Wedged between the cookie-cutter conformities of the fifties and the Women’s Lib movement of the funky seventies, the swinging sixties exploded into history. The film world has a way of reflecting the styles, trends and changes in our society. Romantic Comedies from the late ‘50s into the late ‘60s tapped into the changes that women and men faced in everyday life. But usually in a light-hearted, exaggerated, and often parodied way.
Women were struggling to find new identities, sometimes as single, career women or as mothers ready for progress. The younger generation embraced protests, free love, flower power, the beatnick movement, and fought for civil rights and against war. Men adapted to these changes in their own way, sometimes clinging to the traditional roles of past, sometimes embracing rapid changes, but on their own terms. Whether the challenges existed between men and women, or between parents and their teenagers, times were a changing everywhere. Movies released the tension via humor.
Some of my favorite films as a kid were those romantic comedies during this era that poked fun at the sexual revolution along with its freedoms and infidelities that challenged marriages, office workplaces, and parenting. The generation gap battles rocked families. These sex comedies tackled heavy topics and troubling times by lightening the mood and bringing a few laughs. Here is a sampling of some of my personal favorites of this specific sub-genre of Rom-Coms…
In this romantic comedy headlined by the supremely talented Doris Day and Rock Hudson, and co-starring the fabulous Thelma Ritter and Tony Randal, the performances excelled in classic comedy with just the right touches of slapstick. The sexual revolution was still in its infancy in the late fifties, as Hudson’s playboy image as the cad-on-the-make ushered us into the gender battlefront. Notably, Day was a gorgeous example of the single, career gal with unquestionable femininity, high fashion, and sex appeal… all in an on-screen image that was widely appealing to all audiences with just the right amount of sexual innuendo for the grown-ups. In addition to other rom-com treasures for these actors, this film marked the beginning of many more films to come over the next decade that would take a soft swing at the radical changes happening on the American home front.
Doris Day and Rock Hudson team up again (and again with wingman, Tony Randall) to deliver a sex comedy that asserts Day firmly in the role of the single, career gal. This time, instead of creating a contentious romance via a party line and the charms of a Texan accented twin, Doris, and Rock battle as equals in business. With all the style and sexism of Mad Men, Day’s character is assumed to be a competent competitor on Madison Avenue in the man’s world of advertising. But as one might imagine, she still runs into sexist roadblocks as Hudson’s character takes creative and low-brow tactics to win over a client. In the process, he scrambles to nab an account by creating a mystery product, “VIP” and she follows the trail to reveal his unprofessional tactics. Undoubtedly the creators of the Mad Men tv series loved this film in particular, in addition to this era. As much as I enjoy Mad Men’s Peggy and Joan, they couldn’t possibly rival Doris Day as Carol Templeton. As a nice nod to women supporting other women in careers, Ann B. Davis (better known as “Alice” on Brady Bunch) portrays a much less feminine but apparently competent career woman as Day’s assistant, Millie.
Touches of slapstick are sprinkled throughout and sexist stereotypes are parodied in full force. As in Pillow Talk, we again see Rock attempt to fool Doris by means of false identity with sexist motivations only to ultimately find true love. In other words, it’s a ridiculously unrealistic and silly premise, but the formula works well and it is as charming as the best romantic comedies should be.
James Garner, Howard Morris, Tony Randall and Howard Duff in Boys’ Night Out
James Garner and Kim Novak lead this silly sex comedy that centers on a bachelor pad for married men. The premise is as far-fetched as it is sexist but does so in farce fashion. Garner takes his daily train commute with his pals who all groan about their boring, repressive lives and blame their marriages. They coerce bachelor Garner to take on a cool apartment in the city, where they plan to all share for future indiscretions to counter their unhappy marriages. Surprisingly, when Garner takes on an apartment lease, it comes complete with a beautiful woman (Kim Novak) who appears to comply with this bizarre arrangement.
As you can imagine, Novak’s character brings more than they bargained for and without any actual adultery. The sex in this sex comedy, as commonly portrayed with these films, is more implied and flirty than ever actualized. The fellas get to brag about fulfilling their sexual fantasies, but it’s only bravado. This time, the formula is flipped and it’s Novak’s character that uses false identity via the guise of sexual motivations to trick Garner and his pals, only to find actual love. Don’t worry – it’s all in the name of science. Novak is the well-educated, sexy, career gal. A scientist studying sex… of the bored married man. It doesn’t have the same snappy chemistry and style as some, but this film has fun by flipping the gender roles on the same ole formula. The supporting cast is terrific and a nice array of character talent from this decade, including Tony Randall, Howard Morris, Jessie Royce Landis, Jim Backus, Fred Clark, Zsa Zsa Gabor and more.
Doris Day, as this decade’s biggest box-office attraction takes on a traditional role as a doctor’s wife and stay-at-home mom. Hunky and charming James Garner is the hubby obstetrician doctor. It’s a happy, upper-middle-class suburbanite life until Day’s character agrees to be the spokesperson for a soap company, eager for her homespun and trustworthy ad spots. That’s when the chaos and slapstick kick into high gear. Garner’s performance in this film demonstrates one of the best examples of his incredible talent in comedy. Again, Doris Day successfully embodies this emergence and transition of a housewife with the ambitions of a career woman. While some critics of the time criticized her for being too innocent and virginal for a portrayal during this era, I vehemently disagree. Day was the sexy, beautiful woman who didn’t rely on it as her only asset, mainly because her other talents – of acting, singing, and brilliance in physical comedy – were so strong, they almost overshadow her natural beauty and sexuality. Who better to serve as the American ideal during this era where housewives and moms could now be career women and sexy, too?
Jimmy Stewart and Audrey Meadows play the parents of college-aged daughter Sandra Dee. Stewart’s character is the over-protective, worrisome dad who faces scandals and a tarnished reputation in his career as he follows his daughter around as she blossoms into an attractive young woman and explores campus life in the era of sexual revolution and flower power. A running gag is that Stewart’s character looks just like the actor Jimmy Stewart. Obviously, many clues abound that signal this film doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s a joyous romp to see the generational gaps with contrasting methods played out from old school to new school. As with many of these 60s Rom-Coms, look for familiar faces in the supporting cast. From Bob Denver to Jim Nabors to James Brolin’s first movie debut, you’ll recognize plenty of character actor gems.
Interesting trivia – this film is based on a Broadway play of the same name, written by married couple/playwrights Phoebe and Henry Ephron who based this story on their own experiences of watching their real-life daughter go off to college, who later became a famous novelist and director in her own right, Nora Ephron.
In this sex comedy, James Garner and Debbie Reynolds show that mom and dad can experience a healthy love life and marriage while dealing with the woes of their teenager kid transitioning into adulthood in the era of free love. Garner is a frequently traveling photographer who wants a last chance to spend more time with his son before he’s a fully-grown man who’s left the nest for good, so both mom (Reynolds) and dad chaperone a school trip to Europe. Complications and jealousies arise when mom accidentally books her stay at a European villa that isn’t exactly part of the program. It may be dated and innocent in comparison to modern standards, but this comedy pushes boundaries in scenes that hint and suggest sex more so than a decade prior while still keeping it relatively squeaky-clean compared to the gritty realism of the real 1960’s.
Plenty of peace symbols, flower power, protest and feeling groovy montages can be found here. And Debbie Reynolds shows off her midriff several times in bikini-clad scenes that make the rest of us middle-aged moms rather green with envy.
Probably not David Niven’s best film by a long shot, but to me, every David Niven on-screen appearance is pure gold. (And by gold, I mean that high-class, charming stuff that makes you feel wealthy just by being near it.) Here, he plays another protective dad, as his entire world is thrown into chaos when his daughter reaches a blooming age where all the boys (and men, in this case) take notice. Ironically Niven’s character is a famed University professor/psychiatrist who is supposed to be an expert in raising teenaged daughters but finds he struggles in real-life practice.
This film gets a tad edgier than the others on my list, regarding the issue of parenting free-spirited kids. His daughter is portrayed by a young Cristina Ferrare, who is pursued by several suitors, from surfers to bikers, including a sharp-looking Chad Everett. Dad Niven plays it flustered, but it’s a clear nod to the cultural shift of teens having greater control and freedoms than generations prior.
Michael Gordon directed The Impossible Years. Upon further inspection, he also directed Pillow Talk, Boy’s Night Out, Move Over, Darling, His story is an interesting one. He started out directing more gritty dramas. He was blacklisted by the HUAC in the ‘50s due to his left-leaning politics. When he found his second chance in Hollywood, he stuck to light comedies. He is also known as the grandfather of Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
I was trying to think about what drew me to these films so much in my youth when I doubt I fully comprehended their parodies on the changing views on sex, marriage, war, and generational disparities. Because these films poked fun at the serious and very adult topics of the day but presented them in a rather G-rated fashion, I suppose I reviled in the silliness. Ultimately, this sub-genre of film during this decade was not unlike the old Looney Tunes cartoons. You can enjoy them immensely, both as a kid and as an adult, only the perspective changes when you finally get the adult jokes and references.
In addition to the films listed above, you could count on the “Gidget,” surfer, and beach films during this same era to both reflect and satirize current (and counter) culture via their own take on the sex comedy. Do you have a favorite ‘60s sex comedy?
–Kellee Pratt for Classic Movie Hub
When not performing marketing and social media as her day gig, Kellee Pratt writes for her own classic film blog, Outspoken & Freckled (kelleepratt.com). Kellee teaches classic film courses in her college town in Kansas (Screwball Comedy this Fall). Unapologetic social butterfly, she’s an active tweetaholic/original alum for #TCMParty, member of the CMBA, Social Producer for TCM (2015, 2016), and busy mom of four kids and 3 fur babies. You can follow Kellee on twitter at @IrishJayHawk66.