Monday, January 19, 2009

Sixties Sex Comedies Part One

Today when individuals think of movies made in the Sixties, they are apt to think of the extraordinarily large number of spy films made during much of the decade. While a large number of spy movies were made in the Sixties, however, they are just as apt to think of the decade's many sex comedies. In fact, if anything the cycle of sex comedies which began in the late Fifties and continued until nearly late Fifties was larger than the cycle towards spy films. As much of a Sixties icon as James Bond may be, Rock Hudson and Doris Day may be more fitting icons for the decade's movie industry.

While today we tend to speak of "Sixties sex comedies" or "sex comedies of the Sixties," this subgenre of romantic comedy actually developed in the Fifties and it was during that decade that the cycle actually began. That having been said, the bulk of the films were made in the Sixties and that is when the cycle actually reached its peak. If the homage to sex comedies Down With Love is set in the year 1964, it is with very good reason. While such classics of the subgenre as Pillow Talk and Houseboat were released in the Fifties, the Sixties would see even more classics, such as Lover Come Back, Boeing, Boeing, and How to Murder Your Wife.

In some respects using the term "sex comedy" of these films might seem a bit odd, as the films never feature the sex act itself. And in fact the term "sex comedy" has been applied to other sorts of films, such as the British erotic comedies of the Seventies, of which The Confessions of..." series starring Robin Askwith may be the best examples, and even teen comedies such as My Tutor and American Pie. It must be pointed out, however, that the term "sex comedy" was applied to movies such as Pillow Talk and Boys Night Out long before it was other sorts of film. And in many respects the term is perfectly fitting, as sex is the driving force in the sex comedies of the Sixties. Quite simply, a sex comedy can be defined as any comedy in which a man and woman are placed at odds with each other, with sex being the goal of each. The sex comedy is the descendant of both the bedroom farce (in fact, Boeing Boeing was based on a bedroom farce of that name by Marc Camoletti) and the screwball comedy. Like the bedroom farce much of the comedy is based around the various sexual pairings and re-pairings of individuals. Like screwball comedies, the sex comedies involve ridiculous situations, witty repartee, and a romantic plot.

What separates the sex comedies from both bedroom farce and screwball comedies is that a conflict between a man and a woman, the "battle of the sexes," lies at their heart. As the term "sex comedy" would indicate, that conflict is generally about sex. Here it must be pointed out that the conflict in these films is not that the man wants sex and the woman does not. For the sex comedies of the Sixties to have even worked, obviously the woman would have to desire sex too. The conflict lies in a disagreement over the circumstances under which sex will take place. The men of the Sixties sex comedies want sex before marriage or even completely without marriage expected to take place. In fact, many of the bachelors in the films are firmly opposed to marriage. While the man in Sixties sex comedies prefer their sex without marriage, the women either want sex only after they are married or, at the very least, with a firm commitment of marriage. It is this conflict which fuels many of the sex comedies of the late Fifties and Sixties.

Here it must be pointed out that the conflict does not always centre around when sex should take place. In Send Me No Flowers the conflict arises when George (Rock Hudson) thinks he is going to die and tries to find his wife Judy (Doris Day) a husband for after he's gone. These attempts to find his wife a husband for after he had died lead Judy to believe George is having an affair. While the conflict in this film centres on sex, it does not centre on the timing of it.

It is through this conflict between a man and a woman that it is revealed that both sexes generally act like idiots when in love or lust. George's attempts to find his wife a new husband in Send Me No Flowers is a perfect example of this. Another example can be found in Man's Favourite Sport in which so called fishing expert Roger Willoughby (Rock Hudson) finds himself faking it through a fishing tournament (in truth he has never fished before in his life) simply because he does not want his public relations women (Paula Prentiss) to reveal his secret and ruin his career.

While many of the ridiculous situations in the sex comedies result from the idiocy people experience while in love or lust, many of the ridiculous situations arise simply out the manipulations of one character in order to get the upper hand over another. More often than not, this involves a good deal of deceit. Deceit plays a central role in the conflicts found in the sex comedies of the Sixties. A perfect example of this can be found in Boeing Boeing. In this film Bernard Lawrence (Tony Curtis) juggles his schedule so that he can be involved with three different stewardesses, all the while leading each one to believe she is the only one he is seeing (the film provided part of the inspiration for Down With Love). Another example can be found in Who Was That Lady, in which Professor David Wilson (Tony Curits) convinces his wife (Janet Leigh) that he was kissing one of his students only as part of an undercover FBI sting.

More often than not the deceit in these films will even lead to one of the characters pretending to be someone else. The prime example of this may be Pillow Talk, which could well be the exemplar of the genre. In Pillow Talk interior designer Jan Morrow (Doris Day) and playboy Brad Allen (Rock Hudson) have never met, although they share the same party line (for those of the cell phone generation, a party line is one in which several telephone users are connected to the same line). It is the use of the party line which often makes them butts heads. Once Brad actually sees Jan at a nightclub and finds himself attracted to her, he pretends to be Texan rancher Rex Stetson so he can get close to her. In My Geisha actress Lucy Dell (Shirley MacLaine) disguises herself as a Japanese woman Yoko in order to get the role of Butterfly in a production of Madame Butterfly her husband (Yves Montand) is making (yes, I know, it is a bit absurd and racist).

With deceit playing such a large role in the sex comedies, it should not be surprising that much of the humour derives from who knows what. Generally speaking, in the films one character knows much more than the other. In the movie Lover Come Back, ad executive Jerry Webster (Rock Hudson) creates a product called VIP simply to get close to chorus girl (Edie Adams), promising her a part in its commercials. His archrival, Carol Templeton (Doris Day), then reports Jerry to the Advertising Council for advertising a product which does not exist. What Carol does not know, however, is that Jerry has bribed a chemist to actually create VIP, which he brings to the Advertising Council hearing. Another example of humour deriving from who knows what can be seen in Send Me No Flowers, in which George (Rock Hudson) thinks he is dying but does not bother to tell his wife this.

Beyond these broad features, the various sex comedies tended to share some things in terms of their production. They were almost always set in glamourous settings and featured lavish costumes, and were shot in glossy Technicolour. A central feature of many of the sex comedies, from Pillow Talk to Under the Yum Yum Tree, was the bachelor pad. The bachelor pads of the Sixties sex comedies were exaggerations of the sort written about in Playboy at the time. In fact, in many of them it seemed as if everything (including the fireplace) could be operated by remote control. It must also be pointed out that music plays a central role in nearly all of these films. Never mind that Doris Day and other stars often sing in these films, the sex comedies get a good deal of mileage out of music when it comes to setting a mood. The romantic scenes tend to have soft, romantic music, while the comedic scenes will tend to have something more fitting. Is it any wonder that the score for Pillow Talk was nominated for an Oscar?

Having discussed what the sex comedies involved, it might be a good idea to clear up some misconceptions about the sex comedies of the Sixties. First, while the sex act never appears in these sex comedies, it does not mean sex is absent from them. In Lover Come Back, after it turns out that the candy VIP has unexpected side effects, Carol (Doris Day) finds out that not only did she have sex with her archrival Jerry (Rock Hudson), but she apparently married him as well. In Sunday in New York it is very obvious that Adam (Cliff Robertson) and his girlfriend Mona (Jo Morrow) have a sexual relationship without being married.

Second, another misconception about the Sixties sex comedies is that all of the heroines were virgins. One need look no further than many of the characters Doris Day played in her sex comedies. In both Send Me No Flowers and The Thrill of It All she plays married women. In The Glass Bottomed Boat she plays a widow. In Move Over, Darling she plays a woman who had been married, but was declared legally dead after she went missing in a plane crash. Even Sandra Dee, who was typecast in virginal roles, played a woman with sexual experience in a sex comedy. In Doctor, You've Got to be Kidding, not only is she unmarried and having a baby at the beginning of the movie, but the father could be one of three men!

Given that sex lies at the core of the sex comedies of the late Fifties and Sixties, the subgenre could not have existed in the Thirties and Forties. The Production Code of the movie industry simply would not have permitted such films. Several events had to take place before the subgenre could come into being. Quite simply, the Sexual Revolution had to begin.

Although the period from the Thirties to the Fifties is often seen as a conservative one, the roots of the Sexual Revolution actually extend well before the Fifties. In the late 19th century, Sigmund Freud's theories emphasised sexual desire as the primary motivational factor in life. Marxists such as Herbert Marcuse and particularly William Reich argued for sexual liberation. With psychologists, sociologists, and philosophers arguing for a loosening of sexual mores, all it would take would be the right catalyst to bring the Sexual Revolution into full swing. This would come in the form of a researcher named Alfred C. Kinsey. Conducting surveys into human sexuality, Kinsey published his results in what has become known as collectively as the Kinsey Reports: Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male in 1948 and Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female in 1953. The Kinsey Reports challenged conventional beliefs regarding human sexuality, particularly with regards to women. For much of the Twentieth Century many in society barely even recognised that women had sexual desires, much less engaged in sexual activity outside of marriage. The Kinsey Reports overturned the assumptions many in the general public held about sex. As a result, attitudes towards sex began to change in American society.

In fact, even before Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female was published, changes in American society with regards to sex were under way. Taboos in various media were soon being challenged In publishing this was reflected by bans on such books as Lady Chatterley's Lover, Tropic of Cancer, and Fanny Hill (then over two hundred years old at the time) were successfully challenged.

In movies the Production Code, first enacted in 1934, also found itself challenged. It was in 1952 that the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously declared that movies were protected by the First Amendment and that the New York State Board of Regent could not ban "The Miracle," part of Roberto Rossellini's anthology film L'Amore. As the Production Code was created to prevent government regulation, this decision had the effect of making the Production Code seem less important. Indeed, competition from such foreign films was perhaps much of the reason producers pushed for changes to the code. In 1953 From Here to Eternity managed to make it to the screen, despite its depiction of adultery. Curiously, the film that may have forced changes in the Production Code seems totally innocuous today: The Moon is Blue. It was the first American film to use the words "virgin," "seduction," and "mistress' since the Production Code had been created in 1934. As a result the Production Code Administration denied the film its seal of approval. Producer/director Otto Preminger and United Artists then made a surprising move. They released The Moon is Blue without a Production Code Seal, although United Artists did drop out of the Motion Picture Association of America to avoid paying a fine. The Moon is Blue proved to be a huge hit at the box office, and as a result proved it was possible to challenge the Production Code and be successful. In 1954, after it was denied a Production Code Seal, Howard Hughes released The French Line without a seal. The French Line did quite well at the box office. In the end the Production Code would be changed in 1956 so that almost everything except nudity, obscenities, venereal disease, and sexual perversion was permissible. With revisions to the Code, then, the Sixties sex comedies became possible. Pillow Talk would not have been possible in 1951. It became possible in 1956.

Another factor in the creation of the sex comedies was the birth of the modern day men's magazine or "girlie magazine" or, to be more precise, one girlie magazine in particular. In the early Fifties such girlie magazines as Caper and Modern Men would hit newsstands. While these magazines featured nude photographs of women, it would be Playboy that would be the surest sign that the sexual revolution was under way and that would pave the way for the sex comedies of the Sixties. First published in 1953, Playboy not only featured nude pictures of women, but advocated sex as a pastime for men. In fact, in the Fifties many of the articles in Playboy were predicated on the idea of being successful in picking up women. To this end much of the magazines was dedicated to the proper alcohol, food, music, and so on with which to equip one's bachelor pad. It was then Playboy that created the archetypal protagonist of so many Sixties Sex Comedies--the bachelor out to pick up women, who lives in an exquisitely equipped bachelor pad, complete with the latest in technology.

Beyond the Sexual Revolution, the roles of women in American society would have to change as well. At the start of the Twentieth Century there were very few women in the workplace. This would change with World War II. With many men in service overseas, women had to take their place in the work force. Following the war many women remained in the work force, more than had before. The Fifties saw more women in the workplace than many decades before it. While in the Thirties only 25.4% of all women worked, by the Fifties that number had risen to 34%. This change was necessary for the sex comedies to come into existence as the vast majority of the heroines were working women. One only has to look at the characters played by Doris Day to see this. She played a college professor (Teacher's Pet), an interior decorator (Pillow Talk), and an advertising executive (Lover Come Back), among other things. In fact, the work place would play a major role in most of the films, often being the means through which the man and woman would meet.

With changes in American attitudes towards sex and changes in the roles of women in American society, the stage was set for the sex comedy cycle of the late Fifties and early Sixties. In fact, the very first of them would be released not long after Alfred Kinsey had released his Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female...

1 comment:

Larry said...

I was thinking about writing a blog about 60's sex comedies and did a quick google search. One of the first things I found was your blog. I love these movies from the 60's and found your writing on them to be very interesting and well researched. Time for me to do some more research and join the fellows in Boys Night Out for an evening.