PILLOW TALK (1959, dir. Michael Gordon)

(Source: MovieArt.com)
(Source: MovieArt.com)

As they are about humorous, convoluted and un/likely courtships, Romantic Comedies also often function as lifestyle fantasies. This feature of the genre was a knowing, blatantly stated component of David Wain’s recent Rom-Com spoof They Came Together: in the film, Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler are modern day New Yorkers who live picture-perfect existences in spacious apartments but never seem to have any money issues (and this is downright odd in Poehler’s case as she runs a candy shop that gets no customers.) And it goes as far back as the 1930s and 40’s: films like It Happened One Night and The Lady Eve have upper-class protagonists for whom the audience could vicariously experience the high-life.

Landing somewhere between Hollywood’s Golden Age and the present moment, 1959’s Pillow Talk is a successful mid-century romantic comedy that most definitely works as a lifestyle fantasy. Doris Day and Rock Hudson star as Jan and Brad, apartment neighbors who have to share a party phone line, and that causes them to get on each other’s nerves. Jan is a smart, independent yet single interior decorator; Brad is a bachelor songwriter with an possibly-overactive love life. And while the audience knows from the start that these two should get together as Day and Hudson share a preternatural chemistry, Jan and Brad’s eventual union is prolonged through complication for the sake of comedy (most of which is still funny.) Tony Randall and Thelma Ritter co-star respectively as Jonathan, Brad’s rich friend as well as Jan’s other suitor, and Alma, Jan’s drunk house-keeper and confidant. And, of course, the film is set in New York and Jan and Brad’s way of life is consistently and contemporaneously posh.


While Pillow Talk could seem old-fashioned or retroactive to modern viewers—its entire plot does hinge on a long gone aspect of telecommunication technology, after all—it becomes something else when understood within its historical context: a transitional film. For the talent involved, it was a Hudson’s first time in a comedy and Day’s first time playing an autonomous and sexualized woman. From an industrial angle, Pillow Talk’s sexually suggestive nature was a product of the loosening of onscreen moral standards in the 50’s that was primarily caused by an influx of postwar European cinema to American theaters and director Otto Preminger’s successful attempts to defy the Production Code by means of mature-content films like The Moon is Blue and Anatomy of a Murder. In a wider sense, the film’s sexual innuendo reflects the shifting mores of American society that would set-up the sexual revolution of the 60’s. Even if the film seems tame by today’s standards, it gently pushed the envelope in an acceptable and entertaining manner that rode the line so well that one audience member could interpret it as wholesome while another could interpret it as a movie about two people who really should boink each other.[1]

While its story is generic, Pillow Talk is distinguished by its visual style, which is more vibrant, dynamic and complex than the milquetoast appearance of most recent rom-coms. The film’s widescreen cinematography– which involves many novel-for-its-time split-screen shots that were accomplished through optical effects—and its elaborate, colorful and gleaming mise en scene work in tandem to present a fun, idealized version of 1950s urban life. Yet while the film’s aesthetic still pops on a surface level, it subliminally demonstrates that, while Jan and Brad’s lives may seem perfect, their hearts and identities are in a jumbled flux that to some extent has been caused by the Modern Era.

For the sake of being demonstrable, here’s a mosaic of all the split screen shots, which includes one screen-in-screen shot, from Pillow Talk (click to enlarge):[2]


The way that this nifty technique breaks up the frame in order to present the battle-of-the-sexes conflict between Jan and Brad while maintaining an important story component (Jan and Brad only really interact via phone in the first two thirds of the film) is pretty self-evident. Similarly, it symbolizes the communication gap that they’ll have to bridge so that they can get together by the end. And while the technique can be hit-and-miss in other films, it works well here because it creates simultaneity between Day and Hudson as performers, which establishes their essential chemistry even though their characters won’t really interact with or see each other until the film’s half-hour mark. It’s also attests to how, although each side of these scenes must have been shot separately and non-continuously, the rapport between Day and Hudson was so strong that it transcended the limitations of space and time even as Pillow Talk was being filmed, let alone watched.

Furthermore, the split-screen technique creates an effect that’s somewhere between Modernistic and Post-Modern. It divides the image into smaller geometric shapes, thereby making the basic form of the widescreen, CinemaScope frame more apparent, and it overtly collapses space and time. At the same time, it turns the image into a living panel of a romance comic book, and an ironic one to boot. Intentional or not, there’s something “Pop Art” about this usage of split-screen.

But the mise en scene works in a more subtle way. Many if not all of movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood feature depth cues that give an illusion of dimensionality to the film image’s intrinsic flatness, and these cues were often accomplished through formulated and theatrical stagings of people, physical action and things (also known as “blocking” or “blocking for the camera.”) And in the hands of more talented storytellers and image-makers, staging was a means to create compositions for the camera that could portray or convey a film’s intangible elements (i.e. theme, conflict, psychology.)


Pillow Talk has no shortage of this technique. If you look at the two screen-captures above, they’re both from separate moments in which both Jan and Brad each realize things that are conveyed through internal monologue voice-overs. Obviously, showing a subject looking into a mirror by means of an angled shot doubles a depth cue, so these shots are solid examples of how cinematography and mise en scene can be combined to enhance a visual. Likewise, these shots are in-camera “split-screen” shots that mimic the film’s actual split-screen shots. Yet, each shot symbolize the dual-nature of both characters (a dual persona does figure very much into the plot) and telegraphs their arcs in which they will stumble upon self-discovery. And in the case of the Doris Day shot, it also represents her doubts about foregoing any romance in order to fulfill her idea of being a modern woman.

There’s also the scene in which Jan and Brad encounter each other in-person for the first time while on separate dates in a nightclub. Initially, they sit back-to-back and unbeknownst in parallel booths. (See below.) This is another visual dichotomization that plays-up the irony of situation.


There’s an adjacent wall-mirror that gives more compositional depth to the shots while creating visual triangulations between Day, Hudson and one of their mirror images (see below.) This gives the scene a slight tension that draws attention away from its coincidental and fairly absurd nature.[3]


Likewise, in the two medium shots, the real image of Jan or Brad blocks out the mirror image of Brad or Jan’s inconsequential dates (Tony (Nick Adams) and Marie (Julia Meade)), which implicitly does what the plot is about to do: disregard them after they’ve served their narrative purpose. And symbolically, it parallels what Jan and Brad do in this scene: as she’s on a date, she is adopting a different, more fetching persona, and he adopts the Texan persona of Rex Stetson in order to seduce Jan without having her learn his true identity. It’s a clever means of representing the dualism of the characters without being too obvious.

Moreover, the mise en scene is stylized according to a specific and well-known aesthetic that’s in the midst of a comeback. As Deborah Sorensen explains in “Bachelor Modern: Mid-Century Style in American Film”: “Looking at film from this time period, one can see that it is almost exclusively single men and women who are associated with mid-century modern design. Dozens of films from the 1950s and ‘60s feature independent men and women living in modern environments… [and] it is the exuberant Pillow Talk that encapsulates the variety of mid-century modern styles available to both men and women—from Tony Randall’s sleekly modular office, to Hudson’s wood-paneled but electronically-controlled bachelor pad, to Doris Day’s pastel paradise of an apartment.”

(Left to right: Randall’s office, Hudson’s bachelor pad, Day’s apartment) (Click to enlarge)

Along these lines, it’s advantageous to the film that Jan is an interior decorator as it gives the almost-too-perfect mid century look of Pillow Talk an internal logic. And as Sorensen stated, the aesthetic defines the characters and their statuses but, as it has an emphasis on literal compartmentalization, it also reflects Jan and Brad’s psychological compartmentalization, which sustains the nature of their private lives. In other words: even if their lives are sleek, chic and functional, they may be a little too empty, like their apartments.

Speaking of interior decoration: there’s a moment early in the film in which Jan directs some movers as they install a painting in Jonathan’s office. At first the place the painting horizontally but Jan corrects them and they turn it 90 degrees to properly situate the artwork. (See below, click to enlarge.)


Next to someone snidely saying, “my kid could paint that”, this minor gag is joke that’s been made often enough about Modern art. Nevertheless, it could be viewed as another visual metaphor for the events of the story: at first everything seems right in Jan and Brad’s stylish lives but– as they have modern identities that are relativistic and can allow for some non-compromising re-orientation—a topsy turvy readjustment will happen for romantic harmony in order for to occur.

The film’s final plot pivot is another example of how décor can be a storytelling tool. Jan angrily rejects Brad after finding out that he posed as Rex Stetson, but Brad has genuinely fallen for her and wants to win her over. So he seeks her services as an interior decorator and she accepts the job out of professional duty but enacts her revenge by decorating his apartment in an ostentatiously tacky manner. (See below.) Livid, Brad bursts into Jan’s place, picks her up, carries her through the streets, brings her to his apartment and vent his anger. While doing so, he admits his devotion to her, which wins her over and leads to them finally coming together.


Admittedly, the gender politics of this climatic sequence could be seen as iffy and overly heteronormative. But it bears mentioning that this whole final sequence allows Jan to get her licks in and level the playing field before she and Brad become a true couple, thereby letting Jan retain her independence and point-of-view while allowing romance to enter her life. But it wouldn’t have worked if the set-decoration of Brad’s redone apartment hadn’t been so wonderfully awful or contradictory to the film’s other decors. Hell hath no fury like an interior decorator’s scorn.

While all of this analysis of Pillow Talk may seem too serious, I’m well aware that the movie is meant to entertain. And it should be mentioned that the film’s screenplay– accredited to Stanley Shapiro, Maurice Richlin, Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene—is a model of romantic comedy screenwriting that could still be emulated to great effect by current comedy writers. For instance: almost every one-liner or gag that “buttons” a scene still hits its mark.

Still, Pillow Talk’s imaginative cinematography and mise en scene augment the film’s story with cultural and narrative subtext, thereby imbuing it with a good amount of substance even as it fizzes and pops. And what is that subtext? A way of life is on the verge of something new.

Change may cause anxiety, but it has to happen, either on a micro, personal level, or on a grander, cultural scale. And although Pillow Talk is only about two people getting together after some silly, complicated and anxiety-fueled hijinks, it’s fitting that it was released three months before the start of the 60’s, a decade in which seismic socio-political shifts would happen in America. Under the film’s candy-coated surface, something big brews, and that must play into its long-lasting appeal.


[1] For the sake of transparency, I’d like to note that most of the contextualization in this paragraph has been paraphrased from the informative “Back in Bed with Pillow Talk” featurette that is on the most recent DVD release of Pillow Talk.

[2] This mosaic excludes a screen capture of the opening credits sequence that is very much a split-screen shot. But, as you may have noticed, that screen capture is the second image of this post.

[3] An unspoken rule of screenwriting is that a screen-story can/should only have one illogical coincidence that somehow benefits characters. Wisely, Pillow Talk’s screenwriters, who won an Oscar for the film, used-up their “big coincidence allowance” on a very integral plot point. Hence, the Oscar win.

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