A playfully delicious, trendsetting comedy, depicting an era gone by
This lighthearted comedic tug-of-war between a strong-willed female interior designer and a playboy songwriter is so well put together it runs like clockwork. In its time, and for decades afterwards, “Pillow Talk” was considered one of the quintessential comedies of the 1950s, and its snappy, first-rate script won that year’s Best Original Screenplay Academy Award. While pushing the sexual envelope of its time, this "will she or won't she sleep with him” film was so popular, it shaped a new film genre known as the “sex comedy”. In addition, there is the irresistible and timeless chemistry of its two stars, Rock Hudson and Doris Day, which I would argue is the utmost reason “Pillow Talk” has remained a classic. The two have an infectious bond, overflowing with magic and fun unlike any other on-screen couple. They instantly hit it off upon first meeting, and their joy of being together is overwhelmingly evident and contagious. Even when fighting they provide rousing entertainment. Both big stars just starting to lose popularity, “Pillow Talk” energized each of their careers - opening the door to comedy for Hudson and transforming Day's persona into an independent woman and perennial virgin.
"Pillow Talk” is all about sex. The story begins because of a telephone party line shared by its two main characters - “Jan” and “Brad” (For those who might not know, party lines were a single phone line shared by more than one party and were very common, eventually phased out sometime around the 1980s). “Brad” is an on the prowl, sweet-talking ladies’ man, constantly wooing his latest skirt over the phone. “Jan” is an interior designer, and because of “Brad’s” incessant flirting she can never use her phone. It’s a battle of the sexes until “Brad” realizes “Jan” is single, good-looking, and ripe for the picking. Unbeknownst to them both, “Brad’s” college chum, “Jonathan” is one of “Jan’s” clients who happens to want to marry her. Sounds complicated? It’s not, really. It’s just one big entertaining mess to sort out, making for a very merry movie.
"Pillow Talk" is entertaining from a technical standpoint as well. Its use of narration, songs, and the Oscar nominated score by Frank De Vol, are all surprising and imaginative, and the film is famous for is use of split-screen images. It was directed by Michael Gordon, best known for this film and the 1950 classic, “Cyrano de Bergerac”. He would also direct the 1963 film, "Move Over, Darling”, another sex comedy starring Day. Producer Ross Hunter was the mastermind behind “Pillow Talk”. He co-produced the film with Martin Melcher (Doris Day’s husband at the time). Hunter had produced several of Rock Hudson’s prior films, and with this film was the first to cast him in a comedy. Hunter is also the one who changed the image and look of the wholesome Day by making her sexy and stylish. He produced many classics including "Airport", "Imitation of Life", "The Thrill of It All", "Magnificent Obsession", "All That Heaven Allows”, "Tammy and the Bachelor”, and "Madame X”. He never married and was in a relationship with producer and set decorator Jacques Mapes for over forty years. Ross Hunter died in 1996 at the age of 75.
Rock Hudson stars as ladies’ man “Brad Allen”. He is marvelous as the slimy songwriter, managing to keep “Brad” completely likable and appealing, even at his manipulative worst. Hudson’s boyish charm and comic timing are a joy to watch, and you can easily tell he is having a good time with this role. His believability makes a somewhat outrageous plot plausible. As already mentioned, “Pillow Talk” was Hudson’s first comedy, and it would take his stardom to new heights. This 6' 5¼” hunk with ideal movie star looks, was an immensely popular star and heartthrob of the 1950s and 60s. After serving in the Navy during WWII, Rock Hudson began to pursue an acting career. Talent agent Henry Willson (who was known for his clientele of good-looking men including Tab Hunter, Chad Everett, Robert Wagner, Troy Donahue, Guy Madison, Rory Calhoun, John Derek, and many more), represented and transformed Hudson into star material, including changing his birth name of Roy Scherer Jr., to Rock Hudson. Hudson’s first role was a bit part in the 1948 film, "Fighter Squadron”, and by 1952 he began to get lead parts, starting with "Scarlet Angel” (the associate producer was Ross Hunter). After appearing in about two dozen films (many of which were westerns), Hudson hit stardom in 1954 with the classic Douglas Sirk romantic melodrama, "Magnificent Obsession” (also produced by Hunter). Hudson would work with Sirk on eight other films, including the classics “All That Heaven Allows” and “Written on the Wind” (and “Never Say Goodbye” - although Sirk’s name is not on it). He would continue to appear exclusively in dramas, including the classic 1956 film, “Giant”, opposite Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean, for which he would earn his only Best Actor Academy Award nomination. After his comedic breakthrough with “Pillow Talk”, he made many comedies, including two more opposite Day ("Lover Come Back" and "Send Me No Flowers”). His powerful chemistry with Day earned them a place in film history as a major screen couple regardless of only making three films together. Hudson would later work in television, including starring in the classic TV series, "McMillan & Wife”, which ran for six seasons. His final appearance was as "Daniel Reece" on the hit TV show "Dynasty". Some of his other classic films include “Seconds”, "Ice Station Zebra", "Winchester '73", "Battle Hymn", "The Undefeated", and "Come September”. Having had health problems for several years, in 1984 Hudson announced publicly he was dying from AIDS. He was the first celebrity to publicly acknowledge he had the disease, and largely because of him there came a positive turning point in how the government and the public related to AIDS. Rock Hudson died in 1985 at the age of 59 from AIDS-related complications. While rumors floated around the tabloids for years, his being gay was an open secret with Hollywood insiders. He never officially came out publicly, but knew by announcing he had AIDS it would confirm that the rumors were true. He married once, to Phyllis Gates (his agent’s secretary) just as stories about him being gay were about to explode. Although Gates denied it til the day she died, it was largely said that theirs was a marriage of convenience and that she was a lesbian. Several years ago I met an 83 year old man who had dated Rock Hudson decades before. Found and fixed up with Hudson by Hudson’s movie studio, they chose him because they knew he would have to be discrete since he could lose his job as an elementary school teacher if exposed as gay. This man knew Phyllis, as did another gentleman he was with, and both confirmed she was gay. I’ll speak about that subject in the “Sexuality and Classic Hollywood” section below.
Doris Day is seamless as the beautiful interior designer, “Jan Morrow”. Day is a natural at comedy with her priceless timing, wonderful expressions, and emotions that always ring true. Even when she cries it’s both honest and funny. How can you not love Doris Day?! Her work in “Pillow Talk” earned her a Best Actress Academy Award nomination (her only). With her bubbly personality and silky voice, Day conquered movies, music and television, becoming one of show business’ biggest and most popular stars. We are treated to three songs sung by Day in “Pillow Talk”, including the catchy title song over the credits. This film came at a time when audience’s tastes were changing, and although Day was already a top star, her wholesome, girl-next-door image was beginning to lose its allure. With “Pillow Talk” her image was “sexified”, and she became the #1 box office star in 1960, 1962, 1963, and 1964. In fact, Day and Shirley Temple have been #1 at the box office more times than any other actress to date (four times each). In addition, Day made the top ten box office star list ten times (tied with Barbra Streisand and Julia Roberts), more than any other actress except Mary Pickford (who made the list 13 years). An accomplished singer, Day recorded well over 600 songs, with over sixty charting in Billboard’s 100, including five #1 hits. There is nothing quite like her pure, robust, and emotive voice. I never tire of her music. She had an undefinable quality both in her acting and singing that could make an audiences feel good. The daughter of a music teacher, Doris Day had a love for music and dance from a very early age. Her dreams of becoming a dancer ended when her leg was crushed in a car accident, at which time she discovered her gift for singing. By the time she was 15, she changed her last name from Kappelhoff to Day, and began singing with bands, including touring all over the US with big band leader Les Brown and His Band of Renown beginning in 1945. She had her first hit with him, “Sentimental Journey”, which came out at the end of WWII and became a theme for homecoming soldiers. It would also become one of Day’s signature songs, and was the first of about a half dozen more hit songs she would have with Brown over the next year or so. While she was singing at a party, songwriters Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn were so taken with Day, they arranged a screen test for her and she landed her first film in 1948 - the musical comedy, “Romance on the High Seas”. In the film she introduced the song “It’s Magic”, which became another of her signature’s. Day was such a hit in the film, she was signed to a standard seven year contract with Warner Brothers, and by 1951 became a top ten box office star for the first time. According to the biography, “Doris Day” by George Morris, in 1950 she was voted “The girl we would like to take a slow boat back to the states with" by U.S. servicemen in Korea. Day continued to work steadily in films, mostly in musicals, as well as the lead in the 1956 Alfred Hitchcock thriller, “The Man Who Knew Too Much”. In that film she sings the song that would become most closely associated with her, the Oscar winning "Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera, Sera)”. Among her other films from this period are "I'll See You in My Dreams", "Calamity Jane", "Tea for Two", "Teacher's Pet", and "Love Me or Leave Me" (in which I believe she gives her best performance). Day’s new “Pillow Talk” screen persona hit the right nerve, and she became an even bigger success than before. She followed this new success with similar roles and sometimes similar films, most notably the two with Hudson, two opposite James Garner (“The Thrill of It All” and “Move Over, Darling”), "Please Don't Eat the Daisies” with David Niven, and "That Touch of Mink” with Cary Grant. With the sexual revolution of the late 1960s in full force, her virginal persona and frothy films began to lose popularity. She stopped making movies in 1968, her last being “With Six You Get Eggroll”. After the sudden death of her third husband Martin Melcher that same year (who produced fourteen of her films), she realized he had embezzled millions of dollars from her (basically all her earnings) with his partner Jerome Rosenthal, leaving her greatly in debt. She sued Rosenthal and won, although he filed for bankruptcy so she ended up getting a small fraction of her money back. She also found out that Melcher had committed her (without her knowing) to star in a TV series. Not liking television but needing money to pay her debts, she appeared on “The Doris Day Show”. After the fifth season she decided to retire from acting, spending the rest of her life committed to animal welfare, forming The Doris Day Animal League (which later became part of the Humane Society of the United States), and The Doris Day Animal Foundation. She opened an animal-friendly hotel in Carmel, California (which I visited years ago in hopes of spotting Doris to no avail). She was married four times (widowed by Melcher and divorced the other three), and had one son, music producer, Terry Melcher. Doris Day died in 2019 at the age of 97.
Tony Randall is perfect as the young millionaire, “Jonathan Forbes”. “Jonathan’s” nebbish personality (which would become Randall’s trademark) is a pleasure to watch, with his deadpan delivery, and nervous, fun laugh. Tony Randall began studying acting in New York City at the famous Neighborhood Playhouse, with Sanford Meisner and Martha Graham. After serving in WWII, he worked in radio and stage, making it to Broadway in 1947. He began appearing on television in 1950, which would become his primary home and the one for which he is best remembered. His first film role (other than an uncredited bit in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1942 film, “Saboteur”) was the supporting role in 1957’s “Oh, Men! Oh, Women!”, based on a Broadway play in which he played the lead. This film led to a leading role in the classic "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?” opposite Jayne Mansfield, also in 1957, which made him a star. Three films later came “Pillow Talk”. He was such a success in this film, that he would rejoin Hudson and Day in their two subsequent films, and play a similar role in the 1960 film, “Let’s Make Love” opposite Marilyn Monroe and Yves Montand. In 1970, he would hit his peak in a role that fit his persona like a glove - as “Felix Unger” on the classic TV sitcom, “The Odd Couple”. The hit show ran for five seasons, earned Randall an Emmy Award, and would become his best remembered role. In 1977 he had his own TV show, "The Tony Randall Show”, followed by the TV sitcom “Love, Sidney” in 1981 - both ran for two seasons. He would continue to work on stage, television, and some films, with his last role being in “It's About Time”, a film released in 2005 (after his death). He would earn six Emmy Award nominations for his television work (including his win for “The Odd Couple”) and one Tony Award nomination for his Broadway work. He married twice. After losing his first wife, he married his second when he was 75 years old (she was fifty years younger), with whom he would have two children. Tony Randall died in 2004 at the age of 84.
One of my favorite character actresses is Thelma Ritter, who portrays “Jan’s” alcoholic maid, “Alma”. Ritter’s trademark no-nonsense attitude, along with her humor and warmth, are all put to the test in this small but stand-out role. As drunk as she may be, “Alma” is the voice of reason (1950’s reason), and while her character has little to do other than be drunk and swoon over “Brad”, it's a testament to Ritter's talent that she can make her whole and human. For this role, Ritter earned her fifth Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination (out of six), never winning. She is one of the most Oscar nominated actors to never take home a statue (beaten only by Peter O'Toole, Richard Burton and Glenn Close so far). Thelma Ritter began her career on stage at a very young age. Married and struggling as an actress, she took a break to raise her two children. Family friend, director George Seaton offered her a small, uncredited part in his upcoming film, the 1946 holiday classic, “Miracle on 34th Street”. Ritter made quite an impression in the film and followed it up with two more uncredited parts in the classics, "Call Northside 777", and "A Letter to Three Wives”. The latter was directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. When Mankiewicz made “All About Eve” the next year, he cast Ritter in her most substantial role to date, and she earned her first Oscar nomination. “All About Eve” is the first film on this blog, and I talk a bit about Ritter in that post. She worked in films and TV until 1968, with just over forty credits to her name. As in “Pillow Talk”, she often played a spunky, comic character whose wisdom helps the main character. Ritter won a Tony Award in 1958 for Best Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical for “New Girl In Town”. She married once, and her husband (who was an actor when they met) became her film agent. They were married for just over forty years, until her death. Thelma Ritter died in 1969 at the age of 66.
In addition to its nominations for score, Day, and Ritter, and its win for Best Screenplay, “Pillow Talk” was also nominated for a Best Art Direction-Set Decoration Oscar (for Richard H. Riedel, Russell A. Gausman, and Ruby R. Levitt). This film’s fun is unquestionably heightened by its colorful and sometimes wacky art direction, which was later emulated in the 2003 film, "Down with Love", starring Renée Zellweger and Ewan McGregor.
Another of the film’s highlights are Day’s stunning gowns, designed by Jean Louis, hired by Hunter specifically to bring out Day’s sex appeal. He did a fantastic job, as Day not only looks sexy, but equally sophisticated and ravishing. Born in Paris, France, Jean Louis moved to New York City in 1935 where he worked for American fashion queen Hattie Carnegie. He was hired by Columbia Pictures at the recommendation of the wife of Columbia Studio Chief, Harry Cohn, and in 1945 became Columbia’s head designer. As with “Pillow Talk”, his screen credit would read, “Gowns by Jean Louis”. He was known for his elegant, sleek gowns, and designed some of the most iconic and memorable in history, including Rita Hayworth’s black satin gown in “Gilda” and Marilyn Monroe’s “nude” dress worn while singing “Happy Birthday” to President John. F. Kennedy. Jean Louis was nominated for thirteen Academy Awards (including a nomination for Judy Holliday’s dresses in “Born Yesterday”, film #27 on this blog), and would win one Oscar for the 1956 film “The Solid Gold Cadillac” (also starring Holliday). He designed costumes (mostly gowns) for well over 150 films, including such classics as "The Lady from Shanghai", "All the King's Men", "In a Lonely Place", "Miss Sadie Thompson", "A Star is Born", "Picnic", "Madame X”, "The New Loretta Young Show”, the classic TV show, "Green Acres”, and for Marlene Dietrich’s concert performances. He was married three times (including his third marriage to actress Loretta Young, which lasted just under the last three years of his life). Jean Louis died in 1997 at the age of 89.
While the film is filled with charm and laughter, seen today, the gender politics of “Pillow Talk” are quite complicated if not scandalous - another reason this film should be revisited. It doesn’t make a point about gender roles but offers a look at the complicated 1950’s mentality regarding gender. It's a gauge to which we can measure how far we've come and how much more we have to go, as well as an engaging window into a contradictory decade. In this respect it is fascinating viewing for those who didn’t live during that era. “Pillow Talk” came at the closing of the conservative yet excessive 1950s, a decade’s whose biggest stars were wholesome Doris Day, overtly sexual Marilyn Monroe, genteel Pat Boone, and gyrating Elvis Presley. There was a perceived crisis in masculinity as the traditional blue-collar "manly man" was slowly being replaced by men with office jobs, fancy cars, and homes in the suburbs. Women were largely expected to be mothers, wives, and homemakers, yet females entering the workforce were on the rise, and discontent with their inequality was just beginning to heighten. The free-thinking, sexually liberated 1960s would soon arrive, and you can feel the film inching in that direction, yet still grounded in the 50s. You’ll refreshingly hear the words “pregnant” and “sex”, which were banned from American films under the Motion Picture Production Code, which was still in effect but losing its grip. Influenced by a bewildered and sexist 1950’s world, “Pillow Talk" toys with masculinity, a woman’s independence, and homosexuality. Even while pushing the envelope, “Pillow Talk” still rests on the assumption that marriage and children lead to fulfillment for all. That said, “Pillow Talk” is not a film to be taken seriously, but solely to be enjoyed. After all, it is a comedy - and an immensely enjoyable one at that!
SEXUALITY AND CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD
This is a perfect time to say a brief word about sexuality and classic Hollywood. From 1934 until 1968, the Motion Picture Production Code (which answered to "The Catholic Legion of Decency”) forbid any references or traces of homosexuality in US films, in essence erasing its existence from the American consciousness. It seeped through only occasionally, through codes and innuendo, but overall its omission made homosexuality seem rare and something to be feared. During this time, box office revenue was largely driven by movie stars, and the studio system was set up to mold them into god and goddess-like beings, a larger than life fabrication as far from reality as possible. To help create these images, the studios had almost complete control over their lives and images (which I wrote about in the “Bringing Up Baby” post). At the time, homosexuality was illegal and admitting such would tarnish and destroy a career. Everything was at stake for these actors and actresses who dedicated their lives to stardom, and the studios who earned millions from their picture-perfect personas. The disclosure of any objectionable trait or sign of humanness could compromise the worth of the industry's biggest moneymakers. There was an unwritten law among insiders that you didn't bring down someone who conquered stardom. Many of the stars that were not straight (and there were many) would marry, have kids, or invent heterosexual love affairs, with or without the help of their studios. Some (such as Katharine Hepburn) would go as far as to make negative public statements about homosexuality to deflect rumors away from themselves. If Rock Hudson hadn’t gotten AIDS it’s no doubt we would still be debating on whether or not he was gay. Several generations of queer people grew up with no role models, believing they were alone. The industry did a thorough job in removing any evidence of the homosexuality of its people, but I’ve learned through the years that regarding sexuality in Hollywood, more often than not where’s there’s smoke, there’s fire. To this day many of the star's godlike personas are so strong, any hint they might have been gay or bisexual is often met with denial and sometimes anger. When there’s substantial evidence that an actor or actress was gay or bisexual, I often include that in my posts. If biographers and articles mention heterosexual relationships and affairs, why not other affairs? Just as Rock Hudson’s public disclosure of having AIDS diminished fears and ignorance about that disease, I believe knowing that many of these icons were of varying sexual tastes is essential, as it too can diminish fears and ignorance about the queer community.
This highly delectable romp into the past, is a fabulous introduction to three major stars at their best. It is a film that can be savored and appreciated in many ways, as well as an enthralling example of how a film's perception and appreciation can change over time. So get ready for a lively time! Enjoy “Pillow Talk”!
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TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
As mentioned above, the use of split-screens in “Pillow Talk” is celebrated. The scene in which “Jan” and “Brad” are each in the bathtub while talking on the phone has itself become iconic.
Given that Hudson was gay, the scenes in which he pretends to be gay, as well as the two scenes in which he is mistaken for being pregnant are interestingly awkward. I also find it a fascinating choice that the director ends the film with "Brad" announcing "I am going to have a baby", rather than "Jan" or the newly married couple.