Lover Come Back makes use of all the clichés present in modern workplace comedy, and in fact, it’s probably responsible for some of them. Taking place in the bustle of the New York City advertising scene, this campy romantic comedy looks at how easy it is to sell anything – even yourself.
All of the necessary tropes are in effect here, and portrayed brilliantly. Doris Day as Carol, the no-nonsense career woman with brilliant ideas and no credibility; Rock Hudson as Jerry, the carefree lothario who steals her accounts by charming the clients; and Tony Randall as his ineffective figurehead of a boss in that twitchy way that only Tony Randall can. Any other characters are minimal: a Waldorf and Statler-esque duo keep catching Jerry in risqué situations and commenting on their envy, and Ann B. Davis (aka Alice from The Brady Bunch) is a surprising catalyst as Carol’s sassy and wizened secretary.
After Carol embarks on a campaign to have Jerry effectively kicked out of the advertising industry following another stolen client (who, when he is found drunk and sleepily plucking an upright bass after a wild night out with Jerry, admittedly looks quite happy with the switch), Jerry attempts to save his reputation, and his ass, by following through on his promises to a potentially scorned lover and putting her in an ad campaign for Vip, a mysterious new product with the power to change lives.
The only problem? Vip doesn’t exist.
In today’s world of guerilla marketing and pseudo-lesbianic GoDaddy commercials, short spots that provide absolutely no information beyond the fact that if you want your life to be anything like what you’re seeing, you should run out and buy whatever this GoDaddy thing is, this kind of campaign might not look all that surprising (I always wonder how disappointed people are when they find out that GoDaddy is just web hosting and has nothing to do with women making out – unless that’s the kind of site you’d like to host, in which case, welcome to 80% of the internet). But this was a different time, back before there was a venue for anything to go viral, and so making a handful of fake commercials to appease a showgirl probably wouldn't be a big deal.
Except they get out. And orders start rolling in for Vip.
As a society, we are intrigued by what we don’t have, what we don’t know (my Google search history is proof of that). But even more than that, we’re obsessed with what we might know, what we could have if we just find the right product. The invention of the internet may have provided a better outlet for widespread interest and mass hysteria, but the potential has always been there, just below the surface. When a woman in a gold lame bathing suit is extolling the virtues of Vip, people respond.
When Jerry’s boss learns of the non-existent product and its wildly successful campaign, Jerry tell him that this is, “The most convincing demonstration of the power of advertising ever conceived – You have sold a product that doesn’t exist.” And when Carol starts sniffing around, trying to steal the account for her firm, Jerry continues his trolling and begins to sell something else – himself.
While Lover Come Back is about advertising, it’s also about metaphors. The focus of the movie lies in how people sell themselves to each other like the products Carol and Jerry fight to control. In order to distract Carol, Jerry begins posing as the (non-existent) hermitic scientist who created Vip, presenting himself as a brilliant but sheltered man, inexperienced in everything from dancing to kissing, excited for Jerry to ‘educate’ him on the ways of the world. And naturally, this hypothetical scientist is positively tickled pink when Carol insists that she do so instead. And she buys every word of what he’s selling.
For her part, Carol, who is all power tweed skirt suits and structured hats, barking orders and relishing her position as a woman on the rise, begins to sell herself as the stereotypical dithering woman. She fawns over her potential client, his intelligence, his humanitarian work. She believes him when he explains that his cousin is a part of the CIA, orbiting as a human satellite, and, “Every 97 minutes Maurice passes over this supper club.” Carol is intelligent - to hold a respected position in such a male dominated industry she would have to be – but she just goes doe eyes at him and marvels at how interesting everything coming out of his mouth is. Her clothes slowly lose their bulk and structure as their relationship progresses, and by the end she’s wearing a form fitting sweater and skirt when, after dinner in her apartment, he offers to help with the dishes and she giggles and says, “That’s a woman’s job.”
And so it begs to be asked: which version is real, and which is their product? Does Carol want to be a high powered executive or a doting housewife? Is Jerry using his deception as an excuse because sometimes he wishes he were a little less jaded, a little more idealistic and simple? Are any of these personalities true, or are they all kept in a drawer like accessories? Today an ensemble of that green tie and the ineffably charming ad exec. Maybe the tweed hat and the woman who doesn’t need a man to be fulfilled. Who are they when no one’s expecting them to be something?
If you have tall enough boots and want to get into another layer of metaphor, it can be argued that Rock Hudson sold himself for his entire career. There’s a moment in Lover Come Back where, after his secret identity comes out and Carol leaves him naked on the beach, Waldorf and Statler spot him running through the office lobby in a fur coat and one remarks that Jerry is “the last guy I ever would’ve thought…” The media, the public, everyone wanted the tall, dark and handsome (after revisiting his movies I’m beginning to think the phrase was coined for him) movie star, the charmer, the man’s man. Whether or not his homosexuality was the worst kept secret in Hollywood, he worked to give everyone what they wanted.
We find out just a little of who Jerry and Carol are, or are trying to be, as the movie rolls through a drunken marriage and annulment, Jerry handing over a lucrative account, a well timed phone call from trusty old Alice, and Carol’s eventual breakdown 9 months later when he’s trying to convince her to marry him again on her way to give birth to their child (yeah, that happens). And because it’s a camp movie and not something from the Coen brothers, we can skip weeks, months at a time, and not know everything that’s happened or will happen. But it’s ok. Because whatever they are, whatever they’re selling today, the other is buying it.
Amanda attended the University of Michigan, majoring in English and minoring in Classical History, which means that outside of being really good at Jeopardy she has few marketable skills. She’s an unabashed vault of pop culture trivia and the parts of her brain that used to harbor math skills are now filled with song lyrics and peripheral character arcs from 90s sitcoms. An aspiring creative nonfiction writer, she spends her free time trying to make silly anecdotes relate to the world at large and explaining what “creative nonfiction” is to her family.
Amanda is 26 and lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.