If you’re a child of the ’60s like me, then you probably know who Doris Day is: she was that “wholesome girl next door” with the blonde good looks who starred in light romantic comedies like Please Don’t Eat the Daisies.
Even in that trite type-casting, she was something of a surprise: she may have been blonde, but she didn’t have “blond moments” like her contemporary Marilyn Monroe. And while she seemed light-hearted, there was something distinctively un-flighty about Doris. She was the “practical” one: you just knew if a kid tripped and broke his arm in front of her, she’d be right there with motherly comfort, a splint to stabilize the injury, and a level-headed call to the ambulance service. Surely she was once a Girl Scout, too.
And if so, then let us also note she was a Girl Scout with a surprisingly lovely singing voice. She made the song “Que Sera, Sera” famous, a radio hit that topped the charts in 1956 and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2012. It played frequently on the airwaves throughout the ’60s, when I first became familiar with it. So picture, if you will, this radiant picture of all-American womanhood, a perfect mirror of her times. She was, well, not a “mommy” figure to me (she never came across as all that maternal, I thought), but in Daisies she was a mom with kids close to my own age, and I wondered briefly what it would be like to have a mother like her.
Imagine, then, my surprise to discover than long before Doris Day was on my childhood radar–indeed, in 1956, the year I was born–she played a role where some of the events, although understated, are fraught with tension, suspense, and emotional conflict. Lo and behold, “Que Sera, Sera” is not the lilting ballad of parent/child advice it at first seems, but the ominous soundtrack to a life or death situation with a kidnapped child.
Who knew?? Doris, Doris, Doris. Your depths have been hidden from me all these many years. Now I’m curious to learn more.
Miss Day, Meet Mr. Hitchcock
Recently I decided to start watching more of Alfred Hitchcock’s body of work. I haven’t seen much of it, just a thing or two over the years, and bits on late-night TV back when the only thing on the air at 2 AM were reruns of old movies. But it has recently occurred to me that I could do much worse than study Hitchcock’s work in order to learn more about the craft of creating suspense in a story. And so, I cued up The Man Who Knew Too Much to watch.
I didn’t know much about this in advance (which is how I prefer to approach all my movie viewings, so I have no preconceived notions or expectations). I just knew it was one of his many notable films (although as one reviewer notes, it is “underseen, underrated, and underappreciated.”). It opens “starring James Stewart.” OK. Cool. I like Jimmy Stewart’s work in his prime. And then the next star billing: “Doris Day.”
Wait. What? The mom from “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies”, in a Hitchcock thriller?!? I couldn’t see it. She never struck me as a Jean Seberg/The Birds kinda gal. I had no idea what I was in for, but settled in for it all the same.
In Which Doris Takes Ominous Turns (Plus Plot Spoilers)
The central notion of this movie is that Dr. McKenna (Stewart) and wife Jo (Day) cross paths with a spy-like undercover agent during a vacation to Morrocco (Marakesh, to be exact). When the spy is killed, with his dying breath he warns McKenna of an assassination plot going on back in London. The poor McKennas have already unwittingly fallen in with other parties to this plot, and soon their son Hank is kidnapped to compel the good doctor to keep mum about what he knows.
While McKenna doesn’t tell the police much of anything, he does take matters into his own hands and heads to London where (he assumes, correctly), they’ve taken his son. After her initial hysteria passes, Jo joins him in hunting down the kidnappers, and through this they learn more about the assassination plot itself.
While there were many little bits and pieces throughout where Day did not play to type (or not to the type she would be cast in a decade later in her career), the first great tour de force scene she carries is in a concert hall where she has followed the assassin. First, this is remarkable because it is an extended music-only scene. Hitchcock goes on and on, camera moving from Jo, to the shooter, to his target. Her husband joins her, they talk in a frenzy, she gestures to the box seat where the ambassador is, husband rushes away (to go warn them)–and all of this without a single word. We can’t hear them because the score and the concert is all we can hear, just like the oblivious audience in the concert hall where this scene takes place. This is “showing, not telling” cinema in its purest form and Hitchcock uses it to great effect to heighten tension and underscore the McKennas’ helplessness in this crisis.
We also know what Jo does not: when the music reaches its climax, the shooter will fire his gun under cover of the music and the clash of symbols and kill the ambassador.
She stands there, in tears of frustration and stress. She can’t go; if she talks to authorities she puts her son at risk; she can’t stop what is about to happen in the box seats far above her head. She can only hopelessly look back and forth between them. Then, in the pause of music, a long beat before the choral and symbol crescendo that marks doom, she glimpses the shooter’s gun barrel coming out from the box seat curtains–and she screams. It is an intentional, top-of-the-lungs shriek meant to startle in that long heartbeat of silence. The shooter flinches as his gun goes off, and the ambassador is merely wounded instead of dead.
Jimmy Stewart catches up now with the assassin and gets to take a swing at him before the man falls off the balcony and plunges to his death. But the hero of the moment? It is Doris Day who has saved the ambassador’s life in the only way she could intervene.
A Desperate Refrain
But where, oh where is their son? When they learn he is being held at the ambassador’s own embassy (by the villains and unbeknownst to the ambassador himself), she uses the diplomat’s gratitude to finagle a visit that night. Before her marriage, Jo was a famous concert singer on European stages, and she offers to sing for the guests. Eager to enjoy this treat, the ambassador agrees. And what is it that she sings?
It is “Que Sera, Sera,” which was earlier established as a song she and her son frequently sing in a duet together. She sings extra loud so her voice carries throughout the embassy house. Meanwhile, we know the boy has been earmarked for death: he’s seen too many faces, knows too much, and they need to get rid of him. Because it is their duet, she is hoping that if he hears her voice, he’ll sing out and let them know he is there.
Will her voice reach him? Will he be able to respond? Will they find him and save him, or is it goodbye forever to their son?
So here come those wistful words of Que Sera, Sera, at extra volume to carry down the halls, seeking, seeking. No longer a song between mother and son, but a lifeline, to save a life. What was a happy little song becomes a haunting and ominous refrain, indeed. And the tension mounts even more.
Doris Day, I never knew you had that in you.
Now, I confess I have not yet gone on my usual google-fu rampage and learned about All Things Doris since this Hitchcockian epiphany. I am swamped with other work and am only getting this post done because I’m doing it during my dinner break. But I do know she had quite a career and was a much larger star than people remember today. As Wikipedia notes, “She became the top-ranking female box office star of all time and is currently ranked sixth among the top 10 box office performers (male and female), as of 2012.” Wow. You go, girl.
If you have some observations to share about Doris Day’s work, I’d love to hear them. Or suggestions for other movies where she displays more than romantic-comedy depth would be much appreciated. (For some more Doris tidbits, see Related Posts at the end of this one.)
And on a parting note, I leave you with that classic 1956 hit which I will never hear the same way again. And now, hopefully, neither will you.