#366) Pillow Talk (1959)
OR “Bad Day with Tack Rock”
Directed by Michael Gordon
Written by Stanley Shapiro and Maurice Richlin. Story by Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene.
Class of 2009
The Plot: Manhattan interior decorator Jan Morrow (Doris Day) is unlucky in love, a point emphasized by sharing a telephone party line with bachelor composer Brad Allen (Rock Hudson), who seems to have a new woman every time Jan picks up the receiver. Through their mutual friend – stuffy millionaire Jonathan Forbes (Tony Randall) – Brad finally meets Jan in person, posing as Texan rancher “Rex Stetson”. Jan immediately falls for “Rex”, while simultaneously continuing her phone squabbles with Brad. Complications arise, hilarity ensues, and Thelma Ritter cracks wise as Jan’s maid, as God intended.
Why It Matters: Someone at the NFR really likes this movie, calling it, “one of the screen’s most definitive, influential and timeless romantic comedies” and praising its “two charismatic stars, especially the effervescent Day”. An essay by film historian/NFR speed-dial Matthew Kennedy gives the movie plenty of historical context.
But Does It Really?: It’s definitely a movie of its time, but “Pillow Talk” is still one of filmdom’s top-notch romantic comedies. Like many a rom-com on this list, the film’s more dated aspects are balanced out by the illuminating charm of its two stars. Whether or not we’ll be talking about “Pillow Talk” in another 60 years is up for debate, but the film’s well-structured screenplay and pitch perfect cast will make a compelling argument.
Everybody Gets One: Singer Doris Kappelhoff got her stage name from bandleader Barney Rapp, who admired her cover of the song “Day After Day”. Doris had a string of post-war hits (most notably “Sentimental Journey”) and quickly transitioned to movie musicals. She showed her range in the Hitchcock thriller “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (still not on the list, FYI), but it was “Pillow Talk” in which Day finally got to play a truly comic lead.
Wow, That’s Dated: Umm…everything? Knowing the concept of a party line is a pre-req (see “Other Notes”), and despite all of this movie’s pros, there’s still a lot of sexism that definitely wouldn’t fly today.
Title Track: “Pillow Talk” was originally deemed too risqué a title, with “Any Way the Wind Blows” being a proposed alternate. Producer Ross Hunter stood his ground, and “Pillow Talk” (the title as well as the song) remained.
Seriously, Oscars?: A big hit for Universal, “Pillow Talk” received five Oscar nominations. Its one win for Original Screenplay was deserving, but is it really better than fellow nominees “The 400 Blows”, “Wild Strawberries”, and “North by Northwest”? Doris Day received her only Best Actress nomination, and Thelma Ritter lost her 5th Best Supporting Actress nod. Allegedly, Ms. Ritter stayed home that night and threw a “Come and Watch Me Lose Again” viewing party.
- What is a party line? For most of the 20th century, multiple households would share the same phone line to save money. The tradeoff was the lack of privacy, and the compromises of sharing a line with strangers. You can see how hilarity would ensue from this situation.
- Turns out this screenplay had been kicking around Hollywood since 1942! It was originally to be produced at RKO, and after several revisions landed at Universal in 1958.
- Director Michael Gordon was a controversial choice; it was his first gig after being blacklisted in 1951.
- For its multiple phone calls, “Pillow Talk” makes excellent use of the widescreen camera, as well as impressive split-screen photography. Shout out to the boys in the lab!
- Are Doris Day and Rock Hudson great in this or what? Day has her comic delivery down to a science, and Hudson lets you see the wheels turning as Brad gets in over his head. Everything clicks when these two share the screen.
- Once Tony Randall shows up we really get into the Madison Avenue, psychoanalyzing aspects of ‘50s urban living. Between this and “Rock Hunter”, Tony Randall was the poster boy for the ‘50s businessman.
- Oh right, the sexism. In quick succession, we get Jonathan kissing Jan without permission, Brad demonstrating the “Matt Lauer button” in his apartment, and Nick Adams telling Jan after she rejects his advances, “It’s your word against mine.” The #MeToo movement may have sealed this movie’s fate.
- Good to see Rock Hudson making use of the Texan accent he picked up from “Giant”.
- Half the fun is watching everyone talk around such taboo subjects as intercourse, pregnancy, and homosexuality. A sign of the Hays Code’s long-lasting effect on film, as well as the starts of the liberation movies would get once the Code dissolved in the ‘60s.
- “There are some men who don’t end every sentence with a proposition.” Screw Truffaut, I’ll give these writers the Oscar right now!
- Perry Blackwell sings three songs, and gets several prominent close-ups throughout her one scene, but I cannot find any information on her. Friend of the producer? Up and comer on the Decca label?
- “Roly Poly” may be the first song in history to be appropriated by white people mid-song. Any excuse to get Doris to sing, I guess.
- Speaking of, Jan’s inner monologue gets a song! At least that was an easy shoot day; no lip-synching required.
- At first I was skeptical about the idea of a playboy composer, but now I’m convinced the writers did that just to do the “scoring” joke.
- Thelma Ritter is severely underutilized in this movie. Alma is the kind of role she could do in her sleep.
- If “Pillow Talk” reminds me of one thing, it’s that men are the worst. This movie compels me to apologize to everyone my gender has wronged.
- Neither Rock Hudson nor Doris Day were known for their comedy skills prior to “Pillow Talk”, but the film’s success solidified their standing in the genre. Day and Hudson (and Tony Randall) reunited for two more comedies: 1961’s “Lover, Come Back”, and 1964’s “Send Me No Flowers”. In addition, Day and Hudson bonded closely during production, and their friendship lasted until Hudson’s death in 1985.
- A “Pillow Talk” sequel was in the works around 1980, with Day, Hudson, and Randall all willing to return, with Kristy McNichol playing Jan and Brad’s grownup daughter. Day, however, decided she preferred retirement, and the film never materialized.
- “Pillow Talk” spawned its share of imitators, and is still the template for sophisticated romantic comedies. The genre received a tribute with 2003’s “Down with Love”, featuring a cameo by Tony Randall!