Doris Day, the freckle-faced movie actress whose irrepressible personality and golden voice made her America's top box-office star in the early 1960s, died Monday at her home in Carmel Valley, Calif. She was 97.

Day began her career as a big-band vocalist and was successful almost from the start. One of her first records, "Sentimental Journey," released in 1945, sold more than a million copies and she went on to have numerous other hits. Bandleader Les Brown, with whom she sang for several years, once said, "As a singer Doris belongs in the company of Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra."

But it was the movies that made her a star.

Between "Romance on the High Seas" in 1948 and "With Six You Get Eggroll" in 1968, she starred in nearly 40 films. On the screen she turned from the perky girl next door in the 1950s to the woman next door in a series of 1960s sex comedies that brought her four first-place rankings in the yearly popularity poll of theater owners, an accomplishment equaled by no other actress except Shirley Temple.

In the 1950s she starred, and most often sang, in comedies ("Teacher's Pet," "The Tunnel of Love"), musicals ("Calamity Jane," "April in Paris," "The Pajama Game") and melodramas ("Young Man With a Horn," the Alfred Hitchcock thriller "The Man Who Knew Too Much," "Love Me or Leave Me").

James Cagney, her co-star in "Love Me or Leave Me," said Day had "the ability to project the simple, direct statement of a simple, direct idea without cluttering it." He compared her performance to Laurette Taylor's in "The Glass Menagerie" on Broadway in 1945, widely hailed as one of the greatest performances ever given by an American actor.

She went on to appear in "Pillow Talk" (1959), "Lover Come Back" (1961) and "That Touch of Mink" (1962), fast-paced comedies in which she fended off the advances of Rock Hudson (in the first two films) and Cary Grant (in the third). Those movies, often derided today as examples of the repressed sexuality of the '50s, were considered daring.

"I suppose she was so clean-cut, with perfect uncapped teeth, freckles and turned-up nose, that people just thought she fitted the concept of a virgin," Hudson said of Day. "But when we began 'Pillow Talk' we thought we'd ruin our careers because the script was pretty daring stuff." The movie's plot, he said, "involved nothing more than me trying to seduce Doris for eight reels."

Day and Hudson remained close. Not long before his death from AIDS in 1985, he appeared with her on her TV show "Doris Day's Best Friends" and at a news conference. "He was very sick," Day said. "But I just brushed that off and I came out and put my arms around him and said, 'Am I glad to see you.' "

Following "Pillow Talk," which won Day her sole Academy Award nomination, she was called on to defend her virtue for the rest of her career in similar-but-lesser movies, while Hollywood turned to more honest and graphic screen sex to keep up with the revolution sweeping the world after the introduction of the birth control pill.

By the time she retired in 1973, after starring for five years on the hit CBS comedy "The Doris Day Show," Day had been dismissed as a goody-two-shoes, the leader of Hollywood's chastity brigade, and, in the words of film critic Pauline Kael, "the all-American middle-aged girl."

But the passing decades have brought a reappraisal, especially by some feminists, of Day's screen personality and her achievements. In her book "Holding My Own in No Man's Land" (1997), critic Molly Haskell described Day as "challenging, in her workingwoman roles, the limited destiny of women to marry, live happily ever after and never be heard from again."

Day in fact was one of the few actresses of the 1950s and '60s to play women who had a real profession and her characters were often more passionate about their career than about their co-stars.

"My public image is unshakably that of America's wholesome virgin, the girl next door, carefree and brimming with happiness," she said in "Doris Day: Her Own Story," a 1976 book by A.E. Hotchner based on a series of interviews he had with Day. "An image, I can assure you, more make-believe than any film part I ever played. But I am Miss Chastity Belt and that's all there is to it."

Aspiring dancer

Day was born Doris Mary Anne Kappelhoff in Cincinnati on April 3, 1922. She was the second child of Frederick William von Kappelhoff, a choral master and piano teacher who later managed restaurants and taverns in Cincinnati, and Alma Sophia (Welz) Kappelhoff.

Day never wanted to be a movie star. At 15, she was a good enough dancer to win the $500 first prize in an amateur contest. Her mother and the parents of her 12-year-old partner used the money to take them both to Los Angeles for professional lessons. The families intended to move west permanently, but Doris' right leg was shattered when the automobile in which she was riding was hit by a train.

To distract Doris during the year it took the leg to mend, her mother — who had named her after a movie star, Doris Kenyon — paid for singing lessons. She was a natural.

Day told Hotchner that another important thing happened during her year of recuperation: She was given a small dog. "It was the start of what was, for me, a lifelong love affair with the dog."

That first dog, Tiny, was killed by a car when Day, still on crutches, took him for a walk without a leash. Nearly 40 years later, she spoke of how she had betrayed him. During the last decades of her life, through the Doris Day Animal Foundation, she rescued and found homes for stray dogs, even personally checking out the backyards and fencing of people who wanted to adopt, and she worked to end the use of animals in cosmetic and household-products research.

After the crash, Day never went back to school. At 17, having traded her crutches for a cane, she sang in a local club where the owner changed her name because Kappelhoff would not fit on the marquee. After a few months as a singer with Bob Crosby and his Bobcats in Chicago, she joined Les Brown and his Blue Devils.

Singing was just something to do until she married. "From the time I was a little girl," she said, "my only true ambition in life was to get married and tend house and have a family."

But while Day was instantly successful as a singer and a movie actress, she was fated always to marry the wrong men. By the time she made her first movie, she had been married and divorced twice.

Day married for a third time in 1951. Although that marriage, to Martin Melcher, her manager, seemed happy, she discovered after his death in 1968 that he and his lawyer had embezzled or frittered away the $20 million she had earned and had left her $500,000 in debt. She agreed to star in a comedy to earn the money to pay off her debts.

Terry Melcher, her only child, who became a successful record producer, died in 2004.