Rock Hudson and Doris Day, two of the screen’s most popular and enduring stars, are together for the very first time!
When Jan Marrow (Day), uptight interior decorator, is forced to share a party line with an carefree playboy Brad Allen (Hudson), there’s no connection between them. But when the two accidentally meet, the smitten Brad pretends to be a wealthy Texan, wooing Jan with seductive late-night calls. Their phone line is sizzling until Jan discovers her caller’s true identity and calls his bluff. Winner of an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, this delicious romp co-stars Tony Randall and Thelma Ritter.
Pillow Talk 8.25
eyelights: the chemistry of the principal players. the comedic talent of the cast. the witty dialogues. the contextually strong female character. the questions subtly raised about gender and gender roles.
eyesores: the weak, contrived third act. the old-school values. the actors’ fake tans.
“Mr. Allen, this may come as a surprise to you, but there are some men who don’t end every sentence with a proposition.”
1959’s romantic comedy classic ‘Pillow Talk’ is one of those movies that could probably be easily dismissed. With a title like that, and given the era it was made in, one could easily feel like it’s going to be a precious Hollywood romantic comedy of little interest to anyone but little girls and grandmothers.
But it’s much more clever than that.
I first saw it 15-20 years ago in that period when I watched just about every laserdisc that my local library carried (they had a vast collection, and it was free to borrow films – hence why I got a laserdisc player in the first place). I picked up ‘Pillow Talk’ just as I would have any other title.
But I was surprised by just how delightful and sharp it was. And subtly sexy: beyond the cutesy opening credits, the first shot is of Doris Day sitting on her bed, in a negligee, admiring her outstretched leg, before getting up for her morning routine. Well, that certainly perked up my interest immediately.
I had only seen Day once before, in Hitchcock’s ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’, and wasn’t much impressed with her. All I can remember even to this day is that she had to sing a bloody song in it, which totally ruined things for me. But here she was, cute as a button, her forms revealed for all to see, a pure delight.
Before I continue, I need mention that this was a first impression, based on 10 seconds of the picture. Doris Day then blew me away with her on-screen presence, as well as her comedic talent. Her sexiness became secondary to all her other talents. In fact, ‘Pillow Talk’ probably couldn’t have had a better lead actress.
And that’s one of the key ingredients of ‘Pillow Talk’: its cast. I’ve seen my fair share of romantic comedies, including some from that era, and even the imitators (Lord knows there were plenty of those!) don’t come close. ‘Pillow Talk’ benefits from one of the best comedic trios in romantic comedy history – if not the best.
- Doris Day, as I mentioned, is absolutely terrific. Her Jan Morrow is an independent, career-focused woman who is doing well enough to have a sprawling apartment and a maid. Day makes her entirely credible, giving her just enough edge that we believe that she’s smart, capable and very serious about her work. She doesn’t take crap from anyone.
But she also shows the softness needed for us to believe that she has a romantic side to her as well. Although she is fine on her own, a part of her still longs for romance. In Day’s hands, Morrow easily shifts between daydreaming of love and vigilantly protecting herself and her interests. She’s a three-dimensional character.
- Rock Hudson is equally capable as Brad Allen, the louse who takes it upon himself to woo Jan after discovering that the grating woman sharing his party line is actually a hot thang. His ability to bridge the calculating player and the charming, romantic sides of the character is rather impressive: he actually makes us forget that Brad’s a jerk.
Even though we know that Brad is playing a part just to get into Jan’s pants, somehow Hudson manages to make him endearing; we should hate him, but we don’t. Hudson also manages Brad’s transition from a cold-hearted snake to a man in love quite well. The transition is gradual and blurs the lines enough that we believe it in the end.
Of course, it helps that the two of them play off of each other beautifully: their chemistry is palpable, like very few romantic comedy duos before or since. You rarely get magic like that, and the pair truly make the most of it. Whether they’re arguing, wooing each other or falling in love, they light up the screen the whole way through.
- They are helped along to tremendous effect by the third ingredient in ‘Pillow Talk’s successful recipe: Tony Randall as Jonathan Forbes, client and suitor to Jan, and close friend to Brad (not that any of the parties know this at first). Randall is fantastic in the part, playing up the character’s neurotic, ironic sides to great effect.
Without Randall, the pair would have been charming, but without edge. Randall’s Forbes is a rich loser, failing in love and in business, trying desperately tries to convince Jan to marry him, all the while admonishing Brad’s lack of romantic commitment. He’s got all sorts of issues, and his analyst can’t seem to help him out.
He gets some of the best lines, inadvertently highlighting the absurdity of modern romance. Randall balances earnestness with hyperbole extremely well. He punctuates the scenes he’s in. My favourite is when he realizes that Brad loves Jan, but that she can’t stand him; the look of satisfaction and glee on his face is priceless.
Naturally, the writers have a great hand in the film’s success. Maurice Richlin and Stanley Shapiro have written surprisingly few screenplays considering their success with this (they won an Academy Award for it in 1960!), as well as ‘Operation Petticoat’ and ‘The Pink Panther‘; usually this would translate into long-lasting careers.
Their dialogues in ‘Pillow Talk’ are so rich with clever witticism, it’s remarkable. There was a time when writers were forced to finesse their work because of social mores and state censorship, so they found discreet ways to say what today would not only be said outright. Now, it would be grossly explicit and exaggerated beyond belief for shock value.
Naturally, being forced to labour their work means that writers from this dark era of censorship also had a way with words that today’s writers frequently don’t have; they could turn a phrase like none other. And this is what makes ‘Pillow Talk’ so much fun: it’s carefully crafted, filled with zippy repartee and roaring zingers.
The director was also very clever in the way that he pieced the film together, using split-screens to show phone exchanges between two -and sometimes three- parties on Jan and Brad’s party line – the cause of all their initial conflicts. His comic timing was also solid, not missing any of the beats through poor camera positioning or editing.
The third act is a bit weaker, because it delivers conflict and the resolution of conflict in a way that most of these films tend to do, and it feels too contrived for my taste. But it’s passable. Similarly, the film has a few songs in it, but they’re tolerable because they make sense contextually – they aren’t turned into musical numbers.
‘Pillow Talk’ was such a monstrous box office hit at the time, that it not only became a blueprint for romantic comedies to come (much like “When Harry Met Sally‘ became the blueprint for the modern rom-com), it also spawned two more films starring Doris Day, Rock Hudson and Tony Randall – in completely different roles.
But this is the classic. ‘Pillow Talk’ is filled with tons of memorable moments. I’ve seen it countless times at this point (perhaps too often, even), and yet I still couldn’t help but laugh out loud and grin to myself while watching this the other night. Even though it’s over 50 years old, to me it simply doesn’t get old.
Some of its values may be dated, but the humour certainly isn’t. And the on-screen magic is forever.
Post scriptum: it was entered in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2009 for being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant”.
Date of viewing: December 5, 2014