Clark Gable’s twilight years were spent in working on films outside his wheelhouse, specifically sex comedies. Teacher’s Pet is a late 1950s satire on relationships and the newspaper industry that would have benefited more by pairing up leading lady Doris Day with her past co-star Rock Hudson, as opposed to the aged Gable. However, Teacher’s Pet makes up for the May-December romance with an engaging tale of experience vs. education, where Day’s character has the upper hand and teaches Gable a thing or two.
James Gannon (Gable) is a newspaper editor who finds journalism school to be a ridiculous notion. Curious, he takes a class being taught by Professor Erica Stone (Day), masquerading as a wallpaper salesman who knows nothing about reporting. Erica, impressed with his supposed novice abilities, seeks to take Gannon under her wing. Along the way the two fall in love, but Gannon has to find a way to tell Erica who he really is.
I bring up Gable’s later films to show how his persona changed, up to and before his death in 1960. When I wrote up my thoughts on Marilyn Monroe (both Monroe and Gable’s final film was The Misfits), I theorized how Monroe would have floundered in a changing definition of beauty in the 1960s. Gable, had he not passed, could have ended up with the same fate. The Gable of Teacher’s Pet may be experienced, but his character is backwards on many things, including education. Due to his fluctuations in weight and gaunt appearance, the movie was deliberately shot in black and white. It’s understandable that Gable couldn’t remain the virile hunter of Red Dust, but it’s painfully apparent he’s struggling to fit in to the changing landscape of film and his roles within them. When Day and Gable do the mambo, a scene of life imitating art, Gable as Gannon fails. He’s still got the charm, but he can’t close. When played opposite Day, and later on opposite Mamie Van Doren, he looks like their father/grandfather, respectively.
Thankfully, the romance between Gable and Day doesn’t come off as lecherous as in other movies (ahem, Gary Cooper and Audrey Hepburn). Regardless of the co-credits, this is Day’s feature. Erica Stone challenges Gannon. Gannon comes from the school of hard knocks, and finds education serving no purpose in a world of hard-nose reporting and fact gathering. He finds it ludicrous that someone can learn to write from books. It’s through his burgeoning relationship with Erica that he learns he doesn’t know everything. We return to Gable’s fading persona with this role. He’s no longer the epitome of masculinity; he’s lost the ability to testify to America’s young men about romance, because he isn’t at the center of it anymore. The core theme of Fay and Michael Kanin’s script is we’re stuck with our own outdated points of view until we learn other ways to look at the world. Each of the characters in the film is deficient in their own way, whether it’s Gable being old-fashioned when it comes to social interactions or his intern Barney (Nick Adams) requiring proper schooling.
All of this sounds rather simple, and the brunt of this exploration comes from the relationship between Gannon and Erica. Their first meeting is of the “I hate you/I love you” variety, but Erica gets the upper hand in several instances. She’s attempted to get Gannon to come to the school and lecture to the students, but he refuses. Instead, he sends a letter, conveniently arriving the same day Gannon shows up to spy on Erica’s class. She reads the letter to her students, critiquing him without knowing he’s in the room. Later on, when she meets Gannon’s teenager in an adult body girlfriend, Peggy (Van Doren), she brings Gannon back to her house where she bursts in the song Peggy sings, “The Girl Who Invented Rock and Roll.”
Speaking of Van Doren, it’s a bit false calling her a cut-rate Marilyn Monroe, despite Fox putting her under contract for that purpose. She’s only given a few scenes her, and yes her character is dumb, but it’s not a showy type of dumb like Monroe could be. There’s no baby voice or utterly infantile way of talking; Van Doren’s Peggy is just as uneducated and inexperienced as her castmember compatriots. The problem with Van Doren’s character is how she ages the movie. Her song is meant to showcase this crazy new world of “rock and roll,” a musical style supposedly at odds with the world of newspapers. If anything, she’s utilized as a young foil, in contrast to Day who is meant as the suitable candidate for Gable’s heart.
All of this might not muster up images of a lengthy movie, but this movie laughs at that notion, turning in a near two-hour adventure that comes off as excessive. The story could have gone on with Gannon rigging the game to garner Erica’s attentions, and while the plot would have become ridiculous, it wouldn’t have felt as if we were going in circles. Instead, Gannon assumes Erica is dating a professor, Hugo Pine (Gig Young) and vows to break them up. Young was nominated for an Oscar for his performance, and aside from a weak year I can’t figure out what’s so award-worthy about his performance. He’s a “swell” guy who ends up getting roofied by Gannon. He spends most of his time with a washcloth on his head. Once Pine learns about Gannon’s scheme, the movie still meanders towards Erica’s inevitable uncovering of the plot, leaving Gannon to tie up loose ends. If anything, Teacher’s Pet would benefit from cutting about twenty minutes.
Overall, Teacher’s Pet is a fun, if kitschy experience. Doris Day turns in the first performance of hers I’ve enjoyed, and it’s interesting to watch Gable morph into the older character he’d become in his final four features. This is also my first experience watching a Mamie Van Doren film, who wasn’t nearly as awful as I’ve heard from others.
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