As charming as Doris Day may be, it’s hard to imagine seeing The Thrill of It All and feeling just peachy after walking out of the theater as a woman in 1963. Sure, in many respects it’s a delightful, classic American screwball comedy with all the wacky situations and relatable domestic banter in high supply. There’s an avalanche of bubbles, cars driven into swimming pools, and old men with hearing impairments. Classic!
But the plot line, oh the early 60s plot line. The Thrill of It All is the story of Beverly Boyer, happy housewife to Dr. Gerald Boyer, a gynecologist in New York with a lovely little chauvinistic streak. Dr. Boyer has won the title of “genius” from an ecstatic, recently pregnant couple, the Fraleighs, who invite the Boyers to a dinner party in their excitement. Dr. Boyer tells his wife himself that he is an excellent doctor, since he helped Mrs. Fraleigh get pregnant after trying for 20 years. The secret to his medical breakthrough? Prescribing a 3-month cruise to “take the pressure off, psychologically.” Hip Hip Science!
The Boyers arrive at the dinner party where they are ushered into a dark room with an old man shouting at a skinny model bathing on TV. That’s Old Tom Fraleigh, the crotchety, binge peanut-eating CEO for Happy Soap. Old man Fraleigh hears Beverly describe her own experience with Happy Soap and is immediately charmed. He asks the housewife if she would be willing to star in a commercial for him. Though Mrs. Boyer protests that she is a housewife, not an actress, a one day gig to the tune of $332 wins her over.
Her first on-air live commercial goes, well, horrifically. She mumbles, stutters, argues, and pauses her way through the entire thing and leaves feeling so embarrassed she vows never to go on television again. But Fraleigh is enchanted and so is the rest of the audience. She is quickly offered a job as the new Happy Soap spokesgirl and has to decide between $80,000 and her pride and dignity. Clearly, she takes the $80,000.
And here’s where things go off the rails, or should I say, where the “conflict” is introduced. This is, clearly, a major problem. Beverly is offered a well-paying job and now she must leave the children to the care of their full-time housekeeper… one day a week. She now has outside interests and pursuits and isn’t there to greet her husband with a fresh-out-of-the-oven roast… for one day a week. What, you ask? That doesn’t sound like a major problem? Because Dr. Boyer treats it like a full-scale domestic crisis.
The OB grows increasingly frustrated with Mrs. Boyer’s success and growing celebrity, and derives a handful of schemes to sabotage her career. First he tries to draw a hard line with the argument that bad things wouldn’t happen if “you were home where you belong.” Plus, as he points out, she already has all of the creative outlets she could ever want between the PTA and bottling homemade ketchup. When yelling and discouraging doesn’t work, he fakes an affair to amp up the emotional stress (it puts the pressure on, psychologically) though I’m not really sure what he thought the end gain would be with that one. Perhaps the most horrifying, he wants to impregnate her so she’ll be forced to go back to her life as a mother and mother alone.
The buildup of conjugal tension finally explodes into an argument when Dr. Boyer comes up late at night from work and demands that she give up her “asinine career.” When Beverly asks about her rights as a woman to contribute to her family, he responds, “They grew and they grew until they suffocated my rights as a man.”
The worst part is the happy ending. Mrs. Fraleigh goes into labor at a party where Beverly is lamenting over the faux-affair of her husband and her worst commercial appearance to date. Beverly rushes with the Fraleighs to the hospital, but time is short and Beverly herself may have to deliver the baby. But just then, when all hope isn’t lost, Dr. Boyer rides up in white scrubs on a charging horse and saves the day. A regular 1963 hero. When it’s all over, Beverly looks up at her husband and she doesn’t ask about the affair, she doesn’t ask about the (staged, though she doesn’t know this) night he came up completely sloshed and whispered the names of another woman in their bedroom. No. She turns with adoring eyes and murmurs, “I want to be a doctor’s wife again.” And boom. Fireworks burst and the credits roll, only after a quick scene that establishes Dr. Boyer will get his 3rd baby and his 7-day-a-week housewife back (as opposed to the six-day-a-week one he hated).
The movie is, at times, hard to watch. Because of Beverly’s utter lack of self-assurance, because of the script’s firm belief in the potency of the dilemma it weaves, and because the main antagonist doesn’t show his wife a minute of genuine support over 9 months and ends up somehow being the hero.
But for all the movie’s odd insistencies, it has some shining moments. Doris Day acts with all of the artful possession that her character lacks. And like I said before, there’s bubbles! The movie also cleverly satires the entertainment industry and though it’s target is TV, seems to poke fun at itself a bit. Television shows are portrayed as nothing more than bi-products to the commercials that fund them. The same scripts are humorously regurgitated over and over again, with only a costume and background change to mask it. Behind the scenes, the men running the shows are convinced the public is too simple to notice. The men are stiff and obsequious, unoriginal, and eager to take credit for ideas that aren’t theirs. But it’s clear the entire time everyone sees right through it.
So maybe that’s the silver lining, the hint at subversion within a little satire, a touch of self-parody. If little kids can see through the producers’ attempts at telling the same old story again and again, maybe we’re being asked to look past the story being fed, the story that says women have no right to do anything other than propel the art of at-home ketchup bottling. Maybe we’re being asked to question stories. Or maybe not. But if history has shown us anything, it’s that we sure as hell did.
More on The Thrill of It All:
The Thrill of It All on IMDB
The Thrill of It All on Wikipedia
Kristen Bialik is a writer, teacher and graduate student of Journalism and Mass Communication. In her spare time, she's a baker of pies and maker of stories.