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Saturday, October 13, 2012

Warners' Wartime Pajama Party

Hollywood made great sport appearing to kick censor pants, especially by frisky wartime and a public's increased appetite for spiced comedy where much was read between lines. Customers wondered how Paramount and Preston Sturges "got away" with The Miracle Of Morgan's Creek in 1945 --- were Code monitors asleep? Word travelled fast when it looked like saucy content getting by, even if more was imagined than real. Restrictions were still in place, script and final print subject to as close scrutiny as ever. What did develop by the mid-forties was studio resource to make pure-as-milk seem spiked, a joke here or moment there for sex-minded patronage to pass among friends. So did Warners heat Pillow To Post beyond PCA thermostat setting? Yes or no was anyone's call, depending on their own thermostats.

An Unmarried Couple Forced To Share Rooms --- and That's All Paying Customers Needed To Know

Ida Lupino Said Years Later That Pillow To Post Was a Show She
Got Most Comments On
Pillow To Post comes on TCM, but not so far to Warners' Archive (surely it's imminent, though). A man-and-woman (unmarried) forced to share housing, or hotel room, during crowded wartime was threat (or promise) to excite men-and-women hewing still to proprieties codified by society and rigidly enforced by the Code. Tyrone Power invades Anne Baxter's Washington suite in Crash Dive after she mistakenly occupies his lower berth on a train getting there. Putting one or both in robe or pajamas eroticized what were otherwise innocent bump-ups. Misunderstanding as to who belonged in what bed drove much of 40's mirth. Ida Lupino nightie-clad with toothbrush must go past William Prince's bed toward a shared bath, their Pillow To Post nighttime ritual a seeming low-lit prelude to seduction. No matter the couple being kept apart, this was heady stuff to viewers ever on the pant for what they could call suggestive.

To a 40's Audience Starved For Sex, This Scene Was Plenty Hot Potatoes

One trick for tweaking the Code was to let an innocent situation be misread by others. Sydney Greenstreet plays Pillow To Post in a near-continuous state of high moral dudgeon. He assumes unmarried Ida Lupino and William Prince to be wed, is outraged when it's discovered they're not, is finally (if barely) convinced that the couple hasn't spent a night together. That same is firmly established for us as well. The PCA would permit characters being misled onscreen, but never their audience. Slapstick stood in for verbal inference as censorship firmed grips. It's what made Cary Grant fall down in so many screwball comedies. Humor got more physical to keep players from getting too physical ... with each other. Ida Lupino does gags in Pillow To Post they'd have given Louise Fazenda a decade before.

Syd Greenstreet Plays Misunderstanding Surrogate For 1945 Patron's Dirty Minds --- A Device H'wood Often Used To Tweak The Code

Ida and Bill Wrap Themselves in Walls Of Jericho, as Patrons
Waited a Feature's Length To See Them Tumble Down
Viewers could assume Ida worked through sexual frustration struggling for sleep on kitchen chairs she pushes together --- and is little Bobby Blake cooling Lupino's libido when he tosses bags of water on her from a rooftop? Patronage was welcome to sprinkle spice where needed, with Warner assist only to points well short of where imagination headed. Wasn't everyone accustomed to filling in blanks of radio drama and comedy at home? Pillow To Post wouldn't be the only lemon from which audiences made lemonade. Laughter being contagious as it was in packed houses, there may have been those that "got" a Pillow To Post gag they thought was blue, from which uproar spread, even as crowds at a previous or next showing might not react at all.

Pillow To Post can still delight even when not funny. The pursuit of laughs during WWII grew anxious, if not desperate. It needn't have, of course, if what I hear of then-customers most wanting comedy is true (exhib comments confirm that even half-strength Laurel and Hardy features of the period raised roofs). Wartime exigencies are observed in Pillow To Post --- all men are in uniform or explaining why they're not. Most of action takes place on a sound-stage motor court, a deep and elaborate set typical of ones built by WB to keep filming indoors. Husbands are at all times eager to ship out to varied danger zones. Sydney Greenstreet, as heavy as I've ever seen him, frets over weight loss necessary to qualify for combat service, denying himself even a banana when the wife reminds him that it has seventy-seven calories (the things I learn watching movies).

Come On In, Folks, Lupino's Letting Her Hair Down!

Salesmanship for Pillow To Post is vivid reflection of Warner then-priorities on parade. Ida Lupino is billed as a "Lady Wolf"  --- woo-woo! --- that Andy Hardy expression heavily (over)used by others. This too was departure for what seemed a 24/7 tragedian, Lupino doing comedy as infrequently as WB upper-classwoman Bette Davis, so curiosity was rife to see her prance in nighties and dance a Jitterbug. Ads emphasized this was a bedtime story, pillow fighting and night-clothes in virtually all displays. Several young men who'd registered in Objective, Burma got follow-up Warner breaks, thus William Prince as co-star here, but he was less farceur than functional support player, so it was back to the latter and eventually stage and TV. Syd Greenstreet was sold simply as "The Fat Man," in all his WB's, it seemed --- just imagine that being tried today (and who'd notice anyhow?, with discount stores/fast food outlets filled with latter-day Greenstreets of both sexes).


Anonymous Richard said...

Another entertaining and informative post about a film I sadly admit I was unfamiliar with before today - and now I can't wait to see it!

11:20 AM  
Blogger Jeff said...

Terrific post--but I have two questions. 1) Is Lupino funny? Since her father was a music-hall comedian, you'd think she'd have had some comic chops. 2) Who is the artist who seemingly did all of Warners' art c. 1945, including these? Visually, it's such a radical departure from what came before--though the tag lines are as stupid as they ever were, and would continue to be. "A peach of a pair in a pip of a picture?" Godfrey Daniels, is that terrible. And I bet Warners used it more than once. "The Bride Came C.O.D.," maybe.

5:09 PM  
Anonymous DBenson said...

I think the most explicit moments in that era involved newlyweds eager to ditch the rest of the cast (like the closing shot of "The Lady Eve"); and/or implying there was a reason for it (Deanna Durbin reacting when her new groom chucks the book she was reading out a window). Once in a while there might be a careful wink in connection with imminent bundles of joy.

Beyond that, I can only think of Tarzan carrying a mellow Jane out of camera range after Boy had been put to bed. Not as hot as the first couple of films -- MGM had made them polite and respectable since then -- but it was something.

12:53 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hi Jeff --- I thought Lupino handled the physical comedy just fine. As you say, she came by that talent naturally, based on the family background. I wish she'd done more films along "Pillow To Post" lines.

As to that Warner advertising art, don't you just love it? The stupider the tag-lines, the more endearing they are to me. That's why I tried to get as many of them into the post as possible --- didn't want readers to miss out on any!

5:26 AM  
Blogger iarla said...

just saw this for the first time about a month ago. i'd caught up with a relatively rare lupino western called "lust for gold" which i'd thoroughly enjoyed and, noticing "post" in her filmography as a film i'd never seen, i found a lovely copy to view. ida's at her most attractive, game for comedy and very petite, with only the barest hint of her high strung intensity, and she almost pulls off an overwritten drunk scene. it seemed to me to not quite have the look of a Warners 'A' picture, despite greenstreet and the surprising appearance -midway- of louis armstrong and his orchestra featuring an uncredited dorothy dandridge as guest vocalist!

7:21 AM  
Blogger Unca Jeffy said...

Coming to you as a GREAT appreciator of cartoons, I will say that YES toons have an even more divisive attraction than features. I LOVE the Ralph Phillips cartoons, but can certainly understand why if it doesn't float your boat at first glance, it probably never will.

12:47 PM  

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