Stream On: Paul Henning, Part 3—‘Lover Come Back’

By on March 23, 2023

Writer Kurt Andersen called TV producer and screenwriter Paul Henning (The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, Green Acres) “the Eli Whitney of American television production.” Besides his rural trilogy, he worked on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show and later TV series like The Dennis Day Show, The Real McCoys, and The Andy Griffith Show. He also co-wrote, with Stanley Shapiro, the screenplay for Lover Come Back, one of three films, variations on a theme, starring Rock Hudson, Doris Day and Tony Randall in 1961, for which he was nominated for a Best Writing: original screenplay Oscar.


/Amazon /Streaming /Trailer /🍅91%🍿77% /1961 /NR

“I’ve given this country what it has long needed—a good ten-cent drunk!” (Dr. Linus Tyler)

Like Henning’s TV shows, Lover Come Back was pure escapism. Lover Come Back co-writer Stanley Shapiro, who worked on the Hudson/Day/Randall film Pillow Talk (1959) and with Henning on the Burns and Allen show, told an interviewer in 1962, “I am a humorist. Will Rogers was a satirist, Laurel and Hardy were humorists. Believe me, humor is much harder to write. It was a lot easier for Will Rogers to get a laugh by doing a pun about the Government than it was for Laurel and Hardy to figure out how to move a piano manually from the basement to the fifth floor.”

The opening titles for Lover Come Back feature colorful animations and a jaunty theme song sung by Doris Day, signaling a fun evening at the movies, but just for “the grownups,” full of risqué double entendres—but no more. As P.G. Wodehouse wrote “musical comedies without the music,” Lover Come Back is a sex comedy without the sex, set in a time and place (1960’s Manhattan) of cocktails, cigarettes, Madison Avenue (think Mad Men), maid’s rooms, sophisticated singles—and henpecked married men (two of whom comprise the Greek chorus of the film). The kids could cool their heels at home with the babysitter.

“In the hive of Madison Avenue advertising agencies, there are workers”—Carol Templeton (Doris Day, a fine comedian in addition to a singer and dramatic actress), “and drones”—Jerry Webster (Rock Hudson). Jerry Webster has achieved success not through hard work but by wining and dining his clients, even setting them up on dates with attractive girls.

His hard-working competitor Carol is shown with her art director, who must redesign the packaging of a product for prospective client, J. Paxton Miller (Jack Oakie). Carol says, “Believe me, the agency that lands this account is the one that shows Mr. Miller the most attractive can.” Cut to a shot from behind of a chorus line, featuring Rebel Davis (Edie Adams, The Ernie Kovacs Show), where shameless Jerry is doing just that, dangling Rebel before Miller in a nightclub. “More bourbon?”

When Carol complains to her boss about Webster, he likens him, while annoying, to the common cold. “You know you’re going to get it once or twice a year.” Carol, hot, replies that there’s two ways to deal with the common cold. “You can fight it or go to bed with it.” Her boss’s eyes, and that of the audience, widen. “I intend to fight it!” Carol reports Jerry to the Ad Council, which he deftly counters by sending Rebel to charm the council members, mainly by showing them Jerry’s good conduct medal from the army—framed in her cleavage.

In exchange for Rebel’s cooperation, Jerry promises her a spot in commercials, arranging phony shoots featuring her for “VIP,” a nonexistent product. He has no intention of allowing them to be shown, but the perplexed company president, Pete Ramsey (Tony Randall, The Odd Couple, excellent as ever), orders them broadcast on television.

This means Jerry must come up with a product quickly, so he bribes a crank chemist, Dr. Linus Tyler (Jack Kruschen, The Apartment), to create one. When Carol mistakes Jerry for Tyler, he pretends to be the chemist, so that in her attempt to steal the account from Jerry, she is actually wining, dining, golfing, and frolicking at the beach with him as Tyler.

When Carol learns the truth, she once more reports Jerry to the Ad Council, this time for promoting a product that does not exist. Jerry, however, arrives at the hearing with VIP, a mint-flavored candy that Dr. Tyler has just created. He provides free samples to everyone there, including Carol.

VIP turns out to be intoxicating, each piece having the same effect as a triple martini. You can see where this is going, and it’s as much fun as it sounds. In vino est comoedia. Paul Henning’s deft touch is apparent here and there, notably the banjo music that accompanies Rebel’s scenes. There’s also a horny moose. The Beverly Hillbillies’ Donna Douglas has a small but charming part as Ramsey’s secretary, and I spotted an uncredited Ted Bessell (six years before That Girl) as an elevator operator.

In an eerie foreshadowing, when the Greek chorus sees Jerry wearing only a full-length fur coat (after Carol stranded him at a beach without a bathing suit), one says, “He’s the last guy in the world I would have figured.” (Hollywood’s top leading man Rock Hudson, whose homosexuality was an inside Hollywood secret, died of AIDS in 1985. Shortly before his death he made the first direct contribution, $250,000, to amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research, helping launch the non-profit organization dedicated to AIDS/HIV research and prevention)

(Pete Hummers is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to earn fees by linking Amazon.com and affiliate sites. This adds nothing to Amazon’s prices.)

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