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Monday, July 15, 2019

1964's Laugh On Wilder

Comedy's Winning Streak Split Wide Open

The ad at left, from Statesville, NC’s Playhouse Theatre, captures small town policy re Kiss Me, Stupid as it spread through stix during early-to-mid 1965. KM,S was booked plenty around me because, with little Catholic representation, the Legion of Decency ban had no teeth, and since Billy Wilder’s comedy did get a Code seal, there was no immediate cause to shun it. Still, the Playhouse knew a hot potato thanks to wire coverage and LIFE magazine telling how Wilder licked censors. As films got friskier, the Playhouse balanced playdate scales with juve fare for daytime, hot stuff reserved for evenings, thus Island of Blue Dolphins prior to house clearance at 5:00. They had used a same device with The Carpetbaggers a few months before, would again for Harlow deeper into 1965. Matinees were a Playhouse firewall against hot merchandise they needed to keep dust off seats, but at a same time fulfill civic responsibility. It was a tight wire to walk. Our own Liberty Theatre took an easier avenue ducking Kiss Me, Stupid altogether, maybe from word off showmen tom-toms that it was a dog. Warning from a brother exhibitor could avoid snake-bite in a neighboring town, for weren’t their audiences pretty much alike? What I noted about Kiss Me, Stupid at the time was how many drive-ins played it, idea perhaps that here was a show best viewed in relative privacy of parked cars. Was small town patronage embarrassed to sit among neighbors to watch a dirty movie? Kiss Me, Stupid was smeared early on as just that, so that just going was tantamount to buying porn. Even United Artists didn’t want their corporate name on Kiss Me, Stupid.

First-Run in L.A.
There were fewer bookings for Kiss Me, Stupid (6,878) than previous Wilders (Irma La Douce: 21,181 --- One, Two, Three: 12,369 --- The Apartment: 19,632), impression being that in much of the country, the film was avoided by exhibition. Critics were for a most part hostile (columnist Abe Greenberg after the L.A. premiere: “ … a vulgar bit of inanity only a few steps removed from becoming as lewd as a stag film”), but that would not have stopped a public had they enjoyed Kiss Me, Stupid (Irma La Douce had mixed reviews, but did tremendous business). This Billy Wilder comedy was simply not liked, that the judgment of not just critics (who never much mattered in any case), but Mr. and Mrs. Ticket Buyer, a mass that had been loyal to Wilder up to now. Perhaps however, I should say Master and Junior Miss instead of Mr./Mrs., to account for far fewer mature couples bothering to movie-go by 1964-65. So were young people turned off by Kiss Me, Stupid? Dean Martin was seemingly an only name to draw them, Kim Novak, I suspect, beginning to dim by then, and who’d pay to see TV’s Martian, a Favorite one or not, in bleak black-and-white as on home tubes? To that last, how much was Wilder’s boxoffice damaged by his 60’s insistence on using B/W, this against backdrop of color TV booming? I wonder too if opinion makers were laying for Wilder after he got away with Irma La Douce, in fact, seemed to gorge on content barriers broke down. This time we’ll stop him may have been stance of standard-bearers backed into wall that was a collapsing Code and what standards of decency once stood for.

Peter Sellers Before The Collapse That Took Him Out of Kiss Me, Stupid

Could flap, then flop, have been avoided were Kiss Me, Stupid cast differently? Picture Marilyn Monroe alive and doing the Kim Novak role. Or Peter Sellers finishing his part, Wilder waiting out recovery from the heart attack Sellers suffered. But his star wanted to improvise, which Wilder could not abide, and Sellers’ British accent did not sit well with a resolutely American character and setting. My impression from interviews is that Wilder was almost relieved to see Sellers go. I think what sunk Kiss Me, Stupid was Ray Walston, who was not a bad actor, but was the wrong actor for a part that needed someone likeable enough to overcome a character not at all sympathetic until at least a second half, and then only tentatively so. Might Jack Lemmon have smoothed Stupid’s jagged edge? I read that Wilder wanted him to replace Sellers, but commitment to Good Neighbor Sam stood in the way. Walston plays abrasive for me, though this last time he seemed less so, but that’s probably because I’ve made myself adapt to him. Answer this: What if Ray Walston had played Jack Lemmon’s lead in The Apartment? Would that have tipped the Best Picture winner’s seamy aspects to censor and public outcry? I don’t underestimate Lemmon’s presence and performance that made Apartment goings-on palatable. Let’s say it's a perfect world and we have Monroe, Martin, and Lemmon starring in Kiss Me, Stupid. Could they have overcome then-smutty gags and Stupid’s sanction of adultery, latter the bomb ticking beneath Legion of Decency desks? Kiss Me, Stupid needed a cast for which a public would forgive most extreme of Wilder excesses. Some Like It Hot and The Apartment had such an advantage that Kiss Me, Stupid did not.

L.A. Christmas Attractions for 1964
It wasn’t a story problem. Kiss Me, Stupid is as splendidly constructed as any Wilder from this very productive period, and it all ties beautifully for a wrap, whatever one’s reservation re hook-ups, though minus the pay-off, Stupid would have been exactly that for copping-out and leaving its audience cheated if not morally outraged. The put-back Dean Martin-Felicia Farr finish makes the Blu-Ray a must for restoring integrity to a show that waited fifty years to become what Wilder intended. There isn’t a lot of footage, but it clears a marsh of foolish ambiguity. The cuts forced on Wilder in 1964 did as much ruin to Kiss Me, Stupid as anything cited then or now as going wrong. It seems we’ve needed the intervening half-century to cool down. Wilder never did get over the disgrace of having made Kiss Me, Stupid. He abhorred commercial failure ($2.7 million in the worldwide rentals till), maybe more than most great directors, and so deflected queries about Kiss Me, Stupid, saying that yes, it was a bad picture, and not much else. Maybe it is a bleak picture, as The Apartment might have been without its cast, or The Fortune Cookie would be even with its cast. Had Wilder become less “cynical” than disenchanted? The movie-making process had clearly become less fun for him by the sixties, a generational thing, and understandable. I doubt if Wilder had another “fun” project like Some Like It Hot in him by 1965, and of course, filmgoers still wanted fun. If Wilder wouldn’t supply it, there were lesser artists who could. Another what-if: Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis agreeing to do The Great Race only if Billy Wilder directed it. What might he have made of that?

There are those who swear by Kiss Me, Stupid and consider it one of Wilder’s best films. I have a collector friend who calls KM,S his favorite of all movies. R.E. once wrote Wilder to that effect, conveying his desire to someday become a movie director (BW’s reply, via his secretary: “Find something more practical”). R.E. met Ray Walston after a Charlotte dinner theatre performance in 1979. Walston was gracious if somewhat nonplussed. Kiss Me, Stupid was not a success, he said, “they just threw me in there,” after Peter Sellers dropped out. When presented with a still to sign, Walston was surprised that anyone would have, let alone keep, souvenirs from such a blighted film. Then there was Cliff Osmond, with whom R.E. corresponded. He had an acting school, said he had once driven through North Carolina and liked the place. Could he have guessed that the world’s biggest Kiss Me, Stupid fan lived there? R.E. and I commiserated on Kiss Me, Stupid playing frequent in our state. He saw it first in 1965, at age sixteen, and again in 1968, found out years later from historian and GPS reader Mike Cline that KM,S had more playdates in their home town than even he recalled.

R.E. Directs an Ersatz "Dino" in His Brother's Wife (1980). Note the KM,S One-Sheet Behind Him.

R.E. embarked upon remaking Kiss Me, Stupid, and doing sequels, in 8mm, from the late 60’s onward. I co-starred in a 1980 variant called His Brother’s Wife, where a Dino-inspired character shows up in NC to intrude upon R.E.’s domestic harmony. An awkwardly staged fistfight resolves the conflict. R.E. made four “official” follow-ups to Kiss Me, Stupid: Pardon Me, Mister, in black-and-white to preserve integrity of Wilder’s original, Visit To Vegas, where the Orville Spooner character reunites with Dino at the Sands. Then came Kick Me, Gently (by now it’s 1979), and finally Losing Streak in 1981. Who knows but what there may be another?, for which I would gladly essay the Dino part again. R.E. scored a 16mm scope print of Kiss Me, Stupid in 1978 for $125. In those days, buying it was about the only way you could see it, because television could seldom (ever before pay cable?) be bothered. Query to experts: Did any network play Kiss Me, Stupid? R.E. still has his print, too precious a talisman to ever let go. Never mind that the general release version has been so improved upon by the Blu-Ray with the Dino-Felicia Farr scene properly restored. Kiss Me, Stupid is an artifact, very much of its time, and plain enough is fact it is not for everybody, but there isn't a more unique show in Wilder’s kit, and whatever the hostile response when KM,S came out, this was one he could take pride in (but didn't, sad to say). What a shame that poor luck and circumstance made hash of such a bold comedy stroke.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Billy Wilder and United Artists Join Hands

Making Industry Out Of One Director's Comedy

Was Billy Wilder, with United Artists, the only director-distributor to make a franchise out of creative output? I mean product flow that for a while seemed reliable as next year’s Christmas, the stamp spelled Comedy on each update they did. Hitchcock's suspense, as I'm helpfully reminded by Scott MacGillivray, was lucrative for Paramount, as was DeMille in spectacle mode under same aegis, but his were spaced wider and seemed more free-standing than a freshest Wilder jape pushing limits farther out than the last. He began the 60’s like a coming decade’s surest thing (in a same way that Woody Allen would become in the 70's, adds Scott). 1959’s Some Like It Hot ($16.4 million in worldwide rentals) was something brand new in suspense-laced farce, had Marilyn Monroe doing precisely a role her public wanted to see, and made saucy the prospect of lead men in extended drag. Wilder habitually came back with profit, excluding WB's The Spirit of St. Louis, for which he’d not be blamed, for it wasn’t him that insisted on (mis)casting James Stewart or choosing this project in the first place (I still say Spirit might have clicked had they used Tab Hunter as Lindbergh --- think of star fee saved, plus youth audience served). Some Like It Hot would be surpassed, awards-wise and profit-wise (for distributing UA at least) by The Apartment, which followed up too on Wilder as edge-pusher at limits long in place re screen expression. Even nearing sixty, he thought like a writer-director half that age where it came to instinct for patron preference.

Any Idea From This Ad and the One Below What This Show Is About? Me Neither.

UA Damage Control Gets Out Conventional Ads, Too Little and Too Late

Franchise notion came quick to UA marketing. To follow general release of Some Like It Hot and The Apartment came combo billing for the “mirth-quakes,” a policy repeatable should Wilder continue his “laff hit” streak. Imagine a double feature for each year between a latest Wilder, a 60’s sky as limitless as UA would enjoy with paired James Bond reissues once that group got propulsion. Trouble was momentum broke by One, Two, Three, a late 1961 release unwisely sold on Billy Wilder’s name and image rather than the film’s cast and comedy values. This was hubris of unique sort for a campaign presumed to reach viewership that may well not know Wilder, despite two home runs he’d hit in a past two seasons. Saul Bass design for poster art did everything but announce what One, Two, Three was about, star James Cagney lost in eccentric scrawl that was cast credits. Worse was alternate style of the director seated on a ladder beneath three balloons, art to promise merriment upon buying a ticket, perhaps, but who was this nondescript man, and why pay to watch him? United Artists must have picked their focus group from Manhattan art houses, or critic circles who thought we all knew Wilder by sight and would take on face value any of his offerings.

Gotham First-Run Ad Celebrates Wilder's Boundary Push
As fuel to fire, the director characterized exhibitors as “being here to steal,” backlash from which was recalled by Greenbriar in June 2006. Shoveling behind the horse parade were quick fixers issuing a “United Artists Advertising Supplement” to clear waft of Bass and Billy Balloons, but better late than never was this time too late for damage done. Or maybe few saw fun in Soviets dropping an Iron Curtain down Berlin’s middle. Writers have asserted this as reason for a One, Two, Three bust, though I think it was too-smug selling that fouled the well. Consequence was four million in worldwide rentals for One, Two, Three, less than half of what The Apartment took, and a fourth of Some Like It Hot’s outcome. Again as with The Spirit of St. Louis, there wasn’t Wilder to blame, his comedy bite sharp as ever, so onward and upward to Irma La Douce for 1963, and hopeful return of a master to (commercial)form. For its part, One, Two, Three, not a candidate for revival, single or paired, was given over to ABC for network premiere on January 31, 1965, just over three years after theatrical. Billy Wilder films were especially unstrung by television, all of his UA’s save Witness For The ProsecutionSome Like It Hot, Avanti!, and Fedora shot in scope. Let the record show that One, Two, Three is lately reborn on Blu-Ray from Kino, even if it needs a refresher in Political Science to get comedic points, but again, that’s no failing of the writer-director. I just wonder if young people today can watch the film with any idea of what is going on in it, or why.

From My Mid-60's Scrapbook: All-Night Jack at a Charlotte Drive-In

Irma La Douce was the daisy, or doozy so far as revenue, with an epic $22.3 million worldwide. The story was about prostitutes, the lead lady one of them as limned by Shirley MacLaine, with Jack Lemmon, most likeable of comic names by then, as her dual-posing customer. These stars, with much good will a residual from The Apartment, kept Irma La Douce out of serious harm’s way, even if more than a few critics saw Wilder’s latest as a joke too ripe to tell general audiences. That last became crux of the pitch, Irma La Douce loudly “naughty” in ads, and grown-ups dared to come. Again it seemed Wilder was recipient of ideal timing, United Artists paving way later in a same year with Tom Jones, and Never On Sunday previous. Double-billing for encore runs was gravy to UA spoons, Irma La Douce a natural fit with Tom Jones, as was Never On Sunday with thieving-for-fun Topkapi, ideal for drive-ins like these enroute to Charlotte in 1966. Collateral benefits spread to Jack Lemmon, acclaimed “King Of Comedy,” at least by the management of Charlotte’s Queen Drive-In for “6 Solid Hours Of Laffs” as supplied by features not directed by Wilder, but certainly enabled by ones he did: How To Murder Your Wife, Under The Yum-Yum Tree, and Good Neighbor Sam. HE HE HE AND HAW HAW indeed.

Monday, July 08, 2019

When Twenty Years Was Long Ago

Chicago First-Run for Margie

Margie (1946) Is Teen Life In The 20's

Quaint era of eighteen-years-before are celebrated in this 1946 reflection on small town 20's roaring. What remarkable change the culture saw in that short window. A market crash, the Great Depression, then a World War. No wonder 1928 seemed ancient history to moviegoers in 1946. But imagine us giving a same treatment to 2001. I guess the biggest difference would be spread of the Internet and all else technical that has, dare I say, made our lives better? What gets me in Margie is disdain attic-searching Ann Todd shows when she comes across mom Jeanne Crain's relics of a girlhood past. Here is attitude, widespread at the time, that consigned movies to ash heaps as soon as they passed the "brand new" gate. This kid would never have sat through a silent feature. We're primed at Margie beginning to regard the 20's as a simple, if not simple-minded, period better past. Still, there was nostalgia, and enough paying customers wanted the trip back to make Margie a substantial hit ($5.2 million worldwide) and establish Jeanne Crain as a star who could support marquees by herself.

Henry King directed, already an old-timer when the 20's roared, and not likely to have worn raccoon coats to Army-Navy games. He approaches the material as a parent would, teens and their fads being silly then as now. What Margie maybe needed was more celebration of what switched youth on in days that from most accounts really were carefree before bottom fell out of a US economy. Parts of Margie light up, much of it pleasingly offbeat, but then we're back to Jeanne Crain's bloomers falling down, an overused device, plus tendency of the kids to be types rather than people. There's pleasing snow on the ground that 20th Fox was said to have put there at considerable expense, though negative cost was well-contained at $1.6 million. Comparison with Meet Me In St. Louis is inevitable (in fact, Margie borrows several plot devices from the MGM musical), it being another smash of a glimpse back, but Crain was no Judy Garland and never could be, something Fox learned to eventual woe as they forward-cast JC in parts frankly beyond her.

Then there's ticklish business of high school teacher Glenn Langan taking romantic interest in student Jeanne, an all but hanging offence today, but no problem in 1928, or for that matter, 1946. The guy would do three-to-five for such conduct now. In fact, I'll bet a 2019 theatre-full would gasp at Margie's closing scene and reveal of who she married. Langan was affable, lacked the luck of, say, Cornel Wilde when it came to Fox star creation (in fact, Wilde turned down Langan's part in Margie), and would be remembered best as The Amazing Colossal Man for AIP. Margie was shot in Reno, Nevada, an interesting choice, and one that Fox would make again when time came to film Apartment For Peggy in 1948. Henry King was always good with locations leaning toward bucolic, Reno effectively doubling as Small Town, USA for purposes of Margie background.

Selling of Margie played down the 20's setting. Would 1946 youth have been turned off by specter of even a comparatively recent past? Ad art put Jeanne Crain in 40's fashion as to distance her from cartoony sheiks and flappers in poster margins. "Her Big Starring Moment" was Margie's message with regards minted star Crain, she having clicked as support in Leave Her To Heaven, an enormous success, and as brightest light of ensemble that was State Fair. Margie wasn't a musical, but songs and dance were emphasized in terms of what mom-and-dad took to bosoms before swing and jive taught us better. Showmen took expected route of parking Tin Lizzies at theatre fronts and arranging for flagpole sits. The period of Margie seemed all the more innocent for struggles no one in 1928 could have seen coming, that year being eve before a long-lasting storm. Setting a cheerful movie then was perfect timing on Fox's part. "In Those Days, Wolves Were Sheiks," said publicity, but that was misleading, as courtship ritual had much coarsened since the 20's, as older patronage surely noted, the war having much to do with rush jobs that romance had come to. Well, after all, weren't wolves by definition more threatening than sheiks?

Thursday, July 04, 2019

Pola Says Jump --- We Say How High?

Passion Delivers On Its Title Promise

Passion Was the German epic that punched Pola Negri’s Hollywood ticket. She’d roar into town like Siegfried the Conqueror. Pola seemed born with a gift for publicity. Also eroticism turned loose to kick Puritanism in the teeth (there’s what 1920 liked best about Pola and Passion). Here was a hit for which there was not enough standing room, let alone seats. Even Gothamites were made rubes by Negri’s let-loose sensuality. Passion is still a whale of an entertainment, as proved by the UK’s “Masters Of Cinema” Blu-Ray. Ernst Lubitsch satisfied that he could do more than simple comedies, staging crowd scenes here to make Griffith go begging. Like a good guillotine finish? Trouble is not getting to see heads cut off, till this. Lubitsch cleaves on camera, albeit in long shot, but gives us Negri noggin tossed to the mob like a home run ball. What a finish. Sorry for the spoiler, but they say that’s how Madam Du Barry got hers, and Passion is based on that, albeit loose. “The Lubitsch Touch” abounds. Lots of Passion is funny, that plus sex like previewing Tom Jones or stolid Moll Flanders where Kim Novak demonstrated that by the 60’s, there weren’t personalities like Pola Negri anymore, point made clear by latter herself in a Disney pic done contemporaneous, The Moon-Spinners, PN temptingly inscrutable for her final screen bow.

Back to when she arrived: I read that Pola strode down Sunset with a leopard on a leash. Weren’t there local ordinances forbidding that? She also wore Chaplin out, to his own admission in a decades-later autobio, and yes, wore out is meant just the way it sounds. Valentino was another Negri conquest. She hurled herself upon his funeral bier before volunteer attendant Ben Lyon had her tossed out. Publicity was all well and good, but this was pushing a limit. Aspects of Pola make her sound like a head case, but time and her own sensible recall make clear that it was all calculated and quite apart from the person she actually was. In fact, Negri lived to a ripe age in San Antonio, of all places. Did the local boy who delivered her newspaper realize that here was the man-wrecker of all time? Again to Passion: Fact it was made by Germans was concealed at US release time (1920) due to emotion still hot from the war. First National got it “for a song” thanks to this ($40K said The New York Times, “Worth $500,000,” they added) Passion made an unexpected packet at the 5,500 seat Capitol Theatre, largest of all sites at the time. Mounted police had to steer crowds and keep order. The Times addressed Passion twice during December 1920, first with a rhapsodic review, then ten days later to marvel at stir it caused.

What rang bells was Euro depart from convention the bane of US filmmaking. No leading woman over here behaved liked Pola Negri, so sure, we’d want more of her. Passion’s Du Barry does time-honored climb from bed-to-bed, all played bawdy and not a little rude. She even sacrifices all for love in spite of being utterly selfish up to then. I tried to get to bottom of appeal from near a hundred years out, and yes, Negri heat can yet be felt. Here was grace note we’ll not see again: Pola smiles wide at one point and there’s a gold tooth (the first, or second, right maxillary bicuspid, says my quick glimpse and subsequent Google inquire). It was a century ago, so let’s be thankful the woman had teeth at all. Among Times back-flipping was designation of Lubitsch as “a cinematician of the first rank.” Would such level of pretension get me a reviewing job at the Times today? Important thing was, it likely greased Lubitsch way to H’wood employ, so all hail the NYT for that. Historic pageants had not had Passion’s, well, passion, before, let alone sex, beating even DWG and his plaster elephants, latter a rigid schoolbook beside Passion. Lubitsch has no-fool-like-old-fool Emil Jannings (as one of the King Louis’) sucking Negri’s toe prior to catching small pox and grimly looking it, face boils and all. Let Lubitsch be subtle elsewhere --- not here! Looking for a lively silent well off beaten paths? Shop for this Blu-ray, which looks a million.
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