Wednesday, January 24, 2018

"Rex Stetson"? Sounds about as believable as "Rock Hudson"


PILLOW TALK

They don't make 'em like this anymore, though that probably has something to do with the fact that the best three-word description of it I've ever heard is "charming, but rapey."

1959
Directed by Michael Gordon
Written by Russell Rouse, Maurice Richlin, Stanley Shapiro, and Clarence Greene
With Doris Day (Jan Morrow), Rock Hudson (Brad Allen), Tony Randall (Jonathan Forbes), Thelma Ritter (Alma), and Nick Adams (Tony Walters)

Spoiler alert: moderate


Though it surely has more to recommend it than any shallow declaration of "importance," it is true that not many films feel more transitional than 1959's recodification of the romantic comedy, Pillow Talk; and while that's sort-of unfair to the romcoms of the years and decades preceding it, the clunky sexiness of Claudette Colbert's moderately exposed leg in 1934's It Happened One Night is remembered because it typifies the Code Era, whereas even something as then-current as 1955's The Seven Year Itch is nothing much more unwholesome than a married guy getting bored with his wife and then not actually doing anything about it.  Pillow Talk, on the other hand—sharing a year of release with its more-esteemed cohort in the New Suggestiveness, Some Like It Hot—feels like it comes from a different era entirely, hearkening back to the days before the Hays Code was put in place.  Only the Eastmancolor CinemaScope (and, very obviously, the fashions) are there to confirm that, in fact, it came to usher in the end of the Code's era, though the Code wouldn't formally die for nine more years.

And so Pillow Talk points the way forward into the 60s, and even the 70s, for better and for worse.  But here's the part where the other commendable things about it come into play, and we can talk about how it is altogether a movie of the late 1950s, nonetheless: written with enormous precision; lushly photographed and oh-so-smartly designed with solid primaries and comforting pastels; and representative of the Hollywood star system in the absolute best sense of the term.  Flawed it certainly is!—especially in the unforgiving light of the 21st century.  But those flaws have nothing to do with its manufacture; if only all transitional films could come so close to capturing the best of both worlds.

So: while we open up with a fun little credits sequence that does everything but directly address the audience and demand we admit we're here for the journey, and not the wholly-unavoidable destination, we begin the film proper with our introduction to career woman Jan Morrow, maybe the single best interior designer in New York City, and today, like most days, she's become very annoyed with her down-the-street neighbor, the songwriter and notorious slut Brad Allen, with whom she shares a party line.

And I shall not explain what this is, because you need to read a book for once in your life that isn't about Harry Potter.  (Christ, I am getting old.)

Brad, and Brad's many, many paramours, have been monopolizing Jan's telephone for as long as she can remember; and now that she's finally interjected herself into their interminable conversations, and explained to him that he needs to knock this the hell off, Brad blithely retorts that she sounds like nothing other than a jealous old maid.  And thus begins a feud that, in a movie that was any less of a high-flying lark than this one, would come off as just unbearably dark and cruel.  Brad, you see, has his assumptions shattered when he sees Jan in the flesh, by way of his friend and boss, the would-be music mogul Jonathan Forbes, who's been doing his damnedest to convince his favorite interior designer to be his newest (that is, fourth) wife.  (Indeed, the first time we meet Jonathan, he's literally trying to hand her the keys to a brand new sports car—a gift.)

Brad, his interest now piqued, hatches an unbelievably underhanded scheme, which comes off half as revenge against the woman who dared to challenge him, and half as alpha-male shitheelery against the employer who's pursuing her—and, for the evil cherry on top, he implements his plan in the midst of abandoning a date of his own, when by happenstance he manages to present himself as the shining white knight who sweeps Jan off her feet.  All it takes, it turns out, is disguising his voice in a Texas drawl, disguising his identity as one "Rex Stetson," a species of Southern rube who's nevertheless rich and classy enough to charm a city girl like her, and (this is the important part) disguising his personality in the form of a much, much less horrible man.  In other words (and put in the ugliest terms possible), this movie's about Brad falling in love with the woman he hates, during an elaborate attempt to grudgefuck her through a strategy of rape-by-fraud.

Is it worth mentioning that it doesn't quite play that way?

Obviously, it's a film that could not (should not!) be made today—and not because it features a telephone party line, or because the elevators still have attendants and America has full employment—though we should grapple briefly with the fact that it was, at least, remade, and not so many yesterdays ago, back in 2003 when it was called Down With Love, a film I was not aware until recently is not so much "an homage to" or "a parody of" the cycle of Doris Day/Rock Hudson sex comedies which Pillow Talk began, as it is "a staggering ripoff, with some satirical elements included."  Counterintuitively, watching Pillow Talk actually makes me like Down With Love a little more, perhaps only because knowing Pillow Talk is practically a prerequisite.

But then, the latterday homage/hitjob doesn't capture all the details, exactly, and there's hardly any movie out there that both fairly screams "I am the very embodiment of misogyny!" while also not seeming all that toxic.  I won't say it never falls into mean-spiritedness; but it is rare.  By my count, it only happens twice: once, with an unrelated gag that makes fun of a fat lady for no particular reason, and once more, right in the midst of a climax that is, let's say, forceful, but plays in the same breezy, cartoonish, kind-of-consent-based register as the rest of it, right up until it punctures our fun-bubble with a stray line that indicates a uniformed policeman is very happy with the way this whole Rape Culture is shaping up.  (Pillow Talk does a lot to neutralize this impression with its next couple of shots, wherein—not to spoil things entirely—the Laueresque mechanized sex trap of Brad's apartment is turned against its owner, for once.)

It sounds indefensible, and, on any political level, it is; but the secret to Pillow Talk is simply that it is very, very funny, and very, very inviting.  That's down to its stars—all three of its stars, in fact, though the usual nomenclature doesn't permit it to be called the Doris Day/Rock Hudson/Tony Randall cycle of sex comedies.  They're just so charming, in the way only midcentury performers at the top of their profession ever were—it doesn't hurt, either, that Hudson and Day are psychotically good-looking, particularly under the care of costume designer Jean Louis and her perfect outfits, which fit both the characters and the performers like they'd been born to wear what she'd made for them.  (And this is no mean feat with Hudson, whose titanic stature is made the butt of one of the most endearing beats of physical comedy in the film, involving an automobile of decidedly inadequate volume.)  But the statement is, indeed, exactly as true of Hudson as it is of Day: his outfits are inevitably more subtle, but that gorgeous silk scarf turns the leering giant into a loveable gentleman every bit as much as Rock's goofy-fun, good-bad Southern drawl.

Yet to talk about the leads is to overlook the comedic foundation of their movie, and so we'll return to them after we're done remarking just how good Randall is, as the bruised neurotic who (obviously) comes to intervene against Brad's sexual scam.  He's the nice guy before there were Nice Guys, but the most joyous version of that character possible; Randall's faultless delivery turns great lines in the script into outright killer lines on the screen, putting a backspin of hilarious self-loathing upon every last gag he utters.  (And he has so many!)  Meanwhile, even the bottom-billed players are doing substantial work: Thelma Ritter, playing Jan's humorously-alcoholic housekeeper, probably ought to be awful, but somehow muscles her way into becoming another plank in the film's platform of thoroughgoing personability; Nick Adams almost walks away with the film for half a reel, during what I expect is the longest rape joke of all time.

...Am I selling this?

Pillow Talk's other secret is that, as a product of the late 50s, we needn't worry about any danger being real; and Adams' "Harvard man"—whom I do interpret as intentional social commentary, for, as its victims say, college never changes—well, he's about as effective at achieving rape as Hudson's accent is at making me think he's actually from Texas.  Day plays the scene as exactly what it looks like: an inconvenience foisted upon her by a disgusting moron; and thanks to her weary reactions (and Adams' evocation of total physical incompetence), it's wonderfully funny, even if, to the enlightened mind, it probably shouldn't be.

Which brings us back to Day and Hudson—their interplay being the scintillating center of the film, and the biggest reason it's so harmless.  You'd like to think you can tell that this collaboration marked the beginning of a lifelong friendship; rarely have two actors achieved such effortless chemistry together.  It therefore matters less that Brad Allen is an outright sex monster.  The actors bend toward each other; the film bends around them; we bend around it.  By their mutual miracle, it works.

For Hudson, it was a change of pace: having made his star with roles in emotionally-brawny melodramas, he'd rarely been required to dedicate himself to fullt-tilt farce.  (Though I won't, like some folks, say never: his first collaboration with Sirk, after all, was the musical comedy Has Anybody Seen My Gal?—though, in fairness, I'm not sure it's a film that anyone in latter days has ever watched, including me.)  So, as channeled by the advice of our director, Michael Gordon (for we must not forget that this movie was directed!), Hudson did what he usually did: he played it entirely, almost-impassively straight.  In more recent times—indeed, at the time—people have complained that "Rock" was a better description of Hudson's performances than a name.  But I cannot argue, anyway, with Hudson's special brand of still charisma.

And while I didn't mean for "playing it straight" to be a terrible pun (I'm lying: I did), it is a fine segue to get into the one weird way that Pillow Talk actually does work better today than it did at the time, with a whole sequence devoted to Brad, playing a reverse Cyrano for his alter ego on the party line with Jan, insinuating that the reason "Rex" hasn't tried to molest her yet is because he's—you know—"a little too close to his mother."  Or "collects cooking recipes."  In the person of Rock Hudson, it's a delightful little injection of queerness that, in its day, surely came off as textbook homophobia—and I adore the movie for it.

And who knows what, precisely, to make of the film's most bizarre and byzantine running gag, an obstetrician who's become convinced that Brad's pregnant.  (I swear it makes some sense in context.)

You'll hear that it was a redefining moment for Day, too, which I'm sure must be true, as it's repeated so often; though it is strange.  Feted in later years as the first time she played an autonomous woman (um, Calamity Jane?), it was sold to the actor herself as an opportunity to play a sexy woman for once, which, considering she's Doris Day, strikes me as one of the stupidest things I've ever heard.

Well, at least it didn't seem to hurt her feelings, and, together, Day and Hudson make their whole movie almost inexplicably enchanting.  It's the smallest surprise, then, that Pillow Talk opened up a whole new chapter for their careers—and, as I said, let's not forget Gordon, either, who represents one final reason this movie works even half as well as it does.  Gordon keeps the tone light, the pace brisk, and every single moment exactly as frivolous as it needs to be, even (especially!) the problematic ones, all along making an inordinately handsome movie chock full of great modernist lifestyle porn, and which, cunningly enough, tends to underline each effort from Hudson and Day with a correspondingly strong (if subtle) little piece of visual symbolism.


Meanwhile, if the script's already pushing at the contemporary boundaries of good taste, Gordon's direction surely pushes even harder, finally culminating in an unforgettable piece of splitscreen magic, accomplished by the legendary special effects photographer Clifford Stine.  In it, Gordon pairs Day and Hudson, each in their respective bathtubs, and, by taking this premise exactly as far as it could ever go in 1959, turns it into one of the most idiosyncratically sexy things ever put into any movie.  So part of Pillow Talk's enormous charm today, I suppose, really must come down to the sheer surprise of it all, and the constant objection you have while watching it: "but you can't do that yet!"

Score:  9/10

2 comments:

  1. I've literally never seen a Rock Hudson movie, which I feel like is a crime against my culture. I've been really enjoying this series so far though, and I just might give one or two of these a crack!

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    1. Go for it! I'd never seen any of his comedies, myself, though it turns out they're by-and-large pretty fantastic.

      His melodramas with Douglas Sirk are amazing, too, my favorite being Magnificent Obsession (I'd consider a full-on 10/10), though All That Heaven Allows is outright great, too, and Written On the Wind is pretty damn cool, albeit more soap operatic than the best of Sirk's filmography.

      I'd recommend just about anything I've ever seen with Hudson in it... but the caveat is, for some reason I'm struck by his persona in a way a lot of people aren't.

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