If Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees had had more students like Clark Gable, she might never have quit teaching.
"He's a perfect example of that dying race—the unpressed gentlemen of the press."—Erica
Think of Doris Day and you probably think of frothy Technicolor musicals or equally frothy Technicolor sex comedies. If you're a real Doris fan, you may also think of suspense melodramas like Julie and Midnight Lace, or dramatic fare like Love Me or Leave Me. But Teacher's Pet doesn't fall into any of those categories. A smart, grown-up romantic comedy with a lot more meat on its bones than many of her other comic ventures, Teacher's Pet will appeal to many viewers who don't usually watch Doris Day films. With screen legend Clark Gable (Gone with the Wind) costarring, you can be doubly certain that you're in for something good.
Facts of the Case
Shrewd, self-made newspaper editor Jim Gannon (Gable) is positive that the only way for a newsman to learn his trade is on the job. So when journalism teacher Erica Stone (Day) asks him to serve as guest lecturer for her class on newswriting, he sends her a blistering letter than tells her how useless courses like hers are. However, his higher-ups pressure Jim to play nice with the lady teacher, and he has discovered for himself that she has a comely set of gams, so he takes on a new name and enrolls in her class as a novice writer.
Even though Jim likes to challenge her authority in class, Erica soon recognizes his talent for newswriting, and she urges him to work with her outside of class to hone his "natural" skill. This suits Gannon just fine—until Erica's protective secretary (Marion Ross, Happy Days) tells him that Erica is spoken for: by brilliant psychologist Dr. Hugo Pine (Gig Young, Desk Set). As Gannon struggles to find a chink in faultless Hugo's armor, he also finds himself beginning to question the assumptions he's always made about what constitutes good newswriting—and good education. But when Erica finds out that her star student is the same man who so rudely dismissed her, he'll really have to do his homework to win her over.
Teacher's Pet is as different from today's romantic comedies as…well, as different as Doris Day is from a crowd of hyperactive, tarted-up, empty-headed Britney wannabes. It shows us what romantic comedies could be before their authors began to prioritize glossy style and burbling high spirits over story and substance. Although Teacher's Pet does fall into the romantic comedy genre, its intelligence, its low-key atmosphere, and its thoughtfully developed characters and story make it much more satisfying to the adult palate than cotton candy like You've Got Mail or How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days.
Granted, the opening titles make it look like it's going to be just another giddy comedy, with the lighthearted title song (sung by Doris, of course) and the caricatures of the stars that appear alongside the credits. But you notice other things right away. This film is in black and white, for a start, which gives it a less glamorous feel than Technicolor. The opening scene, moreover, takes place in a newspaper office, which brings things even more down to earth. We realize pretty soon that this is a story set in the real world, not a Hollywood dreamscape. As the story unfolds, we find it confronting issues with real depth: conflicting ideas about the purpose of journalism, the function of education, the changing face of the media. Jim belongs to the old school of journalism, and Erica introduces him to a lot of new ideas about his own profession and what a good newspaper can and should do. Erica's ideas aren't just untried theory, either: She started out as a news writer herself, which gives her credibility. When Jim asks her why she left a "real" job to teach, she responds thoughtfully, "Maybe for the same reason that occasionally a musician wants to be a conductor. He wants to hear a hundred people play music the way he hears it." She feels passionately about her work and has thought a lot about it. When she and Jim disagree, and they often do, it's stimulating because of the depth of their feelings and the intelligence and commitment that both bring to the discussion. How often do we see this kind of articulate discussion of issues in a romantic comedy?
Moreover, as in the best classic romantic comedies, like Gable's own It Happened One Night, both the hero and the heroine end up gaining a broader perspective from knowing each other. For much of its running time Teacher's Pet focuses on Jim's awakening to a new take on journalism, but as the story progresses he discovers that some of Erica's criteria for newswriting are founded on a flawed ideal, so he realizes that he has something to teach her. Erica, like Jim, has some learning and growing to do before she and Jim are ready to be together—and ready to truly excel in their chosen fields.
The pacing also distinguishes Teacher's Pet from other films in the genre. This is a story that takes its time, allowing us to revel in nuance, and unfolding character development without haste or short cuts. Notice how long the nightclub scene goes on, for example, and how much our enjoyment of it increases the longer it goes. It's rare to find a romantic comedy these days that isn't rushing from one set piece to the next. To be sure, there are scenes here that would benefit from some tightening up and a brisker pace—such as the opening scene, in which Gannon is confronted by a worried mother—but in general I found the relaxed tempo inviting.
It's also refreshing when the film doesn't go in the expected direction: Jim and Hugo, for example, don't end up in the predictable shoving match over Erica, and they actually become more like allies than rivals. Similarly, when Erica, Jim, and Hugo are watching Jim's vapid date (Mamie Van Doren, High School Confidential!) perform a sexy nightclub act—a scene reminiscent of one in the great screwball comedy The Awful Truth—the story doesn't take the course we anticipate. Instead of being jealous or offended, Erica is highly amused by the performance—especially by Jim's reaction to it—and later she saucily parodies it for his benefit (quite well, too). Even the traditional rom-com setup, in which the hero and heroine start out prejudiced against each other but learn to overcome their animosity, is developed with unusual perception; Jim's tendency to undercut Erica's authority in the classroom isn't just a ploy to heighten the romantic tension, but a revelatory statement about Gannon's character—as Hugo points out to him much later in the film.
I've talked a lot about the story, but the actors deserve great credit for making it work. The screenplay (by Fay and Michael Kanin) doesn't employ a lot of big punch lines, so the film relies greatly on the performances of the actors for its humor. Day brings her characteristic energy and spunk to the role of Erica, yet gives her an intelligence and intellectual passion that make her more mature than the perpetual-virgin characters she would go on to play soon after. Gable brings the right degree of craggy appeal to his role; he's entirely convincing as the tough journalist set in his ways—who hasn't lost his eye for a pretty lady's posterior (it's a hoot to watch him ogling lithe Doris in her pencil skirts). He, too, brings energy and intelligence to his character, making Gannon much more than the middle-aged chauvinist I expected him to be. He and Day work smoothly together: Their timing together is beautiful, creating an unforced rhythm that makes their scenes hum. Gig Young, in an Oscar-nominated role, is priceless as the effortlessly perfect Hugo. Young plays his character as almost a parody of the self-effacing perfect man, who drinks Jim under the table, mambos like a professional, and jams with the night club musicians on the bongo drums (while addressing them in their own African dialect). Especially after he's established himself as excelling at everything, the scene in which he endures the first hangover of his life is one of the comic highlights of the film. Although Mamie Van Doren is given costarring credit, her appearance is very brief—which is a relief, since her performance is just a second-rate Marilyn Monroe imitation. She does acquit herself better in her nightclub number than in the speaking portion of her appearance, but she's not indispensable to the film, as are Day, Gable, and Young.
Since we get zero in the way of extras (Paramount strikes again), it's particularly pleasing to see such a fine audiovisual transfer. The black-and-white picture preserves the original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, and although it doesn't have the richness and depth of some black-and-white photography (or very exciting visual compositions), it is extremely clean and sharp, with very good detail and almost no flaws. The mono audio track is also beautifully clean, with impeccable fidelity, and is almost lively enough to pass for stereo. Although there's very little use of music, all the source music in the nightclub scene comes through with great purity, and the sound of the bongo drums has surprising resonance and depth.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For those accustomed to the rapid-fire hijinks of more typical romantic comedies, Teacher's Pet requires some patience. Likewise, its low-key humor may slip right past those who like broader laughs; this is not a film that's likely to be called "effervescent." By now you've probably grasped that this is a different kind of romantic comedy from the bubbly gaiety of That Touch of Mink and the like, so bear that in mind if you're considering a purchase.
In addition, while I find its use of the journalistic backdrop a strength, some viewers may get bored by all the focus on newswriting and the function of the media. There's certainly less emphasis here on lively banter and more on the sharing of serious ideas. All these factors make the film meatier and more mature than the average romantic comedy in my estimation, but for some viewers, there may not be enough com—or even enough rom—in this rom-com.
This is the kind of film we don't often see any more: a romance about real grownups, and a comedy that isn't structured around chase scenes and pratfalls. With its distinctive use of the field of journalism for a backdrop, and with standout performances by its three main performers, Teacher's Pet will please viewers who don't want the same old romantic comedy formula.
Teacher's Pet is exonerated of all charges, except perhaps that count of drunk and disorderly. Case dismissed!
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