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Thursday, November 11, 2010

Comedy Curiosities --- Part Two --- Boeing, Boeing

Boeing, Boeing took on added interest after all I'd read about its troubled production. That's often the way with fabled disasters you can't wait to see once supplied with behind-the-scenes knowledge. There are several places to go for accounting of Boeing, Boeing travails. Tony Curtis' autobiography is a start. Then there are Hal Wallis' recollections. Director John Rich talked about Boeing, Boeing in a book he wrote called Warm Up The Snake. Reams on Jerry Lewis are out there to reference, Shawn Levy's the most rewarding. Fans go for tawdry 60's show-biz like flies to a light bulb. Then-stars on the fade seemed to have no idea theirs was an era dying fast. Would Tony Curtis and Jerry Lewis have misbehaved so on Boeing, Boeing had they seen decline waiting around a late-sixties corner? Their kind of movies were packing it in even as last of them were made and released to a public past indifference. The two convened a League Of Nations to settle billing dispute for this, their first (and only) as co-stars. As neither would cede first placement, it was suggested their names spin propeller-like during Boeing, Boeing credits so neither would dominate. Poster art found them billed criss-cross, symbolic perhaps of Curtis and Lewis being at cross-purpose with a changing culture, though "Tony" got favored left position, an advantage I'm sure Jerry noticed and dutifully complained about. Both these guys were sat aboard a bobsled and which one topped marquees should have been least of their concerns. Ego was long since an engine driving them (not that C&L were alone in that). They were way down a list of preferred talent for Boeing, Boeing in any case, as producer Wallis and director Rich hoped initially to cast Dean Martin, Jack Lemmon, Dick Van Dyke ... well, almost anybody else. A sense of Tony and Jerry as hot names cooling off was surely palpable by the time Boeing, Boeing began shooting in May 1965.

Hal Wallis was an old man retired by 1980 and published year of Starmaker, but seethed still over antics indulged by his Boeing, Boeing co-stars. Curtis and Lewis were spoiled rotten by his definition. One mid-production memo referred to them as sick people. OK, let's consider that. Does celebrity indeed warp a human mind and spirit? You'd think so based on ways Jerry Lewis treated (and continues to treat) people. A movie star's truth is different from yours and mine. They just don't see things like we do. One Boeing, Boeing anecdote Tony Curtis told in his memoir was jolting reminder. On Jerry's wild and crazy on-set ways, TC had this to say: If the camera was just on me, (Jerry) would drop cigarette ashes on my jacket in the middle of a scene, or reach down and quietly unzip my fly. Now, a moment please ... let's reflect on that last part ... Reach down and quietly unzip my fly?!?! Surely among gestures that would alarm, Jerry Lewis unzipping one's fly, quietly or otherwise, ranks near a horrific top. Could Tony have found his later research to play The Boston Strangler any more unsettling than this?

So much money got frittered away on Boeing, Boeing. Scenes were filmed in Paris and Curtis/Lewis used that occasion to bleed white Paramount's expense account. So what was up with Lewis and seventy-five pieces of luggage? Was this to assert his star's prerogative? John Rich said one steamer trunk was just for Jerry's socks (cue well-known fact that JL never wore a same pair twice). Both he and Curtis took random leave of Boeing, Boeing's set without explanation. Studio underlings sustaining brunts for all this must have hated the pair's guts. There seemed always to be war ongoing between Tony/Jerry and Paramount brass over some or another point of order. Jerry's relationship with the studio was a vessel sinking. Now that his pics weren't doing so well, they were giving back as nasty as they'd got (for a past decade and a half). Curtis riled Wallis by demanding a wardrobe person be on the set at all times to take his coat whenever he removed it, a silly gesture sure, but one Tony recognized as emblematic of power and who wielded it. There were also squawks over make and model of limousine he'd be chauffeured about in. I suspect what others dismissed as gratuitous ego tripping made sense (if imperfect) to a star aware of how tenuous his or anyone's grasp of fame is. So much that seems absurd to us now was, in 1965, combat intense among power players jousting for an upper hand, but what of livelihoods imperiled throughout lower ranks, like the guy driving the Cadillac Tony rejected because it wasn't a right color, or the schlep they assigned to catch his coat before it hit the stage floor? I don't wonder that so many spoke of such incidents with oft-justified bitterness even after years had past. Sometimes it was minor aggravations that were most revealing. Director Rich told of Lewis causing delays by cutting off Curtis' tie with scissors and obliging the latter to change wardrobe. Rich warned Jerry that similar liberties with him would yield a swift kick to the groin, to which Lewis reacted with genuine surprise. Still, Tony Curtis at least looked back on Boeing, Boeing as a charming movie, and called working with Jerry wonderful (the greatest comedian of our time --- and I ate him up alive ... huh?).

I'd always assumed Boeing, Boeing was a dog. A boy in sixth grade called it Boring, Boring. My interest in Jerry Lewis was mostly nil in 1965-6, save The Nutty Professor and Martin/Lewis pics turning up on NBC, while Tony Curtis was, for this eleven-year-old, Houdini and not much else. Fans of Jerry disliked Boeing, Boeing because he played it largely straight. A lot of them were drifting wide of Lewis in any event. Boeing, Boeing made five or so years earlier might have scored better than $2.4 million in domestic rentals, a sum disappointing but maybe not surprising in light of Jerry's boxoffice erosion (The Family Jewels with $2.3 and The Patsy $2.0, these having followed The Nutty Professor's $3.3 million). Boeing, Boeing would be the comedian's last for Paramount. What he'd subsequently do for Columbia made for trying afternoons at the Liberty. I remember Three On a Couch and The Big Mouth on first-run weekdays, followed by reissues like Cinderfella and Rock-A-Bye Baby on various Saturdays. Those older Paramounts were lush as opposed to Columbia's habitual drab. Color quality revealed a marked difference. Boeing, Boeing was (is), for me, Jerry's finish in class pictures. On widescreen and high-definition, it can still entertain, given a viewer's thick hide for conventions of farce --- back-and-forth'ing through doors, relentless double shuffling between Tony and Jerry, etc. Actually, both stars are good, at least as good as source material permits (the play from which Boeing, Boeing derived was a hit on European stages, less so stateside). Curtis by 1965 had this kind of tomfoolery down to a science, even if his wasn't applied so deftly as idol Cary Grant, for whom advancing age was no impediment (TC was forty and that ice-cream face was starting to melt). For his part, Hal Wallis got the last lick at Jerry with concluding remarks on the Boeing, Boeing ordeal, to-wit: Later, Jerry got the autonomy he sought from the beginning. He produced, directed, wrote, starred in, edited, and supervised the music of his pictures. There is no need to comment on their quality.


Blogger The Great Bolo said...

Your entry of BOEING BOEING did not disappoint.

Compared to my opinion of the film, I would say you gave it a glowing review.

To me, BOWING BOEING disproves the theory that "no one ever sets out to make a bad movie."

8:45 AM  
Blogger Dugan said...

This was an incredibly bad movie.

10:37 AM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

Tony and his then-wife, Janet Leigh, were thisclose buddies with Jerry and Patti Lewis during the Dean & Jerry days. Janet, of course, turned up in the team's Living it Up (1954); Tony made a couple of cameos in M&L Colgate Comedy Hours; both willing appeared in Jerry's scripted, indulgent home movies, with no more apprehension than one would show a party host getting up a game of charades. Obviously for Curtis, the good memories outweighed the bad when it came time to pen his story.

Having never managed to sit through it, I always imagined that Boeing, Boeing was Wallis' last-gasp attempt to make the old M&L formula pay off: pair the idiot with a dark, good-looking hunk. I didn't realize - but, in retrospect, should have - he didn't want Lewis in the first place.

11:24 AM  
Anonymous Dan in Missouri said...

I have had the pleasure to speak to a man who has worked for Lewis for over twenty years.
He reports that Lewis can be sweet and demanding all at once, but the gentleman continues employment with Lewis whenever the chance arises.
I can remember Lewis back in the sixties, doing the MDA Telethon on WNEW TV, NYC, asking for (and getting) more time to hit the million dollar mark.
Like him or not, few other entertainers have such a long history of good charity work and huge amounts of money raised.
Check out Mark Evanier's blog, for some stories he has of meeting Lewis and working with Lewis.
Lewis's movies aren't always perfect but are nearly always worth watching.
He's a fine dramatic actor. It sure would be nice to see him back on the big screen in some age correct vehicle.

11:36 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan, couldn't agree more that Lewis is a fine dramatic actor, as his numerous TV guest roles bear out. I especially remember him in an excellent "Wiseguy" story arc, and more recently on, I think, a "Law and Order."

12:14 PM  
Blogger djwein said...

Should also mention that BOEING, BOEING having flopped on Broadway back in the 60s was a HUGE hit in the Broadway revival done two years ago.

12:24 PM  
Anonymous Bernd said...

Boeing-Boeing indeed was a success in its revival in London and subsequently Broadway two years ago. I saw it on both sides of the Atlantic and enjoyed it very much. It has been quite popular before in Europe but I had always found it strained before. The movie was far too slow for farce if I remember correctly...

3:45 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

I saw this film within a package of Martin & Lewis films that Paramount sent to canal 7, in Argentina, in the early eighties.

The problem with this film is the same of the other stage adaptation to film of those days: it betrays its theatrical origin.

The play itself does not seem to be bad, but requires good acting and good direction. And, in fact, it has been successfully re staged in Argentina a few years ago.

7:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder what consummate professional co-star Thelma Ritter thought of all of it?

11:30 PM  
Anonymous Chris said...

I often chuckle when reading this blog but this morning I completely lost it for a few seconds just looking at the expression on Lewis' face in the lower right of the first trptich of stills from the movie. Call it "genius" or something else, but it's Lewis' perfection of painfully discomforting shtick that nearly always works for me.

I'm wondering if I've actually seen BOEING BOEING before. On TCM maybe? Or am I thinking of some other movie from this same period involving randy bachelor(s) and sexy airline stewardess(es)?

Great question about Thelma Ritter, btw. Was her memoir ever written?

11:25 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Don't know of any Thelma Ritter memoir, or book about her, for that matter (paging Bear Manor!). According to imdb, she did only two more films after "Boeing, Boeing" and died in 1969.

11:58 AM  
Blogger The Great Bolo said...

Knowing how she is one of your all-time favorites, I'll look forward to an entry on Thelma Ritter very soon.

4:24 PM  
Blogger JoeM said...

"...Jerry Lewis will star in the independent drama "Max Rose" for Lightstream Pictures. It marks his first leading role in over 25 years...Max Rose" tells the story of a widower who revisits key moments in his life to unlock the mysteries of his marriage and family...In Variety, Lewis stated: "We're going to show an old man who is driven by love and optimism, and by his love for his young daughter..."

6:09 PM  
Blogger Tom Ruegger said...

Another great post.

And thanks for including the "Boeing Boeing" poster among your illustrations.

Could the Paramount Studios art department have spent LESS time designing this poster? The cut-out photo of Tony Curtis's face barely looks like him. And Jerry, although mugging, barely resembles Jerry.

And what's with the legs of the woman who's collapsed in Tony's arms? Her feet seem to be floating a few inches above the fuchsia carpet.

A truly horrible poster.

6:10 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Tom, this must be a week for horrid posters, considering "Boeing, Boeing" and even worse "The Facts Of Life." Do you suppose the Paramount-UA marketing departments looked at the finished films and just said --- who cares?

6:47 AM  
Blogger Tom Ruegger said...

John, of course you are right -- "The Facts of Life" posters, with cut outs Bob and Lucy, are atrocious as well. I love Bob Hope, from the "Monsieur Beauclaire" days, and from the Road pictures, and even from some of his variety shows and monologues, but his movies really became a drag in the 6o's. It's weird that people with such obvious and proven talent would allow themselves to squander their talent on such clearly unworthy projects. And it's not like he needed the cash.

4:37 AM  
Anonymous Steven Smith said...

Another wonderful post.

Seeing the play on Broadway two years ago with a terrific cast, a sharp translation and a much stronger finish, I was amazed that the damn thing is actually funny...

10:43 PM  

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