Can you be an icon and remain truly underrated? Doris Day (1922-2019) and her effortless talent seem especially ephemeral. Her image was so distorted as to be anachronistic, even for the 1950s and 1960s. She is a favorite at my house. All of us, my husband, the two terriers, we all think that Doris Day has been shamefully shrugged off as a star and a singer.
One of Hollywood’s most versatile and talented performers, Day moved easily between comedy, drama, musicals and even suspense, working with Alfred Hitchcock on The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), featuring that Jay Livingston and Ray Evans song that would be her trademark, Que Sera, Sera.
Day’s recording of the song made it to Number Two on the Billboard Hot 100, more amazing when you note that Number One was Heartbreak Hotel from Elvis Presley. It was used as the theme song for her sitcom The Doris Day Show (1968-1973). It won the 1956 Academy Award for Best Original Song and ranks Number 48 on American Film Institute’s Top 100 Songs in American Movies.
Day was very pretty in a fresh-faced way, with a terrific figure, plus a warm, confident singing voice as good as Judy Garland, yet without that big love me vibrato.
On The Man Who Knew Too Much, Day kept asking James Stewart, why she was not getting any direction, worried that Hitchcock didn’t like what she was doing. Stewart explained that Hitchcock usually only gave comments when an actor was doing something wrong. Day finally went to Hitchcock, who told her:
“Dear Doris, you’ve done nothing to elicit comment from me. You have been doing what I felt was right for the film, and that’s why I haven’t told you anything.“
This film is one of Hitchcock’s underrated masterpieces, especially for the inspired pairing of Stewart and Day. Really, this movie should be considered one of the top-tier Hitchcock films alongside Rear Window, Psycho, North By Northwest, Vertigo, and Strangers On A Train (Sorry if your favorite isn’t included on that list).
The film is Hitchcock’s second film using this title following his own 1934 film of the same name. Hitchcock’s only self-remade film was remade for good reason, he tinkered and updated the story until it was a perfectly calibrated example of the “innocent people drawn into a corrupt world and have to navigate it to save themselves” type of storytelling that Hitchcock took to previously uncharted levels of excellence and invention.
Stewart and Day give magnificent performances as Ben and Jo McKenna, an American couple vacationing in Morocco, whose son is kidnapped and taken to England. Day’s character is a well-known, now retired, professional singer. Caught up in international espionage, the McKennas’ lives hang in the balance as they race to save their son in the chilling, climactic showdown in London’s famous Royal Albert Hall.
There is a running theme of sound and how it affects the outcome of nearly every scene of the story: a deafening roar of a plane engine, a ghostly, ghastly foreign voice on a telephone, steps echoing down an empty alley, the song of a mother that barely hides the whistle of a son, the crash of symbols. Hitchcock also returns to his favorite theme of an innocent man accidently involved in larger events. Hitchcock has great fun with these characters and manages to balance his cast and plot to perfection. The early scenes also make an amusing travelogue, showing what it was like for Americans to travel in Morocco and experience a different culture back in the 1950s.
Screenwriter John Michael Hayes was hired on the condition that he would not watch the early version or read its script, with all the plot details coming from a briefing with Hitchcock. Only the opening scenes of the script were ready when filming begun, and Hayes had to send via airmail the new script pages as he finished them.
Hitchcock had requested Day for the main female role as he liked her performance in Storm Warning, a 1951 film noir starring Day, Ginger Rogers, Ronald Reagan and Lauren Bacall. Producer Herbert Coleman was reluctant to use Day, whom he thought of as just a singer. Coleman wanted a more serious blonde like Lana Turner, Grace Kelly, or Kim Novak be cast in the role.
Hitchcock’s frequent composer Bernard Herrmann wrote the “background” film score; the performance of Arthur Benjamin‘s Storm Clouds Cantata, conducted by Herrmann, is used for the climax of the film. Herrmann can be seen conducting the London Symphony Orchestra with mezzo-soprano Barbara Howitt and chorus during the Royal Albert Hall scene that runs for 12 minutes without any dialogue from the beginning of Storm Clouds Cantata until the climax when Day’s character screams.
When I think of Day, I think about her passion for animals; she even created the nonprofit Doris Day Animal Foundation in 1978. When she encountered emaciated goats, horses, and dogs on set in Marrakesh, she threw around her star power. She refused to shoot any scenes until the animals received care from the production company. The crew set up a feeding station, and once Day was happy with the results, she went back to work.