Doris Day – 1950s gender bender


The  Mt Gravatt Princess Theatre (cinemas were always called theatres in Queensland during my childhood) opened on March 24, 1955. Situated on my side of Logan Road, a short stride from Nursery Road, and therefore four streets away from where I lived at the time, it became for the next few years my alma mater, my sacred space and meeting place for the formation of some of my most significant friendships and social connections. It also cemented my love/hate relationship with my father who frequently accompanied me to Saturday matinees and who was the most instrumental influence in the early development of my life-long obsession with the seventh art.

I do not now recall much about The Diamond Queen which ran first at the premiere matinee of the Princess Theatre on March 26, 1955, although Arlene Dahl must have registered as one of those adventurous, generally red-headed queens of technicolor that quickly became part of my staple matinee fare throughout the 1950s. I used to wonder whether she was of Scandinavian descent (like me). Her royal cousins and distant relatives weren’t, at any rate, because Rhonda Fleming, Maureen O’Hara and blonde Virginia Mayo all seemed distinctly Anglo or at least Irish in appearance as well as in name. I had yet to discover the really exotic sounding Yvonne De Carlo who disappointingly turned out to have the lowliest pedigree of any of them – her real name being plain Peggy Middleton from Vancouver, Canada.

Beyond my first nodding acquaintance with these queens of technicolor, that afternoon became a turning point in my then 10 year old life because I met and immediately became enchanted by Doris Day (nee Kapelhoff). During 1955-56 I saw her in no fewer than seven films. In order, they were Calamity Jane – the main feature on that first matinee, By the Light of the Silvery Moon, I’ll See You in My Dreams (in black and white), On Moonlight Bay, It’s a Great Feeling, Young at Heart and Lucky Me (in Cinemascope). It became the first “body of work” I associated with a particular star and the first time that the resonance and relevance of film stars in my life began to register. I became quickly super-aware of this phenomenon and now noticed the regularity with which the queens of technicolor appeared in my life and the similarities between the types of films they all appeared in. Additionally, I fell in love with Phyllis Thaxter whose emotional intensities burned deeply into my impressionable and receptive mind. Among the male stars, I was drawn to Errol Flynn above the others because my father had mentioned he was Australian, and appropriately enough, I first saw him playing an Aussie sheepman out west, causing deep angst among his cattlemen adversaries in a studio-fabricated Montana. But I responded almost as much to the cowboys who first entered my consciousness, especially to Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea and John Wayne; to comedians Bob Hope, Danny Kaye and Martin and Lewis; to the angry ferocity of John Garfield in The Breaking Point; to Burt Lancaster who was always “smilin’ Burt” back then; to Gordon MacRae by association with Doris Day; and to James Stewart who was Glenn Miller ( I proceeded to drive my poor mother crazy with an LP I bought of the Glenn Miller band). Needless to say, I didn’t have a clue who its director Anthony Mann was back then.

My father adored Doris Day so I glowed with boyish delight and hero worship in having such a strong point of connection. I was, however, highly ambivalent about Dad accompanying me so frequently to those Saturday matinees; I simultaneously enjoyed the fact of our sharing an obvious common passion but longed to sit independently with my good mates Toivo Lember, Malcolm Barnes and others who joined me at those matinees without the burden of a parent in the crowd. I began to quarrel, too, with Dad on several matters of taste. He hated Burt Lancaster whom he thought an ugly, extraverted show-off with too many teeth. But I carried my deepest resentment of Dad when he forced me to sit with him in the hard seats up the back of the theatre while all my friends enjoyed great camaraderie in the comfort of the canvas seats in the front stalls.(Significantly, I have spent the whole of my adult life making a beeline for front seats whenever I attend the cinema).This sore point finally boiled over at a screening of a double bill of Sign of the Pagan (directed by Douglas Sirk who was later to enter a pantheon of favourite directors) and Davy Crockett. The theatre had practically doubled its regular audience at this most popular of screenings in 1955 . I well recall the brief craze for the unbearably uncomfortable coonskin caps as well as the fifteen or so verses of The Ballad of Davy Crockett which were on everyone’s lips. Dad with his usual aggressive aplomb began arguing in full view of all of my friends with his recurrent bete noire, a hapless regular usherette (she had a tiny beauty spot above the corner of her mouth and large, dark, Spanish eyes. I adored her). This time he was insisting that she open up the very back rows which were always roped off at afternoon sessions and only opened up for the more numerous night-time clientele. Dad made such a to-do about it. As my friends watched the altercation with extreme amusement, I wanted to hide in my skin or at the very least under the seat. I had never felt so humiliated. These shenanigans were to happen, however, on an on-going basis: arguments with tram conductors over change from fares; with corner shop owners over all manner of trifles; constantly with the usherette over seating or starting times; even with my friends over details of cricket statistics and history. I adored my father for his tender and close involvement with me throughout my childhood in countless small acts of kindness, attention and love. Doubtless I owe not only my passion for film to him, but also my love of poetry, literature and history. But I’ll always cringe as I recall some of those Saturday afternoons at the Princess.

Getting back to Doris, those seven films defined her appeal – indelibly – to this small boy who was living in suburban Holland Park, Brisbane. In Calamity Jane I saw the tomboy I had loved in Patsy Millward in infants school. At the tender age of 6 years, I had kissed Patsy in full view of the entire playground during a game of Cowboys and Indians. Doris was a blonde, grown-up version of Patsy (without her pigtails) although Doris did turn up in a ponytail in the next outing I saw her in, By the Light of the Silvery Moon, and what’s more, in the working habit of a grease-monkey! The tomboy in Doris clearly appealed to my Dad as well because he palpably displayed excitement at her first appearance in Calamity Jane when the Deadwood Stage came rolling over those plains bearing her on equal terms with stage driver Chubby Johnson wearing battered pants, toting guns, and belting out Paul Francis Webster’s raucous lyrics with a gusto bordering on the manic.

I don’t think many establishment critics ever gave  this multi-talented star her due. Before her motorbike accident as a teenager put paid to her aspirant career as a dancer, she became a notable songbird at the tail end of the big bands, earning her first stripes with the chart-buster Sentimental Journey. This added further lustre to Les Brown’s outfit for whom she had become a regular. Michael Curtiz of Casablanca and Mildred Pierce fame understandably snapped her up for Hollywood in 1948 in the charming Warner Bros musical Romance on the High Seas and the rest is history.  Although she was to exhibit formidable acting talent for Hitchcock emoting convincingly as James Stewart’s distraught wife in The Man Who Knew Too Much; abused but surviving James Cagney’s ruthless gangster as Ruth Etting in the underrated Love Me or Leave Me; and paired with an angst-ridden Frank Sinatra in the good musical melodrama Young at Heart (a remake of Four Daughters), it was her vocal talent that stood out – she became one of the greatest singers of the Hollywood musical – up there as far as I’m concerned with Lena Horne,  Alice Faye, Judy Garland and just a handful of others. Calamity Jane is one of the best showcases for this aspect of her talent and appeal. The score by Webster and Sammy Fain contains a multitude of gems that extend Doris to her full range. The Academy Award-winning song Secret Love is justly cited as revealing the tenderness and lyricism behind Calamity’s façade as she dons a traditionally feminine blouse and dainty black ribbon to perform the number. (Characteristically, though, she is on horseback wearing non-traditional pants). Part of the interest in her character lies in the androgynous elements played up through all her encounters with Wild Bill Hickok (Howard Keel) and the other rough, robust citizens of Deadwood. It is in striking contrast to the charms of Katie Brown, the Adelaide Adams substitute skillfully conveyed by Allyn McLerie in her only substantial film role. Katie’s clear-cut “femininity” arouses powerfully contradictory responses in Calam’ who on the one hand matches Hickok’s machismo in the I Can Do Without You number (reminiscent of, but by no means inferior to, Anything You Can Do from Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun); and on the other gives in to the ultra girl-talk politics of A Woman’s Touch. That Doris is so convincing on either side of the gender divide indicates a much more complex performer than she is often credited as being, and the slyly subversive gender-bending subtext of the film allows her to extend her range to meet the challenge. This is all handled very lightly, of course. Almost every number in this grand piece of entertainment is memorable (Higher Than a Hawk, Just Blew in from the Windy City, It’s Harry I’m Planning to Marry) and none more so than my personal favourite The Black Hills of Dakota, pure Americana and a song that gave me goose-bumps as a child.

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