Doris Day Creeps Me Out

Send-Me-No-Flowers-Poster

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…

Doris & Rock

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).

George visits the funeral home.

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.

hudson and randall

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:

George: “See this tree here Arnold?”

Arnold (drunk): “Not too well, George.”

George: “It’s beautiful. Such strength. It’s magnificent. And this table (slaps hand on wood table), feels so good just to run your hand over it. (Strokes the wood.) So smooth and cool. Well all this is coming a bit late for me Arnold, this awareness. Why couldn’t I have felt this way every day of my life? But you, you still have life ahead of you Arnold. Arnold?” (See’s that Arnold is asleep.) “Arnold! Wake up! Feel alive and appreciate the beauty around you! Don’t you understand what I mean?”

Arnold: “Yeah, sure! Every chance I get, I’m going to feel a table.” (Slaps his hand on the table. Strokes the wood.) “Oh, boy! Smooth!”

It’s a piece of dialogue I can almost imagine being spoken word-for-word by Bert and Ernie…

new-yorker-cover-bert-ernie-gay-marriage-580_custom-81c8cb2f30d2e95d402cd7d8c45fb35de627f5d4-s6-c30

12 Responses Doris Day Creeps Me Out
Posted By terje rypdal : October 21, 2013 5:39 am

This is definitely one of my favorite comedies of all time, along with the other two — & if as you say, you really haven’t seen those yet, then it’s an understatement to say that you’re in for a big treat! All three are so wonderful that I’m not sure I could ever even pick a favorite!

I think that Rock was definitely “in on it” — in fact, both of the other two films also include hilarious, seemingly deliberate “tells” as well — so it must have been part of the grand scheme
… And in this one he also gets to interact with legendary gay camp icon Paul Lynde in one of his most unforgettable & drop-dead hilarious supporting film roles …

As far as the “creepiness” etc., in my opinion it’s deliberate! All three films have a strong “black humor” & social commentary element to them — & this one indeed has more in common with “The Stepford Wives” — at least in the sense that it’s set in the context of suburban married life — unlike the other two, in which the satire unfolds against the backdrop of the NYC white collar rat race …

Posted By Emgee : October 21, 2013 7:34 pm

Was he in on the joke? How could he stay out of it? And was this his way of coming out to the public? In 1964?
In 1961′s The Children’s Hour they couldn’t even hint at the Shirley MacLaine character being lesbian.
Let’s face it, most people seeing it at that time wouldn’t have caught on even if he had slept in pink pajama’s.

Posted By kjolseth : October 21, 2013 8:21 pm

Interesting that you mention 1961, as that was the same year as this:

http://www.tcm.com/this-month/article/159646|0/Victim.html

But that’s the U.K., not the U.S., where I think INSIDE DAISY CLOVER (1965) was the first mainstream release that depicted an openly gay character that didn’t commit suicide or murder. Regardless, I suspect your assumption about most audiences perceptions, for the time of the film’s release at least, is correct.

Posted By DevlinCarnate : October 21, 2013 9:57 pm

subtext in movies has become so overwrought…can we give it a rest ?…Hudson made these fluffy comedies because he was paid to do it,and they made money,Elvis basically did the same thing at the same time,neither one probably wanted to,but the market drives the media,always has,always will…Hudson lived in a period where he had to stay closeted to a certain degree,but it wasn’t that hard to figure out,unfortunate but true…the only thing i feel bad for either is that they didn’t get better parts,although at least Hudson got Seconds,and he was great in it

Posted By Mike : October 21, 2013 9:58 pm

I’m sure by now that you have seen the two preceding films and and no longer creeped out. They were funny then and they are funny now. Films may have been square to use a word of the time, but the people who made them were not. Consider Doris Day who was on the road with a major band when she was still in her teens. She had been super exposed to hip with a capital H. How cool was Rock Hudson. Every ones favorite actor. Even if you didn’t like the fim you still liked him. It all came to a horrible end for him and what could be sadder. I hope people understand it all a little better now. They all knew very well what they were doing and boy did they deliver

Posted By Pablo Kjolseth : October 21, 2013 10:41 pm

SECONDS is a personal favorite. I’m under the impression it was one of Hudson’s favorites too – and possibly even because of (rather than despite of) the subtext, which in that film is far more interesting than SEND ME NO FLOWERS. But I can certainly give subtext a rest on other titles. ICE STATION ZEBRA, for example, which might even be Hudson’s #1 top pic (if memory serves). Sometimes a submarine is just a submarine. I agree with you that it’s a shame he didn’t get meatier parts.

Posted By doug : October 22, 2013 4:05 am

Well, Pablo, if I were you, I would see “Pillow Talk” first, then “Lover, Come Back”.
I tried, really tried to get into “Send Me No Flowers” but it stunk. No sexual tension at all between Doris and Rock, no spark. Doris basically played the hapless husband part, Rock and Tony were Lucy and Ethel and Uncle Arthur sold funeral plots.
Context is everything-a while ago I gave up on “Down With Love” but now, after seeing the first two Doris/Rock pairings, I gave it another try tonight and loved it.
“Lover, Come Back” is their best film together; I wish they had not made their last one.

Posted By robbushblog : October 22, 2013 4:07 pm

Wait. Paul Lynde was gay?

Posted By Valeska Suratt : October 22, 2013 9:12 pm

@ kjolseth As I understand it, Robert Redford was unaware — and quite upset to discover — that his character was bi-sexual.

According to Hollywood lore, the scene in which the drunken studio head’s wife howls at poor, hapless Daisy: “He never could resist an attractive BOY !!!” was added without Mr. Redford’s knowledge or approval.

In a way, his ignorance only added to his characterization, “bi” being so difficult to portray convincingly. ;)

Posted By kingrat : October 22, 2013 10:03 pm

Apparently someone in Hollywood felt that Doris and gay subtext went together. No Rock Hudson in THE GLASS BOTTOM BOAT, but Paul Lynde in drag, Dom DeLuise (an actor whose schtik is loud, effeminate, and obnoxious), and Dick Martin and Edward Andrews ending up in bed together–accidentally, but Paul Lynde gives them a look that says, “Uh-huh, I always thought so.”

Posted By doug : October 23, 2013 1:22 am

I liked “The Glass Bottom Boat” just fine as long as Doris was on the screen-the rest of it was mediocre.
kingrat-i think Rod Taylor had a bet going with Frank Tashlin-freeze frame on Taylor looking into the camera when he grabs Doris who’s foot had been stuck in a vase.
As for gay subtext…I think sometimes it’s there intentionally, sometimes it’s only in the mind of the viewer. There is ‘gay subtext’ galore in “The Loved One”, all of it quite intentional. The Doris/Rock trinity? A strong maybe.

Posted By Blakeney : November 2, 2013 2:38 am

I agree with DevlinCarnate – there can be too much “looking” for subtext – both in films and in people. Hollywood has been using innuendo (both gay and straight) as a joke in movies for about as long as movies have been made, and regardless of whether the actors were gay or straight. Paul Lynde apparently felt it was nobody’s business what orientation he was, and people should respect that – he was a talented comedian and maybe that’s how he would like to be remembered.

It’s true that Day and Hudson got a lot of “fluff” roles. Two of my more favorite Day films are one’s where she didn’t play all sunshine and giddyness (Julie and Midnight Lace, both heavy on the melodrama, but it was refreshing to see her in another type of situation).

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