Doris Day, who turns 90 years old today, made more than a dozen musicals over the course of her movie career. Many were lightweight, charming little fluffs like My Dream is Yours (1949) and On Moonlight Bay (1951). Later ones, like Calamity Jane (1953), Love Me or Leave Me (1955) and The Pajama Game (1957), gave our star more to do than just sing prettily and deal with simple boy problems. Even in non-musical films she somehow managed to carry a tune, most significantly in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), where she warbled “Que Sera, Sera” all the way to a Best Song Oscar. It is therefore with a certain amount of greed that we fantasize about what could have been—more musicals with Day at the center. Three spring instantly to mind. Here they are.
Annie Get Your Gun (1950)
Warner Bros. studio head Jack Warner wanted to get his hands on the Irving Berlin musical about Wild West sharpshooter Annie Oakley as a vehicle for Doris Day. When MGM snapped it up, the part was handed to Judy Garland, whose unreliability and erratic behavior on the set got her fired from the production. Ethel Merman, who originated the part on Broadway, was briefly considered as a replacement but was nixed by producer Arthur Freed. Also in the running were three Bettys—Garrett, Grable and Hutton—with Hutton eventually plucked for the plum role. In the end, Warner produced his own musical film about a headstrong woman on the wild frontier. Calamity Jane, starring Doris Day, opened on November 4, 1953, receiving good reviews and performing well at the box office. And, once again, Day ushered a tune—this time “Secret Love,’ written by Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster—to the top of the charts and a Best Song Oscar.
South Pacific (1958)
Nellie Forbush, the little hick from Little Rock with one of the greatest names in American musical theater, was first played by Mary Martin on the Broadway stage. For the film version, producer Joshua Logan entertained the notion of casting Doris Day, Ginger Rogers, Judy Garland, Audrey Hepburn and even the non-musical Elizabeth Taylor before choosing Mitzi Gaynor, an actress with a string of light entertainments under her belt. The character of Forbush, an American nurse stationed on a tropical island during World War II, is one of naïveté and unquestioned racism as she falls in love with a man with mixed-race children. Her songs include “A Cockeyed Optimist,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair,” “A Wonderful Guy” and “Honey Bun.” Gaynor was good; Day would have been ideal.
Hello, Dolly! (1969)
In retrospect, Carol Channing, who originated the role on Broadway, would probably have been many people’s first choice to play widowed matchmaker Dolly Levi in the movie version. But she wasn’t big with movie audiences, so a slew of proven box office draws were considered. On the short list were Doris Day, Shirley MacLaine, Julie Andrews and the vocally challenged Elizabeth Taylor. Of those considered, Day at 45 was arguably more age appropriate than the woman who was eventually cast, 27-year-old Barbra Streisand. Streisand is strangely soulless, tossing off the lines confidently (often with an inexplicable Mae West lilt), but not making us feel them, or convincing us that she feels them either. One imagines a more natural take on the part from Day—less caricature and more character. One also wonders if costar Walter Matthau, frequently and famously at loggerheads with Streisand, would have had more fun on the shoot.