Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Mad man


There are three good things about this movie—and it gets exactly one point for each of them, plus one more, for that unbelievably stupid hat.

Directed by Delbert Mann
Written by Stanley Shapiro and Paul Henning
With Doris Day (Carol Templeton), Rock Hudson (Jerry Webster), Tony Randall (Pete Ramsey),  Edie Adams (Rebel Davis), Ann B. Davis (Millie), and Jack Kruschen (Dr. Linus Tyler)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Two years earlier, Pillow Talk had helped close out the stolid 50s in favor of the increasingly-sleazy 60s, but even as the times were a-changing, there was nevertheless one constant you could count on, then as now, then as ever: if it made money, there'd be more of something exactly like it soon enough.  And Pillow Talk had made a bundle.

Enter 1961's Lover Come Back, which reunited all three leads from the previous film, and in very much the same combination: Rock Hudson, as a lying playboy; Doris Day, as a career woman with just the right surplus of romantic ardor to overwhelm her pride; and Tony Randall, as a neurotic rich moron.  Of course, in the case of Lover Come Back, describing it with a phrase like "much the same combination" is less understatement than it is bitter sarcasm, as it would be most accurate of all to call it "almost literally the same movie as the last one."

And that, in itself, wouldn't even necessarily be a bad thing.  But if Lover is interesting in one way most of all (or in one way, at all), it's as a striking natural experiment, concerning the collaborative art of filmmaking.  It asks the following question: what happens if the stars remain firmly fixed in their place, playing more-or-less the same characters and demonstrating the exact same extraordinary three-way rapport they demonstrated before, while virtually everything else changes around them, and changes, definitively, for the worse?  It answers that question, too.

Only a few individuals from behind the camera rejoined the trio in front of it: composer Frank De Vol; cinematographer Arthur Arling; screenwriter-producer Stanley Shapiro; and, for whatever it's worth, Day's husband-producer, Martin Melcher.  You'd think this might be enough continuity—especially in terms of Arling's photography—but you'd be wrong, and you wind up appreciating Michael Gordon's surprisingly-more-than-workmanlike direction on Pillow Talk all the more, when, in his stead, all Delbert Mann can mobilize out of the same cinematographer (plus the extremely talented art directing team of Robert "Touch of Evil" Clatworthy and Alexander "Foreign Correspondent" Golitzen!) is an agressively flat aesthetic dedicated to showcasing what amounts to a whole lot of gray and almost-gray cardboard rooms, plus a surprising amount of staggeringly-bad rear projection, even for 1961.  Doris Day does not, in this film, play an interior designer; but that's not exactly an excuse for it to be drab.

So, in this film, Doris Day plays a Madison Avenue ad woman, Carol Templeton.  Carol's striving for the top of her profession, and she's made some impressive progress, but lately she's found a certain 6'5" obstacle blocking her way, this being Jerry Webster, an ad executive for a competing firm who keeps poaching her clients right out from under her nose, perhaps as a result of their different approaches.  Carol brings them ideas.  Jerry (and the faltering Hays Code doesn't do the slightest thing to hide this) brings them hookers.

Incensed, Carol brings him up on charges to the Ad Council, based on ethics violations—and one of the first things you're likely to narrow your eyes at, even though you're almost certainly too lazy to do the in-depth research needed to confirm your belief that it must be 100% bullshit, is Lover's tremendous insistence that the Ad Council was, in addition to its actual duties as a propaganda arm for the U.S. government, also a self-regulating professional association that governed the ethical standards of its members.  Or that its members even had written-down ethical standards which they could violate.  (Of course, the very first thing you'll narrow your eyes at is the opening voiceover, which discusses the difference between "workers" and "drones," calls the oversexed rainmaker Jerry a "drone," and thereby proves that neither Shapiro nor his co-writer Paul Henning had the slightest notion of what these words mean in either their technical definition or in ordinary English.)

Well, whatever: Jerry's too cagey for Carol to trap him like that, and, long story short, manages to suborn a witness by promising her an advertising campaign and eventual Hollywood stardom.  This leads, through the blundering of Peter Ramsey, self-loathing heir to the agency Jerry works for (this would be Randall, natch), to the accidental broadcasting of an ad for "Vip," a product so mysterious that everybody in the whole world decides they need to buy it as soon as they can, and which Jerry had made up purely in service of his zany scheme.

And it gets zanier.

So now "Vip" actually needs to be produced, and Jerry turns to rogue scientist Dr. Linus Tyler for something, anything, that he can package and deliver.  But in the meantime, Carol, having become absolutely determined that she'll get the better of Jerry for once, takes aim at getting "Vip" for herself—the problem is, the first man she sees in the doctor's lab is Jerry, and, through a fair amount of screenwriting convenience, she's never actually met Jerry.  And Jerry being Jerry, and Jerry being Rock Hudson in a Rock Hudson/Doris Day sex farce, Jerry introduces himself immediately as our good doctor, which is worse for Carol than she could possibly realize, since she's decided to give this client a much more personal touch.

That's a lot of words to unpack "Pillow Talk remake," but the thing is, I have driven us almost halfway through the picture—it is a full forty-five minutes before Day and Hudson even interact, disregarding a bit of callback splitscreen featuring a belligerent telephone conversation.  And it suffers for their separation, though that's certainly not the worst of its sins.

Shapiro—one of the squad of screenwriters on Pillow Talk—seemed to have a real hard-on for tales of romantic subertfuge driven by disguised identity, and by the evidence of Lover (and, adore it though we do, Pillow Talk as well), it might not be completely unreasonable to suspect that the number of families Mr. Shapiro had back in the swinging 60s was greater than the normal or legal number of "one."  Unfortunately, Shapiro was apparently not the primary source of Pillow Talk's sharply-written jokes, so while Lover is full of comedy, and not all of its comedy is bad, it's never once as funny as its predecessor.  But it is much more mean-spirited, and more mired in the worst elements of its time.  Let's put it this way: if Pillow Talk still has the soul of a 50s movie underneath its suggestiveness, Lover is entirely a creature of the decade it was made in.

It's odd trying to figure out exactly why Lover seems so much uglier in its misogyny, though, when surely it's kind of hard to top Pillow Talk on that count.  (For does Pillow Talk not literally conclude with a sex-driven kidnapping?)  But I daresay it has something to do with the fact that Pillow Talk's combat between the sexes was petty and personal, rather than professional, and it smoothed out the rougher patches with a genuine sense of growing affection (and contrition).  Meanwhile, Lover involves a man destroying a woman's career on purpose, and then (not to give too much away, for it does implicate the film's full-on-nonsense climax) destroying her whole Goddamn life, albeit (in his defense) somewhat more accidentally.  Pillow Talk certainly played with the concept of removing a woman's choice in its denouement, but Pillow Talk also turned right around and gave it back; Lover, on the other hand, appears to actually revel in its assumption that it's removed the barest possibility of choice for Carol.  And it really is quite upsetting and awful.

But if we're being totally real here, the biggest reason Lover feels so much more tyrannical in what is, let's admit, its more-or-less equal indulgence in sexy patriarchy, is that it simply isn't remotely as well-made.  Pillow Talk gets away with its transgressions mainly because it flings them at your face and runs away, clipping along at an incredible pace, always with a wink, a nod, a smile, and a gag; Lover drags through most every scene, never quite cognizant that the first rule of good farce, especially offensive farce, is to always stay a moving target.  It's where the changing of the guard is most keenly felt, from Gordon to Mann in the director's chair, and from Milton Carruth to Marjorie Fowler in the editor's suite, and while both were capable of better, both seem fine here with stretching things out as much as they can, in the misguided belief that, in comedy, more is always more.

And so, as the narrative twists into its third act, Lover is content to let the scene where our "virginal" Dr. Tyler confesses his inadequacies—in service of Jerry's dastardly ruse—linger on and on and on, and even that classic Rock Hudson line, "Be gentle!", or Carol's admittedly pretty-funny reversal of the situation, cannot totally save it.  It afflicts the whole film, though, and just about every shot goes on at least a few seconds too long for maximum comedic impact.  (Hell, I'm not even completely sure that Pillow Talk gets Hudson and Day together any quicker than Lover does—I'm only sure that it feels that way.)  The fact that Lover was already less-funny on the page means that even though you're not laughing too rarely, you're laughing at least a little hollowly, and, sometimes—far too often—you're laughing sourly, because something usually comes along to dampen the movie's sense of fun.

It is not, all in all, terrible—though it's a dramatic fall from Pillow Talk, and that's enough to damn it in my heart, even if it had risen to a level of basic acceptability—but it does have some compensations, like its satire of advertising's exploitative relationship with society, and (above everything) its rock-solid leading triumvirate.  I said their chemistry remained intact, and it does; without Day and Hudson in the center of it, this same movie would doubtless come off as an outright document of sex crime.  In the middle, for about forty minutes, the movie even works—albeit by retrenching into Pillow Talk's core dynamic—and once again Day finds herself charmed by Hudson's performance of a good man, stuffed inside his performance as a cad.

Indeed, purely on its buffoonish merits, I might actually enjoy Hudson's wide-eyed-and-bearded Nobel-prize winner (!) "Linus Tyler" more than I did Pillow Talk's drawling gentleman, "Rex Stetson."  (For what it's worth, "Tyler" is  the one thing that costume designer Irene Lentz, filling in for Jean Louis, gets completely right—with a hilariously hideous out-of-style, likely-never-in-style suit.  But then, it's difficult to credit any particular decision Lentz made—it's dishonorable to mention, but worth pointing out, that Lentz was semi-absent, in the throes of an ultimately-deadly alcoholism—but the funniest thing in Lover, by a country mile, is the hat she inflicts upon Day, which looks like a flower pot turned upside down and decorated with the scalps of murdered Troll dolls.)

I know, a picture's worth at least thousand words.

But, much as before, the funniest dialogue goes to Randall; and Randall remains the Day/Hudson films' deadliest weapon, despite his third-billing.  Frankly, there's a much better movie hiding inside the material Lover gives to Pete—Randall gets a fantastic monologue about how unfair it is that he was born rich, and hence given all the privilege necessary to humiliate himself with constant failure, and somebody involved with Lover must've had one serious grudge against Freudian analysis—but the bits we do get of Randall are at the very least entertaining, even when they are (as they often are) indifferently-presented.

So there is enough in Lover Come Back to not completely despise it—but it's an awfully near-run thing, and it's  one devastating disappointment as a "sequel" either way, for even though there was never any great chance it was going to outshine the bona fide classic that preceded it, it probably didn't have to be so unworthy of its progenitor that the single most valuable thing about it is simply the way it demonstrates how Pillow Talk avoided all the same pitfalls that Lover just blithely falls right into.

Score: 4/10

Reviews in this series
Pillow Talk (1959)
Lover Come Back (1961)
Send Me No Flowers (1964)