Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Pillow Talk

I love old movies. On the one hand old movies unselfconsciously mirror their world. Stuff gets on film without the directors intent. We can watch an old movie and be astonished by how heavily every character smokes for example. From the here and now we can spot such curiosities as how a young female smoker never carries her own lighter. An old movie may be full of such entirely accidental comments on the smoking culture of it’s time. The director probably didn’t set out to make a film about smoking but then has in a way.

On the other hand there’s deliberation behind everything that ends up on screen. This is especially true of old movies when even outside scenes are shot in controlled indoor sets. Whatever is on set and in shot and survives editing has been carefully decided upon. If two characters in a scene do smoke they will have smoked the same four puffs in each take of the shoot. A new cigarette will replace the old one and be re-lit if necessary. Nobody is accidentally, or even incidentally, smoking in a well directed film. These are deliberate accidents.

This makes old movies a great way to view cultural attitudes about gender, race and class as well. The woman with no lighter is not only a smoking reference but a gender one. In my favourite example, Humphrey Bogart was considered too short to play alongside Lauren Bacal so they filmed him standing on a box. That wasn’t the point of Casablanca however it certainly wasn’t an accident either. The boxes height was carefully considered. This tells us something quite specific about the ideal male-female couple in this time.

Unfortunately audiences in Humphrey Bogart’s time didn’t know about the box. That’s the trouble with the movies of any time – the tricks are hidden in order to fulfill the fantasies of the paying audience. Usually it’s the casting couch rather than a box that ensures the stars look “right.” However old movies make strangely outdated choices about what looks normal so we notice them more readily. That’s why they can be much more fun to watch. The deliberate accidents of previous era’s films are far more visible to us than those of our own time.

I just re-watched Pillow Talk with my partner. This 1959 comedy features Doris Day and Rock Hudson (love the stage names) alongside Tony Randall and Thelma Ritter. It’s theme is the battle of the sexes which is itself a cultural phenomenon with a lot less conceptual currency today. In the classic battle of the sexes a woman must snare a man as a husband while he must avoid marriage and snare the woman in turn, in bed. In Pillow Talk appropriately there is no genuine friendship between man and woman. Although Tony Randall and Doris Day’s characters come close he still wants to “get” her (albeit differently to Hudson).

The man loses the battle but wins the war when he realizes that he wants to be gotten as a husband– he falls in love and wants sexual exclusivity with one woman as his wife. The woman also wins when she realizes that she wants to be bedded but that is less openly admitted in Pillow Talk. That’s the happy ending, pending matrimony between the main characters Jan Marrow (Doris Day) and Brad Allen (Rock Hudson) and it sounds quite sweet. In fact it may have been received in that way at the time.

What’s fascinating and disturbing is how open allusions to rape feature in this supposedly sweet film. This is the film the director perhaps didn’t intend and the audience in it’s time may not have noticed. For one thing Jan Marrow is physically assaulted by a character who the film portrays as just a foolish boy. She fights him off in his car but she is only able to stop him by threatening to tell his mother. Afterwards his continual refusal to take her home until he can get her drunk enough to molest her is never something she can bring a close to. She just has to wait until he passes out. Then she is “rescued” by Brad Allen whose intent is exactly the same but whose cleverness is far greater. His trick is to pretend to be a gentleman. 

Any doubt that Brad is just another rapist is dispelled when Jan flips a switch in his love nest. We already know that this simultaneously puts on a seductive record, dims the lights and locks the door. Yes that’s right, it locks the door so that it can’t even be opened from the inside (this is even tested in the film). Any woman trying to leave is forcibly prevented at the flick of a switch. What exactly is Brad up to that she might want to escape? Perhaps the record is to cover the screams for help?

The reality is that those screams probably wouldn’t be answered anyway. The reason why Jan never calls the police on the boy trying to rape her is revealed when Brad carries Jan against her will in her pyjamas past a police man. Jan asks the officer to arrest Brad but the officer merely acknowledges Brad by name and makes a joke.

So just to reiterate this. The film climaxes when our heroine ignores our hero’s rapist past, kissing his big rapist lips in his rapist arms. Because all that raping is to the director and the audience and thus to the hero and heroine just what? Dating? Normal masculinity? Something to put up with? As an accidental film about rape in the fifties and sixties, Pillow Talk is quite exceptional.

There are many other observations about gender that could be made out of this film. One female alcoholic (Jan’s maid) is told “that she needs to find a man to look after” so she doesn’t have time to get so drunk. Helped to her feet by her advisor she replies “How strong you are!” hinting at another rescuing relationship.

The maid, Alva, played by Thelma Ritter is the one who defines Jan Marrows situation as a live-alone career woman as broken. (“If there's anything worse than a woman living alone, it's a woman saying she likes it.”) Alva establishes that Jan Marrow is essentially being rescued from what she doesn’t even know she’s missing. Cheekily I don’t think the film means feminity and homemaking here at all. I think it means sex. Jan needs to be rescued from her “bedroom problems” as Brad puts it. Brad replies faux sympathetically with “too bad” when Jan defends herself with “Nothing is bothering me in my bedroom.”

There is a critical moment when Jan scoffs at the idea that a woman could properly inspect Brad for sexual deviancy.  She refers to the idea as “like sending a marshmallow to put out a bonfire.” In this way Jan actually distinguishes herself from the category woman. She’s not a woman because she can resist Brad’s charms. She’s not wanting to be raped by an attractive and sophisticated man so she must be something else.

Brad however is feminised by his character shift to the extent that at the end of the film he is comically dragged off after being mistaken as a pregnant man. This is touted as an advancement of modern science. It’s a fitting conclusion to a film that might have seemed edgy in its time but now reads as deeply stereotypical and traditional.

There are other comments about race, class and sexuality in the film. I’ll leave them to your own discovery though. I think it adds to the film that we know now that Rock Hudson was gay. I urge you to look out for the scene with Perri Lee Blackwell on piano singing “You Lied.”

Honestly although it’s a massive treatise in favour of rape I want to encourage people to watch Pillow Talk. It shows us something about relatively recent assumptions about women’s right to safety and women’s desire. It certainly helps to de-romanticise the 1950’s ideal and produces in me a gratitude for the changes since. All that and it is tightly written, well paced and expertly acted throughout with the gorgeous colour of the era. Hopefully it doesn’t trivialize the gender politics to say so but the costuming alone is enough to commend this film. Amazing work.

Lastly let’s not fool ourselves that we live in the culmination of history. Today’s films will be old films one day too. The more we can try and see the deliberate accidents of our own times’ films the more we can notice our own immediate cultures as they are produced. The hope after all is to get ahead of the game a bit – maybe even to make culture rather than be made by it.


  1. An interesting contrast concerning women's right to safety is The Philadephia Story from nearly two decades earlier (1940 to be exact). In one scene Tracy (played by Katherine Hepburn) is off-her-face drunk, and Mike (Jimmy Stewart) carries her to her room so she can sleep it off. The next morning she accuses him of taking advantage of her and he says that he merely put her to bed and went home, adding "There are rules about that sort of thing." Clearly raping or taking advantage of a woman wasn't the done thing in those days either.

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