Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Doris Day and “Romance On the High Seas”

In his brilliant new book, “A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers,” Will Friedwald devotes eight pages to Doris Day—and she deserves every word of praise. Friedwald laments that Doris (sorry, I can’t just call her Day) “has never been properly acknowledged as the great artist she is.”
Sadly true.
More from Friedwald: “Doris Day has a sound like bottled sunshine. It’s hard to think of another human voice that’s so luxuriously sensual. One would almost have to go into the tenor sax kingdom—to Stan Getz or Ben Webster—to find a sound that melts the soul so movingly. Ballads aside, tracks like ‘Close Your Eyes’ (the opener to her ‘Duets’ album with Andre Previn) reveal that Doris Day can also swing something fierce.”
“Luxuriously sensual” is a perfect description of Doris’ voice. I don’t mean the many popular but forgettable ditties she sang in her long career, stuff like “Que Sera, Sera” or “Mr. Tap Toe.” But over the course of recording more than 650 songs—650!—Doris sang the work of the composers and lyricists of the Great American Songbook. If you doubt the beauty of her work, get yourself a copy of “Duets” or “’S Wonderful” or “Day by Day” or “Day by Night.” Doris can make even “Hooray for Hollywood” sound sexy.
Which brings us to “Romance On the High Seas,” Doris’ 1948 movie debut, directed by Michael Curtiz, written by the Epstein brothers, and co-starring Jack Carson, Janis Paige and Oscar Levant (who later would crack that he “knew Doris Day before she was a virgin”—a reference to her lily-white roles opposite Rock Hudson, Cary Grant, James Garner and others in a string of frothy comedies that made her the number box-office draw for something like five years). Shot in Technicolor, the film is a perfect example of the brilliance of the studio system of that era: Curtiz and his production team make inspired use of color in the costumes and sets. The dialogue is sharp, the plot silly but entertaining, and the songs first-rate, including “It’s Magic,” beautifully sung by Doris. Although Doris gets fourth billing, she is clearly the star. The camera loves her—and Curtiz (“Casablanca”) knew when someone was made for the camera. Another plus: the sadly forgotten and underrated Jack Carson as a perfect foil for Doris’ sexy chanteuse.
Born in 1922 (some sources say 1924) in Cincinnati, Doris Von Kappellhoff started as a band singer, her break coming with Les Brown. She was perfect: besides the voice, she was gorgeous and personable; the girl next door if you were lucky to live in that one-in-a-million neighborhood.
Both Judy Garland and Betty Hutton were up for Doris’ role in “Romance On the High Seas,” but when they proved unavailable, Sammy Cahn (who with Jule Styne was writing the music) convinced Curtiz to give Doris a screen test. Thus was born an impressive film career (my favorite is “The Pajama Game,” in which Doris joins much of the Broadway cast in a fine musical, but she’s great as “Calamity Jane” or Ruth Etting in “Love Me or Leave Me.” And yes, she’s perfect in “Pillow Talk” and “That Touch of Mink” as well). Okay, I should just come right out and say it: I love Doris Day.
There are reasons besides her vocal and movie talents. Doris has had a long but often turbulent life: several bad marriages, the third to the treacherous Marty Melcher who squandered her millions. She lost her only child, Terry, in 2004 when he died at age 62 from melanoma. She loves animals, and has devoted the last several decades to improving their plight.
Jonathan Schwartz interviewed Doris last year over the telephone. She was funny, humble, and delightful. Schwartz asked her if she would ever record again. As I recall, she charmingly dodged the question. Doris lives in Carmel Valley, not far from Clint Eastwood, a man who loves jazz and the Songbook. Wouldn’t it be great for Eastwood to coax her back to a studio in the area, accompanied by Andre Previn? I know it would make Clint’s day—and mine.


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