When we look back at classic Hollywood fare, particularly from the 1950s, we tend to see this cornball era of square, American morality. You know, mom and dad happily together, the proper number of children pursuing the proper children-ly activities, and so on and so forth. Somewhere along the line we got tired of behaving in a mannerly way. I blame the 1960s, but this is getting a little far afield. At any rate, there are some films from the decade of Ike (a term I just coined) that speak to the more troubled times ahead. One of the more famous ones is The Seven Year Itch (1955) starring Marilyn Monroe. The iconic scene where she stands over the subway grate are the winds of change blowing up her skirt. You see this same kind of barely contained sexual angst in today’s subject for The Legionnaire, Pillow Talk (1959).
I feel I learned much from Pillow Talk. For instance, I had no idea that the phone company could discontinue phone service to you on the grounds of immoral behavior. Okay, that was a little facetious on my part, but phone related humor occupies a good portion of the first part of this movie. You see, long before our phones became mobile, let alone having our own personal numbers, telephone companies assigned lines to groups of people who then had to share them. They could be neighbors, as I have heard my grandmother tell stories about in rural Illinois at roughly the same time as this movie, or they could be complete strangers. The latter is the case for Jan Morrow (Doris Day) and Brad Allen (Rock Hudson). She is a well-to-do New York interior decorator and he is a musician for . . . whoever will hire him, I guess. This part is not made too clear. Their conflict comes from the party line they share, with her expecting important business calls and him wooing a parade of fawning women for whom he plays the piano over the phone. Her irritation with not being able to make or receive calls causes her to march down to the phone company and report his antics. Nothing gets done, however, because the company sends an attractive young woman, and he has some strange power over females that causes them to forget themselves in his presence. They all do this except, of course, for Jan, though they have yet to meet. Hence after a chance encounter one night, he decides to create a fake Texan persona for himself with the most Texan sobriquet ever: Rex Stetson. In this guise, he is much more reserved and mannerly than the usually womanizing Brad Allen. And because he cleans up his act when getting to know her more personally, she begins to become more attracted to him. Aside from the obvious lying, the other pitfall to this relationship is one of Jan’s clients, a person whose name alone bespeaks wealth, Jonathan Forbes (Tony Randall). He is madly in love with Jan and wants to marry her, but she rebuffs his repeated advances. This would not be a problem if it were not for the fact that Brad and Jonathan are friends. When Jonathan discovers that Rex is really Brad, he tells Jan of the whole affair. She is distraught because she thought she had finally found a decent man. But since this is still the Hollywood of the 1950s we need to have a happy ending, and this is where the film lost me somewhat. Brad’s grand plan to get Jan back is to hire her to redesign his apartment. Maybe this is my more modern sensibilities at work, but am I the only one who thinks it is slightly sexist to feel like the key to a woman’s heart is to let her make a home? She accepts, despite her anger, because, I guess, she still has feelings for him. She then goes about vengefully picking out the most garish pieces imaginable, but is not there for the grand reveal. When Brad sees it, he is appalled, marches over to her apartment, picks her up out of bed (and no one seems to bat an eye at this act), and plops her down in his new digs for an explanation. And it is at this point that all is forgiven? And scene, cut to three months later, and (though there is a running joke here) they are now pregnant? That is how the movie ends.
I was pretty entertained by Pillow Talk all the way up until the last fifteen minutes or so that left me scratching my head. Whatever it was that happened, it seemed a bit abrupt. It was not a movie that I necessarily wanted to find funny because of its suggestiveness. Granted, nothing inappropriate is ever shown, though there is the opening shot of Day’s legs as she pulls on a pair of pantyhose. Wow, I sound like a could be a member of the Taliban here, but the point I am trying to make is that (to this reviewer) this film desperately wants to be more profligate in its sexual content. I mean, Brad creepily has a switch in his apartment that, when he has a woman there, not only dims the lights, but also starts a record player (remember those?), locks the door, and unfolds a bed from the couch. And this is the man that the indomitable Jan falls for? On the same token, our Faith is quite clear on the notion that everyone is redeemable, from a persecutor of Christians like Paul to Brad’s seemingly gigolo ways. But it takes commitment. The whole of the Bible is a testament (no pun intended) to how difficult is that concept. The benefits are priceless, yet it is hard. Jonathan approaches this idea with Brad at one point early on in the film, telling him that the natural state for a man is to want to be married with a family and sowing the seeds for Brad’s eventual conversion. While they do not make this process as overt as I might like, you can see Brad’s desire to be better in promising to Jan that he has given up his former ways. So at least the film is not a total loss in the morality department.
I will admit, I laughed quite a bit while watching Pillow Talk. One of the funnier characters is Jan’s consistently sloshed housekeeper. While I feel bad for her clear alcoholism, it is humorous to see her basically not do the function for which she is hired. There is also some clever dialog in there, my favorite being when Jonathan declares that his grandfather was able to corner the wheat market and cause a panic in Omaha with $200,000. On balance, though, I worry about how Brad is portrayed. The contraption I described above in his apartment is the stuff of Steven King novels. And had he not met Jan, he probably would have carried on consorting with a veritable harem of women until he was inevitably finished off by some kind of sexually transmitted disease. I also do not appreciate the flippant way with which divorce is handled, and yes, that is the Catholic in me talking. In this world, finding a wife and then divorcing her is about as casual as flipping the rape switch, which is problematic. Still, it is not nearly as bad as it would have been today, so if you want to watch some classic Hollywood stars you can do worse than this one.