Tag Archives: Billy Wilder

The Diane Arbus Christmas Spectacular

Original Poster.

Original Poster.

“The Apartment” (Mirish Company, 1960) tells the story of one C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon), a low-level accountant at a large, Manhattan-based insurance company, and the tribulations that beset him in consequence of the unethical means by which he expects to secure an unearned promotion to an executive position at the firm. Baxter’s problems all began about a year earlier, when he lent his flat to a company big shot for a few hours — a favor, just this once, no questions asked. After that, things quickly spun out of control. When we first meet him, he’s got four philandering executives using his conveniently-located apartment for their extra-marital romps; they bully him out of his place at all hours of the night, drink up his liquor, wolf down his snacks, disturb the neighbors, leave his apartment in a mess, and sometimes forget to return his key when, lust-spent, they drag off home to their nagging wives.

Perhaps the easiest thing for me to do is to start by mentioning the things I like about the picture. Most of all, I like the late-fifties/early-sixties atmosphere, which is thanks to a combination of location shooting and stylish production design. I like the clothes and Edie Adams’ white cat-eye glasses. I like Adolph Deutsch’s score — I especially like the main theme, which was not written by Deutsch, but by Charles Williams. The tune is called “Jealous Lover,” and was written for a British picture from 1950 called “Naughty Arlette” (which featured a very young Petula Clark). I like Edie Adams as the big boss’ trouble-making secretary and I like Fred MacMurray as the rat bastard, Mr Sheldrake. MacMurray was always best when he played villains, perhaps because he was a bit of a bastard in real life. Billy Wilder told Cameron Crowe a funny and revealing story about MacMurray: in one scene, Sheldrake flips a quarter to the guy who has just finished shining his shoes. Wilder shot take after take, but MacMurray couldn’t manage to flip the quarter properly. Wilder said, “Fred, why don’t you use a bigger coin? It’s easier. A fifty cent piece . . .” MacMurray bristled. “Fifty cents?! I would never give him fifty cents! I cannot play this scene!”

I like the picture’s last line and the way that Shirley MacLaine says it. I don’t buy it for a second, but I like it.

As for the picture as a whole, well, it won a lot of awards at the time (including the Academy Award for Best Picture), and continues to be taken seriously by a lot of people. But it’s not a good picture: it’s crummy and false. Its cynicism is lazy and scattershot; Wilder’s version of corporate America isn’t nearly accurate enough to be accepted as social criticism, and it’s not funny enough to be enjoyed as satire. The story is populated by an assortment of philanderers, bullies, liars, creeps, drunks, louts, louses, cheapskates, neurotics, loud-mouths, chippies, whores, venomous bitches, and one cartoon Jewish doctor/philosopher/mensch and his cartoon Jewish wife/busybody/moralist. The most sympathetic character in it, Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), tries to commit suicide in a stranger’s apartment by swallowing a bottle of sleeping pills she found in his medicine cabinet. And she does it on Christmas Eve. Misery at Christmas: the lazy pessimist’s favorite cheap trick.

Like most of Wilder’s screenplays, this one (co-written by I.A.L. (Izzy) Diamond) teems with smart-alecky one-liners. It’s Weltschmerz expressed in wise-cracks, the nightmare world of Diane Arbus as told by Neil (“Doc”) Simon. (Simon wrote the book for the Broadway musical adaptation, “Promises, Promises.”) Evidently, we’re supposed to be amused by Baxter’s sordid predicament, and by the parade of burly-que vignettes that depict the messy unseemliness of middle-aged licentiousness. The men in this picture are paunchy, balding, craggy-faced drunks and their raddled mistresses are Diane Arbus grotesques. Everybody (except Baxter) is a swinger, and nobody (including Baxter) is having any fun. Early on, there’s a brief moment when horrible, elfin Ray Walston barrels through Lemmon’s front door, tie askew and nose aglow, with a pair of stingers in each hand, and a blowsy blonde (a mean-spirited parody of Marilyn Monroe) tottering along in his wake. As soon as they slam the door behind them, we hear cackles of drunken laughter. That’s the one and only moment of sexual pleasure in the entire picture, and they’ve still got their clothes on — they’re unspeakable, but at least they sound happy. For the rest of the picture, “lust in action” is depicted as being thoroughly unpleasant, frustrating, expensive, irritating, humiliating and monumentally boring. The goatish executives never stop bullying and cajoling the women they’re with, and the painted sluts never stop quarreling and bellyaching except when they’re swilling down their next cocktail. “The Apartment” suggests that infidelity is as disagreeable, passionless and unerotic as marriage is. Wilder’s main theme amounts to a cynical joke: no matter how hard the philanderer tries to avoid it, he is doomed to wind up with a mistress who’s exactly like the stupid bitch he married, only the mistress is bound to be noisier and carry a bigger rolling pin. And what, in Wilder’s view, makes women agree to have sex with these bumptious satyrs who treat them with such contempt? They’re in it for the open bar and the bibelots. Besides, they’re tramps, so they don’t have feelings we need to worry about. Except for Shirley MacLaine, who sports a boy’s haircut, all the women in this picture are gin-soaked floozies: heavily painted, beefy, raucous, brainless and over forty. (MacLaine is the only one in the cast who’s under thirty.)

Wilder goes to considerable pains to establish a documentary feel — voice-overs, long lists of statistics, elements of the procedural genre — but then presents a situation that is utterly preposterous. Baxter’s monthly rent comes to eighty dollars a month; he has four highly-paid executives borrowing his apartment every week — and often more than once a week. Yet we’re asked to believe that the four big shots, all of whom Baxter could easily blackmail, have never considered pooling twenty bucks a month on a timeshare. I mean, really. It’s too idiotic, ya dig?

The corporate structure also defies belief. We’re told that Mr Sheldrake is the head of the firm, but then we learn that he’s the Head of Personnel, which is not the top position in a corporate structure, it’s not even close. Then Sheldrake bribes Baxter with a promotion: he’s now Sheldrake’s second-in-command. But Baxter’s education and professional experience have nothing to do with Personnel: he’s an accountant. It’s complete madness.

And another strain on our credulity: one of the executive philanderers and his mistress show up at Baxter’s place on Christmas Day. Baxter refuses to vacate (he’s taking care of Fran Kubelik after her failed suicide attempt), but the big shot won’t go away until he sees that Baxter’s not alone, whereupon he nudges him in the ribs — one roué to another — and leaves without protest. We’re supposed to believe that this son of a bitch took a break from his wife and children on Christmas Day in order to have a quickie with his mistress? What planet are we on? The nonsense doesn’t stop here, but I will.

Much as I like the look of the art direction, the furnishings in Baxter’s apartment strike me as all wrong: everything is much too interesting and first rate for him. When did he purchase those amazing, enormous, matching Tiffany lampshades? When “The Apartment” was made, Tiffany lampshades had been out of fashion for a long while and were ridiculously under-priced. But I still can’t believe a nebbish like Baxter would go out of his way to buy such ostentatiously beautiful lampshades. The chairs and bedroom furniture in Baxter’s place are all matching Thonet bentwood; they’re also quite beautiful, elegant and I think much too good for him. Actually, all of his furniture was owned by Billy Wilder, who wanted to photograph them. There’s one small goof in the set decoration that does appeal to me, however, for reasons of nostalgia: Baxter has a can of MJB Coffee in his kitchen. MJB Coffee has never been sold on the East Coast. I still remember a television advertisement for MJB Coffee that I often saw when I was growing up in Seattle: it featured a sort of Arabian Nights pied piper, who played an exotic woodwind while he led a large group of followers from the East Coast to the West, because MJB Coffee was only available on the West Coast. When I see the can of MJB on Baxter’s kitchen shelf, I know it’s wrong, but it brings back fond memories of childhood.

One of the best-remembered details in the story is Baxter’s using his tennis racquet to strain spaghetti. In the last scene, while Baxter is packing up his belongings (he’s planning to relocate), he picks up the racquet, which still has one strand of spaghetti stuck to it, left over from a meal we saw him prepare a week earlier. When he picks it off, it is inexplicably (and impossibly) limp. A tiny mistake, of course, but it’s meaningful because it’s no accident: Wilder had to demand that the errant strand be made limp (who knows why?). He wanted a limp strand; it doesn’t fit the facts, but it suits his purpose, so the strand is limp. I see it as a metaphor for (and symptomatic of) all the other lazy impossibilities that have preceded it.

Major Personalities in Minor Roles in ‘Casablanca’ — Part III

Original  Poster.

Original Poster.

An actress I like very much, Norma Varden, makes a brief appearance in the first scene of “Casablanca.” She plays the wife of Gerald Oliver Smith, the British twit with the silly hat, monocle, caterpillar moustache, sea-bass lips and zebra-striped tie who gets his pocket picked by Curt Bois.  Varden has less to do in “Casablanca” than usual — two lines only — but, as always, she presents a fully-realized personality; because the picture is so popular, it may be the role for which she is best remembered. She was born in London and was a piano prodigy in her youth. She studied in Paris and made her musical debut while still in her teens. Soon afterwards, she switched to acting. In the West End, she became a regular performer in farces at the Aldwych Theatre throughout the Nineteen-twenties. In the thirties, she made a number of pictures  and eventually landed in Los Angeles with her ailing mother in 1940. “Casablanca” was one of seven pictures she made in 1942. (Over at Paramount that same year, she did an amusing turn in another, much larger role — as the wife of Robert Benchley(!) — in the first Hollywood picture Billy Wilder directed: “The Major and the Minor.”) When she retired in 1969, she had one hundred and fifty-two credits. She died on January 19, 1989, one day before her 91st birthday.

Gerald Oliver Smith, Jack Wise, Norma Varden:  They also serve who only stand and wait.

Gerald Oliver Smith, Jack Wise, Norma Varden: They also serve who only stand and wait.

Jack Wise is the waiter who stands impassively (but slightly irritably) by, while Gerald Oliver Smith fumbles comically about, looking for his wallet that’s no longer there. Wise appeared in one hunrdred and seventy-two pictures, and just about never got a credit. So I’m giving him a credit here. He’s proof that there are indeed small parts.  It’s a tiny part, and he does it up brown. Like a good waiter, he’s not the center of attention, but he conveys just enough impatience to prove he’s a person, not merely an extra; he has a life beyond this foolish British couple who are wasting his valuable time. Without giving any obvious indications, you can tell that Wise’s nameless waiter hates this Limey son of a bitch, and knows he’s about to be stiffed through no fault of his own . . . and it’s hot.

Speaking of foolish couples, consider Herr und Frau Leuchtag. They, too, have only one scene, but they’re quite unforgettable. Frankly, I’m not crazy about him. Ilka Grüning seems perfect in her role — sweet, without being cloying.

Ludwig Stössel, Ilka Grüning as Herr und Frau Leuchtag.

Ludwig Stössel, Ilka Grüning as Herr und Frau Leuchtag.

Herr Leuchtag:  Liebchen . . . Sveetness-heart, vat vatch?

Frau Leuchtag:  Ten vatch . . .

Herr Leuchtag:  Such much?

Carl the Headwaiter:  You will get along beautifully in America . . .

Ludwig Stössel plays the sweet old darling, Herr Leuchtag. Like the horrible, ubiquitous S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall, he was from Austria-Hungary, and spent his career on playing courtly, cutesy-pie old gentlemen from “ze olt countr-r-ry.” He achieved his greatest fame in a series of Italian Swiss Wine Colony commercials.  Stössel was “That Little Old Winemaker, Me.”

"That Little Old Winemaker, Me" -- Ludwig Stössel in his most famous role.

“That Little Old Winemaker, Me” — Ludwig Stössel in his most famous role.

Those of us who grew up seeing those terrible ads may never forgive him. For those who were too young to see them, here’s a sampling of two — the color registry is atrocious, much in keeping with the product the ads promote. By the way, that’s folk singer Glenn Yarbrough who sings the insipid jingle. When these commercials first aired on television, Yarbrough was accused of selling out . . . but selling out what? Or whom? The Limeliters? It would have been more appropriate to accuse him of scraping the bottom of the barrel — Stössel, too.