Movies We Like
I enjoyed Pillow Talk but I’m wracking my brain on how to justify why I liked it. It shouldn’t be that hard. It’s a colossally stupid movie to be sure, but then is profundity really the hallmark of a well made Hollywood film? A lot of the best movies produced under the studio system were always the end result of a delicate interplay between cynical studio ridiculousness and genuine artistry. No one would confuse Pillow Talk for a work of art even by Hollywood standards. Frankly I’m not even sure I’d call it a smart romantic comedy. Doris Day and Rock Hudson aren’t exactly Tracy and Hepburn. She is frighteningly perky and he has no comedic instincts whatsoever. What they embody isn’t really depth or wit or chemistry, but instead I think what sold the public on them is how happily “normal” they seemed during a tumultuous era in American history. They were movie stars for the age of television. They weren’t so much of the 1950s as of a perrenial 1950s mindset. If the fifties were the decade where conformity was next to godliness then conventional wisdom has it that Day and Hudson were its thoughtless, grinning poster children—Mr. & Mrs. McCarthy Era.
But their first onscreen pairing in Pillow Talk wasn’t until 1959 which leads me to conclude that instead of being a kind of cultural apex for a dull decade, Pillow Talk was really a last gasp of a reactionary hold over Hollywood. Bonnie & Clyde and the rise of a more sophisticated European art house influenced American cinema were only 7 years away. By 1959 Americans in-the-know were already getting their first taste of cinema in a radically different idiom from the likes of Fellini, Antonioni, Godard, and Bergman to name a few. Pillow Talk, then, is retrograde even by 1959 standards and, as such, was already shorthand for how out-of-touch Hollywood filmmaking had become, fair dismissal or not.
The characters that Doris Day and Rock Hudson play in Pillow Talk became archetypes for their later pairings and were of course confused with who they really were outside the studio lot. Day plays the happy-go-lucky girl next door who doesn’t put out and Hudson is the cocky, irrepressible bachelor in hot pursuit. The reality of who Hudson and Day were as people is, per the usual, more interesting. Hudson, of course, lived a double life outside of the celebrity glare and met a tragic end while Day, after a series of troubled marriages, has become a Salinger-esque enigma. After being the reigning musical comedy gal of Hollywood for decades and known the world over as America’s sweetheart, she left it all behind to live a reclusive existence in a small California town, devoting her life to animals and going by the name Clara.
The plot of Pillow Talk has something to do with a “party line”—a phone line shared by multiple tenents in a really swank Manhattan apartment building in which both Day and Hudson’s characters reside. Day plays Jan Morrow, a woman at her wit’s end over neighbor Brad Allen (Hudson) constantly hogging the phone to woo his various girlfriends. Apparently the necessity of using party lines wasn’t quite so common after WWII but I can imagine a screenwriter finding a lot of comic possibilities for a romantic comedy in which two people are constantly eavesdropping on each other’s conversations and getting the wrong idea. This is exactly what happens.
Brad knows what Jan looks like but Jan doesn’t know Brad. Brad pretends to be a sweet Texan naïf called Rex Stetson and sets about romancing Jan for his own amusement. In a notoriously ironic scene he meets her for a drink and, to toy with her, hints that he’s gay by talking about his enthusiasm for, among other things, cooking. As one of the commentators in The Celluloid Closet pointed out here you have a gay man pretending to be a straight man pretending to be a gay man. It’s just one of the little details that make this movie somewhat fascinating as a relic from a blessedly different time to our own. And that’s what I think makes Pillow Talk redeemable. It's a weird collection of archaic everything...and it's kind of fun that way. It’s enjoyable the way that Brady Bunch reruns are enjoyable, or dump cake is tasty. It's the kind of movie where you don't really have to think, just let the insipidness wash over you. And isn’t that what historically has always been the point of a romantic comedy? There are some pretty funny supporting turns from Thelma Ritter as a perpetually hung over maid and Tony Randall playing the effete big city neurotic preppy type, and if they weren’t in the movie it would be much less watchable. In one of those charming hallmarks of a movie from this simpler time, Ritter plays an alcoholic maid and it’s played entirely for laughs. There’s even a light hearted quasi date rape scene. Don Draper would approve.