I am a big Doris Day fan. When I went away to university I had a poster of her in my student halls room (alongside one of Billie Holiday, because I’m nothing if not quirky and eclectic). I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on Day, despite her making her last movie before I was born. I had seen Calamity Jane as a young girl and it left a lasting impression on me. I was entranced by the feisty young woman who had to mould herself into the ideal of womanhood. I loved her energy, her physical comedy and her sweet singing.
Since then I have watched pretty much all her films (including the bizarre Billy Rose Jumbo) because that’s what fans do.
And just recently, I’ve re-watched Teacher’s Pet (1958).
Teacher’s Pet stars Doris Day as Professor Erica Stone, a journalistic academic and Clark Gable as James Gannon, an old-time Newspaper editor. It is essentially a comedy of social class and manners, pitting academia against ‘real world’ experience. And it throws in some good old-fashioned sexism from Gannon’s character too.
Both leads give creditable comedic performances in a love triangle that also briefly involves Gannon’s girlfriend, Peggy deFore (played by Mamie Van Doren). Day and Gable both excel at a quizzical look and disgruntled sulks.
It is, however, a patchy watch and perhaps over-long. It is no surprise that it was originally written as a serious drama, as the comedy is sometimes barely detectable. And then there is the question of age. Gable was 21 years older than Doris Day’s real age and 23 years older than her Hollywood age. It has been suggested that it was shot in black and white to disguise the difference in their ages.
And of course, the gap between Gable and Van Doren is even greater at 30 years.
But in watching a film about how to have a career, I kept thinking about Mamie, who never quite made the big time.
As she says in her autobiography:
“When I left Hollywood, it was in the process of leaving me, and I decided to hell with a career. I was tired of playing an endless succession of dumb blondes. And I was tired of playing the endless Hollywood games. I walked away and didn’t look back.”
She was regularly “Also starring…”
Mamie Van Doren is still with us, celebrating her 93rd birthday this week. And by still with us I mean someone who is active and engaged. She has recently published her second autobiography and is a regular user of Twitter/X.
And her Twitter feed is full of glamour, fun and scandal. It wavers between astute observations and scantily clad photos.
She is very clear in her autobiography that she wanted to be a Hollywood star from her early girlhood, as Joanie Oleander, queuing to get an autograph from Mae West.
But she is also frank about the potential pitfalls of an acting career. That the key to a career is rarely in the hands of the actor, that no amount of strategizing or talent can guarantee success. She writes
“For me, Hollywood is a haunted town, full of ghosts and memories. A lot of blonde bombshells and platinum goddesses didn’t make it. They died long before the wrinkles and lines they lived in fear of had a chance to appear in their beautiful faces.”
She played the game. There were studio-arranged dates with Rock Hudson (yes, we now know why they were arranged). There were risqué publicity stills. And there were tight-fitting ensembles designed to accentuate her ample curves. (Edith Head apparently, when asked about the best figure of any woman she had dressed, said Van Doren).
Monroe apparently told her that she was smart enough to sleep with the ‘right man’. And Van Doren is candid about the existence of the casting couch, whilst stating that she only slept with people she was attracted to
But Mamie Van Doren never gets to hit the real big time. Her biggest hit is the teenage exploitation Untamed Youth (1958) in which she sings rock and roll numbers over passion and class war. And sharing a screen with Gable in Teacher's Pet, her childhood crush, was also a career high.
But she never gets the big break of other blondes. She is not the cool blonde like Grace Kelly of Hitchcock’s Rear Window. She is not the characterful Calamity Jane of Doris Day. And although similar in terms of 'type', she never got a Gentleman Prefer Blondes like Monroe.
Universal Studios did not renew her contract in 1959, leaving her to find work in mainly low-budget foreign and independent films, that gained cult status rather than critical acclaim. She made a secondary career, performing in theatres and a Las Vegas nightclub act.
But hey, she is still out there. She is still teasing, flirting, gossiping and writing.
The more I study film, the more I realise that actors rarely have power. Even ‘star’ power is in the hands of studio executives, producers, directors, casting directors, publicists, agents and critics.
So Mamie, the actor, rarely got used to tell stories beyond her ample curves. I have no real idea of her acting talent from the snippets of roles she was given. But when acting didn’t work out for her, she published her autobiography in 1987, causing a media splash bigger than any of her films. She uncovered the studio machinery and took hold of her own narrative.
I did tweet her to ask about her experiences of working wiith Gable and Day. She is yet to respond. But I know from her autobiography that the crush on Clark didn’t diminish and came close to an affair. And that there was little love lost between her and Doris. In a later interview, she says:
"She was a bitch. She was a gold-plated bitch and you can quote me."
Therefore, she is unlikely to ever respond to my tweet as my Twitter handle is @DorisDayRobbins and my profile picture is a smiling picture of Doris. Fair Enough.
But what I have learned from watching and reading about Mamie, is that you might not have power over your career, but you can still tell your own story, your own way. And all power to that. Happy Birthday!
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About the Creator
Writer-Performer based in the North of England. A joyous, flawed mess.
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