Romantic Comedy Film

Categories: ActressComedy

Pillow Talk (1959), starring Doris Day and Rock Hudson, and Annie Hall (1977), starring Woody Allen and Diane Keaton, are two very different films that both belong to the genre of romantic comedy. Both films received five Oscar nominations. Pillow Talk was nominated for best actress, best supporting actress, musical score, art direction, and the one which it won, best story and screenplay written directly for the screen (Kimmel, 2008, p. 124). Annie Hall was nominated for best picture, best director, best original screenplay, best actor, and best actress.

It was the first time, since Orson Wells in 1941, that the same person, Woody Allen, was nominated for writing, directing, and starring in a film (Kimmel, 2008, p. 171). It won four of the five Oscars, only losing out on best actor. Pillow Talk is a film that provides a dated, silly interpretation of the development of a romantic relationship, especially because of its formulaic approach to the subject, whereas Annie Hall provides a more timeless, realistic view of romantic relationships, possibly because its time period provided a much more radical formula for this genre.

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A comparison of the two films analyzing their historical contexts, settings, visual characteristics, music, and the different ways that they achieve their “happy endings” will show why Pillow Talk only works in 1959 but Annie Hall is a romantic comedy that is still enjoyable today. The historical contexts of Pillow Talk (1959) and Annie Hall (1977) are important in understanding and analyzing these two romantic comedies.

Tamar Jeffers McDonald, in her book Romantic Comedy-Boy Meets Girl Genre (2007) identifies Pillow Talk as belonging to a sub-genre of romantic comedies known as a sex comedy, and she cites three key historical developments as instrumental in bringing about this particular sub-genre (p.

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40). First, in August of 1953, Alfred Kinsey’s report on Sexual Behavior in the Human Female was published and revealed that just over 50% of the 5,940 unmarried white single women interviewed for the study were not virgins (McDonald, 2007, p. 1). Also, the magazine Playboy was first published in November/December 1953, and launched the model of the modern playboy, who now, thanks to the magazine, understood the importance of the various consumables he would find necessary for enjoying sex and attracting girls: “the stereo, records, alcohol, the bachelor pad” (McDonald, 2007, p. 42).

The third development was the successful 1953 release of the film The Moon is Blue, a film which was denied a seal of approval from the Production Code Administration: Due to the success of the film (The Moon is Blue) and audience members’ evident willingness not to be protected in their viewing by the Production Code Administration, the power of this body began to be regularly challenged by filmmakers and thereafter rapidly declined. By 1956 it had been revised into a format which lifted all remaining taboos except nudity, sexual perversion and venereal disease and lasted in this weakened form until 1966 (McDonald, 2007, p. 2). Thus, the romantic comedies of the mid-1950’s, or the new “sex comedies,” often had a new type of female protagonist, one who could be interested in sex and possibly was not a virgin. Invariably they included a new setting as imagined by Playboy and its advertisers, the bachelor pad, as well as the playboy bachelor personae for the leading man. And, they were allowed more freedom in language and topics shown and discussed onscreen, thanks to the decline of PCA power over the film industry.

The film Pillow Talk, and most of the other romantic comedies of the mid-fifties and early sixties, are particularly dated because of the sexual mores of this time period. Even though the women of this time are no longer portrayed as uninterested in sex, the “real opposition (in sex comedies) lies in when the sex is to be achieved since the man is supposed to want sex without marriage and the woman to want marriage before sex” (McDonald, 2007, p. 45). The threat of pregnancy was a huge concern for single women before the advent of the birth control pill, and then it was not (because of the pill’s introduction in America in the early sixties).

In 1959, sex outside of marriage was risky behavior for a single woman, and Jan Morrow, the independent, modern, single career woman of Pillow Talk acknowledged this in the film. When told that she could get a private telephone line if there was an emergency, such as a pregnancy, Jan tells the phone company employee that pregnancy was an emergency that she was not willing to have as a single woman. The lack of telephone lines and the necessity of Jan Morrow and Brad Allen sharing a party line, the predicament upon which the entire plot depends (McCallum, 1999, p. 72), also places this film in a “very precise and hort-lived historical moment” (McDonald, 2007, p. 51). Annie Hall, which was released in 1977, is likewise very much a product of its particular time period.

The social and political upheavals of the late 1960s were reflected in the romantic comedies of the 1970s. Many diverse events such as the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the Miss America protests with attendant bra-burning events, the publication of Masters’ and Johnson’s Human Sexual Response, the final end of the Production Code and its replacement with a ratings system, and the high-profile My Lai massacre of civilians in Viet Nam by U. S. soldiers formed the historical context of the time period (McDonald, 2007, p. 61). Because of all the violence and change, people were “ moving away from intellectual involvement with contemporary events towards a less-engaged point of view” and were becoming more self-absorbed and introspective (McDonald, 2007, p. 61).

By the early 1970s, statistics showed marked increase in the number of marriages ending in divorce and that there were more single women than single men living in our big urban centers, and abortion was discussed and publicly debated because of the Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court case of 1973 (McDonald, 2007, p. 62). This was a time when very few romantic comedies were getting made, and those that did get made were marked by a new culture-“the world of sex, love, and romance seemed a very different place from that of even a decade previously” (McDonald, 2007, p. 2). McDonald (2007) identifies a sub-genre for the films of this time period: the radical romantic comedy, and gives it this working definition: The radical romantic comedy generally retains the basic framework (boy meets, loses, regains girl) of the standard romantic comedy, but makes much of its own realism in certain areas – language, sexual frankness – being prepared to discard older conventions and frequently permitting a much more open ending (p. 72).

Annie Hall is radically different from Pillow Talk, and almost any other traditional romantic comedy, immediately – the opening titles scream realism without graphics or accompanying song or sound, and consist of white lettering on a black background. Then Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) speaks directly to the camera. If the story is about Annie Hall, as the film title might suggest, it is told by Alvy: “The story is not simply a story, but his story, with his framing. Generally, what we know about Annie and the elationship comes filtered through Alvy, an intrusive narrator capable of halting the narrative and stepping out from it in order to entreat the audience’s interpretive favor” (Knight, 2004, p. 214). The film is introspective, and self-reflexive in the sense that it is aware that it is a film, as would be expected of a radical romantic comedy (McDonald, 2007, p. 67). And it is not just a story of boy meets girl – Alvy Singer is 40 years old and has been married twice before.

The story of the romance with Annie is not told chronologically; although Annie and Alvy are verbally sparring with each other in their first scene together in the film, just like Jan and Brad in Pillow Talk, they did not start out hating each other. Addressing Alvy and Annie’s unhappiness as a couple, Diane Jacobs writes: What is cinematically novel here is that boundaries between happiness and unhappiness are purposefully obscured. We’re shown no first time that Annie doesn’t want to sleep with Alvy, no morning when Alvy awakes to discover that Annie’s once endearing volatility has grown annoying.

Where the traditional Hollywood romance posits a specific when and why things “go wrong,” this is not so comfortably the case here. By fragmenting plot and skewing chronology, by showing us Annie and Alvy bickering before the first kiss, Allen undermines the salience of a pivotal event and underscores the depressing perspicacity of a stranger’s advice to Alvy: “It’s never something you did. That’s how people are. Love fades. ” (qtd. in Knight, 2004, p. 214).

And, Annie Hall unmistakably shows the realism of the period and an openness towards frank sexual language as rate of intercourse, sodomy, and sexual problems are discussed in Alvy and Annie’s opening scene together, in public while waiting in line for a movie. Annie and Alvy have sex almost immediately also, although not the day they meet but definitely on the night of their first date. This was foreshadowed by Alvy’s demanding a goodnight kiss early on their first date together, so they could get that part over and relax.

The iconography of a traditional romantic comedy usually includes an urban setting (McDonald, 2007, p. 11) and both Pillow Talk and Annie Hall take place in New York City. Visually, however, NYC appears very differently in the two films. Ross Hunter, the producer of Pillow Talk, has been described as “one of the last of the old-fashioned Hollywood producers. He rejected the notion that audiences wanted more realism on screen. In his mind they wanted the same thing they had always wanted: glamour” (Kimmel, 2008, p. 114).

The apartments and night clubs in Pillow Talk are dazzling spectacles of color, outrageous purples and pinks. Brad Allen’s bachelor pad is equipped with spiral staircases and art, as well as automatic light-dimming, record- playing, door-locking buttons that allow him to gracefully seduce women. The images in the montage of places that Jan and Rex Stetson go during their whirlwind dating period show only the most beautiful aspects of NYC, and even the weather is always perfect. In contrast to this colorful, heightened reality, Annie Hall’s New York City looks real.

The apartments that the characters live in have mostly white walls, and the night club that Annie first sings in is dingy, noisy, and has horrible lighting. It definitely seems authentic, not a set. The contrasts in costuming are similar. Jan Morrow wears unbelievably chic ensembles to work, and her dating gowns make every date look like prom. Brad Allen always dresses like a version of the 21st century icon Don Draper of Mad Men, whereas Alvy Singer wears the plaid shirts and army jackets of the 1970’s.

Diane Keaton is said to have introduced what would be known as the “Annie Hall look” when she showed up dressed in a floppy hat, a vest, a tie, and baggy pants; the costumer Ruth Morley was purportedly aghast, but Woody Allen called it genius (Kimmel, 2008, p. 163). In discussing the contrasting visual characteristics of the two films, it is hard to ignore the romantic comedy trope (recurrent element of the genre) of the tall, dark, and handsome leading man. Rock Hudson, of course, is the epitome of the leading man, and Woody Allen is not.

A stock character of a romantic comedy is often the unsuitable boyfriend (McDonald, 2007, p. 1), played by Tony Randall in Pillow Talk. Randall plays Jonathan, Brad Allen’s best friend and coincidentally, a man intent on marrying Jan Morrow. Unfortunately, he just does not seem to appeal to Jan. Although he is rich, he is shorter and less good-looking than Rock Hudson, and somewhat neurotic, as evidenced by his references to his psychiatrist. This description almost perfectly describes Alvy Singer. The realism of the radical romantic comedy allows for a leading man that looks like Alvy Singer. A visual element that is common to both the films is the use of the split screen.

It was a “dazzling technical trick” in 1959, and its use in Pillow Talk was “daringly racy” as it visually implied that Jan and Brad were sharing a bath or a bed (McDonald, 2007, p. 51). A screen divided into thirds was used in the opening titles of Pillow Talk, and another version of the split screen shows Jan wedged between Brad and one of his girlfriends as they all talk on the party line, foreshadowing what will happen by the end of the film. In Annie Hall, the split screen device is used several times – showing Annie and Alvy meeting with their respective analysts, and contrasting their families as they have a family meal.

In both instances, Alvy gets two-thirds of the screen, and Annie the remaining third, which again emphasizes that Annie Hall is really Alvy’s story. Christopher Knight (2004) writes that this particular part of the film symbolizes a fundamental difference between the sexes: This difference seems iconized in the split-screen presentation of Annie and Alvy in the chambers of their respective analysts. Alvy lies upon upon a couch, staring away from the analyst who sits meditatively in his leather wing chair.

Annie, in turn, sits in a light, molded chair facing her analyst. The physical arrangement, with its stark, white and chrome modern furnishings, is purposely designed not to call attention to itself, so as to not override the core matter: the conversation between the two women (p. 219). The visual differences in the two therapy settings echo the results: Annie gains real insights from her therapy and uses it to solve some of her personal problems; Alvy has been in therapy for over 15 years and there is not a lot of evidence that it has helped him.

Daniel Kimmel (2008) commented on Woody Allen’s use of various film devices in Annie Hall: Allen gave many of the devices – animation, sub-titles, split screens – his own unique spin. The gags worked because they were, indeed, character driven. When we see Annie and Alvy at their separate therapists, it’s not just the look of the contrasting scenes – with Alvy on a traditional couch and Annie seated facing her doctor – but what they are saying. Both are asked how often they have sex. “Hardly ever. Maybe three times a week,” complains Alvy while Annie replies, “ Constantly!

I’d say three times a week” (p. 166). The use of sound and music in Pillow Talk and Annie Hall are significantly different. Among the micro-tropes that McDonald (2007) says often occur in the sub-genre of the sex comedy, besides the protagonists who hate at first sight, the masquerade, and a set piece of an anti-marriage speech (all of which occur in Pillow Talk) is the music which “often blends a romantic style for the intimate moments with a comedic score” (p. 45). In Pillow Talk, the musical score is like a laugh track, telling you what is supposed to be funny or romantic.

Since Doris Day was a singer, the film showcases her voice. She sings the title song which is almost nonsensical since the character Jan Morrow is hardly the type of woman who would sing, “There must be a pillow-talking boy for me…” However, the use of song as she drives to Connecticut with Rex actually explains her intentions. She does not actually sing it out loud but in her mind, a sort of song-soliloquy. The lyrics (“Hold me tight, Make love to me, Darling, possess me…) seem to clearly imply that, echoing the findings of the 1953 Kinsey report, here was a single woman who would have sex before marriage.

Doris Day herself affirmed this in an interview years after the film: “I don’t think I was a virgin. I went off to the country with him and I probably would have succumbed, except I found out he was a phony and ran away. The audience – you thought I was a virgin” (Kimmel, 2008, p. 118). In contrast to Pillow Talk’s less-than-subtle musical score, Annie Hall is noticeably silent. It has no opening song or music, no score, only a few seconds of music in one scene as Annie drives with Alvy to the country, and her two songs in nightclubs, classic songs that come from a different era.

First she performs “It Had to Be You” with a background of talking, clashing dishes, and ringing phones, and in a later scene “Seems Like Old Times,” this time to a completely quiet and respectful audience. Annie’s voice singing “Seems Like Old Times” is then played in the film’s closing as a montage of scenes from their relationship is shown and as Alvy sums up his narration. Both the songs impart significant meaning to the romantic story – the 1924 “It Had to Be You” has lyrics explaining why the singer puts up with a domineering partner, and Annie’s performance, like Annie herself at this point, is uncertain and unsure.

At a later point in the film, the 1945 ballad, “Seems Like Old Times,” is a portent to the ending of the relationship between Annie and Alvy, as Annie has grown into a different person and performer. Thus, the songs and the musical score of Pillow Talk are basically formulaic and artificial, whereas the more realistic music (and the performances themselves) in Annie Hall impart meaning to the narrative and explain the development of the character Annie.

McDonald (2007) provided this master definition of a romantic comedy: “A romantic comedy is a film which has as its central narrative motor a quest for love, which portrays this quest in a light-hearted way and almost always to a successful conclusion” (p. 9). Generally it is assumed that a happy ending is boy gets girl or bride gets groom. In Pillow Talk, they go a step further and not only do Jan and Brad end up married, they get a pregnancy (and eventually four children as the extra pillows in the end titles seem to indicate).

For this to occur, Brad Allen had to transform from being a womanizer and cad to a man more like Rex Stetson, a man who respected women and took enough time to get to know Jan so that he could fall in love with her, so deeply that he was willing to break off with all his other women and offer himself up for marriage. Unfortunately, he had to carry her in her pajamas through the streets of NYC to get her attention sufficiently to show her that he was now this guy, ready to get married. If this rather contrived ending seems silly and simplistic in the present day and age, it certainly followed the formula perfectly for 1959.

But the radical romantic comedies of the 1970’s had a slightly different formula: these films, “as romantic comedies, want to bring about the happy union of a woman and a man…,but as modern films, they have to show themselves to be beyond the naivety that such uncomplicated couplings rely on” (McDonald, 2007, p. 69). There is a parody of the “happy ending” towards the end of Annie Hall – Alvy has written a play where, when the guy goes to California to get the girl, she agrees to go back to New York with him. Alvy turns to the camera and remarks, ‘You know how you’re always trying to get things to come out perfect in art because it’s real difficult in life’” (Kimmel, 2008, p. 172). Alvy always thought that Annie needed to change – she read the wrong books, used words like “neat” and phrases like “la de dah,” needed to take adult education classes, had to undergo therapy. Annie frequently lamented that Alvy did not think that she was smart enough to be serious about. Annie eventually experienced sexual problems because she had trouble being intimate with someone who did not respect who she was.

In Pillow Talk, Brad Allen was supposedly transformed, but in Annie Hall, Alvy Singer was not. However, Annie did transform, as she became more assured through therapy and adult education, and exposure to films and better literature. The actual conversation in California when Alvy pursued Annie went this way: Annie: You are incapable of enjoying life. (finally she understands Alvy) Alvy: Do you want to get married or what? (Alvy still can’t wholeheartedly commit) Annie: You are the reason I got out of my room, that I was able to sing, and get more in touch with my feelings and all that crap. Thanks for helping me become a better Annie) Alvy and Annie do not end up as a couple but they do end up friends. Alvy is not shattered by this ending but “affirms that relationships are worth the risks” (Gehring, 2002, p. 79). And a smarter, wiser, more secure Annie is ready now to find happiness as well. While this is not a traditional “happy ending,” this is definitely a “successful conclusion. ” Pillow Talk told viewers that Jan Morrow and Brad Allen ended up with the ideal outcome to their relationship, but Annie Hall convinced viewers that what happened between Alvy and Annie was for the best.

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Romantic Comedy Film. (2017, Jan 25). Retrieved from

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