Friday, April 27, 2012

Doris Day: Daisy, Dames & Divas, Who are we?

All pix in the blog from http://www.dorisday.net

Marathoning? Watching Doris Day movies a few weeks ago, I got my popcorn, my beer and sat myself down for hours. I laughed, I roared in delight and by the end of Doris's 88th Birthday Week, I chomped at the bit to write this ditty.
Watching lovely blonde cutie Doris for more than 10 movies, I was struck as never before by how influential these images of her were in my life. While her too-sweet-for-words looks and voice sometimes made me wince even as a kid, this week I was enthralled by her range. But I am also struck as never before by how much she marks the specific years of her work as an icon of that moment in time.
Note that the following week, I watched Doris's polar opposite and contemporary artist, Rita Hayworth, Bad Girl Personified. I hope to have a few thoughts on her persona, too. Later.
Going from band singer to movie star, Doris started her career as the "sweet kid next door" who can get the man. With laughs and a ploy here and there, Doris sang her way through charming feel-good flicks of the post-war era of the 1940s. With a note of drama here and there, she remains in each script the Girl who is Normal, Sweet and Deserving of the Hero. Even in such dramatic pix as The Man with the Horn (1951), Doris portrays the foil to sophisticate Lauren Bacall opposite an alcoholic trumpeter played by Kurt Douglas.
But in 1955, she gets the role of blues singer Ruth Etting in Love Me or Leave Me, starring with ever-so-bad bully James Cagney.
I remember seeing this as a kid, being told by my father that "Ruth was a great singer and this guy she married was a bum."
Watching this the other night, I recalled this from my Dad with a smile, but wow, was I looking at Cagney as more than just a bum. He was the villain, the thug, The Man Every Woman Wants to Hate. And he was the guy we women now put on our Watch List: The Abuser.
And as we watch Ruth deal with this man, we see why Betty Friedan did so well so quickly with her theories of the need to rise up and break the chains that bound women.
Cagney blusters, bullies and brow-beats. He struts and manipulates and totally cows Ruth, first as a singer whom he "discovers" and gets her her first gig. But then later, he builds on that, makes her beholden and ensures she remembers it.
The astonishing facet to me, of course, is that with this portrayal of a woman living in the 1920s, Ruth Etting never questions that he has a right to bully or berate her. (At least this is true in the script. I have no knowledge of how the real Ruth felt.) And this makes me cringe, point my finger and say, wow, Ruth, you never thought you had options?
No. She did not. And she, sadly, was not alone.
The rule of the 1920s and as we can see in the portrayal of 1950s housewife Betty Draper in MadMen, many women thought there was no way out.
They took what they could get, paid for it with a devotion that was half dead and then paid other prices in self-esteem, drugs, alcohol and who knows what effect upon their children.
Fast forward to the movies at the beginning of the 1960s. Gee, golly, what a difference for Doris and the rest of us!
Three comedies of hers with different leading men had me laughing like a loon. Yes, they had cute but not wildly unique plots and scrumptious leading men. James Garner in the Move Over, Darling and The Thrill of It All (written by Carl Reiner, no less!) were 2 great choices. Rock Hudson is a hoot in Pillow Talk. Less thrilling than either of those two simply because he acted this in such a flat, poker-faced manner was Cary Grant, age 58 at the time to Doris's 38, in That Touch of Mink.
While I leave it to you to watch these yourself, I will say my conclusions about what is happening to women in the first three years of the sixties is phenomenal.
I know. Because I remember those years VERY WELL.
In the Rock Hudson movie, we see Doris as as professional woman who works her butt off to succeed in business and she is foiled mightily by a scheming no-good wily man who is her rival for the same accounts.  The plot is terribly funny and in the end she loves him, he loves her. AND WOW, we wonder why!
At no time in the movie except for the last ten minutes does this man show any redeeming qualities. Yes, he is handsome. A HUNK, A CATCH, right? He is rich, successful, and the fact that he has been unprincipled toward her and his clients seems to matter not at all! SHE LOVES HIM! If I wrote this in a book, captured this man's essence in words, I WOULD BE REJECTED. And justly so, too. He is about as worthy a hero as Vlad, the Impaler. But of course, that is what he reps, isn't it? A Romantic Vlad.
We will pause for a moment of shuddering here....
In the Thrill of It All, we get Doris with James Garner. A delight visually, this couple can bring on the laughter. But the substance of the plot?
This flick left me rather agog that I had watched this then...and now! (No wonder we American women are conflicted, yes, still!)
She is his wife and mother of his two charming children. He is a noted OB-GYN. Quite by chance, she becomes a spokesperson for a product that sweeps to her onto billboards, fame and money. When hubby Jim gets fed up with her celebrity, his bright idea to bring her back to home/heel/submission (do choose a word you like here) is to get her pregnant again.
He actually has a moment in the film where he sits at his desk and recalls one of his patients telling him that there is no finer calling in life for a woman than to have a baby.
Okay, then!
While I had three of my own babies, and loved every moment of being pregnant and their early lives and bringing them up to adulthood, I must say that they rank up there with a few other events in my life.

  • My enduring relationship with my husband, now more than 45 years.
  • My enduring relationship with my writing profession, now more than 32 years.
  • And my enduring relationship with my devotion to my intellectual stimulation, now more than...well, let's say...lots of decades!

Doris, you did right by me at the time.  But not all of what you taught us was the whole picture of what a woman can and should become.
On to Rita Hayworth!


Tina Donahue said...

Great post, Cerise - thank god we don't have to live like Betts Draper in Mad Men. I'm surprised she doesn't drink more than she does. Her life's as tightly laced as that bra/corset thing she wears. Eeeeeee.

Adele Dubois said...

Hi Cerise--

I don't watch old movies because I don't enjoy them. I'm disgusted by the way men treat women in those films, as they did in real life. It's no wonder women rebelled again in the Sixties.


Delicious Romance From Cerise DeLand said...

TINA, Old Betts really is a mess isn't she? Soon, she will explode.
Lately, I fear that Don cannot reform enough, either, to keep this new wife.
Some men never learn.

Delicious Romance From Cerise DeLand said...

Adele, I hear on watching these outdated flicks. Some of the acting is very bad, the lines worse, the plots?! Terrible.
But the way they treat women?

Tina Donahue said...

Did you see the episode where he strangled the woman who came to his apartment and then shoved her under the bed so he wouldn't be caught cheating? My mouth fell open. I kept saying, "This has to be a dream!"

I think he'll fall off the wagon and will start to cheat again. I'm also kinda leaning toward him and Betts getting together again, after they both change. Her current husband is creepy. Ewwww.

Tim Smith said...

Cerise, I loved your post. I
watched that Doris marathon myself since I love old films. Yes, the plots were eye-rolling at times, but she was a terrific actress with range. When I watched her in "Storm Warning" I was reminded of her drama chops, and the comedies with Garner and Hudson are still a hoot.

I also have to agree that the way women were portrayed in those old films is, overall, an embarassment. A sign of the times as they were? Maybe, but still not right on so many levels.

Tim Smith

P.A.Brown said...

You said "many women thought there was no way out." The truth is they didn't. They couldn't file for divorce unless he was openly banging other women, she certainly couldn't get it for abuse.

If she left, she lost her kids. There was no legal obligation back then to make a man pay support for his children. Whether it was legal or not, men controlled the finances at home.

Women could own property, sure, but I'll bet the vast majority gave it over to their husband on marriage. He was the one expected to provide.

My mother told me stories of growing up in 20s and 30s and how she knew women married to bums or brutes and they were stuck. Her children lived with nothing and the wife had absolutely no recourse. The man was free to spend 'his' money any way he wanted.

Until the Second World War, when jobs for women boomed, a woman had few choices for outside work. Teaching would have been the most common, nurse and maybe secretary, but unless you lived in a larger urban center, hospitals wouldn't be common, how many small businesses need secretaries and how many schools can there be in any area?

I think we all know those jobs paid pennies. How could a woman, with children, work and take care of them? Unless she had family to turn to, there is no way she could manage, and a number of families wouldn't take a runaway daughter back. She lived with what she married. Her church told her that, other women told her that and of course almost every living man told her that. Her duty was to her children and her husband. Period.

Fiona McGier said...

Those movies are everything I dislike about some themes in romance, specifically, the virtuous inexperienced heroine and the player/older man hero who dazzles her due to her lack of knowledge...I always want to shake the heroine and yell, "If he was any good, he'd be able to pleasure a woman his own age! He needs someone who doesn't know any better...run, girlie, run!"

Even as a young girl, I didn't want to be with my first man...my Mom and her sisters all had done that, and counseled me to avoid repeating their mistakes at any costs! So I listened to them, had a great time in college and after, then met my husband of almost 30 years when I was 25. I was ready, by that point. No need to wonder what others were like anymore.

I know what we write is fiction, and many readers don't bother to analyze the plot, they just read what they like. But I can't write that kind of stuff and be true to myself.

And even back then, I disliked Doris Day...I preferred Mae West, who was a force of nature who bested men twice her size! "Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?" Indeed!

Delicious Romance From Cerise DeLand said...

TINA, yes, I saw that episode of Mad Men where he killed that woman and thought, no no no no no!
But I think you are right that he will screw this up and then continue with his old lifestyle because it is easier than changing!

Delicious Romance From Cerise DeLand said...

Tim, That was quite a feast wasn't it? I loved it...until I analyzed it!
What we do to ourselves with role models?!

Delicious Romance From Cerise DeLand said...

P.A., You are so right about women being trapped legally and financially.
I remember so many of my mother's friends. Their only outlet was to be critical, snide, withholders.
Then when we started to get things changed, we were criticized for it. STILL ARE.
And still we earn 77 cents on the dollar to men in the same position.
We must keep going though. The new laws against women controlling their own health decisions are outrageous insults to our legal status. I could go on, but you get me.

Delicious Romance From Cerise DeLand said...

FIONA, How true.
I had to giggle at your last line about Mae West.
I have just published a new novella on KINDLE, titled IS THAT A GUN IN YOUR POCKET? starring a heroine named Mae, and a hero named WEst.
And no, I didn't get the idea after watching Doris.
But I certainly am smiling that you saw the comparison of the 2 stars!!!

Vastine Bondurant said...

Oh, the memories, reading about Doris and all her hunks!

I LOVE old films, and loved your post!

And, sure, life was not a Doris Day-fest for real women in those days. But I still love the old films, all of them. They're a huge part of our history and culture, no matter what their content.

Can't wait to read about Rita!