Ain't No Party Like a Lemmon Party

Written by Billy Wilder & I.A.L. Diamond
Directed by Billy Wilder

If you're anything like me (and God help you if you are), then you grew up familiar with Jack Lemmon as a primarily dramatic actor who slummed it in the "Grumpy Old" movies, and only occasionally remembered that he was Felix Ungar before Tony Randall. If you've made some effort, you'll also know Some Like It Hot. So it's been with no small amount of wonder and delight that I've been "discovering" more of his comedy work from the 60s recently. How To Murder Your Wife and Irma La Douce were among my favorite films viewed last year, and sometime down the road I'll tell you more of the why to that, but Lemmon was a key ingredient in both those pies. In the early-to-mid 60s, he could have walked away with the title "The Next Jerry Lewis." As Lewis' work was becoming more bitter and unkind (see: Hook, Line & Sinker -- or rather don't), Lemmon embodied a similar nebbishy, loosey-goosey enthusiasm and sweetness that Lewis had choked with sour grapes and pickled in scotch. Lemmon seems to have made a conscious effort to keep betting big on himself and his chops, to great success. The Apartment gives him plenty of opportunities to play with a range of emotions, writ both large and small.

Lemmon plays C.C.Baxter, a corporate cog with dreams of ambition. There are two significant locales in the film, and the one that's not the titular apartment is Consolidated Life of New York; an insurance corporation as soulless and impersonal as its acres of cold, sterile office spaces. Baxter is a minnow trying to swim with the sharks, but it's not his head for numbers that has made him popular with various department heads, but his callow willingness to let them use his apartment for liaisons their mistresses. Their casual disregard for him often keeps him waiting in the cold just to go home to his own place, which they have ransacked of booze and cheese crackers. Meanwhile, his landlady and her husband believe him to be an impossible lothario, owing to the ruckuses made by his self-serving bosses.

As shiny, austere and angular as the office is, his apartment is textural, cluttered and curvilinear -- a womb against an uncaring world which he allows to be violated by the same men who make the outside world so uncaring in the first place. Ralph Waldo Emerson said "I find that Americans have no passions, they have appetites." These are those Americans.

Baxter is interested in Miss Kubelik, an elevator operator at Consolidated Life of New York (an interesting name, given the closed atmosphere in which all aspects of one's life are pursued, and upon which all aspects appear dependent). Shirley MacLaine endows her with that jaded hope that no one else could do quite the same. She knows better, but she keeps following her heart into danger. The danger in this case is Mr. Sheldrake, one of the top corporate brass with whom she's had and off-and-on affair. It being "on" again, Sheldrake (played by Fred MacMurray with Romneyesque white-washed sleaze) takes an interest in Baxter, or more specifically, his apartment. The quid pro quo is that Baxter gets his own office while Sheldrake gets a key to the apartment. Baxter, unaware of the identity of the young lady in question, is filled with the confidence of a rising corporate raider, while his flirtations with Miss Kubelik seem to stall-out on the runway, owing to her renewed relations with their mutual employer.

After Sheldrake's secretary (and formerly featured flavor-of-the-year) Miss Olsen boozily sheds some light on his modus operandi during the company Christmas party, Miss Kubelik heads to the apartment to swallow a handful of sleeping pills. Meanwhile, Baxter, finally giving up on Kubelik, is about to "get lucky" with the floozy-ish wife of a jockey currently detained by Castro in Cuba. She fits the mold of all the corporately approved mistresses -- blonde, blowsy, and unburdened with an overabundance of brains. They all seemed to speak in that "yeah-yeah, sure-sure" Harley Quinn-y Brooklyn movie accent.

That's where things start happening very quickly. The get to his apartment. He discovers Miss Kubelik unconscious in his bed. He has to get rid of his date, roust the landlady's husband, Dr. Dreyfus to pump Miss Kubelik's stomach (later echoed in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous), keep Miss Kubelik awake long enough to be sure she won't die and chase off an amorous executive who did well at the Christmas party. All of these things are themselves made up of smaller comedy bits. It's kind of an atom smasher for "bits," all swirling together -- all the while never denying that it's still an attempted suicide scene. Though the scene is roughly in the middle of the film, it could easily be considered the climax in the story arc, with all previous scenes leading up to it and all following scenes being an untangling and categorization of the messes they've all made.

I'd like to avoid giving away endings as much as possible, so I'm going to leave off there, plot-wise. The Apartment is an unexpectedly adult comedy. I was going to say "for its time," but thinking about it, it's more mature than comedies in our time -- not just in its dealings with suicide, infidelity, and class warfare (well, we don't call it that when it's just the rich waging it), but in the emotional complexity of two people finding the nerve to really love honestly. There is a lot more going on here than the words they say. So much of the complexity is never spoken of, but shared via a continuum of emotional subtexts. Lemmon is harried and hopeful. He's aware of his struggle to become UNaware of the ways that he debases himself to climb, and finds the top to be the lowest place of all. MacLaine's eyes twinkle from within her dense canopy of eyelashes, that pursed smirk that says "Show me something, bud -- no, really, SHOW me something, please."

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