Friday, April 27, 2012

We Gab Hard for the Money

Werth: Hullo, Wise.

Wise: Hi, Werth?  What's wrong?  You look like you're about to eat my brains.

Werth: Work has been really busy of late. It's totally getting in the way of my watching old movies and scouring the internet for pictures I don't already have of Joan Crawford.

Wise: I'm sorry to hear that, but I can totally sympathize.  Sometimes work feels like it's swallowing up the best of me and only leaving scraps behind.

Werth: You know what would make me feel much better?

Wise: Winning the lottery and being named Robert Osborn's successor?  

Werth: Yes, but in the meantime I was hoping we could try some good ol' Hollywood escapism and gab about great movies where people's lives take an interesting turn because of their jobs.

Wise: You know I'm game.  Cinema therapy is the great cure-all.

Werth: And nothing cures quite like a Billy Wilder comedy—although 1960's The Apartment would be better classified as a comedy/drama. C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is an employee of the massive Consolidated Life Company. Shown sitting at his desk in a cavernous, industrial-style common workroom whose lights and desks seem to stretch off into infinity, C.C. is already primed to move up the corporate ladder. To curry favor with his bosses, C.C. makes his W. 67th St. apartment available to his superiors as a destination for their clandestine quickies with women other than their wives.

Wise: Poor wives. They never get the clandestine quickies.

Werth: Unfortunately for C.C., this means a lot of time spent loitering outside his building or walking in Central Park in the dead of night waiting for his bosses to finish with their floozies. 
But it all appears to be worth it when the head of PR, Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray at his slickest) offers C.C. a promotion and his own office—provided Mr. Sheldrake can get in on the love nest action.

Wise: Wow, the absent-minded professor not only invented flubber, but was also a dog.

Werth: C.C. accepts, of course, and is anxious to share his promotion news with the elevator-girl of his dreams, Miss Kubelick (the recently turned 78 Shirley MacLaine). But what C.C. doesn't know is that Miss Kubelick is actually the chippie Mr. Sheldrake is having an affair with in C.C.'s apartment.

Wise: It makes sloppy seconds so much easier when the girl is already in your bedroom.

Werth: It gets even sloppier when Miss Kubelick finds out that she is merely the latest girl in a long string of receptionists and actuaries for Mr. Sheldrake, so she attempts suicide Christmas Eve in C.C.'s apartment.

Wise: Okay, what happened to the comedy?

Werth: That's what's so refreshing about this movie. In the hands of a director like Blake Edwards this would be a door-slamming sex farce. But in Wilder's hands, the comedy and drama weave together to form something that, while not real enough to be called "realistic," is tender enough to be human. 
Both MacLaine and Lemmon are perfectly cast for this blend of loneliness and levity. MacLaine's typical kooky pluckiness is more reserved than usual—but still endearingly charming—hiding an inner sadness borne of broken trust. 
And Lemmon's brilliance at finding comedy in the smallest of motions and moments is utilized to its fullest, giving his lonely C.C. depth, even while he is straining his spaghetti with a tennis racket.

Wise: I use my tennis racket as a cheese grater.

Werth: Nominated for 10 Academy Awards and winning five—including the biggie, Best Picture—The Apartment would be the last truly great film that Wilder would make. But in a career that included such classics as Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945), Sunset Boulevard (1950), and Some Like it Hot (1959), The Apartment is the epitome of Wilder's ability to make us laugh one moment and sniffle the next. 

Wise: Witticisms and the workplace also combine perfectly in It (1927), a confection starring silent screen mega-star Clara Bow as Betty Lou Spence, a shop girl just bursting with "It." 

Werth: I'm assuming you don't mean she dresses like a clown and kills people through the sewage system.  

Wise: Of course not.  It is based on a short story by Elinor Glyn who defined "It" as "That quality possessed by some which draws all others by its magnetic force," and Clara Bow had that in spades.  
Propelled to Hollywood stardom by winning a nationwide Fame and Fortune contest, Bow became one of the defining faces of the silent era and It became one of her defining roles.  The film has occasionally been dismissed as a Cinderella story, but Bow shows a lot more pluck and ambition than the stereotypical fairy tale princess.  
She falls for her boss, Cyrus Waltham (a dreamy Antonio Moreno), the scion of Waltham's Department Store where she works.  Realizing that he will never notice her as a salesgirl, she strikes up a friendship with Cyrus' best friend Monty (William Austin inhabiting the fey dandy role later perfected by Edward Everett Horton) and convinces him to escort her to the Ritz where she engineers a meeting with Cyrus and he promptly becomes smitten by her.  

Werth: Now all I can think about is a delicious, buttery cracker...

Wise: She makes a wager that he won't recognize her the next time they meet, and the following day at the store, he does just that.  When he realizes his mistake, he offers to make good on their bet, and she suggests a trip to Coney Island.  After a happily romantic excursion, things turn sour when she rebuffs his aggressive advances, only to turn even worse when a tabloid reporter (a young Gary Cooper in a non-speaking role), two priggish social workers, and the baby of 
Betty's unmarried roommate incite a mix-up that convinces Cyrus that she is nothing but a golddigger.  Furious, Betty hatches a plan to make Cyrus fall in love with her despite what he thinks are her failings and to humiliate him when he proposes.  Since this is a comedy, her scheme doesn't come off as she plans, but a roundelay of mistaken identities, comeuppance for snobs, and a yachting accident ensures a happy ending. 

Werth: You used roundelay and comeuppance in the same sentence. Are you going for a double word score or something?

Wise: It's interesting to compare It with a lot of contemporary romantic comedies because most of snafus that fuel the plot in this kind of film stem from Betty's principles rather than the sniveling humiliations in, say, your typical Katherine Heigl film.  Betty is never less than her most authentic (and rambunctious) self, and if she is reduced to tears near the end of the film, it's not because she's missed out on some idealized prince, but because she has failed to find her equal.  And that's why this film feels so satisfying despite its age: Betty finds her happy ending because she's earned it, and not because a romantic golden goose plopped in her lap totally undeserved. 

Werth: Sorry, Wise. I hate to stop you, but I gotta get back to work. 

Wise: Just don't forget to punch the clock for next week's Film Gab.


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