Film Discussion

Pillow Talk (1959) – Rom-Com Rewind

The romantic comedy has proved an enduring genre for the silver screen, from the screwball comedy of the 30s to its peak in the 90s, and resurgent popularity in the 2010s. Set The Tape presents Rom-Com Rewind, a series looking at the history of the genre and how it has developed over the course of nearly a hundred years of movie history.

On top of being a genre with a plethora of actors and actresses that were famously associated with it, the romantic comedy would also become famous for its reoccurring double acts. If some films didn’t lend themselves easily to sequels, then the best thing that Hollywood studios could do to capitalise on their success would be to take their stars and plant them in another project.

The 1990s would see the pinnacle of such thinking, with the decade being topped and tailed by two films starring Richard Gere and Julia Roberts, and while the same year Pretty Woman was storming the box office, very few could have foreseen that the stars of Joe Versus the Volcano would end up also starring together in two other films that would define the genre for the 90s. It goes without saying that many have now forgotten that Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, famous for stealing hearts with Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, had also starred in one of the 90’s most famous oddities.

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While Doris Day and Rock Hudson would go on to appear in a further two films throughout the 1960s (Lover Come Back and Send Me No Flowers), it was 1959’s Pillow Talk that would be most famously associated with them. With its catchy title song performed by Day herself, pacey storytelling and witty dialogue, it’s very much a film that feels like it’s been dropped in from the 1940s and placed within the late 50s approaching the early 60s, and that was exactly what happened.

The script itself from Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene had done the rounds since 1940 and at one point had been very nearly produced by RKO. It would eventually make its way to the screen in 1959 by Universal Pictures and would become the defining romantic comedy film starring its two leads. By rights, we should be saying three leads, because all three of these movies would also star Tony Randall in support.

It’s a film very much of its time for sure. The trio of films that would see Hudson and Day together have very frequently been referred to as ‘sex comedies’ even though there is actually very little sex in them, but there is the promise of sex dotted throughout. Hudson’s character, Brad Allen, is very much the dictionary definition of a “ladies’ man” given that he is seen conversing throughout the earlier section of the film with varying women that we are in no doubt he has slept with, all of which is discovered by Doris Day’s character Jan due to the ‘party line’ that connects their telephones.

The concept of the ‘party line’ somewhat dates the film in the most wonderful way given that this is a film where the majority of the humour is played on scenes depicting Day and Hudson conversing over the telephone, all of which is done via the best deployment of split-screen in a movie that isn’t directed by Brian De Palma.

The film’s portrayal of sexual politics does feel somewhat dubious in this day and age. It goes without saying that for the genre’s famous association with being a type of fantasy with which audiences can escape to stories of love and romance, the older films within the genre have somewhat antiquated ideas when it comes to sexuality, consent and sex itself. One sequence where Jan is more or less nearly sexually assaulted by a character she is on a date with while parked in a car is brushed aside even though it plays differently and somewhat nastily when viewed today. That she ends up going on a date with this character after that scene makes it even more disturbing to watch, as if the film wants Jan and the audience to accept such behaviour.

Like most films of the period, particularly those that were were conforming to the more conservative approaches to content and storytelling of the era, the film would have to get creative when it came to approaching sex itself. The use of split-screen allows Day and Hudson to share the same bedroom space and, in perhaps the most erotic moment of the film, to ‘share’ a bathtub, one foot ‘touching’ the other in a way that was as close to skin-on-skin contact that you get away with in a mainstream film in 1959. 

Of course, Pillow Talk falls into the realm of heteronormative standards, something that always comes with a degree of bitter poignancy with regards to Rock Hudson movies, given that he hid his sexuality for the majority of his career. Like a more Americanised version of Cary Grant, there was a considerable level of charming masculinity to so much of Hudson’s screen persona. There was an undeniable spark to the way he held himself on the screen that, like Grant, it’s almost impossible not to be charmed, even if the film in question has somewhat dubious gender and sexual politics. A scene where Brad is trying to hide from Jan in an Obstetrics waiting room to the alarm of the receptionist still plays hilariously thanks to Hudson’s comic timing and the reactions of the other actors, not to mention the dialogue between the receptionist and the physician after Brad exits the room.

The main drive of Pillow Talk’s story is that Brad is effectively (to use a modern term) catfishing Jan by pretending to be a Texan millionaire named Rex Stetson. This in itself places the film within the confines of so many romantic comedies that get their laughs by having characters lying or manipulating each other on their way to a happy ending as a result of falling in love. It would be a similar trait that would be used by Nora Ephron for You’ve Got Mail in 1998, strangely enough, itself a remake of The Shop Around the Corner.

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Lies, subterfuge and misunderstandings would fuel so many films in the genre, but knowing now that Hudson was keeping his sexuality secret and yet is portraying his Rex Stetson persona as a potential homosexual in a scene that is meant to be eliciting laughs cannot help but make for somewhat uncomfortable viewing given that Hudson himself was keeping his sexuality secret. What is undeniable is the chemistry and sheer movie star charisma of Pillow Talk’s leading performers. Both are stars that share undeniable chemistry that is hard to resist as a viewer and it’s that chemistry that makes the film immensely enjoyable to watch.

While the more deceptive nature of Brad’s behaviour can leave a bitter aftertaste, the comedic timing of both Day and Hudson is hard not to enjoy, with the stylized gloss of the whole endeavour meaning that the film is very easy on the eye. Yes, not all of it has aged well, but it’s one of those films that was a frequent staple of BBC2’s afternoon schedules when they used to show older movies on the channel, amongst a sea of older films that also included Doris Day as Calamity Jane. The combination of her star power with that of Hudson’s means that despite the issues that have made the film age poorly in some regards, it’s also hard to resist thanks to the sheer charisma of its two leads, and has lost none of its spark.

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