Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The 50th Anniversary of Pillow Talk

It was on October 6, 1959 that a motion picture debuted that would change movies forever. It teamed two of the biggest box office draws of the era, Doris Day and Rock Hudson, for the first time. And while it was not the first of the Sixties sex comedies , it became the quintessential Sixties sex comedy (even if it was released at the tail end of the Fifties). That film was Pillow Talk. Directed by Michael Gordon and produced by Ross Hunter and Doris Day's husband, Martin Melcher, it would arguably become Doris Day's most famous film. It would also cement the cycle towards sex comedies that had begun with Teacher's Pet (another Doris Day vehicle) and would continue until 1968 with the release of Where Were You When the Lights Went Out (another Doris Day vehicle).

Even though Doris Day had played the sexually charged role of Ruth Etting in the biopic Love Me or Leave Me and had already appeared in the sex comedies Teacher's Pet and It Happened to Jane, as of 1959 Doris Day's image was still very much that of the girl next door. It was producer Ross Hunter who realised that Doris Day had a great deal of sex appeal which had never been fully exploited. What is more, Hunter figured that Day's sex appeal could be brought out even more by teaming her with six foot four, handsome Rock Hudson?

Primarily written by Stanley Shapiro, a veteran of the TV show The Real McCoys and a writer on the sex comedy The Perfect Furlough, and Maurice Richlin, another veteran of The Real McCoys who would go onto write both Operation Petticoat and The Pink Panther, Pillow Talk had a very complex premise. Rock Hudson and Doris Day played  playboy Brad Allen and interior decorator Jan Morrow respectively, two people who live in the same apartment building but have never met, and who find themselves constantly at odds over the use of the building's party line. When Brad finally sees Jan at a nightclub, he puts on the charade of being rich Texas rancher Tex Stetson to get close to her. Pillow Talk featured all the hallmarks for which the Sixties sex comedies would become known: the battle of the sexes, ridiculous situations, a strong element of deceit  (usually a character pretending to be someone else, as in Pillow Talk), glamourous settings, and lavish costumes. Indeed, Pillow Talk may be the first sex comedy to feature an extravagant bachelor pad of the sort which often appeared in the sex comedies of the Sixties. While very much a product of the sexual revolution, in many respects it was also a throwback to sophisticated comedies of the sort made in the Thirties. The dialogue was witty and came fast and furious.

Oddly enough, Rock Hudson was initially resistant to doing the film. Rock Hudson was worried about doing a comedy, worried that he might well fall on his face. He was concerned whether he could play a "Cary Grant role." He finally accepted the part  of Brad Allen, on the condition that his friend Nick Adams receive a role as well.  It was director Michael Gordon who eventually persuaded Hudson to take the role, with some advice on playing comedy, "No matter how absurd the situations may appear to the viewer, to the people involved, it's a matter of life and death." Surprisingly, Rock Hudson thought Doris Day would be a cool blonde, a woman " warm as a December night on an ice floe." He was very pleasantly surprised to find Doris Day was warm and very friendly. In fact, the two got along so well that they developed nicknames for each other: Hudson called Day, "Eunice" and Doris called Hudson "Ernie." It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship.

Pillow Talk benefited from a stellar cast aside from Doris Day and Rock Hudson. Tony Randall had already starred in what could be considered a predecessor to the Sixties sex comedies, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter, and a Sixties sex comedy of his own, The Mating Game (released only a few months prior to Pillow Talk). He appeared in the sort of role played by Gig Young in two previous Doris Day comedies, Young at Heart and Teacher's Pet--that of the rival for the girl's heart . Not only would he appear in all three movies Rock Hudson and Doris Day made together, but he would appear in yet other sex comedies as well. Veteran character actress Thelma Ritter appeared as Jan's sardonic housekeeper who always had a hangover.

While the cast and crew of Pillow Talk got along well, the movie did experience some problems during shooting. In a scene in which Rock Hudson was supposed to pull Doris Day out of bed by grabbing her by the ankles and pulling her off the bed, he forgot to let go of her ankles. The result was that Day landed onto the floor hard. Day took it all in stride, grinning at him and asking, "Would you please let go of my ankles?" The scene in which Hudson had to carry Day through the apartment lobby and into the street also entailed some problems. Hudson had problems with his back, so a harness had to be devised which allowed him to carry Day without much difficulty. In scene where Tony Randall's character was to be punched by restaurant customers, Randall was simply supposed to act as if he was hit hard and slide down the booth in which he had been sitting as if unconscious. Instead the actor really did hit him, so hard that he actually knocked Randall out! The shot turned out so well that it was used in the final cut of the film. Julia Meade, who played Brad's girlfriend Marie, did a live commercial each week on The Ed Sullivan Show in New York City. As a result, every Saturday she flew to New York, returning after the show aired on Sunday night.

Amazingly enough,  even though Pillow Talk starred two of the biggest box office draws of the time, producer Ross Hunter had problems convincing cinema managers to book the movie. The big movie chains felt that sophisticated comedies were no longer fashionable. After all, this was the era of big budget spectacles and war movies. Finally, Hunter convinced Sol Schwartz, owner of the Palace Theatre in New York to get Pillow Talk for a two week run. The movie proved to be a huge hit there. In no time Pillow Talk was very much in demand from cinema owners.

Pillow Talk debuted on October 6, 1959 in New York City, then went nationwide the next day, on October 7. Over all the film received sterling reviews from critics. It would be the number one movie for very nearly two months. In the end it would be the seventh highest grossing film of 1959. It was nominated for no less than five Oscars and won the Academy Award for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay - Written Directly for the Screen.

Naturally, Pillow Talk would have a huge impact on the movies of the Sixties. Pillow Talk was not the first Sixties sex comedy. The cycle towards Sixties sex comedies had begun in 1958 with Teacher's Pet and there were a few other sex comedies which had preceded it. That having been said, the phenomenal success of Pillow Talk guaranteed that the cycle would continue for many years to come. From 1958 to 1968 approximately there would be around forty different sex comedies. As might be expected, Pillow Talk had a huge impact on Doris Day's career. From 1959 to 1966 Doris Day would rank in the annual exhibitors' poll of the top ten box office stars, more than any other actress besides Betty Grable since the poll had begun in 1932. For three years, from 1962 to 1965, she was the top box office star in the poll. To this day, according to the annual Quigley Publishing poll's All-Time Number One Stars list, Doris Day remains the top female star in terms of box office. Doris Day and Rock Hudson would ultimately make three more movies together (Lover Come Back and Send Me No Flowers). Doris Day herself would make several more sex comedies, to the point that it is now the genre of film for which she is best known.

I am not certain how old I was when I first saw Pillow Talk. I know that it was very much a part of my childhood. Of course, at the time many of the jokes went well over my head. It is perhaps for that reason that as an adult I developed a newfound appreciation of the movie. In fact, it is one of those films that seems to improve with each viewing, as I seem to find something new in it each time. While I enjoyed it a good deal as a child, as an adult it would become one of my favourite films of all time.

Pillow Talk did not start the cycle towards Sixties sex comedies, but its success guaranteed that the genre would continue for years to come. Its influence would extend to the sex comedies which succeeded it in the Sixties, as well as tributes to the genre such as Down With Love. For both Doris Day and Rock Hudson it perhaps remains their best known movie. It was the sophisticated comedy which found success in an age of big budget spectacles, a racy comedy in an era of conservatism. Quite simply, Pillow Talk could be one of the most influential film comedies of all time.

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