Pillow Talk – 1959- dir. Michael Gordon
Audiences seem to have forgotten how for almost half-a-century, Doris Day dominated not only the movies but radio, the big-band circuit, stage and television. She WAS America in the way John Wayne WAS America. Her freckle-faced goodness and virgin-all-the-way persona mirrored American values and mores and was thus much-loved for decades. By the 1960s and ’70s, her star began to fade, a victim of the sexual revolution and the unlikely stardom of less conventionally attractive actresses like Barbra Streisand and Liza Minnelli. Today, in her eighties, she lives a reclusive life in Carmel, California, answers only to the name, ‘Clara’ and very seldom engages in conversation about her Hollywood glory days.
But in 1959, when Pillow Talk was made, Day was at the height of her creative powers and oh, how her star did shine! The film, a blatant attempt to pair the #1 Box Office Female (Day) with the #1 Box Office Male (Rock Hudson) in a sex romp, is plain, unadulterated fun. From the happy-clap of the opening credits — all bubble bath pink and pajama pretty — to the daring (for its time) finale, Pillow Talk sizzles with wit, what used to be called ‘pizazz’, and with producer Ross Hunter’s trademark taste, elegance and style.
Hunter deliberately used the movie as a vehicle to transform Day’s virginal, goody-goody girl “never-been-kissed” image (an image the studio system had spent decades creating) into something more open and modern. Sporting a more sophisticated hairdo than in her previous films and wearing slinky outfits (by movie costume designer Jean Louis), the former Mary Ann Kappelhoff found that “the new Doris Day” fit her like a glove, and audiences agreed.
Hunter had in mind the same scheme for Rock Hudson whose movie image, he felt, was too stiff and formal, and needed un-ironing. Prior to Pillow Talk, Hudson came to fame through a series of serious characterizations (the most important of which was his pivotal role in Edna Ferber’s Giant). He, like Day, feared veering into change and was especially nervous about performing comedy. With Pillow Talk, he found a new career as a comedian and the chemistry between Day and him worked so perfectly that they were later paired in two other hits (Lover, Come Back and Send Me No Flowers) that also proved to be wildly successful at the box office.
As mentioned above, all Ross Hunter’s movies have hallmark characteristics, and Pillow Talk is no exception: the Hunter sense of elegance, brio and an insistence upon tip-top dialogue infuse every frame and keep the storyline fresh to this very day. Even in 2009, Pillow Talk in no way seems dated or strange.
The always-funny Thelma Ritter once again graces the Brattle screen playing Day’s tipsy housemaid-confidante (the type of role Ritter was made for). Allen Jenkins and Lee Patrick add zip as, respectively, an elevator operator and a birdbrained society lady. Fans of T.V.’s “Cheers” will recognize Frances Sternhagen who played “Esther Clavin” on that hit show.
The shining star of this or any other Day-Hudson picture (he appeared with them in all three) is the irrepressible Tony Randall who was so skilled a comedian, he could raise the rafters with laughter by lifting a well-timed eyebrow or faking a prissy pout. Equally at home with slapstick, dry humor or farce, Randall held forth as a mainstay of popular American entertainment (on stage, in movies and on television) for more than 60 years. Ross Hunter said of him, “He could always be depended upon for exquisitely drawn comedy creations, no matter the material.”
A sparkling, clever bedroom farce, the Universal Studios film received Academy Award nominations for Day, Ritter, music composer Frank DeVol, as well as for the movie’s writers who won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay. (An interesting aside: the often-nominated Thelma Ritter stayed home on Oscar night where she hosted a “Watch Me Lose Again” party). LOL.