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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
America eased into the ’60s with the bedroom comedies of Doris Day and Rock Hudson

America eased into the ’60s with the bedroom comedies of Doris Day and Rock Hudson

Photo: Silver Screen Collection/Moviepix (Getty Images)

In turbulent times, we often look to pop culture for comfort. So as America moved out of the idealized era of Eisenhower and sock hops and into an uncertain future of The Feminine Mystique and the pill, Doris Day and Rock Hudson pioneered a new genre of romantic comedies to ease us from one decade to the next. These colorful, feather-light films about independent career gals and the playboys who win them over were referred to as “sex comedies” at the time, but the crew behind the 2003 homage Down With Love came up with the more apt term of “bedroom comedies.”

Unlike the raunchy, nudity-filled sex comedies of the 1980s, ’60s bedroom comedies keep things coy. When the characters do eventually have sex, it’s always within the confines of marriage—even if that marriage is anything but wanted. So while in some ways Day and Hudson’s three films offered a nod to progressive sexual politics, they also reverted back to a retrograde status quo.

Before they joined forces in 1959’s Pillow Talk, Day and Hudson were both 1950s stars in their own right. She was born Doris Mary Anne Kappelhoff, a spunky bottle blonde from Cincinnati, Ohio, who got her start as a big band singer during the 1940s before transitioning into musicals and comedies that positioned her as the all-American girl next door. (She changed her last name to Day at the suggestion of jazz musician Barney Rapp.) He was born Roy Harold Scherer Jr., a tall, dark, and handsome type from Winnetka, Illinois, whose good looks helped him flourish in the star system of classic Hollywood, where he mostly starred in big-screen dramas and Westerns. (He begrudgingly changed his name to Rock Hudson at the request of talent agent Henry Willson.) Hudson had been nominated for an Academy Award for 1956’s Giant and Day had been voted the favorite star of U.S. soldiers serving in the Korean War.

Pillow Talk gave both stars a chance to reinvent their public personas. Day got to add a little sex appeal to her wholesome image, while Hudson tackled comedy for the first time in his career, emboldened by director Michael Gordon’s suggestion that he play it seriously rather than trying to be funny. Pillow Talk launched Day and Hudson into the stratosphere, particularly as a duo. They reunited for 1961’s Lover Come Back and 1964’s Send Me No Flowers, bringing along Tony Randall as the neurotic third point in their madcap romantic storylines.

The first two films hinge on very similar setups. In Pillow Talk, Day is successful New York City interior designer Jan Morrow, who starts a romance with Hudson’s earnest, innocent Texan “Rex Stetson,” not realizing he’s actually Brad Allen, the caddish composer who won’t stop wooing women over the telephone party line they share. In Lover Come Back, Day is successful New York City advertising executive Carol Templeton, who starts a romance with Hudson’s earnest, innocent chemist “Dr. Linus Tyler,” not realizing he’s actually Jerry Webster, the rival ad exec who keeps stealing her clients by unethically wining and dining them. Send Me No Flowers mixes up the formula by casting Hudson and Day as a suburban married couple. When hypochondriac George Kimball mistakenly thinks he’s dying, he starts scheming to find his wife Judy a second husband to marry after he’s gone.

All of these films fall on the frothiest, fizziest end of the rom-com spectrum. Far more attention is paid to the glorious production and costume design than to the interior lives of the characters. Each scene is packed with as many one-liners and physical gags as possible, like Hudson hilariously trying to squeeze his 6'4" frame into a tiny sports car or Randall getting repeatedly hit in the face with colorful chemical explosions. They’re basically extended sitcom episodes or musical comedies without the big production numbers. They were not to be taken seriously or literally, which is big part of their appeal.

The fun of these films—and of other ’60s bedroom comedies like Sex And The Single Girl, Boys’ Night Out, Sunday In New York, and the teen-centric Beach Party franchise—is watching them tiptoe up to an overtly sexual line yet never quite cross it. While the screwball comedies of the 1930s and ’40s subbed in physical comedy for sexual intimacy, 1960s bedroom comedies lean into full-on innuendo. Pillow Talk is full of split-screen telephone conversations that position Day and Hudson in intimate scenarios, like lying in bed together or going toe-to-toe in a bathtub. The whole thing is a cheekily meta wink toward viewers who know that the film knows that they know what it’s doing.

Illustration for article titled America eased into the ’60s with the bedroom comedies of Doris Day and Rock Hudson
Screenshot: Pillow Talk

In that way, these bedroom comedies were a progressive nod to the changing sexual mores of the late 1950s and early 1960s. As A.O. Scott notes in a New York Times retrospective, “Day is the key to it all, because her presence simultaneously upholds the pretense of virtuous normality and utterly transgresses it.” These movies knew the sexual revolution was coming, even if the bounds of good taste (and the restrictions of the Hays Code) meant they couldn’t quite go all-in on it yet.

Still, the veneer of propriety is so thin it’s basically nonexistent. There’s something slightly insidious lurking beneath the fizzy fun—and I’m not just talking about obviously out-of-date jokes, like a sexual assault attempt played off as a “boys will be boys” gag in Pillow Talk. For as much as the Day/Hudson bedroom comedies upend sexual norms, they exist far more to uphold the patriarchy than to winkingly challenge it. Though Pillow Talk and Lover Come Back initially seem to celebrate Day’s independent career-minded archetype, the battle-of-the-sexes plotting isn’t balanced. The jokes mostly stem from watching Day’s self-sufficient characters get taken down a peg by manipulative cads who end the film by forcefully shoving her into the domestic sphere. His repentance and her revenge are afterthoughts.

In Pillow Talk’s climax, Brad physically rips Jan out of her bed and carries her to his apartment, where her righteous anger immediately melts away the second Brad mentions he wants to marry her. Lover Come Back’s ending is even more egregiously bleak. Carol is devastated to learn that she and Jerry got married and slept together while drunk on a new intoxicating candy. She immediately gets the marriage annulled, and their “happy ending” comes nine months later, when he discovers she’s having his baby and they rush to get remarried on the way to the delivery room. By Send Me No Flowers, the independent-career-woman angle is dropped altogether. Day is now a ditzy housewife who laughs off the idea that she should learn about household finances or even that she should know the price of a pound of ham. (Never mind that she’s the one doing the shopping.)

Both within the narrative of each individual film and within the arc of all three as a pseudo-trilogy, the message is clear: A career might be a fun experience for a young woman to indulge in, but it’s really just a stopgap on her way to her real purpose as wife and mother. And if she had to be duped to find love, well, she kind of had it coming, right?

That kind of retrograde plotting might not be so surprising if it didn’t stand in such sharp contrast to the classic screwball comedies that were released a decade or two prior. 1938’s Bringing Up Baby also turns a comedic eye on gender and romance, yet in that film, it’s Katharine Hepburn who’s the comedic tour de force that brings a spark to Cary Grant’s frigid world. Though screwball comedies aren’t exactly progressive manifestos on gender, watching a woman comedically manipulate a man is inherently subversive in a way the reverse isn’t. Bedroom comedies kept the mile-a-minute comedic pacing, but dropped the rebellious edge.

It can actually be kind of difficult to see just how sexist the Day/Hudson films are because they have an air of satire that feels like it should extend to their take on gender roles too. Lover Come Back sharply skewers the advertising industry by having Jerry and Carol battle to sell “Vip,” a product that literally doesn’t exist. In Pillow Talk, Randall’s character hilariously bemoans how difficult it is to be born a millionaire because you don’t get to brag about being a self-made man. (“I started out in college with eight million dollars, and I’ve still got eight million dollars. I just can’t seem to get ahead.”) Pillow Talk also offers a whole lot to unpack in a sequence where Brad’s seduction scheme involves convincing Jan that her mild-mannered boyfriend (a.k.a. his own alter ego) is secretly gay.

Yet other than sexual innuendos and the appreciably progressive touch of casting Day as a romantic ingénue in her late 30s, there’s nothing forward thinking about these films’ central battle-of-the-sexes premises. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was released several years earlier and does far more to satirically subvert 1950s gendered power dynamics, even as it similarly sees its heroines married off by the end. In a time when the country was barreling toward a new future, the Day/Hudson films found comfort in reverting to regressive norms.

Illustration for article titled America eased into the ’60s with the bedroom comedies of Doris Day and Rock Hudson
Screenshot: Pillow Talk

They’re still a hell of a lot of fun to watch, though. Pillow Talk is the best of the bunch, but all three are genuinely hilarious, with a nonstop comedic pace that’s hard to find in today’s movies. Tony Randall is the trilogy’s secret weapon, and his repartee with Hudson is as great as his work on TV’s The Odd Couple. Day earned an Oscar nomination for Pillow Talk, which is welcome recognition of her pitch-perfect mastery of the wide-eyed reaction shot. The hilariously deadpan Thelma Ritter was nominated for Best Actress In A Supporting Role, and the film scored nods for Best Art Direction, Best Score, and Best Original Screenplay (which it won). Lover Come Back earned a screenplay nomination as well. All three films were solid commercial hits, and Pillow Talk was a full-on smash, holding the number one spot at the U.S. box office for seven weeks.

Though Day was paired with dozens of leading men across her career, including Cary Grant and James Garner, her partnership with Hudson captured the public imagination on a whole other level. Much like in Overboard, where the real-life relationship between Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell somewhat mitigates the ickiness of the problematic premise, the real-life friendship between Day and Hudson bleeds through in every scene. Even if their characters aren’t on equal footing, Day and Hudson always feel like equals as performers. As Day told People in 2011, “I think the reason people liked our movies is because they could tell how much we liked each other.”

Rewatching these films today, there’s a meta tension to their idealized mid-century heteronormativity. Hudson was a closeted gay man who had to carefully keep his private life from leaking to the press lest it end his career. Day, meanwhile, experienced physical, emotional, and financial abuse across her four marriages, all while fighting to maintain control of her life and career. In 1985, Day and Hudson were key to a very different kind of turning point in American history: His gaunt appearance on her new talk show played a major role in his decision to publicly announce his AIDS diagnosis. That, in turn, had a huge impact on how the public perceived the disease.

The simplistic heteronormative bliss Day and Hudson peddled onscreen probably only ever existed in fiction. Yet their pairing remains a huge touchstone of American pop culture. Modern rom-com creators often cite 1940s screwballs as inspiration, but these 1960s bedroom comedies are perhaps even more of an influence. For as much as the rom-com genre can sneakily upend gender norms and claim space for women’s stories, it can also provide the illusion of equality while ultimately giving way to something far more regressive. When in doubt, the genre tends to return to its most retrograde roots. As funny as they are, the Day/Hudson films paint a less-than-sunny portrait of a panicked country on the cusp of big change.

Next time: Screw it, let’s just watch Patrick Dempsey juggle in Made Of Honor.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. Her interests include superhero movies, feminist theory, and Jane Austen novels.