new relationship is severely tested when a labor dispute over a 7 ½ cent raise puts them on opposing sides. Compared to some of her other films, The Pajama Game is, actually, not the best showcase for Doris’ singing talents but, she still features in quite a few charming numbers (particularly, the duet “I Love You More”). But the movie’s most memorable number is the iconic “Steam Heat”, performed by Broadway veteran Carol Haney and choreographed by the legendary Bob Fosse.
7. “Young At Heart” (1954)
Featuring probably one of the most well done love triangles ever put on film, Young At Heart is a musical remake of the popular John Garfield film Four Daughters. It’s unusual to see a musical in which you have no idea who is going to end up with whom, but somehow this movie pulls it off. Sometimes it’s even difficult to tell who is involved in the love triangle (or is that love square?) at any given point in time. The film, also, features a wonderful supporting cast, including Frank Sinatra, Ethel Barrymore, and Gig Young. Doris plays Laurie, a sunny, good-natured girl who lives with her musical family in a large house in New England. When her father brings talented songwriter Alex Burke (Young) into the house as a boarder, Laurie and her two sisters all seem to fall under his spell (with Laurie taking a definite lead). But when Alex invites his old friend, Barney (Sinatra), over to help with his musical arrangements, the love game begins to get even more complicated. Although, Doris sings a couple of pleasant songs throughout the film, she is, definitely, overshadowed by the power of Sinatra, who sings a number of his most famous tunes in this movie (including, “One For My Baby” and “Someone To Watch Over Me”). Sinatra is oddly charismatic as the cynical and self-destructive Barney and his appearance in this film solidified what would become one of his most iconic looks (baggy suit with a tilted hat and a dangling cigarette). Certainly, this is a must see for Sinatra fans but, this moving romantic drama, actually, features heartfelt performances from its entire cast without exception. It's recommended for any hopeless romantic or cock-eyed optimist.
8. “The Thrill Of It All” (1963)
Just by looking at the opening credits of The Thrill Of It All, you know you’re in for something good. Not only was the film directed by In The Heat of the Night director Norman Jewison, it was, also, written by Dick Van Dyke Show creator Carl Reiner, as well as, MASH creator Larry Gelbart. The film, also, marks the first time that Doris was paired opposite the charismatic James Garner and the two share an easy and realistic chemistry. Doris stars as Beverly Boyer, a typical suburban housewife who is, suddenly, given the opportunity to become the new spokesman of a popular brand of soap. It’s an exciting and lucrative opportunity, but as Beverly's new job begins to take up more and more of her time, it, also, begins to affect her relationship with her husband, Gerald (Garner). A successful doctor in his own right, Gerald’s previously stable home life has been turned upside down by Beverly’s newfound career. In fact, the two rarely see each other anymore due to their erratic schedules. Putting that age-old question of the importance of work versus family to the test, it becomes questionable just how much strain the Boyers' marriage can take before it breaks.
9. “Move Over, Darling” (1963)
Move Over, Darling is a film with an unusual history. Under its original title, Something’s Gotta Give, the movie has become famous as the late Marilyn Monroe's last unfinished project. The legendary star passed away before production ended and the film was put on hold for a year out of respect for its former star. Then, the movie was renamed and completely recast with two extremely popular stars as the leads: Doris and James Garner. To match its new star, the film is more bubbly and energetic than its original concept, but that’s exactly what makes this screwball comedy so entertaining. Based on the 1930’s film, My Favorite Wife, the movie tells the unusual tale of Ellen Arden (Doris), a loving wife and mother who is lost at sea after an airplane crash. After five long years go by, her husband, Nick (Garner), finally decides to move on and declares his wife legally dead. But, it turns out that Ellen is very much alive and is now on her way home after being rescued by a Navy ship. But, Ellen’s homecoming is not as happy as she would have hoped. She returns to discover that not only did Nick declare her dead, he is now, currently, on his honeymoon with his second wife! Doris flings herself into the role of Ellen in this movie, doing much more physical comedy than is typical for her. James Garner even managed to break her rib during a particularly energetic scene (a fact Garner didn’t realize until later on in the production). But, all of the pains paid off in the end. Move Over, Darling became one of the biggest hits of the year for 20th Century Fox, helping it through many of the financial troubles caused by Cleopatra and this film’s original production of Something’s Gotta Give.
10. “Send Me No Flowers” (1964)
Serving to reunite Doris with The Thrill of It All director Norman Jewison, Send Me No Flowers is, also, the last of the Doris Day/Rock Hudson/Tony Randall film pairings. Based on the play by Norman Barasch and Caroll Moore, the film stars Hudson as George, a chronic hypochondriac who manages to convince himself (and a few others) that he only has a few weeks left to live. Concerned about the future welfare of his wife, Judy (Doris), George takes it upon himself to find her a new husband. Unfortunately, Judy doesn’t know anything about this plan and she’s beginning to get suspicious about her husband's abnormally sudden lack of jealousy. While Doris and Rock both give solid performances in this film, Tony Randal practically steals the movie out from under them as George’s best friend, Arnold, who becomes so devastated by his friend’s “illness” that he proceeds to get hilariously hammered for three days straight. The film, also, features a memorable appearance by the great Paul Lynde as an abnormally cheerful funeral director. Simultaneously the least stylized and most off-kilter of the Day and Hudson films, this simple marital comedy is an appropriate swan song for the legendary duo’s professional partnership.
Honorable Mention: “Tea For Two” (1950)
I couldn’t finish a Doris Day Top Ten without including one of my favorite Doris films, the lesser-known Tea for Two. Doris made this cheery film musical early on in her career and it marks the first time that she received top billing. Tea for Two is, also, the first time Doris was allowed to dance onscreen (something that wasn't seen often enough from this former dancer). Inspired by the successful Broadway musical, No, No, Nanette, the film takes many liberties with the musical’s plot and songs, however it still maintains the play’s most famous tune, the titular “Tea for Two”. Set in the 1920s, the film tells the story of Nanette Carter (Doris), a bubbly socialite who tends to be a little too willing to spend her wealthy Uncle Max’s money at the drop of a hat. So when Nanette finds out that her boyfriend, Larry, is producing a new Broadway show, she, immediately, offers to invest $25,000 in it. But only if Larry agrees to cast her in the lead. Naturally, he agrees and Nanette rushes off to her uncle for the cash. But, what Nanette doesn’t know is that Uncle Max has just taken a big hit from the recent stock market crash and no longer has the means to pay her. So in an attempt to get out of paying his overzealous niece, Uncle Max tells Nanette that he will only give her the money if she manages to say “no” to every question she’s asked for 24 hours. It seems like a simple request at first, but Nanette will discover just how difficult (and damaging) that task can really be. As well as being a charming film in Doris’ repertoire, Tea for Two has another bit of significance in the life of Doris Day. While on the set, comedian Billy De Wolfe (who played Larry) decided that the name “Doris Day” didn’t fit her and gave her the unusual nickname of “Clara Bixby”. To this very day, Doris’ closest friends will still refer to her as “Clara”.
If you would like to learn more about the adorably sunny Doris Day, I recommend the books, Considering Doris Day by Tom Santopietro and Doris Day: Sentimental Journey by Garry McGee.
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