Friday, June 15, 2012

Sex in the Cinema—Two Milestone Films

It’s a red letter day for the fans of sex and movies.  Two milestone flicks share anniversaries today.

Back in 1896 Mary Irwin and John Rice, two well known Broadway actors then staring in a hot musical, The Widow Jones, spent an afternoon at Thomas Edison’s Black Maria Studio in East Orange, New Jersey. 

The world’s first studio built for the production of motion pictures was hardly an impressive place.  It was essentially a tar paper covered wooden shack slapped together three years earlier at a cost of about $600.  It’s most unique feature was a retractable roof over the main studio room to admit sunlight to illuminate the performers in the minute long shorts Edison was making for exhibition at his Kinescope Parlors.

The impressively mustachioed Rice and the very plump by modern standards Irwin were there to recreate just one scene from their Broadway show, the climatic kiss.  And kiss they did.  In 47 seconds they flirted, Irwin took Rice’s face in his hands, and the two locked lips semi-passionately for 15 seconds.

When the film, titled simply The Kiss hit the theaters it created a sensation unlike anything Edison had ever before exhibited.  It also outraged moralists and prudes and resulted in the first, but surely not the last, demands for censorship of the new medium. It was the movie’s first block buster and proved to film makers that followed a lesson they never forgot—sex sells.

Sixty-four years later on the same day in 1960 Billy Wilder’s sharp comedy/drama The Apartment opened to rave reviews, sold out houses…and cries for censorship.  Not that the black and white film contained any nudity, foul language, or violence. Star Shirley MacLaine was briefly seen in slip and spent more time well covered by a man’s robe, hell was muttered a couple of times in  passing, and MacLaine’s character is slapped by a doctor to rouse her from semi-consciousness after she swallows sleeping pills.   That’s it.

But the situation on which the film turned was considered wildly daring.  A young man, a faceless cog in a giant New York insurance company, rises in the firm as he lends the key to his bachelor apartment to randy executives for afternoon trysts with girl friends and mistresses.  Wilder and co-writer I.A.L. Diamond never even used explicit terms for what was going on.  But razor sharp dialoged made it perfectly clear to audiences everywhere.

About a year later, I remember watching the Academy Awards on television as The Apartment was nominated for a slew of Oscars and came away the night’s big winner with five trophies including those for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay.  The nominated stars, MacLaine and Jack Lemmon lost out to Elizabeth Taylor, who had been dramatically ill during the balloting, for Butterfield 8 and Burt Lancaster for Elmer Gantry.  I remember that I was mystified why a picture I hadn’t heard of could win so many awards in the year of Spartacus, The Alamo, Exodus, The Sundowners, Inherit the Wind, and even Psycho, all of which I had seen in Cheyenne, Wyoming’s downtown movie palaces.  My folks looked uncomfortable, stammered around trying to answer my questions about it, and flatly forbade me to see if it showed up downtown.

It was a movie that got made because writer/director Wilder wanted to work again with Lemmon after their huge success with Some Like it Hot.  As one of the hottest properties in Hollywood he had no trouble getting the project green lighted despite its racy premise by the independent Mirisch Corporation and the distributor, United Artists. 

The nugget of an idea for the film was jotted down in a one phrase entry into a notebook years earlier after Wilder saw David Lean’s acclaimed 1945 British film about infidelity in a borrowed flat, Brief Encounter.  Wilder had written, “What about the friend who owned the flat?”  With that in mind he and Diamond constructed a brilliant screen play.

With Lemmon on board, casting was the next hurdle.  MacLaine, an ex-dancer and Hollywood up-and-comer after parts in Around the World in 80 Days, Some Came Running, and Can-Can, was an easy choice despite not being a traditional leading lady beauty.  In fact her freckles, red hair and turned up nose were perfect for the naïve elevator operator who somehow becomes the mistress of a married man.  Veteran character actor and Wilder favorite Ray Walston was perfect as the first supervisor to tempt Lemmon.

The part of the philandering senior executive was harder.  Wilder had always envisioned Paul Douglas, the husky actor who had made a specialty of such roles.  But Douglas died of a heart attack.  After casting around he hit on Fred MacMurray.  His career seemed on the down side and his days as a leading man past.  He had lately worked mostly in little seen westerns and on TV.  His one success had been a Disney throw-away comedy, The Shaggy Dog which had surprised everyone by becoming a hit.  He was in the process of wrangling with Disney for a real contract and the studio wanted to build low budget, high profit family comedies around him.  MacMurray feared that playing the randy, despicable boss would so taint his image that Disney would drop him.  In the end he agreed because he had not had a really meaty part since Double Indemnity 16 years earlier—another Wilder script.

A young Edie Adams rounded out the featured players as the boss’s former lover and Lemmon’s eventual secretary as he rises in the company.

In the film Lemmon is at first pleased as punch as he rises seemingly effortlessly in the company.  He flirts with the pretty elevator operator who notes his floor-by-floor rise.  But demands on his love-nest-for-loan become inconvenient and irksome.  Then he ends up with the suicidal elevator operator on his hands as she despairs the relationship with his cold hearted boss.  He falls in love.  She feels conflicted.  The boss gets outed and his wife leaves him.  He wants former mistress back and asks again for the key.  Lemmon refuses and quits.  Girl discovers his sacrifice, overcomes most of her ambivalence, and shows back up at his apartment as he prepares to leave town.  End of slender story.

Like many classic Wilder films, the movie ends with a sharp line.  The girl picks up the cards from the gin games with which they had passed time before.  Lemmon attempts to proclaim his feeling.  The girl says, “Shut up and deal.”

Today The Apartment seems about as sexually daring as The Kiss.  A remake would have much more attractive actors, a lot of swearing, plenty of skin, and sweaty love scenes.  It would be a rom-com romp with a much less ambiguous ending.  But it wouldn’t be a better picture.

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