Lover Come Back (1961) Directed by Delbert Mann. Doris Day, Rock Hudson, Tony Randall (107 min).
A prissy virgin gets ready to sacrifice her virtue to land the advertising account for a mysterious product called VIP. Day frantically woos the virile Jerry, played with great charm and not a little irony by Rock Hudson. “Mr. Hudson and Miss Day are delicious.” (Bosley Crowther New York Times) Universal Archive Print.
Doris Day is the biggest female star in Hollywood history, as measured by her box office statistics (and adjusted for inflation). For ten years, she was in the highest grossing top ten, and for four of those as the number one female star, surpassed only by her male counterpart, John Wayne. She was also the number one female recording star in the 1950s and 60s.
Doris Mary Anne von Kappelhoff (named by her mother after silent film star Doris Kenyon) was born in Cincinnati OH. She had planned on a dancing career, but after her leg was broken in a serious automobile accident, she turned to singing. At 17, she joined Les Brown and his Band of Renown, formerly Les Brown and the Blue Devils, they got together at Duke University. Her song “Sentimental Journey” was a chart-topping favorite during the war years. Her personal life was hard, married to a physically abusive man at 17, by 18 she was divorced, a single mother. A second marriage lasted only eight months. She auditioned for her first film when Judy Garland turned down Romance on the High Seas and Betty Hutton stepped out because she was pregnant. “Movie acting came to me with greater ease and naturalness than anything else I had ever done” (NYTimes). She was reluctant at first to be an actress, but she was appealingly natural on screen and her career soared. Rock Hudson, born Roy Fitzgerald, on the other hand, had always wanted to be an actor. After serving in the Navy during WW II, he moved to California and worked hard at becoming an actor, helped by his good looks as much as his talent. His breakout role in The Magnificent Obsession propelled his career, and he won an Oscar nomination for Giant, alongside his co-star, James Dean.
Doris Day and Rock Hudson’s first comedy pairing was in Pillow Talk. Their names had been linked as top box office draws in the 1957-58 season, and it was producer Ross Hunter’s idea to team them. The film, sophisticated for its day, redrew her girl next door image as a successful, sexy career woman. That film was her only Oscar nomination. Since it was a smash hit, Lover Come Back was devised as a variation on a theme, to capitalize on their screen chemistry. Lover Come Back is considered by many, including Hudson and Tony Randall, two of the three stars, the superior film, and was Oscar nominated for its screenplay.
Rock Hudson had never played comedy before being cast in Pillow Talk. He was quite nervous about it; he wasn’t sure he could be funny. He was coached to play it dead seriously, “If you think it’s funny, no one else will.” He and Doris Day became close friends, and they so enjoyed making their films together they had trouble holding back their laughter. With their second film, he said “I think they added two weeks to the shooting schedule because of our laughter. We flat out could not look at each other. I’d look at her forehead, her nose. And we did terrible things to each other; with our backs to the camera, we made faces at each other…It’s perhaps acting rather juvenile in one sense, but in another, when you’re shooting comedy, it isn’t. What shows on the screen, I think, is what helped make those films successful. The twinkle shows in the eyes. And we had it” (Hudson 74).
Delbert Mann, the director, confirmed that Day and Hudson were having so much fun, they had to shoot take after take. The beach seduction, filmed in a sound stage sand box was particularly difficult because they were laughing so hard. “Rock was always bubbly and filled with jokes. When the set is loose like that, and everyone’s having a good time, the work gets done better and quicker because there’s not a lot of tension.” Rock “had a natural instinctive response in playing a role, and he would modify it with the slightest verbal communication. There was no need to argue or discuss a scene in detail. He completely understood what to do” (Hudson 84).
The couple looked so good on screen together, Doris creamy and blonde, Rock dark and rugged. They seemed so nice; a virtue undervalued these days. Time Magazine lauded their partnership as “two shiny Cadillacs, parked in a suggestive position.” But of course, there’s a reason they felt a kinship, since they were both glamorous movie stars living a lie, he that he was straight, and she that she was just the girl next door, and not a woman whose miserable personal life gave her conflicted feelings about being in the spotlight’s glare.
Day’s liberated—for her time—career girl, had her own apartment, a designer wardrobe, a glamorous job, and the lesson was clear. Play your cards right and you, too, could land a handsome hunk without compromising your principals (too much). Doris Day said in an interview in the 1980s that she did not look on her character as squeaky clean. “I was a businesswoman. I don’t think I was a virgin…I probably would have succumbed, except I found out he was a phony and ran away. The audience—you thought I was a virgin. You thought, when I went off with him, oh, she’ll think of some way to wiggle out” (Hudson 78).
Nicolas Laham, in discussing this boundary pushing comedy, “Day’s contempt for Hudson on the Silver Screen imbues her character with feminist credibility because she is battling the determination of sexually depraved men (as exemplified by the womanizing characters her leading man plays) to use women as sex objects for their own perverted gratification. But, once again, one can legitimately argue that Day’s sex comedy films, especially those with Hudson, represent a misreading of the sexual revolution; and foolishly link women’s rights not to the principal of gender equality, but to the practice of abstinence—a very frivolous foundation indeed in order to champion the feminist cause” (Laham 128). In fact, this is one of the most frustrating qualities of these early 60s sex comedies, they seem to urge women towards greater freedoms, but only so far as they don’t inconvenience men, or upset the sexist status quo.
Because of the AIDS crisis, Rock Hudson would arguably become the most famous gay man in America, but at the time, not only his audience, but many of his co-workers didn’t realize he was gay. Tony Randall, a hilarious on-screen foil, was not close with Hudson, off screen. He said in a later interview, that if Hudson had come out in the 1960s, “that would have been death to the romantic image. All the women in America were crazy about him. He was the idealized all-American boy. He really looked like a truck driver who’d gotten some class” (Hudson 79). Yet, other people report that Hudson’s sexuality was an “open secret” at the time. Either way, as James Wolcott said, “Hudson turns the gay closet into his own Superman phone booth, a convenient place to switch identities” (Kaufman 254).
In a cover story on Lover Come Back in Life Magazine, which capitalizes on the apparently well-rehearsed anecdote of Day and Hudson’s hilarity at their kissing scene on the beach, Life guilelessly states, “Like any movie star, Rock Hudson has to lead a double life—he lives in reality yet works in make-believe. On one hand, there is Rock Hudson, Hollywood’s most valuable star, tall, gay, insouciant…on the other hand, there is the man who says, “I think I’m rather average.”
“Rock Hudson’s acting abilities have always been somewhat belittled. However, when you consider that he was a gay man pretending in public to be straight, playing a womanizer posing as a homosexual…well, I call that acting of the highest order.” “Add to this the tomboyish Day, whose uncompromisingly butch performance as Calamity Jane made her a lesbian icon, and you’ve got a cinematic cocktail of tantalizing sexual ambiguity. Hudson’s vulnerability and Day’s strength make the smirking sexism of these films much easier to take…Perhaps, because I’m a refugee from suburbia, I prefer seeing Day all dolled up in Jean Louis’ haute couture and jumping in and out of taxis on Madison Avenue. Pillow Talk and Lover Come Back are part of the film genre that, along with Breakfast at Tiffany’s celebrated Manhattan as a magical isle full of whimsical Greenwich Village piano bars, interior decorators and bachelor pads. It’s a world many gays grew up dreaming about and later made a lifestyle.” (Busch 55-56).
Her clothes in the film are designed by Irene and were trend setters and her buttercup blonde bouffant became a signature hairstyle of the era. Her new image began with Pillow Talk, “She played a contemporary career girl who was as sexually repressed as they (viz. her fans) were, but man could she dress to give another message. Her high-fashion, sexy new wardrobe became her film signature from then on. Fans loved her dyed to match furs and chapeaux, her very modern dresses and curve revealing suits. Everyone flipped over the spike heels with the pointed toes and the way her derriere pooched just enough to say, “come hither” while she still looked indefatigably perky” (Fox 99).
I just love these costume check photos. In the film, this dress is hemmed at a shorter (cocktail) length. This was one of Irene’s final design credits. She committed suicide shortly after finishing the film’s wardrobe.
Doris Day was never a favorite of mine. My gay BFF in high school, although, of course, this was before people were gay (sic)was obsessed with her. He bought fan magazines—there still were some in the mid 1960s, before they were replaced with People magazine—and cut out all the photos of her. When MGM had their big costume and prop sale, he spent, I think, $95.00, an unimaginable sum to a high schooler, to buy a pink dress of hers from Jumbo, which he stored in a box under his bed. I respected his devotion, but didn’t share it, and never asked him why he loved Doris Day.
Lover Come Back with its war of the sexes: the virgin and the roué is a clear reference point for both Down With Love and Mad Men. The advertising setting, where clients are given plenty of booze and girls to land accounts is familiar territory. The mockery of the way sex is used to sell any product is still topical, and the rivalry of the two stars over a nonexistent product is amusing. Doris Day, shot through a gauze filter, pops her eyes and screws up her face (reminding one of Kristen Wigg’s prissier SNL characters) as she finally gets ready to sacrifice her virtue for the good cause of landing an account for VIP, losing her V on V Day, as the slogan would have it. Are the double and triple takes her own idea, or the coaching of a less than adroit comedy director? Tony Randall provides excellent support as the head of the agency sadly in need of a little confidence, and seeking it with his friend, the virile Jerry. Hudson even comes home after a rough night wearing nothing but a lady’s mink coat, clearly evoking Elizabeth Taylor’s famous scene in Butterfield 8. Day goes to great length to protect her virtue, but is undone, not by desire, but by deceit. The lies that are standard to so many romantic comedies are one cliché still desperately in need of liberation.
Her third husband, Martin Melcher died in 1968. She was shocked to discover he had embezzled $20 million and left her deeply in debt, as well as contractually obligated to act on tv on The Doris Day Show. After the show ended, she moved with her fourth husband to Carmel by the Sea, California, where she lived the rest of her life, mostly in seclusion from the public eye. She was deeply involved with animal charities, as she found dogs much less disappointing than men.
The Guardian found her the embodiment of American post-war optimism. “But her uncoolness – a vital, mysterious ingredient of her success even in her extraordinary heyday – was soon held against her. No one ever says that Doris Day is their favourite star, in the way that no one says vanilla is their favourite ice-cream flavour. Yet a heck of a lot of vanilla ice-cream gets sold.”
“I love life,” she told People Magazine in 2011. “I have my pets around me and good friends. I’m young at heart and I love to laugh. There’s nothing better.”
Doris Day died at the age of 97 on May 13, 2019.
Rock Hudson: His Story by Rock Hudson and Sara Davidson, Life Magazine, Feb 16, 1962, p 65-66, Currents of Comedy on the American Screen by Nicolas Laham, Virgin Territory: Representing Sexual Inexperience in Film by Tamar Jeffers McDonald, “ Rock On” Video reviews by Charles Busch of Doris Day/Rock Hudson’s Collectors Set The Advocate April 16, 1996, Considering Doris Day by Tom Santopietro, Star Style: Hollywood Legends as Fashion Icons by Patty Fox, Doris Day: The Untold Story of the Girl Next Door by David Kaufman, Doris Day: Her Own Story by A. E. Hotchner, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/13/obituaries/doris-day-death/?action=click&module=Top%20Stories&pgtype=Homepage (I don’t know why this link is broken, you can usually find the obituaries you seek at the NYTimes).