The fresh-faced, ultra chic romantic comedy – a main staple in Hollywood since the early 1930s - reached a level of risqué naughtiness with Michael Gordon’s Pillow Talk (1959); a deceptively slender narrative tattooed onto a deeper sophistication. Romantic comedies up until Pillow Talk were wholesome. And although Pillow Talk at first seems to play today as just another fluff piece from that all too familiar vintage, contemporized for the postwar generation, at the time of its release the situations depicted in Stanley Shapiro and Maurice Richlin’s screenplay did anything but play it safe.
In retrospect, the decision to cast Doris Day and Rock Hudson as the feuding couple who ultimately find their happiness by the final reel seems a wise hedging for box office pay dirt. But by 1959, Day’s virgin-esque innocence had all but run its course with movie audiences while Hudson’ all-American hunk was primarily known from dramatic roles that had the actor playing it serious and straight. Pillow Talk forever altered these audience perceptions for each star, propelling both onto a decade’s worth of like-minded fare.
Doris Day is interior designer, Jan Morrow; smart, sassy and in control of her career. She’s at the top of her game and seems to effortlessly scale New York’s concrete jungle without needing the help of a man. After redecorating millionaire Broadway producer, Jonathan Forbes (Tony Randall) fashionable penthouse, Jonathan becomes smitten with Jan. She, however, does not return the sentiment.
The real fly in the ointment for Jan is playboy composer, Brad Allen (Rock Hudson). He is chronically tying up her party line telephone with grand amours to multiple women. Brad’s brashness and his ego irritate Jan immensely. Despite never having met socially, Jan knows Brad’s type of guy intimately and is determined never to fall into his love trap.
In the meantime, Jonathan fawns over Jan and incessantly brags to Brad about her wit, charm, grace and beauty. Brad is intrigued, even more so when he discovers that the object of his best friend’s affections is none other than his own cantankerous time-sharing phone buddy. Brad vows to get to know Jan better. But his attempts at seduction over the telephone fall flat. This failure, in true Hollywood screwball fashion, only makes Brad want Jan more.
After attending the inaugural of another successful interior design project, Jan is driven home by the grateful benefactress’s son, Tony Walters (Nick Adams); a Harvard graduate and a real octopus who cannot keep his tentacles off of her for a moment. Agreeing to join Tony for one drink and one dance at a nightclub before going home, Jan is startled when the college puke passes out on the floor, creating quite a scene. Brad, who inadvertently is also at the same club with a date, comes to Jan’s rescue. Only now he has reinvented himself as the bigger than life Texan, Rex Stetson – complete with that clichéd homespun ‘aw shucks!’ persona that Jan finds winsome and appealing.
Rex’s allure for Jan is strictly platonic. But Jan’s perpetually inebriated housekeeper, Alma (Thelma Ritter) has a more earthy approach to love. She encourages Jan to take the real plunge and become sexually involved with Rex. On that advice, Rex and Jan begin an affair, one that quickly blossoms into love for Jan. But Brad is not so easily moved to abandon his bachelorhood. Jan confesses to Jonathan that she loves Rex. Not knowing that Rex is Brad, and realizing that his own diminutive physical stature pales by comparison to Jan’s description of Rex as a paragon of masculinity, Jonathan stops pursuing Jan.
Instead, he hires Mr. Graham (Robert Williams), a private investigator to tail Jan to her next rendezvous with the mysterious Texan. When the photos come back and Jonathan realizes that Brad is the real snake in the grass he decides to put an end to their affair. Jonathan confronts Brad in a bar and tells him he will have to complete the rest of the songs at a country house in Connecticut. Brad agrees, then double crosses Jonathan by inviting Jan to spend the weekend with him at the country house.
Learning of this deception, Jonathan hightails it to Connecticut but is too late. Having discovered a piece of music amongst his compositions, one heard over her party line telephone sung by Brad, Jan has put two and two together for herself and come up with the fraud. Jonathan offers to drive Jan back to New York, but she bawls all the way. Back in Manhattan Brad tries everything to win Jan back. But she is cold and cruel in her rejections. Realizing that Jan will never love him, Jonathan suggests to Brad that he might work out an angle to put them both in closer proximity by having Jan redecorate his bachelor pad.
Jan agrees, then turns the relatively posh and swinging penthouse into a garish tacky nightmare of oddities and knickknacks. Returning to show off his apartment to Jonathan, Brad becomes infuriated by the travesty he sees. He goes over to Jan’s fashionable address early the next morning, kicks down her door and forcibly removes the wily decorator from her bed.
Slinging Jan over his shoulder in the best tradition of the he-man/caveman, Brad carries Jan in her pyjamas through the streets of New York, drawing curious and offensive glares from onlookers. And although Jan fakes a terrible rage for this humiliation, it really is no use. She loves Brad dearly, and he realizes at long last, that she is the only woman for him. Predictably, the film ends on a happily ever after.
From start to finish, Pillow Talk is a delight. Legendary producer Ross Hunter envelopes the production in Richard H. Riedel’s mid-century American ultra-glamour. The sets evoke the mythology – rather than the reality – of uptown Manhattan; a spirited, sparkly razzle-dazzle playground where the elite can meet and fall haphazardly in love. The Shapiro/Richlin screenplay serves up saucy dialogue and mostly believable situations that make every scenario seem plausible.
Yet, the screenplay is also quite daring – particularly for the sexually repressed ‘frosty fifties’ in American movies where not even married couples were allowed to share a single bed. Who can forget the telephone conversation between Jan and Rex while the two are in bathtubs in their respective apartments; their bare, and soapy wet feet cleverly touching, then caressing the split screen wall in the center that divides them as they coo sweet nothings to one another.
Without question, there is an inimitable on screen chemistry between Rock Hudson and Doris Day that crackles with a genuine heart and soul, equally tinged in playfully wicked double entendre. In 1959 Rock Hudson was as manly a superstar as filmdom had yet produced. Although time and the truth of Hudson’s closeted homosexuality have somewhat altered our perceptions of the man, his performance in Pillow Talk stands as an utterly charming take on the oversexed bachelor brought to kneel at the altar of true love.
In retrospect, there is a decidedly antiseptic brittleness to Doris Day’s pre-Pillow Talk film career. Apart from Love Me Or Leave Me (1955) – a daring musical in which she played troubled torch singer Ruth Etting – Day’s persona on film is largely relegated to sweetly wholesome purity, prompting Groucho Marx to quip, “I’ve been in Hollywood so long I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin!”
Pillow Talk matures the actress beyond this narrowly constructed scope of general audience appreciation. Day’s Jan Morrow isn’t a shrinking violet. Nor is she a hopeful naïve pining for true love to come her way without a little sex thrown in for good measure. Furthermore, she’s an enterprising business woman who doesn’t need a man for ‘security’. No, she can do just fine on her own and has up until now. That Jan comes to worship the man who once made her blood boil is hardly what anyone would call ‘blind surrender’. In fact, Hudson’s Brad is the one who must change to accommodate Jan’s needs – not the other way around.
This may sound unremarkable by today’s standards of go-getter women both on and off the big screen. But in 1959 it was damn near progressive to say the least, and frankly, more thought provoking than audiences and critics expected. Viewing Pillow Talk today, it is at once timely and timeless – eschewing the fifties stereotypical sexual politics under the disguise of being just another effortless comedy. In hindsight however, it’s so much more than that.
Universal Home Video’s restoration efforts have yielded rich results on this catalogue title, by far the most impressive Pillow Talk has ever looked on home video. Meticulous clean-up and 1080p remastering from original 35mm negatives gives us a palette of startling bold colours. There are moments where the spatial dimensionality of the image is unbelievable. With a few minor exceptions, flesh tones are very natural looking and contrast is perfectly realized.
There are one or two minor hints of edge enhancement, and DNR compression has obviously been employed to reduce the amount of film grain. I am usually a stickler for maintaining grain, but can remember how awful Pillow Talk’s split screen dupes looked for so many years on home video. On Blu-ray they are seamlessly sewn together with the same smoothness and richness in colour fidelity and fine details as the rest of the film. Bravo and kudos to whoever is responsible for this remastering effort. It glows! Universal has resisted the urge to go all out with a new 5.1 DTS audio. We get the original 2.0 mono instead, remastered for optimal clarity to be sure, but still suffering at times from a slightly muffled characteristic – particularly during Day’s warbling of the title song. Oh well, can’t have everything, I suppose.
Extras are imports from the previously issued DVD and include 2 brief featurettes; one on the making of the film, the other on the screen chemistry between Hudson and Day. Universal also tacks on three of its 100 years featurettes that have accompanied virtually every title released on Blu-ray as part of their anniversary celebration. We also get a DVD copy of the film, and a very attractively put together metallic covered booklet. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)