Doris Day’s Biggest Hit Is a Song She Could Have Done Without
“Que Sera, Sera” is synonomous with the actress and singer who died on Monday at age 97, though she was never a fan of the tune she called ‘a kiddie song’
Hollywood icon Doris Day starred in dozens of movies and released more than 600 songs in her lifetime. But the box office star, known for her singular voice, never came around to the hit that might have been most associated with her career, “Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera, Sera).” In fact, Day, who died at age 97 on Monday, May 13, never wanted to sing the song in the first place.
As it turned out, almost everyone involved with the tune was a bit reluctant to make it. Here’s what happened. Doris Day was cast in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956 film The Man Who Knew Too Much alongside Jimmy Stewart. Hitchcock did not originally want Day in the film, but to get Stewart onboard, he had to agree to also hire Day and give her a song in the film penned by the famed songwriting duo Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, the writers behind such classics as “Silver Bells” and “Mona Lisa.”
Hitchcock agreed. His instructions to the songwriters were vague: “I don’t know what kind of song I want,” he said. “But Jimmy Stewart is a roving ambassador and it would be nice if the song had some foreign words in the title. Also, in the picture, I have it set up so that Doris sings to their little boy.”
With foreign inspiration on their minds, the team wrote “Que Sera Sera” after watching the Ava Gardner film The Barefoot Contessa, where they noticed the inscription “Che Sera Sera,” or “Whatever Will Be, Will Be” on the fictional family's Italian villa. Inspired by the phrase, the team changed it to Spanish (it also works in French), and wrote the composition (they had called it, simply, “Que Sera, Sera” before realizing another song by that name already existed).
Hitchcock declared the song perfect. But Day was not as thrilled. In 2012, she told Terry Gross at NPR’s Fresh Air that she did not understand why such an upbeat, lilting song would be in a movie about a kidnapped boy.
“I thought I'm not crazy about that,” she recollected. “Where are they going to put it? You know, for what? Is it when I put him in bed sometime and I sing that to him or something? I did that in another film. And I thought maybe that’s what it’s going to be. And I just, I didn't think it was a good song.”
Martin Chilton at The Telegraph reports that Day also called it “a kiddie song,” but her third husband, Martin Melcher, who was also her manager, convinced her to record it.
In the movie she does sing it as a lullaby. Playing Jo McKenna, one-half of an American couple whose vacation turns tragic after their child, Hank, is taken, she and her husband (Stewart) must follow various clues to find him, ultimately realizing he’s being held at an embassy. There, Jo performs the song in hopes that Hank will hear it and recognize his parents are near.
Her performance won the film the 1956 Academy Award for Best Original Song and the song reached the No. 2 slot on the Billboard charts. Day reluctantly accepted the popularity the song garnered. “So maybe it isn’t a favorite song of mine but people loved it. And kids loved it,” she told Gross. “And it was perfect for the film. So, you know, I can’t say that it’s a favorite song of mine and I think it’s fabulous but, boy, it sure did something. It came out and it was loved.”
The song became so associated with the star that it ultimately became the theme song for “The Doris Day Show,” a sitcom that aired between 1968 and 1973. In her 1976 autobiography, Day revealed that she was contracted to do the sitcom by Melcher and hadn’t even been aware of the arrangement before his death in 1968. She didn’t want to do a television show, much less one with that song as a theme.
Luckily for Day, she wasn’t called upon to sing "Que Sera, Sera" after that. When the series ended, she retired from showbiz, moving to Carmel, California, where she dedicated herself to being an activist for animal rights and sang whatever songs she so chose.