Happy Birthday, Doris Day

April 3, 2015


In honor of the birthday of screen legend Doris Day, today’s blog entry looks at one of the strangest, most disturbing, and yet weirdly typical scenes from one of Day’s most iconic movies, the 1959 sex comedy Pillow Talk, directed by Michael Gordon. In Screen Ages (pages 164-167), I discuss both stars of Pillow Talk, Doris Day and Rock Hudson, as actors whose on-screen personas represented many of the conflicts and tensions over changing genres of gender identity and performance in the 1950s.

In Pillow Talk, the two actors play two particular gender genres that emerged in the late 1950s and that look backward to the supposedly more stable gender identities of the past and also anticipate the challenges and changes to those identities that define the 1960s: the swinging playboy and the single career woman. Like many romantic comedies, the movie charts how these two independent-minded and strong-willed characters finally accept and agree to marriage and the loss of that independence. The plot involves Hudson’s character of Brad Allen masquerading as a naïve and sexually ambiguous Texas millionaire. Day’s character of Jan Morrow fights with Brad (whom she only knows by voice and reputation over the telephone line they share) and falls in love with/seduces Tex, not realizing until the third act that they are the same person. An interior designer hired by Brad to redecorate his “bachelor pad,” Jan exacts revenge by decorating his apartment in a ludicrous combination of jungle and bordello themes meant to criticize his sexual deceit.

Here’s the conclusion to the movie. Horrified by what Jan has done to his apartment, Brad breaks into her apartment to confront her, leading to the following sequence. See what you think:

To a lot of contemporary viewers, this scene can oscillate between the astonishing and the surreal. Brad breaks down Jan’s door, forcibly removes her from her apartment, and carries her across New York City. Bystanders are in turns inspired (!) by Brad’s violence (what exactly happens to Thelma Ritter’s character of Alma, Jan’s housekeeper, in that elevator ride?), shocked (“They’ll never believe this back in Wichita Falls”), or amused, as with the cop on the beat who ignores Jan’s pleas for help because . . . well, because why? Because he knows Brad? Because Jan isn’t resisting enough? Although the reactions of other characters in the movie vary, they all seem to agree that nothing very dangerous is going on, that a woman being carried against her will across the city is really no big deal.

The scene then ends with Jan turning the tables on Brad in his apartment, locking him in after learning from Brad that he was in the process of “destroy[ing] himself” so that he could marry her. The violence of the scene—Brad’s breaking in; Jan’s defiance; the idea that marriage involves personal destruction—seems meant to evoke not only sexual passion but marital compatibility, suggesting that anger may be the ideal emotional counterpart to love. This scene illustrates why Pillow Talk is the movie that launched a thousand essays and commentaries—on gender identity; on patriarchal violence; on the changing sexual politics of the 1950s—and of course Screen Ages itself is an example of one of these analyses. But the scene and the movie also raise a related question central to approaching movies as not as static narratives but as a series of diverse viewing experiences that speak to different audiences in different ways in different screening contexts: just who is this movie for?

Take a look at this poster, for example, from 1959:


Here are Doris and Rock lying down sharing a pillow, yet both are still fully clothed and coiffed. Rock’s tie is a bit undone, but Doris is still wearing earrings. The text is full of veiled promises: “the uninhibited story of a carefree bachelor and a careful career girl.” Careful about what, exactly? The movie is about “what goes on when the lights go off!” Well, aren’t most movies events that involve the lights going off? But of course we think we know what they really mean. Or do we? The teasing language of the poster reflects its late 1950s screen age, as movies increasingly tried to compete with television by offering material that you couldn’t see on TV (“what goes on when the lights go off”; an “uninhibited story”) but still tried to adhere to a fading production code that asserted that every movie had to be appropriate for viewers of almost any age. Pillow Talk wants to push the boundaries, but not too much.

This final scene even stages in stereotypical ways the multiple audiences that might be watching the movie in 1959, from jaded, sarcastic urbanites like Alma to prim Midwesterners like those folks from Wichita Falls, in the big city (or watching a movie about the big city) for a taste of those big city thrills. For me personally, the viewer I most relate to is the little boy asking his mother about where the man is taking the lady. “I’ll tell you when you’re older,” his mother says, suggesting both that the movie’s references to sex will go right over the heads of most children and that there’s something daring about the liberties the movie is taking. Sex comedies like Pillow Talk were among the first examples of romantic comedy I encountered as a child growing up in the 1960s watching movies on television, and the coded language of these movies was both fascinating and baffling. For all the references to sex in Pillow Talk, for example, the word “sex” is rarely used. Instead, characters make references to “bedroom problems,” (a very confusing term for a young viewer!).

One takeaway for me from these strange glimpses into the world of adults was that romance/love/sex were issues fraught with conflict and even violence. In the sex comedies of the late 1950s and early 1960s, potential partners had to be fooled, duped, deceived, and even captured. Characters rarely discussed their feelings for each other openly. Pillow Talk makes frequent use of voice over to let us know what the characters are really thinking while they play their games of masquerade and deceit with each other, including Doris Day singing a song to herself (“Possess Me”) in her mind while she drives with who she thinks is Rex for a romantic weekend of . . . bedroom solutions rather than problems?

As I point out in Screen Ages, this theme of masquerade has its most poignant parallel in the case of Rock Hudson as a closeted gay man playing a straight man who impersonates a gay man in Pillow Talk. But Day’s character of Jan is also an expert in appearances and masquerade through her job as an interior designer. Both Day’s star persona and the character she plays in the movie are the subject of recurring arguments about whether we are meant to see Jan as “virginal” or not, whether Brad’s taunting reference to her “bedroom problems” indicates sexual inexperience or sexual apathy. And throughout Day’s career, she played a wide variety of roles, from the femme fatale to the matriarch.

In its original screen age, it may be that Pillow Talk’s very ambivalence, it’s seesawing between the conventional and the controversial, qualities that make the movie both so crazy and so fascinating today, were what allowed it to mirror similar ambivalences and conflicts in the America of 1959. Whoever the target audience for the movie, Pillow Talk was one of the top grossing movies of the 1950s. It’s part of the pleasure of discussing and writing about movies to speculate about just what that says about the American culture of the time.