Friday, 19 June 2015

Pillow Talk (1959)

One of the genres most closely associated with the early to mid-Sixties is the sex comedy. Numerous sex comedies were released in the first half of the decade. And at least one major star, Doris Day, made so many well known examples of the genre that she would become forever linked to it. While associated with the Sixties, the genre actually originated in the Fifties. And while the films were termed "sex comedies", they never featured the sex act itself. Instead the Sixties sex comedies were films in which sex was at the centre of the conflict between the lead characters. In many respects the Sixties sex comedies could be considered descendants of both the bedroom farce and the screwball comedy, combining elements of both. Of course, as might be expected, there was always a good deal of sexual innuendo in the films.

As mentioned above, while sex comedies are identified with the early to mid-Sixties, they originated in the Fifties. That having been said, it is difficult to say precisely what the first sex comedy was. Certainly Monkey Business (1952), Phffft (1954), and The Seven Year Itch (1955) could be considered forerunners of the sex comedy, even if they don't exactly belong to the genre. The Tender Trap (1955), Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter (1957), Kiss Them for Me (1957),  and three movies released in 1958 (Teacher's Pet, The Perfect Furlough,  and Houseboat) are all possible candidates for the first sex comedy. Of course, if none of them are considered the first sex comedy, then there can be little doubt that the first in the genre was Pillow Talk (1959). Not only is it definitely considered part of the genre, for many it remains the quintessential sex comedy. What is more, it was the movie that kicked off the cycle towards sex comedies that lasted for the remainder of the Fifties and well into the Sixties.

Pillow Talk was the first of three sex comedies starring Doris Day and Rock Hudson (the other two were Lover Come Back, released in 1961, and Send Me No Flowers, released in 1964).  In the film Rock Hudson and Doris Day play playboy Brad Allen and interior decorator Jan Morrow respectively, who find themselves constantly at odds over the use of the party line they share (for those of the mobile phone generation, a party line is one in which several telephone users are connected to the same 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 originated from material by Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene, best known for such films noirs as D.O.A. (1950), The Well (1952), New York Confidential (1955), and so on. Messrs. Rouse and Greene's concept was given shape as a screenplay by Stanley Shapiro and Maurice Richlin, both veterans of television who had worked on the sitcoms Where's Raymond starring Raymond Bolger and Hey, Jeannie starring Jeannie Carson.

It is surprising today to consider that at the time Doris Day signed to star in Pillow Talk she was not considered as major a star as she once had been. Having ranked in the top ten of Quigley's annual poll of the top box office stars in both 1951 and 1952, by 1958 she was ranked only 15th in the poll. Worse yet, her last two films, The Tunnel of Love (1958) and It Happened to Jane (1959) had not done particularly well at the box office. Fortunately for Doris Day, Pillow Talk would bring her career to heights it had never seen before.

It is also surprising to think that Rock Hudson, who may now be best known for his work on the sex comedies he made with Doris Day, was initially apprehensive about making Pillow Talk.  In fact, he initially turned the movie down. Not only did he worry that the material was too risqué, but he was also worried because he had never done a comedy before. Fortunately Mr. Hudson was convinced to star in the film. As to his concerns about playing comedy, both director Michael Gordon and co-star Doris Day helped him through it. In the end it proved to be one of the films Rock Hudson enjoyed making the most, and the start of a lifelong friendship with Doris Day.

As to the film's third major role, that would be filled by Tony Randall. Not only was Mr. Randall already a veteran of comedy movies, but arguably he was already a veteran of sex comedies or, at least, their direct forerunners. He had already starred in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957) and The Mating Game (1959).  In Pillow Talk he played Brad's old college buddy, neurotic rich boy Jonathan Forbes. Unfortunately, Jonathan is one of Jan's clients, and he makes no secret about his crush on her. Tony Randall would return as a tertiary lead in Doris Day and Rock Hudson's other two films, Lover Come Back and Send Me No Flowers. He would also prove to be something of a regular in the Sixties sex comedies. In addition to the films he made with Doris Day and Rock Hudson, Tony Randall also appeared in Let's Make Love (1960) and Boys' Night Out (1962).

The film's primary cast was rounded out by character actress Thelma Ritter. She played Jan's alcoholic housekeeper Alma. Thelma Ritter already had a very good career as a character actress, having appeared in such films as All About Eve (1950), Rear Window (1954), and Daddy Long Legs (1955). Not surprisingly she had some of the funniest bits in the film.

Surprisingly enough given the classic status that Pillow Talk would achieve, not to mention the fact that it would even spark a whole cycle of similar sex comedies, neither Universal-International nor theatres were particularly enthusiastic about the film. Their line of thought was that sophisticated comedies had gone out with the Thirties. Eventually producer Ross Hunter was able to persuade Sol Schwartz, who owned the Palace Theatre on Broadway in New York City, to book Pillow Talk for two weeks. It proved an enormous success at the Palace Theatre, so much so that soon cinemas across the country were booking the film.  In the end Pillow Talk made $18,750,000 at the box office and was the 5th highest grossing film for 1959. Pillow Talk would also win the Academy Award for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay - Written Directly for the Screen, and was nominated for the Oscars for Best Actress in a Leading Role (for Doris Day); Best Actress in a Supporting Role (for Thelma Ritter); Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Colour; and Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture (for Frank De Vol).

Pillow Talk would prove to have a lasting impact on the Sixties sex comedies that followed it. While it was not necessarily the first comedy in which sex was at the centre of the story's conflict, it took it to heights it had never been before, with enough innuendo that some people (even its star Rock Hudson) worried it might be too racy. And while it was not the first such comedy to involve deceit, it took such deceit further than it might ever had been before given the lengths to which  Brad Allen took his charade as Tex Stetson. Pillow Talk does appear to have established some of the tropes now identified with the Sixties sex comedy genre. Brad Allen's extravagantly furnished bachelor pad, where where a good deal could be done with the press of button, was the prototype for all bachelor pads to come in the Sixties sex comedies. 

Pillow Talk was also one of the very earliest films to portray a career woman whose focus was firmly on her job rather than romance. Not only was Jan not waiting around to find a man to marry, but she truly enjoyed her job. What is more, even though Doris Day has been stereotyped as a perpetual virgin, it is clear that her character Jan Morrow is not precisely virginal. What is more, neither were Doris Day's characters in her successive sex comedies. For Jan Morrow (and Doris Day's other sex comedy characters, for that matter) resisting a man was not about protecting her virtue, so much as it was as insuring that the man pursuing her was truly worthy of her. This would also be the case of the many other sex comedies that followed in the wake of those starring Doris Day. They often featured career women devoted to their jobs who resist men not to protect their virginity (which might well have been long gone by that point), but to make sure that the men were truly good enough for them.

As mentioned above, while it is possible that Pillow Talk was not the first Sixties sex comedy (there are several contenders for the title), it is the one that started the cycle of sex comedies that spanned from the late Fifties to the mid-Sixties. Pillow Talk would be followed by several more sex comedies starring Doris Day. In addition to those in which she co-starred with Rock Hudson there were That Touch of Mink (1962), The Thrill of It All (1963), Move Over, Darling (1963), Do Not Disturb (1965), and The Glass Bottom Boat (1966). Of course, there were many other sex comedies besides those starring Doris Day, including Come September (1962),  Boys' Night Out (1962), Under the Yum Yum Tree (1963), Boeing Boeing (1965), and many others.

Given its success, it should come as no surprise that Pillow Talk revitalised the career of Doris Day. For 1959 she ranked 4th in Quigley's annual poll of the biggest stars. From 1960 to 1966 she ranked in the top ten of the poll every year--six of those years spent in the top five and four of those years at no. 1. Pillow Talk would also reinvent Rock Hudson's career. Previously the star of such dramas as Giant (1957), A Farewell to Arms (1957), and Twilight for the Gods (1958), in early to the mid-Sixties he would primarily be the star of comedies such as Come September (1961), The Spiral Road (1962), Man's Favourite Sport? (1964), and Strange Bedfellows (1967).

In the end Pillow Talk would prove to be one of the most influential and most important films of the late Fifties. It revitalised Doris Day's career, changed the direction of Rock Hudson's career, and started an entire cycle of sex comedies that last until the middle of the Sixties. And it did it all by centring on sex without ever actually showing the sex act itself.


Steve Bailey said...

Excellent blog! You summed up the appeal of this movie and the genre it spawned quite nicely! Great read!

CineMaven said...

What a great film to include in this blogathon, and one of my absolute favorites. (Their trilogy is in my top ten favorites.) Doris Day and Rock Hudson broke the mold with this film in casting, execution, attraction and sexy sexual chemistry. All with their clothes on, too! Tony Randall, the cherry on top. You did nicely giving us a little historical background on The Sex Comedy. This comment you wrote hits it on the head for me, on the allure of Doris Day: “For Jan Morrow (and Doris Day's other sex comedy characters, for that matter) resisting a man was not about protecting her virtue, so much as it was as insuring that the man pursuing her was truly worthy of her.” If not the first Sex Comedy, “Pillow Talk” nonetheless is the blueprint and I daresay others pale in comparison. I enjoyed your contribution very much.