Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on October 20, 2013
Yesterday was International Home Movie Day, so it seemed fitting to watch Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (1992). The title of Mark Rappaport’s pseudo documentary is somewhat misleading, as the compilations of clips used are all taken from Hudson’s existing body of Hollywood work, rather than a personal stash of super-8 films. Actor Eric Farr appears sporadically as Hudson’s proxy to give voice to imagined musings by the actor as he speaks from beyond the grave on selected excerpts. From the Journals of Jean Seaberg finds Rappaport refining a similar template three years later, and in both cases there is an interesting appropriation of personality at work. In a curious turn of events, Rappaport’s name has been in the headlines recently due to a dispute involving an appropriation of his work, his films and his legacy, by Boston University Film professor Ray Carney – a story which has taken on a life of its own with plenty of extensive coverage. What surprises me is that, here it is, late October, a time when I should be joining all my fellow Morlocks writing about my favorite scary films, and instead I’m writing about Doris Day. To be more specific; the subject is the Day/Hudson romantic comedy Send Me No Flowers (1964), which screens tonight on TCM. But, you know what? There is actually something creepy about Doris Day…
Before going any further I should quickly apologize to Doris Day fans for the headline of this piece. Not only has her sunny onscreen persona and beautiful voice brought comfort to millions, but in real-life she’s a well-known animal rights activist, and I admire her for that. A more accurate headline would have been: There’s Something Creepy About Most of the Characters in Send Me No Flowers That I’m Still Trying To Wrap My Head Around. Too wordy. But let’s back up a bit, because context is important, and also because I need to bring Tony Randall into the equation.
Confession: I haven’t seen the two romantic comedies that precede Send Me No Flowers which also starred Hudson, Day, and Randall: Pillow Talk (1959) and Lover Come Back (1961) – also screening tonight on TCM. I know that Day was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress in Pillow Talk and that, generally speaking, all three of these films mark a successful period for those involved. It was also a time when American cinema was still playing it safe in the bedroom. Things were starting to crack a bit, sure, and the erotic underpinnings of The Apartment (1960) could be seen as an early harbinger of things to come. Code relaxations and the liberated sexuality of the late ’60s were certainly visible on the horizon. But, until then, what could be more Leave It to Beaver and Norman Rockwell than Doris Day and Rock Hudson? Especially when they were in a cheery film by Norman Jewison, a director who at that point had done two other romantic comedies, 40 Pounds of Trouble (1962), and The Thrill of it All (1963 – also with Doris Day).
Send Me No Flowers has a simple and fun premise. Hudson plays the part of George, a hypochondriac with an extensive array of pills and medicine for all his imagined ailments. His wife, Judy (Day), gamely puts up with his nonsense, while neighbor and friend Arnold (Randall) is always at George’s side, a reliable comic foil. After a miscommunication at the doctor’s office, George is convinced he’s only got a few weeks to live and he worries that his wife will be whisked away to financial ruin by a Berkeley bongo player, or worse. The main plot is thus put in motion: George must find a suitable second husband for his wife, and he confides in Arnold to enlist his help. Arnold’s way of handling the tragic news is to go on a drinking binge, thus ensuring more comedic fodder.
In my book, Randall gets the best laugh-out-loud lines, which is not to say Hudson doesn’t anchor proceedings – he does. How can he not? He’s Rock Hudson. Although I hear he always hated that name, bestowed onto him by his agent Henry Willson. He was born Roy Harold Scherer, Jr., and changed the surname to Fitzgerald after being adopted by his step-father; and that was how he thought of himself, as Roy Fitzgerald. Either way: that tall imposing frame, that photogenic face, the perfect hair, all charm, sleek and elegance – it’s a remarkably photogenic sum of parts, but here marked by a tinge of melancholia. Appropriate, of course, for a hypochondriac.
For her part, Doris Day (born Doris Mary Ann Kappelhoff) adds exactly what is expected of her chosen stage name, staying bright and luminous throughout, albeit adorned with a few too many infantilizing and decorative bows. She gets locked out of the house, she drops things, she can’t handle money, she can’t even drive a golf-cart. I know it’s all supposed to be in good fun, but many of these antics are accompanied by an abrasive Micky Mousing soundtrack that goes over the line. At least she gets to sing the title song. Other people that get tossed into the mix include a womanizer who preys on divorced woman, a doctor who admits he wouldn’t tell a dying man of his impending death, a milkman who knows everyone’s personal information with zest that would make NSA wire-tappers proud, an overzealous funeral manager, a garment delivery boy who likes stealing peaks at women in their sleeping gowns, and more. Which is to say that there’s something just a bit unsettling to the characters that populate these spacious homes surrounded by green lawns and white picket fences. Is there a pinch of Stepford Wives being mixed into the Pajama Games? Or am I seeing too many leering faces where there was really only meant to be a simple dance of attractions? If so, I blame Rock Hudson’s Home Movies.
Send Me No Flowers was not as successful as its two predecessors, nor was it as critically well received. But it delivers on laughs, and there’s an undeniable chemistry between Hudson and Randall. This brings us back to Rappaport’s musings, which selects Send Me No Flowers as a prime exhibit of a film that was playing with Hudson’s sexuality. Send Me No Flowers is full of knowing winks in the homo-erotic sexual innuendo and overtones department. Although Hudson had been very guarded bout his sexuality until the mid-eighties, when his battle with HIV helped bring AIDS to the attention of the public, his orientation was well known within Hollywood circles since the fifties. In Send Me No Flowers we get to see a bare-chested Hudson in the shower, or squeezing into a tight, red sweater, or sharing a bed with Randall (who is sitting on the edge of the bed with a champagne battle between his legs when he pops the cork), and so on. It does make one wonder; was Hudson in on the joke and was this his way of coming out to the public in a creative way? Or was he being forced out, and were people having fun at his expense? It’s the difference between laughing with him or laughing at him, and the distinction makes me uneasy because, if the latter, then what we are seeing is Hudson being held hostage by a cruel universe, populated by cartoony, swishy, garish characters that seem to mock him – the equivalent of schoolyard bullies mimicking those they deem queer. Seen through this prism, the scenes of Hudson talking with doctors and funeral directors about his failing health takes on a totally unintentional but morbid prescience for those of us in the audience who know how the story will end two decades later.
Or, maybe, Roy Fitzgerald was simply surrounded by good, caring, non-judgemental friends and they were all simply having a good time. Enjoying the moment. Seeing things clearly and with sharpened senses. I’d rather believe this to be the case, and will thus end by sharing my favorite moment in the movie, which takes place in the backyard between George and Arnold:
It’s a piece of dialogue I can almost imagine being spoken word-for-word by Bert and Ernie…
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