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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 going at all 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 got 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 was not so much 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'd 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.


Blogger Kevin K. said...

In Nick Tosches' bio of Dean Martin, Ray Walston says not only was the script unfinished when Wilder gave it to him, but that it was bad. But, he added, who questions Billy Wilder?

3:26 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Haven't seen this one, but read a long piece that detailed the censorship battles. Got the impression that even in the release version, it was strongly implied Dino didn't sleep through the night. Recalling "Miracle of Morgan's Creek", where the script said nobody got drunk but the finished film makes a joke of dialogue to the contrary.

Does the Blu-ray do more than remove that fig leaf?

5:08 PM  
Blogger Randy said...

Kim Novak on KISS ME, STUPID, from a 1967 newspaper interview with Bob Thomas:

"I still like 'Kiss Me, Stupid'," Kim said resolutely. "I think it could have been a success if Peter Sellers hadn't gotten a heart attack and dropped out of the picture. He had the light touch that could have carried it off.

"Ray Walston, who replaced him, is a clever performer, but he doesn't have Peter's light touch. So the whole thing ended up as a dirty joke."

9:14 PM  
Blogger Mark Mayerson said...

I totally agree with your observation that Walston was the wrong person for the lead and that Jack Lemmon could have pulled it off. The film demands a lead that the audience can sympathize with if it's going to work.

10:12 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

I waited years till an opportunity to see KISS ME STUPID came my way. I'd always assumed that critics and others just didn't get it. It was Billy Wilder, after all. Billy (THE APARTMENT, SOME LIKE IT HOT, SUNSET BLVD) Wilder. Even if it wasn't his best, it just couldn't be that lousy. Couldn't be.

Then, in the '90s sometime, I finally saw it and it is every bit that lousy. A terrible, unfunny, mystifying disaster. It is smutty, which is fine with me if the smut is funny. This isn't. Smutty lines and jokes and situations which are intended to be funny but aren't. Just smutty, unfunny "jokes" such as you might hear from a local, not-too-sharp, not-too-sober barfly.

Peter Sellers would have improved it (and by the way, nobody did a better American accent than Sellers. His President Merkin Muffley in DR. STRANGELOVE is the most eerily American sounding character in movie history.) But even the great Sellers could not have saved it. It would simply have been a slightly less-lousy disaster.

Terrible, terrible movie, Billy Wilder or no.

11:21 PM  
Blogger coolcatdaddy said...

I love "Kiss Me Stupid" and rank it with Wilder's better films.

I think what puts people off about it is that it's probably the Wilder comedy with the most European attitude - basically, it's an Italian or French sex farce and if it had been made in one of those countries with English subtitles, it would be an art-house favorite.

7:24 AM  
Blogger stinky fitzwizzle said...

Stinky loves Kiss Me, Stupid, but the stars were so misaligned for this one. Probably doomed from the start because of the premise that infidelity can strengthen a marriage. And despite the subject matter, the film is so structured that it just seems hopelessly old-fashioned.

Dwight McDonald, who didn't care for the film, called Dean Martin a "hillbilly Cary Grant", which Stinky thinks is a wonderful description.

When Stinky nearly crossed paths with Ray Walston in the '80s, he was booked to play Cap'n Andy in a Celebrity Dinner Theater production of Show Boat, replacing an ill Alan Hale, Jr. Not even their first choice!

Stink remembers those passages in the Tosches book of Walston criticizing Wilder's script, and thinking, Well, sure, Billy Wilder certainly can't hope to achieve the transcendent heights of My Favorite Martian.

12:38 PM  
Blogger stinky fitzwizzle said...

Stinky is also glad the original Dino/ Felicia scene is on the Blu-ray, but he prefers the re-shot scene. He thinks it is funnier, and it still remains quite clear what happened. After all, Dino did not awaken with a headache.

1:55 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Weirdness nobody has mentioned thus far: Gershwin songs, unironically placed in what's supposed to be a cutting-edge sex comedy. And some are presented as the work of a couple of small-town bozos.

Granted, Ira Gershwin could doubtless provide entertaining "bad" modern lyrics (he did great work with various composers over the years). And granted, Pop Music was still defined more by Dino-type acts than rock'n'roll -- at least in the movies (just the previous year, "The Nutty Professor" had Les Brown and his Band of Renown playing a college dance). Still, it's like setting a scene in a greasy spoon and having a truck driver order caviar ... and get it, without that being a gag.

4:43 PM  
Blogger stinky fitzwizzle said...

Well, there's probably a reason those Gershwin songs went unpublished.

5:43 PM  
Blogger Bill O said...

Sellers' Prez is labored - but he has the advantage. of speaking slowly. How would he have handled KMS' fast dialogue. Nor could he master a Texas accent in the same film.

7:35 AM  
Blogger stinky fitzwizzle said...

Poor Ray Walston seems to be getting much of the blame for the "failure" of KM,S, but who should Billy have cast? It was slim pickins out there, and, no, Slim Pickens would not have been a good choice.

Stinky feels a character actor was probably needed to play against Dino; it is just that Ray happens to be the wrong character actor.

1:50 PM  
Blogger MikeD said...

Are you sure that screengrab from "His Brother's Wife" didn't actually come from HBO's "The Deuce"?

8:15 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Never saw "The Deuce," but can assure you that the still (not a frame grab) from "His Brother's Wife" does indeed date to 1980. We posed it to look like a studio-era glimpse "behind-the-scenes."

10:28 AM  
Blogger lmshah said...

Say, what if Billy Wilder had replaced Peter Sellers with-----Jerry Lewis?

If only Dean would have gone along with it.


12:59 PM  
Blogger rnigma said...

It features one of Mel Blanc's rare onscreen performances, as a dentist who giggles more than Johnny Udo.

2:25 PM  
Blogger Barry Rivadue said...

Maybe I'm the only one who thinks this, but I thought KISS ME STUPID actually ugly in its photography and overall production design. Not stylish, just blah and ordinary.

5:05 PM  
Blogger brickadoodle said...

I’ve always found Kim Novak’s earthy charm very appealing, and more life-like in sexpot roles than Marilyn Monroe’s blowup-doll persona.

Is the film HIS BROTHER’S WIFE available to be seen anywhere?

1:15 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

HIS BROTHER’S WIFE exists, but only in legend, like the uncut GREED, LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT, and THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS at 132 minutes.

5:39 PM  
Blogger brickadoodle said...

Food for thought: Maybe John Waters will direct an updated sequel to HIS BROTHER’S WIFE, and call it HIS BROTHER’S HUSBAND or HIS SISTER’WIFE?

4:51 PM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

Barry Rivadue's comment is insightful; I think Lewis playing Walston's role could have saved both this movie and Lewis' career, but the censors would have thrown a fit as Lewis by then had become something like a children's movie star, and his little fans would have clamored to see his new release. But then again, Lewis did make Boeing Boeing around this time, didn't he?
Performers who find great fame and success in a particular role cannot help but to have the audience's memories of that characterization bleed over and into any subsequent parts they appear in; Walston's fame as the Martian he played in that TV comedy show bleeds over into this, and so he comes across as clever, calculating, and not revealing all that he is up to or knows - there's a sneaky quality that the audience remembers from his TV role that in this film's situations makes him come across as unsympathetically manipulative, and this brings the material down.
Lewis' innocence - again, and like Walston, a characteristic Lewis had developed in his other famed roles with which the audience was already familiar - would have made all of that a non-issue.
An actor whose impression upon the audience carries a note of innocence was required to offset the knowing sexiness of this material. I think Jack Lemmon could have done, too - and Sellers could play innocent until the cows came home.
Marilyn Monroe in the Novak role would have been dynamite too. That alone would have made this a bigger hit, even if it did not make for a better film.

6:35 AM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

Oh I'm sorry, I meant to refer to Imshah's comment about Jerry Lewis; Barry Rivadue does make a good point, but I think that that was intentional on the part of the film makers, not accidental.

12:26 PM  

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