DORIS Day, who has died aged 97, became Hollywood’s biggest female box-office draw on the back of an image of youthful optimism and innocent fun. Although she was an attractive blonde, her success in such films as the musical Calamity Jane (1953) and the comedy Pillow Talk (1959) was not reliant on sex appeal.

Some wit once said: “I’m so old I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin.” No one is quite sure who said it first, possibly Groucho Marx or Oscar Levant. And, as with many good jokes, there was more than a grain of truth in it. Despite her virginal, slightly bland on-screen image, Day had been a young single mother, who survived an abusive first marriage and numerous other personal setbacks on the road to fame and fortune, first as a singer and then as a film star.

And while the virginal, sunny persona is now firmly embedded in the cinematic imagery of the 20th century, Day did also take on heavier roles with some success, not least as James Stewart’s wife, whose son is kidnapped, in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956).

But even a tense Hitchcock drama included a showcase for her singing an upbeat little number – Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be). It won an Oscar, reached No 1 in the UK and number two in the US and became a standard.

She was born Doris Mary Ann von Kappelhoff, in Cincinatti, in 1922, though she later knocked a couple of years of her age - common industry practice at the time. She would later adopt the stage name Day, taking it from the ballad Day by Day, one of the most popular in her repertoire.

By the time she was 12 she was dancing professionally, but in 1937 she was involved in a horrific car accident when the vehicle in which she was travelling was hit by a train at a level crossing. She was critically injured, and though she survived, her hopes of pursuing a career as a dancer were effectively over. Switching to singing, she persuaded a local radio station to give her a spot, unpaid. Bandleader Barney Rapp heard her singing Day by Day and signed her up.

She was still in her teens when she married the band’s trombonist Al Jorden. He beat her up within days of the wedding, when he spotted her talking to another man. She left him after the birth of her only child Terry, who became a successful record producer. They divorced in 1943; Jorden shot himself many years later.

Day left her son with her mother and went back on the road with another band. In 1945 she had two No. 1 hits in the US with Sentimental Journey and My Dreams Are Getting Better All the Time. This led to a major role in the 1948 musical comedy, Romance on the High Seas, as a replacement for the pregnant Betty Hutton.

Warner Bros provided her with a string of light musical comedies and by the early 1950s she was Hollywood’s top female box-office draw. The Wild West musical Calamity Jane was one of her biggest, most enduring hits. As the 1950s progressed she was keen to attempt heavier dramatic roles and in Love Me or Leave Me (1955) she was a nightclub singer with a violent, no-good husband, played by Jimmy Cagney.

“It is good to see a picture of myself without a smile,” she said. “Life isn’t one long smile.”

However her manager and third husband, Marty Melcher, wasn’t so sure about that and steered her back towards lightweight romantic comedies, including three with Rock Hudson, beginning with Pillow Talk. By 1960 she was ranked as Hollywood’s top box-office star of either sex, just ahead of Hudson and Cary Grant, her co-star in That Touch of Mink (1962). She topped that ranking list for four years out of five, making her one of the biggest box-office draws of all time.

Her career dipped towards the end of 1960s and Melcher died suddenly in 1968. There was further heartache when she discovered that her fortune, which Melcher was supposedly looking after, had disappeared and she was deep in debt. She successfully initiated legal action against his former associate.

She retired from films after With Six You Get Eggroll, opposite Brian Keith (1968). But she continued working and had her own TV show in the US, a show to which her husband had agreed, seemingly without her knowledge. It ran for five years.

She also poured much of energies into the Doris Day Pet Foundation, an animal rescue charity. Her love of dogs led to a fourth marriage, with a dog-loving restaurateur, but there was no happy ending and again the marriage was short-lived.

Ultimately, Doris Day said she was happy on her own. “I’m complete and when people are complete there is no real need for marriage,” she said.