by Brandie Ashe
I think it’s safe to say that the combination of Rock Hudson and Doris Day in three candy-colored onscreen frolics— Pillow Talk (1959), Lover Come Back (1961), and Send Me No Flowers (1964)—resulted in one of the most indisputably adorable cinematic pairings of all time. But don’t hold that cuteness against them—these three films are genuinely funny romantic comedies, trading on Day’s subtle sexiness and Hudson’s macho appeal in a series of hilarious battle-of-the-sexes romps. Add in a trio of amusing supporting turns from Tony Randall, and you have the recipe for pure entertainment … and the basis for pretty much every romantic comedy to follow (I’ll leave you to decide if that is ultimately a good thing or a bad thing, given the current state of romantic comedy).
While each film has its respective charms, to me, the best of the lot is the first (which, incidentally, won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay). In Pillow Talk, Day plays Jan Morrow, an interior decorator sharing a telephone party line with songwriter Brad Allen (Hudson). Brad’s constant appropriation of the phone–wherein most of his conversations involve him singing a variation of the same tune to one of his numerous female lovers–irritates Jan to no end, and sight unseen, the pair share a mutual loathing of one another. When Brad’s best friend, the wealthy Jonathan Forbes (Randall), tells Brad about his infatuation with his new designer (Jan), Brad is intrigued and determined to try to snag Jan for himself. The two of them happen to meet at a restaurant one evening, and knowing that Jan hates him, Brad pretends to be a rich rancher from Texas named Rex Stetson, in the process sweeping the unknowing Jan off her feet.
The film is a grown-up mix of sex and charm, and does much to dispel the virginal persona that had plagued Day up until this point in her career. Jan is a modern girl, ready to embrace a sexual relationship with Brad/Rex that doesn’t include the exchange of wedding vows … that is, until his deceptions come to light. And the movie has fun playing with the sexually-charged nature of the action, inserting characters and set-pieces that reflect the lustier appetites of the film. There’s a fertility goddess, a couch that turns into a bed with the flip of a switch, a handsy Harvard man, and the infamous split-screen telephone scenes, including one in which Jan and Brad/Rex talk to one another while in their respective bathtubs. That bathtub scene in particular demonstrates the teasing sexuality that underlies the entire film: as Brad and Jan’s talk turns amorous, each one stretches a leg up onto the wall of the bathroom, their feet “meeting” in the middle. His foot slides down the wall a moment and hers retreats, as if tickled or startled, then slowly returns and plants itself firmly “against” his as Day purrs, “You’ll find that most people are willing to meet you halfway … if you let them” (and you thought a train pounding through a tunnel wasn’t subtle).
While Hudson, who had built his career on stalwart, manly leading roles, was reportedly nervous about trying his hand at humor with this film, there’s no hesitation in the end product. The comedy is brisk and witty, with Day and Hudson snapping off one-liners at one another like seasoned pros, aided ably by the always-reliable Thelma Ritter (whose drunken maid, Alma, almost steals the entire movie) and the eternally-befuddled Randall. And there’s a whole lineup of minor characters who have shining moments of comedic brilliance in the film—my particular favorite is the nightclub singer (Perry Blackwell) who realizes Brad’s game and sings the song “You Lied” in tribute to him … to which he responds with a roguish wink.
The character of Brad is an interesting one to consider because, in essence, he’s a real jerk. He dangles multiple women on the line–literally and figuratively. When one woman coos over the telephone, “I love you,” Brad’s response is a condescending, “I know” (you thought Han Solo originated that particularly heartfelt response, didn’t you?). And his mission to bed Jan becomes increasingly mean-spirited as the film continues. While playing the part of Rex, Brad also inserts himself into the “relationship” between Rex and Jan, calling her to warn her of the dangers of Rex’s “cowboy act.” He tells her Rex is going to try to lure her to his hotel room … and then “Rex” brings her up to a hastily-rented room to fetch a coat. He tells her Rex is probably a “mama’s boy” … and “Rex” daintily lifts a pinkie when sipping his drink at the cocktail bar that evening. It’s almost cruel, the way he continually screws with her mind.
Yet we forgive Brad, as Jan eventually does, because … well, wouldn’t you forgive him, too? Hudson’s charm and ability to force the audience to empathize with Brad, particularly as he wages his campaign to win Jan back after the “great reveal,” goes a long way toward making his character seem less an unmitigated ass and more a misdirected, soon-to-be-reformed heel.
There are light elements of screwball sprinkled throughout the film, particularly the final scenes in which Brad, angered by Jan’s method of revenge (which involves turning his apartment into a scene worthy of a kinky Cirque du Soleil) kicks open the door to Jan’s apartment, yanks her pajama-clad butt out of bed, and carries her through the streets of New York to his apartment. These moments generally don’t overwhelm the film–the action, and the humor, stay heartily down-to-earth.
The only motif in the film that rings a note of ridiculousness is Brad’s series of fleeting interactions with an obstetrician and his nurse, whose office is located down the hall from Jonathan’s. Trying to hide from Jan one day, Brad ducks into the doctor’s office and begins complaining to the nurse about the “strange pains” he’s been having. The disbelieving nurse fetches the doctor while Brad slips out of the room, and the doctor, thinking that Brad might just be a miracle of modern science, berates the nurse for her “limited” thinking. While these two characters do end up providing a so-cute-it-almost-hurts coda to the film, the three scenes in the medical office are little more than pockets of painfully strained farce in a generally light and frothy picture.
Despite that minor quibble, Pillow Talk is a delight, pure and simple, from start to finish, and a must-see movie for fans of romantic comedy. If you want to see how the genre should ideally be done (attention, makers of any number of crappy “comedies” starring Jennifer Lopez, Katherine Heigl, and their ilk), there’s truly no better example than this.
How Pillow Talk made the Top 100:
Frank Gallo No. 14
Peter M. No. 28
Bill Riley No. 29
Frank Aida No. 30
Pierre de Plume No. 36
Brandie Ashe No. 52