Jan Morrow (Doris Day) is a successful interior designer who is happy living the single life with her large apartment – impeccably decorated, naturally – but there’s one fly in the ointment, and that is her lack of a telephone line. Oh, she has a telephone, but it’s a party line she shares with the man in the apartment below, and he seems to be on it constantly, which is very frustrating when she wants to use it and he’s whispering sweet nothings to yet another female conquest, refusing to get off the line. To makes matters worse, he sings to them as well, though there’s a reason for that, he is Brad Allen (Rock Hudson), a songwriter who works from home, and they’re going to have to get along with each other until the phone situation is sorted out…
Pillow Talk showed up right at the end of the fifties, when repression seemed to be the in thing for the movies, or at least depicting characters who appear to us now as ranging from buttoned up to being in need of some way to express themselves. Of course, there were plenty of ways of getting around the censor’s Production Code and letting us know what they were really feeling, but this can be curious in the twenty-first century in light of how confessional the culture became, though in this instance it was a huge hit because it made it plainer than ever what was going on in the minds of Rock and Doris. This was to be the first of three comedies they made together, all extremely popular, and all representing what the sex comedy was in their era.
It was a sex comedy not as we know it, for there was nothing explicit, but Pillow Talk was very clear on what the subject was as it used a wealth of innuendo and saucy humour in a manner that may have gone over the heads of the more innocent audiences, but nowadays after the form was developed into far franker examples, Tony Randall making double entendres about Brad scoring is almost quaint, and thus a cult was born. The two stars had that sort of following anyway, having been megastars in their day but rediscovered by future generations who appreciated their types of comedy, not really nostalgia but more because they were goodhearted and amusing in their way, and the fact that closeted Hudson was making jokes here about his Texan alter ego being homosexual was just too fun to dismiss.
Funnily enough, Hudson was reluctant to make Pillow Talk since he was best known for his drama and action roles, and Day had to persuade him he was ideal for what the Brad part needed was an effortlessly masculine man who was comfortable in his skin, and Hudson could convey that in his sleep, never mind in front of the cameras. The premise, as was the case in so many romantic comedies of which this was a prime instance, was built on misunderstandings and subterfuge, for Brad decides to take some kind of revenge on Jan, who has no idea what he looks like, and pretends to be a Texan oilman, a real Southern gentleman nothing like his brash, womanising actual personality. So Jan is charmed by him to the extent that she falls for him, as meanwhile Randall, as Brad’s boss Jonathan and Jan’s client who he hopes to get closer to, gets closer to something else: the truth about “Rex Stetson”(!).
Some accused the Jan role for Day as the epitome of this era’s backward thinking roles for women, since they regarded her as a careerist unhappy because she doesn’t have a man in her life, yet if you watch it, you can see she’s perfectly content, turning down the wealthy and decent Jonathan simply because she doesn’t love him, and can see no trauma in that. It’s not that she’s closed herself off to romance, it’s more that if it comes along she’s happy to accept it, and if it doesn’t that’s not so bad either, she was one of the more satisfied (though not self-satisfied) characters Day played rather than some frustrated spinster. When Rex enters her life, she begins to come around to the idea for he is essentially a fantasy construct, but by the end she has got to like the idea of being with a real person, with all their flaws and benefits – Brad never becomes so despicable that we don’t want them to get together, as Hudson portrayed a certain vulnerability to his persona that was very effective in comedy and romance. Plus, it’s funny – and great to see the stars with maid Thelma Ritter, who really does need love in her life. Music by Frank De Vol, though Day's songs could be better.