May 22, 2019

“Whatever Will Be, Will Be”  — Doris Day, “Game of Thrones,” and the Power of Song

By Stuart Mitchner

There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story,”  said Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) in Sunday’s finale of Game of Thrones. You could say the same thing about a good song. Consider how media coverage of last week’s passing of singer Doris Day (1922-2019) coincided with the online frenzy provoked by the ending of the popular HBO series based on George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. The answer to all the arguments about what should and should not have happened in episode six can be found in Day’s biggest hit, “Qué Será, Sera” (“Whatever Will Be, Will Be),” the song that drives the fate of The Man Who Knew Too Much, Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller about an assassination plot and a kidnapping. Meanwhile, a hit song from the 1970s, 10cc’s “The Things We Do for Love,” shadows the fate of Game of Thrones, both in the pilot episode and the controversial denouement. 

The title of another Doris Day hit, “Secret Love,” describes what’s revealed to Bran Stark after he climbs the castle tower at King’s Landing and sees Jaime Lannister and his twin sister Cersei having sex. Caught in the act, Jaime pushes the boy off the ledge, treating the move lightly, even giving it a punchline, “The things I do for love.” For viewers who remember the 10cc song, it’s as good as a wink and a nudge across the centuries, like Hamlet quoting “A Hard Day’s Night” on the walls of Elsinore, or Milton’s Satan singing a line from “Satisfaction.” Besides crippling Bran and paving the way for the three-eyed raven who alone knows “what will be, will be” in Westeros, Jaime has pronounced his own fate, the sentence he hears again as he stands before the prophet in the final season. “The things I do for love” sends him back to his sister and his doom. As for everyone fighting over the ending of Game of Thrones, remember Bran warned you, “it is written,” a foregone conclusion, so let’s listen to the song and “Agree to disagree but disagree to part/When after all it’s just a compromise of/The things we do for love.”

Explaining Doris Day

A year before he died, the novelist John Updike (1932-2009) admitted that he was “always looking for insights into the real Doris Day because I’m stuck with this infatuation and need to explain it to myself.” His search inspired a poem, “Her Coy Lover Sings Out” that begins, “Doris, ever since 1945,/when I was all of thirteen and you a mere twenty-one,/and ‘Sentimental Journey’ came winging/out of the juke box at the sweet shop,/your voice piercing me like a silver arrow,/I knew you were sexy.” In the last stanza, after celebrating his belief in her enduring sexiness, he asks “Give me space to get over the idea of you–/the thrilling silver voice, the gigantic silver screen.”

I came to Doris Day, or she came to me, a decade later in unsexy, feel-good apple-pie-American movies like By the Light of the Silvery Moon and On Moonlight Bay. The fact that I outgrew my infatuation before I graduated from high school doesn’t explain what I felt when I heard the news of her death last week. She was my adolescent ideal, the girl-next-door of my dreams, which were “as pure as the driven snow” I imagined when she sang “Winter Wonderland.” I refused to believe the rumors Updike seems to intuit about her sexual hijinks with members of Les Brown’s Band and Mickey Mantle. Listening now to once irresistible songs like “It’s Magic,” “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” and “My One and Only Love,” where she seems to touch something sad and sweet and unknowable, I feel like a tourist to my own youth.

Calamity Jane

Asked to name her “all-time favorite film” in a 97th birthday interview with the Hollywood Reporter the month before she died, Day picked Calamity Jane (1953): “I was such a tomboy growing up and she was such a fun character to play.” She also mentions liking the music, especially “Secret Love” — “such a beautiful song.”

As I watch Day as Calamity Jane performing the incredibly nimble and energetic Deadwood Stage number, leaping onto and sliding along the bar in the Golden Garter, cute as a button and clean as a whistle, I’m thinking of Doris Mary Kappelhoff, the tomboy from Cincinnati who dreamed of being a dancer; whose legs were broken in a car wreck; who spent a year in recovery listening to and learning from singers like Ella Fitzgerald, and who, according to the legend, had to be carried up the stairs to her singing lessons. Seeing those scenes now, I can’t help comparing her spirited romping with the mad-genius energy of Betty Hutton’s Annie Oakley belting out “I Can Do Anything Better Than You Can.” But then both Day and Hutton pale next to the swaggering brawling foulmouthed magnificence of Robin Weigert’s Calamity Jane in  Deadwood, which HBO has revived as a full-length film just in time to help fill the void left by Game of Thrones.

A Scream and a Song

Before he was known as a leader of the New Wave, Jean-Luc Godard reviewed The Man Who Knew Too Much and found that “this film by a supposedly misogynous director” has “feminine intuition” as “its sole mainspring.” After noting that the “Qué Será, Sera” theme is sounded throughout the film, he finds the ultimate moral to be “God helps those who help themselves.” And in the end, it’s Day’s character, a temporarily retired singer, who saves the ambassador of an unknown country from an assassin’s bullet by screaming so loudly that she disrupts a concert at the Albert Hall. Energized by fear, her performer’s instincts and sense of timing guide her to the exact moment when the weapon of her voice startles the assassin enough to make him misfire. Invited by the grateful ambassador to perform at the embassy where her son is being held captive by the conspirators, she sings the bedtime song they were singing together the night before he was kidnapped. Alone at the piano (as shown), she sings as loudly as she can, putting all her hope and love into the effort, transcending the “what will be, will be” message even as she sings the song, her voice finding its way up three flights of stairs to the room where the boy is being held. At this point, says Hitchcock critic Robin Wood, “Middle-aged academics are not supposed to admit that they burst into tears every time Doris Day begins ‘Qué Será, Sera,’ but in my case it’s a fact.”

Doris Day may not have been a Game of Thrones fan, but whatever the lifelong animal rights activist might have thought of the show’s wonders and horrors, she’d have found it hard to resist the dire wolves, especially the ever-faithful Ghost. And given the passion with which she played a woman challenging the machinations of fate, I think her favorite character would have been Arya Stark, who did what she had do, regardless of the “will be, will be” conclusions of her brother Bran. She saved the world, nothing less. And in The Man Who Knew Too Much, according to critic Gary Giddins,” it is Day who saves the day, twice.”