Dated, sexist, corny as hell and completely outlandish….and yet, I get so much pleasure from this trilogy of 60s era romantic comedies. And, shhhh, I even watched them all with my impressionable 12 year old daughter.
All three films involve a major misunderstanding/deception of some kind. They also all feature Tony Randall in a comic/supporting role. But each offers its own fun little twist and is worthy in its own right.
The first, and arguably best, of these films was Pillow Talk. I give it 4 out of 5 stars for pure fun and watchability.
Doris Day plays Jan, a prim and proper single woman. Rock Hudson plays Brad, an unrepentant womanizer. They both have successful careers and live in upscale New York apartments. Their lives intersect because they share a party line – a phone line shared by several unrelated people. (As far as I can tell, this was a reasonably realistic situation for the time period. According to Wikipedia, the post WW II demand for phone lines often outpaced availability, thus shared lines were common in crowded urban areas.)
It’ll come as no surprise that the party line causes hilarious conflict between this two. Jan needs to take care of business and can’t because Brad’s always on the line wooing an endless stream of ladies. Let me just stop here and say that it takes a special actor to play a convincing lady’s man and Rock had ‘it’ in spades. There is never any doubt in the audience’s mind that this is a man who very rarely gets told ‘no’. Anyway, having never seen one another, Jan finds Brad’s womanizing repulsive, and Brad assumes Jan must be a frigid old hag. If not for some wacky unforeseen coincidence, that’s where the story would likely end.
But, this is where Tony Randall (as Jonathan) comes in. In the other films, Randall plays a rather incidental character, but here he has a fairly critical role. Jan is Jonathan’s interior designer and Brad is an old college pal. Jonathan is in love with Jan or at least he thinks he is. He mentions her to Brad who recognizes the name and then has his suspicions confirmed when Jonathan talks about the ‘obnoxious guy she shares a party line with’. Now that Brad knows Jan’s not an ugly old troll, his interest is piqued! Luckily, he gets his chance later that night when he discovers Jan hanging out with a would-be date rapist (I’m 100% not kidding or exaggerating here) at a local restaurant. Because he’s a slick bastard, he assumes a fake identity – gentlemanly Rex Stetson from Texas – and rescues her from the situation.
Over the next few days, ‘Rex’ sweeps Jan off her feet while ‘Brad’ enjoys tormenting her by putting doubts in her head about Rex’s intentions. (There’s even a funny little bit in which he implies Rex might be gay – which if you know anything about Rock Hudson is extremely ironic.) It probably goes without saying (spoiler alert), but Brad can’t maintain this deception forever and, Jan gets truly epic revenge against Brad. This is the formula (with slight variations) of all the films.
Movies from this era are so fascinating in what they reveal about the shifting gender roles and attitudes towards sex. On one hand, Jan is a successful and independent career woman (her NYC apartment is DA BOMB!) She’s has a strong personality and takes action in all aspects of her life. She makes no bones about being physically attracted to Brad/Rex (I mean, DUH!) and boldly invites herself to go away with him (Rex) for a weekend of premarital sex. Trust me, it’s a bit subtle, but that’s absolutely what’s being implied *and* she’s clearly not super conflicted about it and is most definitely looking forward to it!
However, that’s about all of the progressiveness this movie dishes up. The aforementioned sex weekend is foiled – mainly because you can’t have girl-next-door Doris Day compromising her chastity on the big screen.
The real subtext of this movie is that men and women are locked in a zero-sum battle of diametrically opposing desires. Women want marriage with as little premarital ‘output’ as possible. Men want as much sex as possible while avoiding commitment/marriage for as long as possible. This film also repeatedly takes a rather creepily lighthearted approach to the concept of date rape, but that’s for another blog post entirely.
Okay, so I realize this all makes this sound like a completely wacky film and it is, but I still love it! Why?
These two right here:
Hudson and Day are just riveting. Doris Day has that intangible ‘it girl’ quality. She’s the girl that women want to be and men want to be *with*. She’s whip smart and always in control, but also fun and light-hearted. She can be no-nonsense when the situation requires it, but she’s absolutely hilarious and fun most of the time. And Rock Hudson – where to start! I know this may be a controversial statement, but in my mind he’s not too far from the likes of Cary Grant and Marlon Brando for pure, unadulterated onscreen magnetism. When he’s on the screen, no matter what he’s doing, you just can’t take your eyeballs off of him. And he’s not just eye-candy, he was a darn good actor. He had fabulous, subtle comedic timing and, somehow, despite the smarmy and amoral characters he plays in these films, he makes me desperate to believe he’s really good and sincere deep down inside.
Not only did they both have remarkable on-screen presence, but they had incredible chemistry. They make me *believe* the improbable – that a smart girl like Jan would go for a ridiculous playboy like Brad and that Brad would, in an instant, be ready to burn his little black book and settle down with Jan. I BELIEVE!
And then there is the style! Doris Day makes me wish women still wore hats on the regular.
Rock Hudson makes me pine for the days that men wore pajama sets.
The second film in the trilogy is Lover Come Back. I give it a 3 out of 5 stars.
Its storyline is nearly identical to Pillow Talk except that in this case Jerry (Rock) and Carol (Doris) are rival advertising executives. They’re both successful, but via very different methods. Jerry wines and dines* his clients while Carol works her butt off being actually good at her job. Of course, Carol is disgusted by Jerry’s unethical tactics and tries to take him down by turning him into the ad council. Carol and Jerry cross paths and, again, Jerry decides to adopt an alternate identity – this time as a naive scientist named Dr. Linus Tyler.
*i.e. procures sex for them…seriously, that happens!
As Linus, Jerry strings Carol along by making her believe she’s competing for a lucrative advertising account (for a completely made-up product by the by). Of course, this is just a ruse to get her in bed. And, of course, Carol starts to fall for Linus. And, of course, it all eventually falls apart. The twist here that the pair DO end up in bed together, but only after a drunken night that results in an impromptu marriage between the pair. Jerry would like to stay married (must’ve been a good night!), but Carol immediately has the marriage annulled. How on earth will we get these two soul mates back together???
See? Absolutely ridiculous and even a little insulting that they barely tried to disguise their attempt to cash in on the success of Pillow Talk. And, yet, somehow it works and is a great deal of fun.
Doris Day’s hats are a little crazier here…
And we get Rock Hudson with a beard – be still my beating heart!
The third and final installment in the Hudson/Day rom-com trilogy is Send Me No Flowers. I give it 2.5 out of 5 stars.
Thankfully, it has a slightly less derivative plot. Rock plays George a hypochondriac, and Doris plays his wife Judy. They live in a truly adorable home in the ‘burbs. (Like, seriously, minus a bit of dated and yellow decor, this is one of the few movie homes from this era that I could legit see myself living in.) Tony Randall plays Arnold, their neighbor whose wife and family are conveniently out of town for the duration of the film.
George visits the doctor for a pain in his chest and is promptly told its just heartburn, but then George overhears and misunderstands a phone conversation which leads him to believe that he’s only got a few weeks to live. And, of course, there’s nothing like making a fictional character believe he or she is dying to bring on the laughs!
George decides that Judy won’t be able to make it without him and so he, along with his trusty sidekick, Arnold, set about finding Judy a wealthy and reliable second husband. These are probably the most hilarious moments of the film. Arnold, who just can’t deal with any of this, spends most of the time drunk and being the least helpful and supportive friend on the planet. George, on the other hand, takes his task very seriously until he suddenly realizes that this theoretical second marriage might involve more than just the practicalities of life and that Judy might even *gasp* eventually have sex with this future unknown husband. This is something that every married person has wrestled with, but doesn’t want to admit – the idea that while we’d like our partner to go on with life after we pass, they really shouldn’t be TOO blissfully happy without us.
When Judy starts to believe that George’s erratic behavior indicates an affair, he confesses that he’s dying. Of course, Judy is heartbroken and vows to do all she can to make sure he’s happy and comfortable for his remaining days….until, the doctor shows up and reveals that George is NOT in fact dying. Judy now thinks George was lying to cover up his affair. George is actually less relieved that he’s not dying and more concerned that Judy’s now officially leaving him. This is where the film turns into a bit of a mess, but I’ll leave it to you to watch and untangle yourself.
The fashion and styling isn’t nearly as exciting in this one – Judy’s suburban housewife style is oddly childish and unflattering – the sweet hats are replaced with weird hair bows.
And this was to be their last partnership. Nothing lasts forever.
As I’ve mentioned before the 60s were an era of rapidly changing attitudes about sex and gender. Doris Day’s upbeat, virginal persona just wasn’t in style anymore. She went on to other projects – including a successful stint in television. To date, she’s still alive and lives a very private life dedicating her time and engergy to helping animals in need.
Rock Hudson continued his film career, but his popularity also waned. He is perhaps best remembered for being one of the first big Hollywood celebrities to be diagnosed with AIDS. He died from complications of the disease in 1985. He was, of course, deeply closeted for much of his life, but his homosexuality is now common knowledge. He is largely responsible for shifting attitudes about both AIDS and homosexuality – interesting when you consider the deeply traditional and masculine characters he so often played. Again, this could be a whole other blog post!
On a final note, if you’ve ever enjoyed a rom-com like Sleepless in Seattle or You’ve Got Mail (Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan are absolutely the modern Rock Hudson and Doris Day), you owe at least a small debt of gratitude to these films. They were among the films that helped set the standard for the genre – emphasizing not so much that the plot be credible, but that the stars be charismatic and have believable chemistry. Other top notch rom-coms of a bygone era include Bringing Up Baby, Sabrina, The Apartment, It Happened One Night, His Girl Friday, The Philadelphia Story, Roman Holiday, and the list goes on and on, but that’s a good start!
P.S. If you want to see a modern film that plays homage to Rock and Doris, give Down With Love a try. Honestly, I don’t think it’s *that* great, but it’s pretty fun and has a good cast