The Films and Friendship of Doris Day and Rock Hudson

Today marks what would have been the 99th birthday of Doris Day. Over the past several years, she fast became one of my favorite classic Hollywood stars because of the natural charisma and warmth she brought to all her movies; she never fails to make you smile whenever she appears on-screen. TCM treated us in March with its Star of the Month tribute to her, and I had the great pleasure of watching some of her early movies that I hadn’t seen before, along with re-watching a lot of her other films. That included revisiting the three romantic comedies she made with Rock Hudson from 1959 into the early 1960s. So in honor of her birthday, I wanted to focus on those films and the enduring friendship that came as a result of this charming on-screen pairing.

Directed by Michael Gordon

Interior decorator Jan Morrow (Doris Day) and playboy songwriter Brad Allen (Rock Hudson) share a telephone party line. He often keeps it busy as he flirts with his girlfriends, which annoys her as she’s trying to call her clients. Brad soon meets Jan by chance and is instantly attracted to her, so he hides his true identity from her and pretends to be a Texas rancher named Rex Stetson. Complications ensue when their mutual friend Jonathan Forbes (Tony Randall) hires a private eye to discover who Jan’s new beau is.

Doris Day was already breaking out of her early musical ingénue roles by the time she was brought on to star in Pillow Talk, starring in a range of genres from the drama Love Me or Leave Me to the thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much, though she was still primarily cast in her wheelhouse of musicals and romantic comedies. But Pillow Talk posed a bit of a challenge for her leading man Rock Hudson, who hadn’t done a straight comedy before, as at that time he was only being considered for more dramatic roles like in his collaborations with Douglas Sirk and his Oscar-nominated performance in Giant. Hudson also reportedly turned down the role a few times, as he found the script “too risqué” and was afraid it would hurt his masculine image. But luckily for us and him, Day convinced him to take the part. The two immediately hit it off upon meeting, with Hudson soon referring to Day as “Eunice” because whenever he thought of her with that name, it made him laugh. Meanwhile, she said, “I call him Ernie because he’s certainly no Rock.” Their off-screen rapport translated wonderfully into the film. Anyone watching them in their scenes together can feel the real love they had for one another, even at times when their characters were expressing their annoyance with each other. During production, there was constant laughter between the two stars, and Day said of working on Pillow Talk: “Every day on the set was a picnic – sometimes too much of a picnic, in that we took turns at breaking each other up.”

Pillow Talk became one of the biggest hits of both their careers and reinvented their screen images, with Day being seen as a classy sex symbol, and Hudson being more recognized for his comedic chops. The film was number one at the U.S. box office for seven consecutive weeks and was ranked fifth overall in 1959. The movie also received numerous accolades, including a Golden Globe for Day as Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical, and both she and Hudson won the female and male awards for World Film Favorite. The film was also nominated for Best Comedy, and their co-star Tony Randall, who joined them for their two other films, also got a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Pillow Talk was a huge success at the Academy Awards as well, winning Best Original Screenplay and earning four other nominations, including Best Supporting Actress for Thelma Ritter, along with the first and only nomination for Day as Best Actress.

Directed by Delbert Mann

Carol Templeton (Doris Day) and Jerry Webster (Rock Hudson) work at rivaling advertising agencies. His methods of using women and alcohol to woo his clients annoy her, so she reports him to try to get him thrown out of his profession. Jerry then pays off nightclub performer Rebel Davis (Edie Adams) from testifying against him by putting her in a starring spot in a fake ad campaign for a product that doesn’t exist. But a mix-up with his boss Peter Ramsey (Tony Randall) leads to the commercial being broadcast, forcing Jerry to enlist Doctor Linus Tyler (Jack Kruschen) to invent a new product called VIP. When Carol attempts to get the VIP account, she mistakes Jerry, whom she’s never met, for the inventor, leading him to take on the disguise to try to win her over.

Coming two years after the smash success of Pillow Talk, Doris Day and Rock Hudson (along with Tony Randall) teamed up again for Lover Come Back. Not wanting to stray too far from what worked so well the first time, this film features similar plot elements to its predecessor, with Day despising Hudson, which later leads him to pretend to be someone else so they’ll fall in love. And just like they did on the set of their previous movie, both stars were often cracking each other up during filming, with Hudson even recalling that more days needed to be added to the shooting schedule because of their laughter. Despite the slight production delays, critics and audiences were pleased with the outcome, as it received positive reviews and was ranked sixth at the box office in 1961. Lover Come Back also earned Randall a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor, and an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, which was co-written by one of the Oscar-winning screenwriters of Pillow Talk, Stanley Shapiro.

Day was in the middle of the most successful phase of her career upon the release of Lover Come Back. Among the films she made in the early 1960s following Pillow Talk was a string of comedies, starting with Please Don’t Eat the Daisies with David Niven. Then between her second and third films with Hudson, she co-starred in That Touch of Mink with Cary Grant, and both The Thrill of It All and Move Over, Darling with James Garner. But despite being one of the top stars at the box office at the beginning of the decade, Day’s film career started to wind down, though fortunately not before one more on-screen reunion with Hudson.

Directed by Norman Jewison

On his latest visit to the doctor, hypochondriac George Kimball (Rock Hudson) mistakes a terminally ill patient’s diagnosis as his own. Believing he only has a few weeks left to live, he asks his friend Arnold Nash (Tony Randall) to help him find a new husband for his wife, Judy (Doris Day). George doesn’t tell Judy the news, only wanting to take care of her future, but his odd behavior makes her suspect that he’s covering up an affair.

Three years after Lover Come Back, Doris Day and Rock Hudson (and Tony Randall of course) made their third and final film together with Send Me No Flowers. Their third collaboration was quite different compared to their two prior pairings. For starters, their previous films came from original screenplays, whereas Send Me No Flowers was based on a play that briefly ran on Broadway between December 1960 to January 1961. And here, Day and Hudson play a couple that’s already married, unlike in Pillow Talk and Lover Come Back, where their characters don’t get married until the end of the films.

Unfortunately, Send Me No Flowers wasn’t as a big hit as their other films, and it received mixed reviews. Hudson himself said he didn’t like the film, finding this comedy about death distasteful. I personally like this film a little more than Lover Come Back since the two stars are in a different scenario here, and I found most of the screwball antics pretty amusing. Still, the film’s diminished success was a sign of moviegoers’ tastes starting to change in 1964, as the New Hollywood era was just around the corner.

Soon after Pillow Talk was released, there were talks to make a sequel with Doris Day, Rock Hudson, and Tony Randall. But those plans didn’t really attempt to go forward until two decades later, which came when Hudson was sadly diagnosed with AIDS. While they didn’t have another reunion on film, on July 16th, 1985, TV viewers saw Day and Hudson reunite to launch her talk show Doris Day’s Best Friends. It was famously Hudson’s last public appearance, as he passed away on October 2nd of that year, less than three months after the episode aired. Even though he was very sick when they filmed the episode at her home in Carmel, California, Day was just glad to spend time with her dear friend. She later said, “If there is a Heaven, I’m sure Rock Hudson is there because he was such a kind person.”

It’s been nearly two years since Doris Day passed away on May 13th, 2019. But about a month before her death, shortly before her 97th birthday, Doris Day’s fans gathered in Carmel to celebrate with the star, while also commemorating the 60th anniversary of Pillow Talk, with the event serving as a fundraiser for her non-profit animal foundation. She spoke about her time on the film, saying “I had such fun working with my pal, Rock. We laughed our way through three films we made together and remained great friends. I miss him.”

Doris Day had an illustrious film career filled with quite a line-up of leading men, a few of whom she worked with more than once, along with a couple she even worked with more than Rock Hudson. But when you see or hear either of their names, more often than not, you think of them together. Their instant compatibility turned into dynamic on-screen chemistry that is simply hard to resist, and together they exude pure joy.

A few years ago, Doris Day voiced a heartfelt tribute to Rock Hudson for TCM, which I recommend watching, and you can do so here. I also like what Hudson said about what made his partnership with Day so special: “I don’t really know what makes a movie team… I’d say, first of all, the two people have to truly like each other, as Doris and I did, for that shines through the sparkle, the twinkle in the eye as the two people look at each other.”

I wrote this entry as a part of The Fifth Annual Doris Day Blogathon, where bloggers are writing about the legendary star in honor of her 99th birthday. Click the banner below to read more great posts!

3 thoughts on “The Films and Friendship of Doris Day and Rock Hudson

  1. Wonderful post! Day and Hudson are one of my favorite screen teams, and it makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside that they were close in real life. That video tribute she did about him for TCM makes me cry every time, it’s just so sweet.

    Thanks for contributing to my blogathon!

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