Tamar Jeffers McDonald / Visual Culture

Doris Day’s Cinematic Selfies

Charting Doris Day’s off and on-screen ‘persona’, Tamar Jeffers McDonald unearths a recurring motif of self-referentialism.

Doris Day's Cinematic Selfies

Perhaps all real movie stars are famous for playing themselves, but Doris Day seems to have made a career – or at least a third of one – out of this. While her girl-next-door ingénues in nostalgia-pics and chic Manhattan career girls in sex comedies might get more of a share of public memory, Day did in fact play a version of herself – a singer, dancer, radio star, performer or showgirl – in thirteen of her thirty-nine movies, and reprised this motif frequently throughout the five years of her television series.

At the start of her film career, it made sense for her first studio, Warner Bros, to cast the newcomer in a bright comedy musical as a bouncy, wise-cracking nightclub singer. Warners took Day on as an untried actor, but she already gained a large measure of fame and fans as the featured vocalist with several big bands, including Bob Crosby’s Bobcats, and Les Brown’s Band of Renown, with whom she’d had the huge wartime hit, ‘Sentimental Journey’. Putting her into her first film, Romance On The High Seas (1948), Warners got Day to do what she was best known for – singing, and lots of it, with just two of the film’s nine numbers not powered by her.

Although Doris Day was hailed at once as a star by Motion Picture [1] and announced as one of the film industry’s best bets for being A Star Of Tomorrow [2] on the basis of her successful performance in Romance On The High Seas, her studio still played it safe with her next film and again located her character within the realm of Day’s experience, and audiences’ experience of her. In My Dream Is Yours (1949) she plays a would-be star who achieves radio success and parlays this into a chance in Hollywood. Again this was fiction repeating fact, as Day had been associated with radio since her early teens, singing for free on her local station in order to get experience. Her big band signings followed, but Day did not leave the medium behind: she had a regular guest-spot as singer and sidekick on a weekly Bob Hope radio show from 1948 for over a year, and her own show for fifteen months from March 1952. The movie magazines, which rapidly became obsessed with Day, made sure that all readers knew her authorised biography, so audiences seeing My Dream Is Yours would be well-aware of the parallel career trajectories of Day and her character, Martha Gibson.

Doris Day's Cinematic Selfies

In addition to presenting Day as another version of herself, the film is fascinating for one particular sequence, which speaks to my research interest in movie fan magazines as well as in stars and stardom: this is a one-minute fame montage which encompasses Gibson’s rise to stardom. Across the space of the fourteen shots the film takes her from her radio job to a Hollywood contract, but, crucially to me, what mainly seems to power this rise is the fan magazines. While other factors are shown to be significant in elevating Martha to celebrity – real-life gossip columnists Walter Winchell, Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper are all name-checked, and movie fans are represented by bundles of fan mail – the movie magazines have their significance especially highlighted.

The montage begins with a photo-shoot of Martha; [above] its results are then reproduced on multiple magazine covers, [top image] until she is seen attaining domination of the news-stand. [below] Besides the parallel of their radio origins, this is another similarity that Martha Gibson and Doris Day enjoyed: fan magazines went Doris-mad in the first few years of her film career. By 1952 coverage of Day was saturating the movie magazines: she appeared on or in all twelve monthly issues of Movie Stars Parade and was featured in seventy-five other periodicals that year too. This close scrutiny of the star was continued by the movie mags throughout the course of her career and, remarkably, still holds true, with the latter-day (and rather debased) descendants of Motion Picture, Photoplay and Modern Screen still finding Doris Day newsworthy even in her 90s…

Doris Day's Cinematic Selfies

Doris Day’s career continued to encompass similar ‘selfie’ roles, although none perhaps so blatant as this one. Both her 1950 films, Young Man With A Horn, and The West Point Story, had her portray a character who was the singer in a big band, thus approaching the star’s most successful job in showbiz before she went to Hollywood. Many of the early films had her as a showgirl of some kind: Lullaby of Broadway (1951), April In Paris (1952) and Lucky Me (1954) all presented versions of Day the professional performer. Love Me Or Leave Me (1955) brought this to a dramatic climax in putting Day into the real-life (if somewhat sanitised) bio-pic of the 1920s’ gangster’s moll, singer and eventual Broadway star Ruth Etting.

In the remaining roles of her film career Day was seen again as a stage singing star, this time rather resentfully retired into housewifery, in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), a circus performer in Billy Rose’s Jumbo (1962) and, with enormously foregrounded elbow-nudges by the narrative, as a Broadway star appearing in a vehicle called The Constant Virgin, in possibly the only film ever made to cash in on folk memory of a power cut, Where Were You When The Lights Went Out? (1968). Not even the end of her film career could kill off this trope or its high level of self-referentialism, as both continued in many episodes of the star’s television series, The Doris Day Show, which ran from 1968-73. My favourite episode has Doris Day playing the show’s Doris Martin winning a lookalike competition – as, who else? Doris Day. ■

Doris Day ConfidentialTamar Jeffers McDonald’s new book is Doris Day Confidential: Hollywood, Sex and Stardom. Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of Kent, her other books include Romantic Comedy: Boy Meets Girl Meets Genre (2007) and of Hollywood Catwalk (2009).

[1] Motion Picture August 1948:25.

[2] Weaver, William. 1948. ‘Nation’s Showmen Select The Stars Of Tomorrow’. Motion Picture Herald, 11 September: 11-14.

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