Monday, October 3, 2011

Pillow Talk (1959)

A Delightful 50s Screwball Romcom

- Due to the rise in popularity and accessibility of the television in the 1950s, Hollywood saw a great drop in movie theatre attendance during that time. A variety of tactics were used to attempt to bring the public back into cinema seats – widescreen formats, 3-D movies – but one tactic was to simply make films more adult oriented. From this era where Hollywood was engaged in desperate competition against TV for viewers, 1959's Pillow Talk would not have wrestled me away from the black-and-white boob tube but it is a delightful enough hour and forty minutes.

The story centers around Jan (Doris Day), a single well-off interior decorator living in New York, who is forced to temporarily share a phone line (my, how the times have changed) with Brad (Rock Hudson), the playboy musician upstairs. Such a situation would not have been as infuriating for Jan - if she were able to use the phone! Brad is constantly talking to one of the many love sick girls he has his tentacles wrapped around, tying up the phone line in the process. An infuriated Jan has a couple of angry conversations with Brad over the phone but the two never see each other in person. Suddenly, after branding each other as undesirable pains in the neck, Brad suddenly finds a reason to pursue Jan: he finds out that she is pretty. Brad's employer Jonathan tells Brad that he is trying to win the beautiful Jan's heart (and can never seem to reach her over the phone). Having the advantage of never seeing her face-to-face Brad invents Rex Stetson – a Texan visiting New York. "Rex" and Jan hit it off – but how long can Brad keep up the façade…. and keep Jonathan out of the picture?

One of the film's biggest selling points during its initial release was its headlining stars. At 36 years old, Doris Day was reaching her Hollywood expiration date. Not the Hollywood starlet anymore, Day completely steals the entire show with a performance that very much deserves her 1960 Oscar nomination. Day's co-star Rock Hudson seems like a plastic Cary Grant fallback star and is often wooden and lifeless in this picture. Still, he has enough moments were he fits the bill for the Brad/Rex character well that he ends up working in the end with little harm done to the overall film. Supporting actors Thelma Ritter and Tony Randall give enjoyable performances in the film as well. Randall gives the film some of its funniest moments and Ritter was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in the film (which is strange because her character is just a shallow, drunk, and classless version of the character that she played in Rear Window (1954)).

Day and Ritter were nominated by the Academy back in 1960 but Stanley Shapiro and Maurice Richland's screenplay actually won the Academy Award for best original screenplay. I do not think that I would have given them Hollywood's highest honor; the film does undoubtedly have some witty dialogue (with sexual innuendo a-plenty) and clever situations but its characters are not particularly interesting and I found the film's final act to be implausible and dissatisfying. Previously blacklisted director Michael Gordon (interestingly the grandfather to actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt) does a capable enough job not letting the script down but what is particularly interesting about the look and feel of the film is the editing and the score. Pillow Talk was one of the first films to make use of the split screen – and the technique is used very well to help tell the story instead of simply being a visual gimmick. The film's score, by Frank De Vol, is interesting in the way that it is used in the film and not necessarily because it is an impressive stand-alone piece of music. De Vol's score serves the film better as leitmotifs for the characters or as a way of heightening a scene's comedy rather than being a great soundtrack.

Pillow Talk is an enjoyable romantic screwball comedy – amusing, well shot and acted – but I would be lying to say that I would claim it as a giant of the genre.

CBC Rating: 7/10

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