A Mink

Conditioned by That Touch of Mink


in Features • Illustrated by Bhavna Ganesan


When we consider the predatory behavior of high-profile individuals like Andrew Cuomo, Charlie Rose, and Matt Lauer, we tend to think that they were driven by lust and egotistical entitlement. We fail to take into account the societal expectations that prevailed a mere 50 or 60 years ago when these men were boys. Within the context of this past society, their behavior fell within the parameters of what was considered normal. It was held up to children and young people through a myriad of cultural channels to be envied and emulated. 

I was reminded of this when watching a recent film on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). The station, which features movies dating back to the silent era, has recently retrofitted itself — creating a new color palette for its logo and more “modern” sets for its hosts (I personally liked the cozier, more old-fashioned sets —after all, these are old movies). It has also “reframed” some of its films, advising viewers beforehand on biases that they can expect while watching them.  

This has been done in an oddly selective fashion. Some films singled out for reframing include The Searchers, Swing Time, Woman of the Year, and Psycho, films that are great precisely because they transcend, at least in part, the cultural norms of their day. The Searchers, though it traffics in some Native American stereotypes, is actually a powerful indictment of racism; Swing Time, which does contain a blackface number, is also an homage to the great African-American dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson on the part of the film’s star, Fred Astaire; Woman of the Year, though it may end on a regressive note, promotes female empowerment unabashedly throughout in the speech, actions, and persona of its star, Katharine Hepburn; and Psycho has the protagonist dress up as a woman as the reflection of his traumatic relationship to his abusive mother (if this is transphobic, then it takes some digging to unearth). Strangely, while these nuanced films are reframed, films that reflect more reflexive, ingrained sexism go unremarked. I am referring, in particular, to the romantic comedies made by Doris Day, beginning with the 1959 Pillow Talk and extending to the 1966 Glass Bottom Boat. Several of these films star Rock Hudson and have been commented on by critics, since Hudson was known within the industry to be gay, thereby calling the smug, heterosexual premise of these movies into question. Of course, audiences of the period were assiduously kept from knowing about this dissonance. 

The Day-Hudson films have, as a result, received their share of attention. But the film that inspired me to write this essay has not, to my knowledge, been looked at closely: 1962’s That Touch of Mink, starring Day and Cary Grant, and directed by Delbert Mann. This was Grant’s only film with Day, though not the only one he did in which the female star has the principal goal of getting married. (A much earlier film, 1948’s Every Girl Should Be Married, featuring Grant and his then soon-to-be third wife Betsy Drake, is a kind of spoof on the idea, as Drake’s character literally stalks Grant’s until finally making him succumb). Once again, the earlier film seems to be more enlightened — or at least more cognizant of its society’s norms and their implications — than the later, more ostensibly modern one. 

I choose to focus on That Touch of Mink for several reasons. One is because it was the fifth highest-grossing movie of 1962, spending 10 weeks at Radio City Music Hall. It was a film that America as a whole saw and liked. Another reason is because the screenplay by Stanley Shapiro and Nate Monaster was nominated for an Academy Award; it won a Writers Guild of America Award for Best Written American Comedy and a Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture Comedy. This says something about what the arbiters of taste, at least within a Hollywood context, thought constituted quality. I also want to discuss this film because it is especially good at packing in as many stereotypical ideas as possible, even at the expense of logic, and, as such, becomes a kind of primer for mid-to-late 20th-century gender assumptions and anxieties. Finally, I am drawn to analyzing the film because I remember loving it at age 9 when I saw it in the local movie theater with my parents. 

The casting in the movie is itself part of its message. Grant was 57 at the time it was made; Day, 39. This kind of father-daughter distance in age between the protagonists was seen as unremarkable during this period (Grant’s subsequent films with Audrey Hepburn and Leslie Caron would widen the gap further). One might even call it an advance over the 32-year age difference between Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron in the 1955 Daddy Long Legs. (This kind of age difference between men and women in romantic relationships still tends to go unremarked. There have been TV shows and films in recent years in which the age difference is in the other direction, but this is used as a thematic pivot and for shock value. See, for example, Younger, Ozark, MILF, American Pie, The Boy Next Door, Notes on a Scandal. I should add that a 39-year-old female co-star would normally be seen as too old for a frothy rom-com during this period and six years later, all pretense is abandoned and Day is cast as a widow with three sons in With Six You Get Eggroll (a title that would create a Twitter storm today).  

I must admit that Grant, at almost 60, looks great in this film. He wears clothes that hang on his lean frame better than the frou-frou outfits worn by Day. This says something about male apparel. Slacks and sweaters and well-tailored suits can remain largely unchanged — elegant and comfortable — throughout the wearer’s life cycle. However, women’s clothes from the period — heels, little perched hats, and dresses with bows and ruffles — were more subject to changing style, and less comfortable and flattering on the aging body. Day’s hair also deserves to be noted. It is an unnatural platinum blonde and, when not teased into a bubble around her face (a ‘do that my 95-year-old mother-in-law still effects to this day), is arranged in an extravagant pile on top of her head — the sort of thing that would take a hairdresser hours to create and the wearer hours to unravel and wash. In one particularly incongruous scene, we see Audrey Meadows, who plays Day’s roommate, get dressed in the morning in an elaborately coordinated outfit — to go to work at the automat! There is also a scene in which Day goes to a dress shop to buy clothes for an illicit trip with Grant. The clothes are modeled for her in a montage scene that includes a series of mink coats with different colored linings, eliciting oohs and aahs as she gazes at them, starstruck. The scene is a reminder of how mink, like marriage, was, not so long ago, presumed to be coveted by women — the reason why so many of us have mink coats hanging in the back of our closets, left to us by our mothers, that we dare not wear for fear not only of being splashed with red paint but also of being eviscerated by our justice-warrior daughters. An essay for another time. 

But to get to the film’s plot. This is a mélange of societal assumptions rendered in the most weirdly distilled form. Day plays a woman who has arrived in the big city, presumably looking for work, though we learn soon enough that she and her roommate, Meadows, are really looking for husbands. On her way to the unemployment office, she is splashed by a Rolls Royce in which Master-of-the-Universe Grant is being driven to his company headquarters. Mud covers her coat and dress but, to her outrage, the car does not stop (I had no idea that cars that splash people waiting too close to the curb are supposed to stop — but this was presumably the case back in the day). 

At the unemployment office (no info given on why she is eligible for unemployment), she is leered at and propositioned by “Beasley” — the name alone tells us that he does not have the suavity no less the wealth of a Cary Grant. He is played by John Astin, who will go on to immortality playing Gomez Addams in The Addams Family television show. Day crisply rejects the nerdy, leering Astin (establishing a hierarchy at once that puts Grant on top, attractive women under them, and nerdy, unattractive men at the bottom). Later that day, through a contrived series of events, she has the chance to confront Grant through the intercession of his assistant, played by Gig Young, a perennial second lead in romcoms of this era. There follows a scene where she marches angrily into Grant’s office but immediately melts at the sight of him.  

Here is where the film’s major narrative begins, as Grant asks Day to accompany him, sans marriage, to Bermuda and from there on a round-the-world trip.  She is torn — Meadows, the advocate for marriage despite her own single status, tries valiantly to dissuade her — but, smitten with Grant (whether it is his money, his looks, or her desire to stop rooming with Meadows is not clear), flies down to Bermuda, is wined and dined, but, at the crucial moment, when they are about to go to bed, breaks out in a rash that leaves Grant barred from the bedroom. She sends back the clothes (they clearly represent a quid pro quo on which she has not delivered). Soon, however, she decides to try again. She returns to Bermuda but, this time proceeds to get so drunk that she passes out and falls out of a window, landing, spread-eagled, on an awning (the only moment in the film where I actually laughed). Once again, bedding down with Grant has been sidestepped.  

There is so much insinuating imagery in this section of the film that I could not possibly do it justice without boring my readers. Suffice it to say, that it is fixated on sex without giving the least evidence that anyone feels the least desire for anyone else (though Day does seem to desire the mink coat).  

The plot is finally resolved when Grant, for reasons that make no sense, is somehow driven to follow Day as she pretends to go to a motel in Asbury Park with Gomez, I mean Astin. Grant rescues her (though no rescue is actually necessary) and they marry. The penultimate scene has him breaking out in a rash on their wedding night.   

This film presents a fascinating update on the Madonna -Whore dichotomy that prevailed in the Victorian era. Then, women were cautioned that they must take care not to lose their virtue; any temptation might result in a fall that would make them unmarriageable. In this film, the fate of the woman, updated and retrofitted for American use, appears to be predetermined. Rather like American Calvinism where the elect were recognized by their wealth, here the elect are recognized by their inherent, unimpeachable virginity before marriage. As much as Day tries to sleep with Grant in an illicit context, she simply can’t do it—her body, as it were, rebels, despite her best intentions. (I feel compelled here to recount the famous remark by Oscar Levant: “I’ve been around so long,  I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin.”) By contrast, in two interspersed scenes, we see Grant dining in a fancy restaurant with an elegant French woman who, apparently, is the other type: foreign and happily reconciled to being, a priori, “fallen.”  

Grant, in being emblematic of the attractive male — wealthy and suave (not to mention, being Cary Grant) — is constitutionally averse to marriage and breaks out in a rash when, in the film’s penultimate scene, he finds himself expected to have sex with a wife rather than a mistress. The societal assumption: men — especially attractive, wealthy men — are by nature prone to promiscuous sex and only the elect sort of women can trap them into marriage. 

Gig Young, whose fate is never resolved in the film, insinuates a homosexual element into the film, a frequent motif in Day’s movies of this period. He is Grant’s trusted assistant, inhabiting a position akin to that of a gay companion (which his psychiatrist thinks he is), and, indeed, remains by Grant’s side even after the marriage and the birth of his and Day’s baby. In the last scene, the couple leave Young with the baby in order to provide a punchline as the psychiatrist passes by and thinks that Young is now married to Grant and the baby is theirs. Homosexual — or at least, homosocial — bonding, along with sexual promiscuity with women, are the predetermined attributes of “good” men like Grant, while chastity and marriage are the predetermined attributes of “good” women. 

I have spent some time deconstructing this film in order to illustrate how, despite its enormous popularity in 1962, it would engender a plethora of lawsuits today. Yet many men and women of a certain age grew up with this kind of movie, and learned from it when it debuted how to be men and women. As I mentioned, I was 9 years old when I saw it. There was no audience-directed rating system then. The industry exerted self-censorship under the Hays Code, seriously enforced in 1934, which ostensibly rendered all films PG (although sex was everywhere in Foucaultian fashion; i.e., the more the restrictions, the more alternative ways were found to insinuate sex into the plots). But this was wink, wink sex, and children were regularly taken to movies like this one because the innuendo was not expected to be understood (children being seen as innocent tabula rasas). Truth be told, at 9, I had only the vaguest idea of what was being implied with Day’s rash and Young’s psychiatrist. I only knew that I loved the pastel palette, the breeziness of the male characters, and the upbeat, nervous energy of the female star in her colorful outfits. I suppose you could say that the film described a world in which things were initially hectic but eventually settled into place in an orderly fashion, a comfortable conclusion for a child. The plot also made clear that if you were a good girl, as Doris Day was (and I assumed I was), nothing bad would happen to you, as much as you might seem to be on the brink of disaster.  

Which brings me to my point about the men now being hauled up to HR for their unseemly behavior. That Touch of Mink was the distillation of a cultural message that has receded in certain respects but remains alive in others. The importance of a film like this lies in the way it exposes cultural norms that can be papered over and superficially rejected but not easily done away with. They remain in some form, percolating and insinuating themselves into the nooks and crannies of even the most seemingly enlightened men and women’s lives. (Have you gone to a wedding recently? The revival of the “big” wedding — bride in her extravagant gown and gaggle of bridesmaids — could be out of a Doris Day movie.)   

For That Touch of Mink to have been a box office hit in 1962 means that what it represents must go deep — and the very fact that TCM chose not to reframe it speaks volumes about how it may still be given a pass by audiences today. I urge self-righteous millennials and younger ones to watch this movie to understand the conditioning that existed overtly in the culture 60 years ago and to which they may unknowingly still be conditioned.  

Watching the film now, I feel outraged at what I and my female peers had to suffer from the ingrained assumptions of superiority that men have exhibited during my journey through life. I know that society helped turn men who were unbalanced, mean-spirited, and most prone to exploitation into predators. Yet I can’t end without confessing that, sadly, That Touch of Mink comforted my 9-year-old self. By giving everyone a place and prescribing behavior so completely, it forestalled a sense of relative meaning and reassured me that no surprises were in store.  Remembering how I felt then, I have nostalgia as well as pity and anger in looking back. I understand that when some people say they want to “Make America Great Again,” they really mean that they want to be in a Doris Day movie — and that they want to be 9 years old again.•


Paula Marantz Cohen is Distinguished Professor of English and Dean of the Pennoni Honors College at Drexel University in Philadelphia. She is the author of 12 books, including six scholarly/nonfiction works on literature and film, and six novels, some spin-offs on Jane Austen and Shakespeare, and a thriller involving the James family and Jack the Ripper. She is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal, The Times Literary Supplement, The Yale Review, and The American Scholar, a co-editor of jml: Journal of Modern Literature, and the host of the nationally distributed television interview show, The Civil Discourse (formerly The Drexel InterView). Her book, Talking Cure: An Essay on the Civilizing Power of Conversation will be published by Princeton UP in February.