Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Sixties Sex Comedies Part Three

The late Fifties saw the emergence of the sex comedy. In 1958 a cycle towards sex comedies began with three different films being released. By 1960 the Sixties sex comedy cycle was well under way. That year saw several different sex comedies released.

Among these was the film Let's Make Love, starring Marilyn Monroe and Yves Montand. The movie's plot centred around millionaire Jean-Marc Clement (Yves Montand), who visits the set of an off-Broadway revue, only to be mistaken for an actor supposed to play him. Clement plays along and takes the part so he can be close to actress Amanda Dell. As mentioned earlier, it is debatable whether The Apartment is a sex comedy or not. The Apartment centres on C. C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon), a hapless employee of a major insurance company, whose apartment is constantly taken over by his superiors at work for their extramarital affairs. This arrangement is complicated when Baxter falls in love with elevator operator Fran Kublick (Shirley MacLaine). Unfortunately, Miss Kublick had an affair with their boss, Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), who wants her back. The Battle of the Sexes, so central to the sex comedies, is nearly absent in The Apartment, existing only between Miss Kublick and Mr. Sheldrake, not between the two principal characters. And the deception that is seen in most sex comedies is absent. While it is certainly a romantic comedy, then it is doubtful The Apartment can be considered a sex comedy.

That is not to say that The Apartment would not have an influence on sex comedies. Indeed, both of its stars (Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine) would go onto star in several sex comedies. MacLaine had already appeared one sex comedy even before starring in The Apartment: Ask Any Girl in 1959. She would go onto appear in My Geisha, Irma la Douce, and What a Way to Go. Irma la Douce, released in 1963, was directed by Billy Wilder and once more teamed her with Jack Lemmon. MacLaine played the title character, a prostitute with whom ex-police officer Nestor Patou falls in love. To keep her away from men and in an effort to get her out of business, Patou pretends to be an elderly English lord, known only as Lord X. In some respects, it is debatable whether What a Way to Go is a sex comedy, as it does not really contain the Battle of the Sexes central to sex comedies. The plot centred on Louisa May Foster (Shirley MacLaine), a luckless girl whose husbands always die, often in unusual ways, trying to get rich. The Battle Between the Sexes and the deception absent from What a Way to Go, although it is still counted as a sex comedy by many.

In 1962 the cycle would continue with the release of yet more sex comedies, including Lover Come Back. Among the films released that year was Come September. Come September centred on millionaire Robert L. Talbot (Rock Hudson) who goes on vacation at his Italian villa. Unfortunately, it seems that his long term girlfriend Lisa (Gina Lollobrigida) has tired of waiting for him and is going to marry another man. Among the co-stars of Come September was Sandra Dee. Best known at the point for having played Gidget in the movie of the same name and Tammy in Tammy Tell Me True and Tammy and the Doctor, she would go onto make a few sex comedies. In fact, in 1962 she would star in If a Man Answers, playing rich socialite Chantal Stacy who is trying to train her new husband Eugene Wright (Bobby Darin) to be the perfect husband. She went onto appear in That Funny Feeling and Doctor, You've Got to be Kidding. The latter, released in 1967, was notable in that Sandra Dee actually played a woman with sexual experience. Early in the movie she finds herself pregnant with marriage proposals from three different men.

By 1962 the sex comedies had grown considerably more daring than they had in the days of Teacher's Pet. Love Come Back implied a one night stand between its two lead characters, although it was under the intoxicating effects of VIP and involved a marriage licence as well.

Nineteen sixty two saw the sex comedy cycle continue stronger than ever, with the released of A Touch of Mink and If a Man Answers. Boys' Night Out was similarly daring. The film centres on three married men and one bachelor (James Garner) who rent an apartment as a love nest for extramarital affairs. They also hire a housekeeper, a beautiful blonde named Cathy (Kim Novack). In reality, Cathy is actually a graduate student in sociology researching her thesis--the sexual fantasies of the average male. Although tame by today's standards, Boys' Night Out must have seemed risque for the era.

Boys' Night Out would be significant in introducing a new star to the sex comedies, James Garner. Best known for his role on the TV series Maverick at the time, Garner would go onto star in two more sex comedies, both important in the history of the genre. He appeared opposite Doris Day in The Thrill of It All, released in 1963. Garner played Dr. Gerald Boyer, whose Beverly (Doris Day) soon finds herself a spokesman for a major brand of soap and a television personality. He would co-star with Doris Day again in Move Over, Darling, in which Doris Day plays Ellen, a woman declared legally dead after a plane crash only to show up five years later.

From 1963 to 1965 the sex comedy cycle was at its height, with more films in the genre released than in any other three year period. Many of the films were fairly significant: Move Over, Darling, The Thrill of It All, Under the Yum Yum Tree, Send Me No Flowers, Boeing Boeing, and How to Murder Your Wife . Two films released during this two year period are notable for their place in film history or pop culture history. Both were also released during the Christmas season of 1964. With Kiss Me, Stupid director Billy Wilder once more challenged the movie industry establishment. The film was passed by the Production Code Administration (a sign of how much the Code had weakened), but would run afoul of the Legion of Decency. The Catholic organisation would give the film a "C" rating for "Condemned," the first film it so labelled since Baby Doll in 1956. For once the Legion of Decency was not alone in its condemnation of a film. The film was roundly attacked by critics, many of whom attacked its vulgarity. Kiss Me, Stupid was very loosely based on the bedroom farce L’Ora della Fantasia by Anna Bonacci. It starred Dean Martin as a crooner called Dino, who finds himself in the small Nevada town of Climax, where struggling songwriter Orville Jeremiah Spooner (Ray Walston) tries to keep his wife Zelda (Felicia Farr) away from the handsome Dino while trying to sell the singer songs. He even goes so far as to hire a prostitute, Zelda (Kim Novack) to pose as his wife. The film dealt in adultery and in sexual humour that was much more obvious than any of its contemporaries. Roundly condemned in its time, Kiss Me, Stupid would later be re-evaluated so that its reputation was somewhat redeemed.

Also released during the holidays in 1964, Sex and the Single Girl shared its title with Helen Gurley Brown's famous sex manual. Warner Brothers had purchased the film rights to Brown's book, but ultimately the movie would be based on a screenplay that had been floating around Warner Brothers for years entitled How To Make Love and Like It. In the end, the only thing the movie would take from Brown's book was its name. The film Sex and the Single Girl cast Natalie Wood as a young sexologist named Helen Gurley Brown who crosses swords with scheming scandal sheet editor Bob Weston (Tony Curtis), who plots to seduce her and reveal her as an inexperienced virgin. As in other sex comedies, Weston pretends to be someone else in order to seduce Brown.

It was in 1966 that the cycle towards sex comedies finally showed signs of slowing down. While the past three years had yielded a bumper crop of sex comedies, 1966 would only see the release of a few. Among that year's sex comedies were The Swinger, Any Wednesday, and The Glass Bottom Boat. The Glass Bottom Boat is significant as Doris Day's last successful sex comedy. Doris Day played widow Jennifer Nelson, who has just taken a job as in public relations for NASA and also works as a mermaid for her father's glass bottom boat tours. It through her job as a mermaid for her father (Arthur Godfrey) that Jennifer meets Bruce Templeton (Rod Taylor)--he accidentally catches her while fishing. As it turns out Templeton is also Jennifer's new boss. Not only was The Glass Bottom Boat a sex comedy, but it also capitalised on the spy craze of the time. It featured a large number of cameos, including Robert Vaughn as Napoleon Solo. It was the second time Doris Day and Rod Taylor had starred together, having first appeared together in 1965's Do Not Disturb.

There was perhaps no greater sign that the sex comedy cycle was coming to an end than the fact that 1966 was the last year that Doris Day would rank in the top ten of the exhibitors' polls of the top box office stars. Nineteen sixty seven would see yet fewer sex comedies released, including Doctor, You've Got to be Kidding and A Guide for the Married Man. It would be 1968 that would see the end of the cycle. That year How to Save a Marriage (And Ruin Your Life) was released, as was Doris Day's very last sex comedy, Where Were You When the Lights Went Out. Where Were You When the Lights Went Out was set in New York City during the Great Northeast Blackout of 1965. Despite this, it was actually based on the French play Monsieur Masure by Claude Magnier. In the film Dois Day played a parody of herself, an actress typecast in virginal roles. Released in July 1968, it was the first Doris Day movie in years that did extremely poorly at the box office. At any rate, it was perhaps fitting that having started the cycle towards sex comedies, Doris Day would also end it as well.

Ultimately, the Sixties sex comedies had fallen victim to the same weakening of the production code and Sexual Revolution that had allowed them to exist to begin with. In 1961 the Production Code was revised once more, this time to include "sexual perversion (by which was pretty much meant homosexuality)." The production code would only be weakened by such foreign movies as L'Avventura, Jules et Jim, Room at the Top, Never On Sunday, and La Dolce vita, which often contained material that the current Production Code forbade in American films. American movies (including American co-productions) also challenged the Production Code. In 1964The Pawnbroker had included some very brief female nudity, which resulted in the Production Code Administration denying it a seal. This decision was overturned by the Production Code Administration's own review board.

Another challenge to the code came in the form of Blowup, directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. The movie included two scenes that the Production Code Administration found objectionable--one in which the protagonist cavorted with two nude girls in which pubic hair was very briefly visible, and another scene in which the protagonist watched his neighbour make love. Rather than cut the scenes, the film's distributor, MGM (originally a strong supporter of the Production Code), simply released the film under its subsidiary Premier Productions without a seal. The film did quite well at the box office. Curiously, it would not be the full frontal nudity of Blowup that would break the Production Code, but the four letter words of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.. The film was based on the Broadway play of the same name, which utilised exceedingly coarse language, including the word "goddamn" no less than fifteen times, as well as such words as "ass" and "son of a bitch." Before the film was even made, then the Production Code Administration advised Warner Brothers to remove every bit of profanity and coarse language. After negotiations with the Production Code Administration, in the end Warner Brothers only wound up cutting the words "screw you" and "frigging" from the film and added a special warning all advertisements for the film.

While The Pawnbroker, Blowup, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf challenged the Production Code, other films tested the boundaries of the Production Code. Some of these movies were even sex comedies, such Some Like It Hot and Kiss Me Stupid. By 1967 the Production Code was so weak that The Graduate was able to deal with adult themes such as extramarital sex. That same year two films, the screen adaptation of Ulysses and the movie I'll Never Forget What's His Name went further than Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf had--they both included the "F" word. As much more was permissible in movies by this point, the sex comedies (in which there was no sex) probably started to seem both tame and dated by 1967. The films may have lost any audience who watched them primarily for their risque content.

Indeed, it must be pointed out that as the Sixties progressed, the sex comedies became more and more risque. Some Like It Hot included cross dressing. Boys' Night Out toyed with adultery (although it never actually occurred in the film). Doctor, You've Got to be Kidding featured a heroine who actually had a child out of wedlock. The sex comedies kept up with the changes in what was acceptable in films until, at last, they could not keep up.

Just as the Production Code was weakening in the Sixties, the Sexual Revolution began to gain steam. The birth control pill was approved by the Federal Drug Administration in 1960, removing much of the threat of pregnancy from the sex act. In many quarters of the population premarital sex became acceptable. While it may not have been acceptable by other quarters of the population, it certainly became less shocking. By the late Sixties the concept of free love, which argues that sex between consenting adults should not be regulated by law, caught among among certain parts of the American populace. These changes in society effectively removed the impetus of many of the Sixties sex comedies, in which much of the plot was propelled by the woman saying, "No," to sex unless it was within the confines of marriage. It is safe to say that such films as Pillow Talk must have seemed dated by 1967.

Even without the weakening of the Production Code and the Sexual Revolution, however, the Sixties sex comedies cycle would have probably have ended sooner or later. Most movie cycles only last a few years before they burn themselves out. And by 1966 the market was literally glutted by sex comedies. It is safe to say that at some point audiences would have tired of them, even without the changes that occurred in both the movie industry and American society.

Regardless, while the sex comedy cycle would end, the sex comedies themselves would be remembered. Among some they would even become a source of controversy. There are those who maintain that the bulk of sex comedies are both sexist and misogynistic. In my opinion, however, this thought does not bear close inspection. While many sex comedies include protagonists who make speeches against both women and marriage, in nearly every sex comedy ever made such sentiments are proven wrong by the movie's end. At the end of Pillow Talk Brad Allen ceases to be misogynistic and finally concedes to Jan Morrow in having a monogamous relationship. If the films were truly misogynistic, it would be safe to say that characters who started out as playboys would remain playboys at the movies' ends.

It must also be pointed out that for films that are supposed to "sexist," the sex comedies paint a better portrait of women than many other venues in the media. While TV shows and other movies were still portraying the average American woman as a housewife, the sex comedies featured women in their own careers. There can be no better example of this than Doris Day. She was an interior decorator in Pillow Talk, an advertising executive in Lover Come Back, and in public relations in The Glass Bottom Boat. And Doris Day was not an isolated case by any stretch of the imagination. Prior to Boys' Night Out Kim Novak had previously played only sexpots; Boys' Night Out was the first time she played an educated woman with her own career. In fact, it is notable that once the sex comedy cycle ended, fewer women appeared in comedies for quite some time.

Of course, it must be pointed out that in the vast majority of the movies the women want monogamous relationships, namely marriage. In none of the sex comedies, however, is it indicated that the women were actively seeking marriage before they fell in love and in none of them is it indicated that they gave up their careers after getting married. It is then true that the sex comedies are very pro-marriage. That having been said, it seems likely that this was the consensus of most Americans in the late Fifties and even in the Sixties. Playboys such as Brad Allen in Pillow Talk and Hogan in Under the Yum Yum Tree were probably not nearly as common as men who preferred to be married at the time. In this respect, then, the sex comedies were merely reflecting the mores of their time.

Since the Sixties there have been very few movies that could be considered sex comedies. One instance was a television movie from 1976 called How to Break Up a Happy Divorce, starring Barbara Eden, in which a woman seeks to win her ex-husband back. Two other instances were feature films, both made in 2003. How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, starring Kate Hudson, utilised the Battle of the Sexes and the charade of the sex comedies, but it turned it on its head. In How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, both journalist Andie Anderson (Kate Hudson) and playboy Benjamin Barry (Matthew McConaughey) are simply playing roles in their Battle of the Sexes. Down With Love was an outright pastiche of the Sixties sex comedies, drawing upon Pillow Talk, Boeing Boeing, A New Kind of Love, Sex and the Single Girl, and practically every other sex comedy made in the Sixties. The sex comedies would also influence many latter day romantic comedies, from When Harry Met Sally to Sunny Side Up.

When I was growing up the Sixties sex comedies were often shown on television, so I had many opportunities to watch them. I must confess that I enjoyed them as a child and that I still enjoy them. The plots of the sex comedies were often wonderfully complex and fully of witty dialogue. They often had excellent production values and featured great performances (due to their very form, sex comedies succeeded or failed most often because of their casts). It is not simply that many of the sex comedies were very well made, but that, like the screwball comedies of old, they were made so that members of both sexes could enjoy them. Sadly, this is not the case with most of today's romantic comedies (I have not seen Made of Honour and I never will). If the sex comedies of old are still viewed today, perhaps it is because they are so superior to romantic comedies from other eras.


Juanita's Journal said...

So far, I have read only Parts One and Two. And already I have spotted a good number of errors.

The Brad Allen and Jan Marlowe characters in "PILLOW TALK" did not live in the same building. If you would re-watch one of the movie's final scenes, Brad Allen had to walk several blocks from his apartment building to Jan Marlowe's.

In "LOVER COME BACK", the Jerry Webster character did not create VIP in order to seduce the Rebel Davis character portrayed by Edie Adams. He created the product in order to keep her in line with a promise of a modeling job and ensure that she would not go tattling to the Advertising Council about the amoral means he used to win clients.

"THE GLASS BOTTOM BOAT: was released in 1966 . . . two years before Doris Day ceased to be one of Hollywood's top box office stars.

Jack Lemmon did not play railroad executive Harry Foster Malone in "IT HAPPENED TO JANE". Ernie Kovacs did. Jack Lemmon played Doris Day's attorney and boyfriend.

"THE MARRIAGE GO-ROUND" was released in January 1961, not 1962.

"THE THRILL OF IT ALL" was released in 1963, not 1969 . . . which you later corrected in Part Three.

Terence Towles Canote said...

Thank you for pointing out the errors. I have gone through and corrected those that I have to agree with you were indeed errors, but there are two things you mention that I do not consider to be errors. I think with regards to Jerry and Rebel, we are merely talking semantics. As Doris Day remaining a box office draw two years after the release of The Glass Bottom Boat, you are wrong there. As of 1967 Doris Day no longer ranked in Quigley's Annual "Top Ten MoneyMakers Poll." It is true that her last feature film was released in 1968, but with the exception of With Six You Get Eggroll, her films made after 1967 saw little business.