**Video Transcript Below**
The sex comedy is a genre which has developed and evolved with the passage of time. The sex comedies of the fifties stand apart from those of the 1970s and even those of the 1990s. While the movies can seem like throwaway comedies, a deep dive into some of these films show them to be a surprising cultural snapshot of their respective eras, giving a peak at not only sexual and gender roles of the period but also the larger cultural views of sex in society.
Boys Night Out follows four, married, white collar suburban businessmen who all chip in to rent a bachelor pad in the city as a break from the hum drum nature of their humdrum, suburban married lives. However, they get more than they accounted for when they lease the apartment out to the sultry Cathy. However, while on surface she’s the image of the the girl they want living there, nothing is ever that easy. It turns out she’s a graduate student who just so happens to be studying the sexuality is the suburban male. The movie stars James Garner, Howard Morris, Howard Duff, Tony Randall and Kim Novak to name a few. Michael Gordon directs the film from a script by Ira Wallach.
Boys Night Out hit theaters in 1962 and a sex comedy like this is very much a product of the specific time in United States history– as it is commonly depicted in popular culture.
In the years following World War II, the culture surrounding sex began to change in earnest. This can be tied to a variety of factors, from the fast entry to the workplace many women experienced on the home front to the stress and reality that men were facing on the battlefronts in Europe, Asia and on the Pacific. Ultimately, as the war came to an end in 1945 and things were supposed to return to normal, the innocence which defined the years before the war had started to shift. After the traumatic events of the war, people weren’t in the same place that they were in 1941, setting the course for the changes which would define society in the following decades.
This isn’t to say that the change was an easy one. Most of us are familiar with the depictions of mainstream culture in the 1950s. The popularized image of suburbia — very much a new idea during these years– is one which is still common place in the reruns from the TV shows which survive from this period.
One thing in the middle of the twentieth century which has long fascinated me has been the reality behind this pristine suburban ideal.
Behind the white picket fences, the 1950s and 1960s saw a growing, and really a growing presence of sex in society– even if it wasn’t quite talked about as it was in later decades.
1953 in particular was an important year in this respect. Earlier in the year, Indiana University zoologist Dr. Alfred Kinsey released his study, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. The work is one of a number of academics working in the field of sexuality during this time from Margaret Mead to Masters and Johnson.
In December of 1953 there was another sexual cultural milestone when the first episode of Playboy hit newsstands.
This isn’t to hype the establishment of Playboy as a super feminist moment. However, what the magazine does do is bring an overall mainstreaming of female sexuality. An examination of some of the earliest centerfolds shows the models framed as the woman next door. In a culture which has vilified sex, in particular sexual women, suddenly the girl next door could be sexy.
Now that isn’t to say that these changes were accepted in popular culture. The return to normalcy following the upheaval of the way lead to a return to the accepted gender roles of the pre-war era. Men went to work and brought home the bacon while women kept house and made sure the children didn’t turn into juvenile delinquents. However, the drastic changes which occurred during the war made returning to a pre war normal impossible. These aren’t the same people who went to war, and this wasn’t the same world.
This is where Boy’s Night Out comes in. Ira Wallach’s script in particular taps into the sense of disconnect between men and women during this era in US culture. While the film on the surface very much looks like a vehicle for Garner and Novak, this isn’t simply a romance. Rather, the film is at its strongest as an ensemble piece examining these white collar, men in great flannel suits– Garner, Morris, Duff and Randall– with their wives played by Patti Paige, Janet Blair, Anne Jeffreys and mother Jesse Royce Landis.
At the root of the story is the examination of this question of the habits of the suburban male. Each of these men are very typical of the man in the gray flannel suits in popular culture of the era. They’re relatively young, married men with the families and white picket fences of the era. While it isn’t directly stated, most probably served in the war in some form. Yet, as the film starts out, something isn’t quite right in what should be their perfect lives.
At the same time, the script makes what I feel is the right choice to dive into the equally vibrant and interesting characters of their wives. So often, the movies and TV series let the women fade a bit into the background in the unseen domain of the home. However, Boys Night Out isn’t afraid to veer away from the narrative a bit into the middle of the second act to focus on these women and how they react to their husband’s perceived betrayal.
While the moments are largely played for comedy, it quickly becomes clear how much of the narrative stems from poor communication between the couples in their perceived need to play their cultural roles. Wether it be in Joanne’s (Paige) betrayal that she’s been living in a permanent state of dieting while her husband was looking else where, to Doug’s (Duff) overwhelming need to fix things around the house or even George’s (Randall) need to simply finish a sentence in his own house.
In an era where the dissatisfaction among housewives and Betty Friedan’s problem with no name was growing into the second wave feminism of the 1960s, while there was an increasing sense of discontent among men, equally trapped in jobs they didn’t necessarily like with families they weren’t always ready for. All at once, the very white, suburban ideal which was held up as the ideal during this era is really only skin deep. Below, the surface, generations of young adults were straining against the predefined gender roles in the culture of the period.
The ensemble in Boys Night Out is perfectly set up, easily managing to carry not only the light, jokey tone of the movie, but also work with and establish these characters as people. Howard Morris in particular is a standout among the characters as the forever hungry Howard, thanks to the fact his wife is always on a diet.
Michael Gordon shines in his direction, bringing together a perfect blend of comedic tone with the candy coated visuals. The director was a strong mainstay in the late studio era, best known by contemporary audiences for his work on Pillow Talk, The Impossible Years and Texas Across the River.
This movie is also one of my favorite Kim Novak performances next to Bell, Book and Candle. While the actress doesn’t have a lot of heavy lifting to do in the narrative, she really injects not only a sense of fun, but also intelligence into Cathy as a character. I particularly enjoy watching Novak with the power that she possesses in this narrative. She’s confident, self-assured and seems to be enjoying herself immensely as she studies the intricacies of the suburban male. Novak manages to shine in the performance despite the fact her character largely fills a thankless role, serving as a window for the audience. She is the reason that we see and understand what is going on between these couples.
Boys Night Out is an incredibly fun piece of timely cinema. This type of sex comedy is one which is at home in the middle of the twentieth century, and Ira Wallach’s script provides a savvy, but comedic insight into a number of the cultural struggles of this often considered pristine, white washed part in history. If you’re at all a fan of comedies like Pillow Talk, make sure you check out Boys Night Out.
Stay tuned for more here at Female Gaze Productions as we look at classic popular culture through a historical and feminist lens. My name is Kim, you can find us on Twitter at GazeFemale. If you’re looking for more, check out my podcast Hollywood and Wine wherever you listen to podcasts. As always, if you like what you’re seeing, please like and subscribe.
Podcaster at Hollywood and Wine, historian and filmmaker studying contributions of women in Classic TV. Film critic for Geek Girl Authority. Classic film lover for Ticklish Business.
You can find me on Twitter @kpierce624!