Sunday, 9 December 2012

The Thrill Of It All (1963)

The success of the TV show Mad Men triggered some interest and debate fairly recently over mid 20th century attitudes towards gender roles and advertising. The Thrill of It All is a film dealing with both themes, but as it was made nearer to the time Mad Men is set in, it does not have the safety net of ironic detachment to fall back on.

Doris Day plays housewife Beverly Boyer, who, after a chance remark at a dinner party, ends up doing TV commercials for Happy Soap - much to the chagrin of her husband, obstetrician Gerald, played by James Garner. As her fame and earning power grows, so does Gerald's jealousy. Will have Beverley have to choose between her career and her marriage?

Despite being written by two genuine comedy legends, Larry Gelbart and Carl Reiner, the script never raises any real belly laughs, and does not really rise above the level of the domestic TV sitcoms of the time, with cheesy dialogue and predictable situations, although some of the sexual innuendo is good for a chuckle. Thankfully, the seemingly effortless charisma of the two stars, who take up the majority of the screen time, make the film a very enjoyable watch. The rest of the cast go for a rather exaggerated, almost cartoon style of acting, that grates after a while.

The main message of the woman gaining, and then giving up her vocational and financial independence could be problematic, but it is difficult to take as misogynistic given the lightweight, insubstantial nature of the film.

Rather than the "Battle of the Sexes", the more interesting conflict is that between TV and cinema. The Thrill of It All is set in the time when TV was, relatively speaking, still in its infancy, and still a fairly crude and unsophisticated medium, both in technology and form. The dramas sponsored by Happy Soap are depicted as being poorly made, with a running gag of about them literally churning out the same scenes each week. Nevertheless, the public are entranced by it, perhaps as much by the novelty as by the content.

This leads to a slightly sneering, dismissive tone in the script, as if television is a medium driven primarily by commercial concerns, providing mindless, cheap entertainment to the masses, but never able to reach the sophisticated heights of more established forms. Which is of course exactly how, in it's early days, cinema was perceived.