US (1959) Dir. Michael Gordon
The legendary Doris Day passed away last month which prompted many TV channels to show some of her classic films in tribute, one of them being this Oscar winning “sex comedy”, though this was 1959 and sex in cinema at that time is FAR different from how it is portrayed today.
Interior designer Jan Morrow (Day) is forced to share a phone line with songwriter and serial lothario Brad Allen (Rock Hudson), his daily wooing of his many girlfriends hogging the phone line stops Jan from getting any business calls. Though they have never met in person, mutual enmity is fostered through Brad’s selfishness and his milking of Jan’s willing single status.
Not that she is short of attention, as millionaire client Jonathan Forbes (Tony Randall) is desperate to win her over but Jan refuses to bite. Unbeknownst to Jan, Jonathan and Brad are best friends, both sharing their moans about their phone enemies, until Brad is in a restaurant at the same time as Jan one night and falls for her. Knowing she’ll never give him the time of day, Brad adopts a southern accent and poses as Rex Stetson and successfully wins Jan over.
A film like Pillow Talk could only really exist in 1950’s America, especially in a Hollywood that had finally rid itself of the shackles that was the stifling, draconian Hayes Code, allowing itself to depict people in love as people in love, and not be so prudish about s-e-x. Naturally, when viewed through modern eyes this “sex comedy” is as chaste as you can get but for the 1950’s it was pretty daring.
There is nothing shockingly explicit or excessively prurient to find objectionable here, largely by virtue of it starring Doris Day, but simple things like the opening shot of Day’s bare leg peeking out from beneath a short dressing gown was very risqué back then. As was Brad being openly flirtatious with his many girlfriends, usually shown lounging round in lingerie on a bed or similar as he croons the same song to them down the phone.
Up until this point, movie lotharios had to be straight up alpha male when charming a woman, especially a dastardly cad trying to trick a naive young filly, ensuring there was no confusion about their intentions – here, Brad could delineate his libidinous desires via cheeky innuendo and subtle wordplay and still be considered charming. However, his rudeness towards Jan when she tries to use the phone for her needs leaves a lot to be desired about him.
Jan is a proto-feminist of sorts in that she is content to live alone and concentrate on her career and not be anyone’s trophy wife, let alone domesticated because of marriage. She’s had her loves but the right one hasn’t come along, and for all his attempts to win Jan over with gifts, like the car she turns down, Jonathan isn’t the right one either, not in the least with three failed marriages to his name.
Strong minded, independent and focused these qualities probably seem alien to 1950’s audiences but should make Jan appear cold and self-absorbed, yet juxtaposed against Brad’s cavalier attitude towards women and his contention that Jan is a frosty old maid it is impossible not to root for her to stay single. Of course, as a shallow man, once Brad gets a look at Jan, all previous animus is forgotten and he wants a piece of the action.
Again, viewed through a modern lens this is the ultimate in archaic superficiality but lest we forget, such flimsy plot devices do still exists to this day, and given this is played out in a comedy setting, it is arguable a lot less harmful than it sounds. In examining Brad’s realising Jan will recognise his voice and is forced to disguise it acknowledges what a tool he had been before which is a tiny step towards redemption.
“Tiny step” is accurate since Brad keeps the pretence up purely to get into Jan’s boudoir but over time discovers this is true love but has dug himself into a bit of hole, partially by teasing Jan as himself over the phone to test the waters regarding her feelings. Meanwhile jilted John(athan) hires a private detective to get the scoop on his love rival only to learn it is his best friend, and the cat is about to upset the pigeons.
When dissected like this, the story does sound awfully trite and an exercise in male wish fulfilment yet it is not that easy to dislike, since Bard is forever behind the eight ball because of his attitude and actions. Even when he is trying to repair the damage he has caused I’m sure many will want him to suffer even more, but this is rom-com so no dice on that one.
Plus it is amusing, notably a great running gag in which an obstetrician thinks Brad is pregnant and the final scene featuring Brad carrying Jan through the streets, ending with the greatest cat reaction in movie history. The chemistry of the two leads makes things enjoyable, bolstered by some great support; though getting comedy mileage out of the drinking problem of Jan’s maid Alma (Thelma Ritter) is a bit tactless.
Much of the film’s “raunchiness” (as it was then) comes from the use of split screen for the phone conversations, showing them “together” in the same shot whilst both in bed, and the now famous scene where Jan and Brad are in their respective baths, but shown opposite each other, as if they are either end of one large bath, playing footsy!
Very much a product of its time, Pillow Talk is a film able to stand up today through its comparative innocence and semi-progressive portrayal of a modern independent woman to offset the dubious, dated male shallowness. But for classic film buffs and Doris Day fans it can still be enjoyed and adored as a frothy, amiable Hollywood rom-com.