Pillow Talk (Blu-ray Review)14 May, 2012 By: Mike Clark
Stars Doris Day, Rock Hudson, Tony Randall, Thelma Ritter.
Though they were in different writing categories and thus not competing with each other, the fact remains that the first and arguably most prototypical Doris Day “career girl” comedy got an Oscar for story and screenplay written directly for the screen — while the same year’s timeless and endlessly revered Some Like It Hot ended up losing to (non-comedy) Room at the Top in the adapted screenplay realm. Unfair comparison or not, and it is, this has always graveled my behind just a teeny bit — especially speaking as one who saw both smash hits in downtown palatial engagements during their initial runs about half a year apart. But you know what? Pillow Talk is still pretty funny and definitely a watershed movie, more so than I realized until I took a fresh look at the latest entry in Universal’s ongoing “100th Anniversary Collector’s Series.”
In fact, it is noted on this release’s rousingly entertaining commentary (carried over from the 50th anniversary DVD) that then Universal-International had to give the picture a New York test run of a couple weeks’ duration to gauge how its then risqué content might play in podunk-ier markets. But as one who was then being raised in the bedrock Midwest, I can tell you that (duplicating Hot’s achievement), Talk ended up enjoying a seven-week first-run engagement in my own city — and at a time when very few comedies could pull off such a feat. And its accompanying second feature was an instantly obscure Van Johnson-Hildegarde Neff drama called Subway in the Sky, which you have to think didn’t have much to do with bolstering the local grosses.
Producer Ross Hunter and Day’s famously charlatan producer/husband, Marty Melcher, consciously orchestrated their attractive femme lead’s image-alteration at age 35, casting her as a self-sufficient New York career woman who didn’t need a man and dressing her in smart-to-this-day Jean Louis outfits. From then on, my mother, like so many others, would always run off to a Doris Day movie “to see the clothes” — though it’s even more true Day has, over time, endured a lot of brickbats from way too many because of the movies she made late in her career. By this time, and despite looking her age, her characters were way too concerned about protecting their virtue. And by this time, which was (barely) not true at the time of Pillow Talk, the Pill had changed things.
However: the defense brief for the other side was more than convincingly presented in a Day PBS documentary a couple decades ago, where Roger Ebert, John Updike and pioneer feminist film historian Molly Haskell defended this great combo singer-actress and some of her screen characters as feminist models of their day. So take that, naysayers. What’s more, in the commentary here, Julie Kirgo (joining other film historians Nick Redman and Jeff Bond) correctly points out that in specific terms of Talk, nothing specifically indicates that Day’s interior decorator character wears a chastity belt — and, in fact, she seems more than willing to zip off to Connecticut with Hudson for a fireplace weekend once he has (with abject duplicity, turns out) gained her trust.
For a 1959 comedy that was once cutting edge, it was already dated at the time in one respect due to the shared-telephone-party-line hook that turns total strangers Day and Rock Hudson into adversaries. Though party lines still lingered around in smaller towns, they had pretty well become obsolete in place like New York City, where the idea of, say, CBS Chairman William Paley sharing one with Ralph Kramden would have been a subject for MAD Magazine.
Still, this is why we love the movies. With Hudson’s sexually active songwriter clogging their line with his femme pursuits, Day turns disgusted at him sight unseen — while he mistakenly characterizes her as a gotta-be prune. Then, Hudson actually sees her, changes his tune and quickly moves in on this aspired-to conquest — who, turns out, is his best friend’s girlfriend (or at least wannabe g.f.). Two things are instantly proven by the movie’s second key male character: that Tony Randall, who played him, was as indispensable to the team’s three comedies as Day and Hudson were — and that Hudson’s immense charm and still underrated comic gifts are the only things that obscure what an incredible cad the Hudson character is (that is, not just to women). All of this is discussed, sometimes uproariously, on a commentary that also gives due to Thelma Ritter — who, as Day’s boozy housekeeper, is a character who’d likely be characterized as pitiful today. Instead, Ritter’s ability to drink Hudson under the table generates the funniest hangover line I’ve ever heard — when the latter notes that his “hair hurts.”
For a movie in which costumes and décor are so important, U-I shot Talk in its then frequently employed “Eastman Color by Pathe,” which is a synonym for crud. It is not a backhanded compliment to note that the Blu-ray gets everything out of the visuals that anyone, I’m virtually certain, could ever hope to get out of such a compromised process. All things considered, this is a praiseworthy (if list-pricey) presentation, packaging included, though you can see at times the problems Blu-ray dial-twisters are having with Day’s flesh tones.
The other thing that must be mentioned — because over the years so many have — are the mind-melting dynamics of Hudson being a gay actor playing a straight male who, in one scene, comes pretty close to feigning gay-ness. If longtime memory serves, this bizarre situation was played out even more in the team’s 1961 follow-up Lover Come Back, another mistaken-identity romp (against “Mad Men”-ish Madison Avenue) that many think is even better. Yet Pillow Talk is the better remembered because it established the romantic-comedy template in Hollywood until, say, 1967’s The Graduate (a movie Day was offered but turned down in a fatal artistic mood). Send Me No Flowers, the last Day-Hudson-Randall comedy was kind of a bust in the 1964 of Dr. Strangelove and two farces with Inspector Clouseau. Or maybe it just was, as some have said of the team’s swan song, proof that marriage (the Day-Hudson state in Flowers) just isn’t as interesting as courtship.