During December, the British Film Institute’s (BFI) season of films featuring Doris Day aimed to give the public a chance to rediscover and re-imagine the career of an often misunderstood screen heroine. In her heyday, Day was the biggest female screen star, regularly topping box-office charts and named the biggest star of the year on several occasions. Her star faded in the 1960s, when her independent spirit was written off as frigidity and her straightforward attitude to love and sexuality wasn’t permitted in the face of gender inequality. She was, essentially, a woman ahead of her time; a vibrant combination of actress and singer whose individualism was often mutated by the movie industry.
In Young Man with a Horn (1950), Day is made to play the ordinary straight woman against the perverse artistic dedication of Kirk Douglas’ eponymous trumpet player and the discontented woman he falls in love with, Lauren Bacall. More recent commentators have suggested that Bacall’s aloof character is the closest 1950s Hollywood cinema could get to a lesbian character – a scene late in the movie shows a female friend insisting on Bacall’s visit, rebelliously and purposefully enacted in front of Douglas’ angry presence. In one scene, director Michael Curtiz vividly realises Day’s difference from her friends by planting her, bathed in light, directly between the other two at a dinner table, where they are shaded in darkness away from the table lamp. It’s a suggestion of her relative naivety and simplicity that is also used in Pillow Talk over a decade later – Day’s buttoned up Jan Morrow made the central triangle of a split-screen phone conversation between the virile Rock Hudson and his current ladyfriend.
But Day’s screen presence is not as uncomplicated and plain as all that. One of her most celebrated films, Calamity Jane (1953), has long been acknowledged for its queer subtext. Day’s eponymous heroine, a Wild West gunslinger, proudly marches around wearing mud as an outer layer of clothing, speaking in a grizzled accent. The men around her undermine her attempts at masculinity, and, with scenes ending with moments such as her slip over before the bar, the film seems to concur with this position. When Calamity heads to Chicago to invite famous actress Adelaid Adams (Gale Robbins) to perform in the local saloon, she stares in disbelief at the protruding posteriors of the decadent city ladies. This moment is a peculiar mixture of queer desire and astonishing naivety; later in the film, she’s accused of having become ‘mean, selfish’, a suggestion that discovering sexuality has corrupted her innocent spirit. But she has long since declared her possessive love for Danny Gilmartin (Philip Carey). She clearly recognises the demarcations of gender – during the opening number, ‘The Deadwood Stage (Whip-Crack-Away)’, she produces swathes of ‘calico and gingham for the girls’, holding it up against herself – either befitting her gender, or conflicting with her muddy, masculine outfit. Later, Calamity is the only one to immediately recognise that Francis Fryer is not a beautiful actress, but a cross-dressing man – a rather remarkable scene for its unabashed queerness.
Calamity herself is made to cross-dress, in a way. When she invites singer Katy Brown (Allyn McLerie) to stay in her cabin, Katy turns Calamity from roughhousing gunslinger to a ‘proper’ woman. Over the course of the sprightly song ‘A Woman’s Touch’, Calamity and her cabin are turned from muddy disarray to colourful floweriness. She and Katy even paint ‘Calam & Katie’ on the canary yellow door. Ostensibly, this is Calamity learning, as Day’s Jo Jordan in Young Man with a Horn does, about her female inferiority, but ‘A Woman’s Touch’ is just part of Calamity Jane’s tendency to show its audience the performative nature of femininity. Adelaid Adams’ big number in Chicago shows, both lyrically and physically, how the star controls the male audience. Compared to the striking movement of Adelaid on stage, the men are shown as a black-suited collective, all staring in her direction as she describes them in ‘pens at the stockyard’. Similarly, no sooner has Calamity been feminised than she is called to visit a neighbour up the hill and removes her new high heeled shoes, declaring, ‘can’t wear shoes ‘cross the creek!’ Calamity’s been dressed up differently, but her practicality and fearless spirit remain.
This independence and adherence to her core spirit are something that characterise many of Doris Day’s cinematic roles. In Pillow Talk, this freedom manifests itself in a conscious decision to pursue true love, and involves having dated ‘a lot of… very nice men’. These men, with the exception of the effeminate Jonathan (Tony Randall) – and of course Rock Hudson’s Brad Allen – are off-screen allusions, in contrast to Brad’s not-entirely-dissimilar string of women that clog up his and Jan’s shared phoneline. This crucial difference led to the characterisation of Day’s character as frigid, despite Jan being led by her libido on meeting Brad. Her first thought about him is, ‘what a marvellous looking man’, and she exhales with glowing sensuality after their first kiss. Day’s Jan Morrow is a performance of subtle and effervescent sexuality – quite apart from the reported personality of an outmoded woman.
The ending of Pillow Talk might explain why. Throughout the film, it’s been made clear that Jan desires marriage with someone she loves, but the climax shows Brad conspiring with Jan’s boss to get Jan back. Finally, Brad carries Jan down the street in his arms like a prize, and his revelation of his changed ways immediately wins Jan’s affections again. On the surface, these scenes show Brad reasserting his male superiority, manipulating and sublimating Jan to a stereotypical existence. But they also show Jan achieving her desire to win the hand of the man she loves, having changed his natural behaviour. Nothing has changed within Jan herself. Once again, despite a change in circumstances that involves her character moving into a more stereotypical female role, Doris Day’s innate character remains steadfast, strong-willed, and, finally, successful. It’s a moral that Day, alive to this day, can certainly be proud of.
The Doris Day Season ran throughout December at the BFI Southbank.
Featured image: Doris Day (centre) and Howard Keel (right) in Calamity Jane. Image courtesy of the BFI.