Monday, October 19, 2009

Notepad Recovery:
Kiss Me, Stupid (Billy Wilder; 1964)

What follows is a series of excerpts from what I freely confess is a still-unfinished article on Billy Wilder's Kiss Me Stupid. That's right. Excerpts. This is not the final result; it's barely even close to a workable draft.

When I started this piece it was supposed to be a relatively straightforward retrospective review; one that ultimately sought to explore no more than this film in the context of Wilder's own, oft-repeated admiration for the work of Ernst Lubitsch. As I started compiling notes for the thing, however, I found that my somewhat modest inner-mandate had atomized and run off in a number of different directions; all of which could, I realized, be made to harmonize within the piece through one strategic arrangement of sentences or another. I could have ignored this development and proceeded according to my initial intent, of course, but I shortly came to realize that the sole chance this article
ever had of justifying its existence was to light out for the territory, so to speak, and perform that compositional magic trick with as much mellifluous, Gibbon-esque polish as I could possibly muster. Swell. Unfortunately, whatever literary skill is required to resolve four, seemingly unrelated sub-topics within the spectrum of a single film, to make them echo off one another while sustaining an acceptable prose quality, is not, I fear, a skill that I fully possess; certainly not sufficient to yield a final result that could keep me out of the firing range of my more . . . unforgiving . . . colleagues in this (you'll pardon the expression) racket.

In any event, the excerpts that follow are more or less sequential (beginning at the beginning), and they represent, roughly, half of what I've written on this film to date. These are the only passages I can (or will) permit myself to post in a public forum. I make no claim for either the quality of its prose, nor the dexterity of its insight. I can only say, in all honesty, that it is what it is.


**********

"He was way ahead of his time", Ray Walston once said about Billy Wilder, "He foresaw what was gonna happen."

Walston was referring to a conversation he'd had with the director during the production of Kiss Me, Stupid, some weeks after he had assumed its lead role from a reportedly ailing Peter Sellers. And there wasn’t a thing about it . . . not the conversation or the moment itself or anyone’s recollection of either . . . that you could call happy.

"I never liked that picture very much", Wilder would later say in an interview with a former music industry publicist-turned movie director, "I would not have liked it better with Peter Sellers." Walston, on the other hand, required no hindsight. By his account he began harboring deep misgivings about Kiss Me, Stupid from the moment he read its screenplay; saddled as it was with an aggressively uncertain third act and a vast, gamy parade float of sledgehammer sex gags. "I said when I finished it," he recalled, "'It's not good' But one doesn't say that about a Billy Wilder-I.A.L. Diamond script. The feeling was that they'd repair it." Now, more than a month after production had resumed, no repair seemed forthcoming and all doubt turned to sheer bafflement. It was very simple: He could not fathom how this director, this critical and commercial titan of Hollywood for two solid decades, expected anybody to release the picture he was shooting.

It wasn't shaping up to be a run-of-the-mill bedroom farce; that much was clear. The scenario, the dialogue, Wilder's direction of the performances, everything about the film as it emerged came off as though it had been deliberately arranged in the most sordid of keys, and not in the service of anything normally considered comedy. "What are people in this business gonna say about you?” Walston remembered asking finally, no longer able to hold his tongue, “How are you gonna get away with some of this stuff?” “Lemme tell you something," Wilder began; at last unsheathing the larger vision that would put sense to the perceived madness. "I'm going to tell you what's going to happen in pictures. You are going to see nudity. Profanity. Things that you are never going to believe in your life that you would see in movies”

"Movies are gonna take a big, long leap", he concluded. "And it's gonna be a big, long leap toward things on the screen you would never believe.”

If he thought this leap heralded a new birth of progress for his chosen medium, he gave no indication of it. He merely did his Criswell shtick, got the pain-in-the-ass Star off his back, then returned to directing the film that, in no small measure, helped usher his words that day into the realm of temporal reality. Was it his true rationale? Anything's possible. Billy Wilder was, I think we can stipulate, perceptive enough to notice just how frail the battlements of Production Code enforcement had lately become (everyone else was noticing it that year, after all). He may also have spotted, within the contours of that frailty, the dim outline of a more forbidding spectacle: that of old-line Hollywood . . . the increasingly scabby epicenter of America’s film industry in whose bosom he had flourished since his arrival three decades earlier . . . speeding headlong to a terminus as grim as it was inexorable. His instinct for what he could get away with at any moment had thus far proven sharp, possibly the sharpest in the business; and it almost certainly informed the calculus behind making this film at an hour when some degree of institutional rot had begun to settle in. But for all its shrewdness of vision and Photoplay-caliber prescience, Wilder’s declaration to Ray Walston was, at bottom, a shuck; no more than glib evasion masquerading as prophecy. For when it all came to pass, and the big, long leap was finally taken, and the slow, steady snowfall of blood and flesh and all the things once hidden from the eyes of America’s innocent, lamb-like moviegoers began in earnest, chroniclers of onscreen prurience the world over would still have a thankless chore on their hands finding anything from a major American director quite so jaundiced in tone, so leering, so completely and resolutely . . . dirty-minded as 1964’s Kiss Me, Stupid.

It was adapted loosely (one might even say corrosively) from a 1944 stage comedy by Anna Bonacci. Set in Victoria’s Britain, L’Ora della fantasia was the tale of a provincial church Organist and would-be composer, reluctantly induced into a scheme that finds his wife accidentally trading places for an evening with a local prostitute; all in the hope of winning favor and patronage from a visiting High Sheriff. A game attempt at reviving the deep dish ribaldry of early Restoration landmarks such as William Wycherly's The Country Wife, Bonacci’s play proved surprisingly popular with audiences; spawning productions everywhere from Sweden to Portugal to France and Mexico; everywhere, it seems, but Broadway. In 1952 it was adapted for the screen by Mario Camerini, with an Italian setting this time, as Moglie per una notte (Wife for a Night) . . . a film whose most visible achievement was making Gina Lollobrigida look convincingly dowdy for the first few reels. L’Ora della fantasia was hardly the kind of play that gave so-called popular theater a bad name, nor could it usefully be called a distinguished effort in that realm. It was utterly benign, and durable, and . . . just as works of its stripe had been three centuries before . . . it was the sort of thing considered prime adult fare in its day.

For whether we're discussing the lost craftsmanship of Restoration farce, or the cheapest swill poured out onto the Great White Way after the Second World War, sex comedies have had an enduring presence in so-called popular entertainment; embracing a standard that would eventually become more time worn and mechanistic and ultimately chaste than anyone toiling in that vineyard ever realized.

**********

Billy Wilder had already demonstrated a marked facility for this sort of thing as early as 1955, with his otherwise middling adaptation of George Axelrod's noisemaker, The Seven Year Itch for 20th Century-Fox; and despite the relative absence of such works in his filmography to date, it had been clear from the more recent evidence of Some Like It Hot and Irma la Douce that he would never fully estrange himself from the curious magic of the double-entendre. Like all masters of the form . . . a pantheon ranging from Geoffrey Chaucer and Armenter Chatmon to James Joyce and Benny Hill . . . his attraction to it was real and abiding. As a confirmed devotee of Ernst Lubitsch and his fabled ’Touch’, however, Wilder was also capable of investing the most sniggering innuendos with a dash of wit and a wholly tender, yet never treacly, sentiment. Charm. That was the condition his well-honed technique sought; and in his direction of such actresses as Marilyn Monroe and Shirley MacLaine, he became the only artist in American cinema who could find whole reservoirs of sweetness, even grace, in all the things that make men drool.

But Kiss Me, Stupid was different. It was a film that drooled. It drooled openly, lavishly, with absolute impunity. There was nothing especially charming or even adult about its humor . . . not in the conventional meaning of that word. What had once been rendered so light and beguiling so many times before was now unleashed before the camera with wild, pre-adolescent abandon; as if wit or grace or any redemptive, feather-like 'Touch' had always been a bald-face lie; a cruelly deployed con job that, once exposed, could never easily gain purchase on a viewer's sensibility again. Like any bedroom farce with its origins on the stage, Kiss Me, Stupid was essentially a machine; a careful, slightly soulless arrangement of social components . . . . in this case a neurotic piano instructor; his too good-natured wife; a demimonde cocktail waitress; and a predatory Vegas headliner, recording artist and film actor everyone calls Dino . . . . where the fullest measure of art is achieved in the intricacy of their eventual collision. As such it was an adroit, often brilliantly reductive assault upon the expectations of everyone, but that alone could not save it from being dismissed with something close to unanimity on its release as unreconstructed smut; entering the measly annals of screen censorship as the last film officially condemned by the Catholic Church’s tottering Legion of Decency (this despite some last-minute alterations on Wilder's part to avoid what had otherwise become a pitfall of dwindling relevance). They needn't have bothered. In more than one sense, Kiss Me, Stupid was a film that condemned itself.

**********

Few critics of the moment would cast their perspective (such as it was) beyond its almost studied tawdriness; few tried. The anonymous reviewer for Time called Kiss Me, Stupid, “one of the longest traveling-salesman stories ever committed to film,” complaining that Wilder was not "celebrating sex as a glorious human temptation; he is exploiting it as a commodity – and he wears a lascivious grin where his satirical smile ought to be.“ A.H. Weiler, girding the loins of New York Times readers, thought its anarchic vision of marital infidelity “sleazy and forbidding.“ Judith Crist over at the Herald Tribune, simply wrote it off with a shudder as “the slimiest movie of the year." And it wasn't just time-serving mediocrities in the Film Criticism community who found Kiss Me, Stupid sour and detestable, however; the esteemed mediocrities did as well (Andrew Sarris, in full alliterative flower for The Village Voice, declared it "an exercise in joylessly jejune cynicism"). The thrashing made the rest inevitable.

Released by United Artists on its Art-house purgatory imprint, Lopert Pictures, and hauled out just in time for Christmas (December 22, 1964, to be exact), Kiss Me, Stupid was projected onto a few screens in major cities and then plummeted to the leprous state it was almost destined for. And that is where it would languish for a few decades, until . . . in a circumstance so common among maudit works in the American canon as to achieve the status of a ritual . . . the usual flocks of latter-day movie reviewers and cinephiles without portfolio, forever seeking to redress critical wrongs, real or imagined, rode in on their half-wild stallions, looked back and . . . as they always would . . . began to see it magically anew.

**********

Orville Spooner (Ray Walston) is an amateur songwriter living in a dusty Nevada armpit called Climax; teaching Für Elise to schoolkids for pennies and riding an Organ for the town's Congregational Church while, on the side, composing lackluster Tin Pan Alley retreads with an amoral auto-mechanic named Barney Millsap (Cliff Osmond). His life and ambitions are heading nowhere. He's also insanely paranoid about his wife Zelda's potential for infidelity (a prospect apparent only to him); suspecting her and every man who sets eyes upon her . . . the milkman, her Dentist, his kid piano students . . . of the foulest clandestine assignations his overheated brain can conjure.

When Dino (Dean Martin) and his cool, white, Hollywood-bound Dual Ghia convertible are redirected off the main highway by the Nevada State Police and into Climax, Barney grabs opportunity by the forelock and sabotages the vehicle; leaving the weary show business titan stranded in their dead backwater for the evening. It's a perfect set up, he imagines, to pitch a few of those dreadful songs they've been writing. But soon it becomes clear that their guest expects Action, and lots of it, in return for one evening of his time and patronage in Snoresville; instantly training his sights and his prodigious libido upon Mrs. Spooner (Felicia Farr). At first Orville descends into full-scale panic (it's the Spooners' fifth wedding anniversary, after all), but Barney quickly comes to the rescue with his breed of ingenious solution: Since Dino hasn’t actually seen Zelda in the proverbial flesh (his ardor is such that this is not a requirement), all Orville needs to do is get rid of her . . . start a fight, smack her in the face with a grapefruit, anything . . . bring in Climax's best, most cost-effective slut, Polly the Pistol (Kim Novak), say she's the wife and throw her at Dino for the night ("While you're plugging the songs, he'll be . . . "). Guy won't know the difference.

**********

It has to be said, in the service of complete fairness, that Billy Wilder didn’t make it easy for that first batch of critics to read his film in anything other than its original light. Sex comedies were such a debased sub-genre by the mid-1960s that their very presence constituted a kind of shrill white noise that, in retrospect, probably did more than big ugly Musicals to ultimately destroy the very standard of mainstream Cinema which had given them such totally unwarranted shelter for so long. The only way to tell Who's Got the Action? from Happy Anniversary from The Marriage Go-Round from Goodbye, Charlie was by their casts (Hollywood veterans just beginning to go to seed); and even then these movies had an unrelenting tendency to blur, even dissolve in the blaring, widescreen ether of fake urbanity. In this sense, Billy Wilder's film may have struck its earliest critics as just an extreme entry in an oppressively tiresome cycle. But what sets Kiss Me, Stupid apart from other farces of its time . . . so far apart that its contemporary detractors can still be condemned for not noting that something quite unique was unfolding before them . . . is the unmistakable sense one gets that Billy Wilder was, from the first, fully aware of just how witless and dreary this kind of motion picture had become. And rather than redeem the form, deliver it to a higher plane of wit and sophistication, as he had every ability to do, he instead accepted the rot; he didn't exploit every cheap and meretricious implication in Anna Bonacci's play; just the opposite. Through every element, from his and I.A.L. Diamond's script to the baroque dinginess of Joeph LaShelle's cinematography and Alexander Trauner's production design, he seemed to embrace it wholeheartedly.

**********

Unique as Kiss Me, Stupid was in its day, there had been a precedent for such a work in Billy Wilder’s prior filmography; and on the surface it was anything but obvious:

Ace in the Hole (the follow-up to his 1950 triumph, Sunset Blvd.) was the story of a failed newspaper reporter, slugging it out on a penny-ante sheet in New Mexico, who yearns so desperately for a return to his days of glory in New York City that he arranges to keep a man trapped inside a mountain after a horrible accident, milking the tragedy for every scrap of Human Interest slop he can peddle, transforming it into a gaudy entertainment for the American public. Almost apocalyptic in its cynicism, it was a film that revealed perhaps more about Billy Wilder than Billy Wilder ever intended; marinating in the pathological scorn of Kirk Douglas's Chuck Tatum toward everyone and everything around him until it flowed over the rim of fiction to saturate its creator; character and author curdling as one. Nowhere in its twilit human landscape was there a man or a woman with a decent impulse who wasn't a fool or an impotent cretin, nor a moment when the film's cruel trajectory didn't feel like a noose slowly tightening around the viewer's neck. In the final minutes of Sunset Blvd., Wilder broke the fourth wall for one extraordinary moment and had Gloria Swanson's Norma Desmond acknowledge us, those wonderful people out there in the dark, as something no less central to her damaged identity than the Cecil B. DeMille of her last, inextinguishable delusion (thereby implicating us in the construction of her madness); but Ace in the Hole was a feature-length address to the audience, to all audiences. And what it had to say, more in bitterness than disappointment, about all that we, the entertained, make possible were not what moviegoers had ever been accustomed to hearing.

Kiss Me, Stupid . . . a comic farce, no matter how nihilistic it remains at its core . . . isn't the towering indictment of the human race Ace in the Hole was, but it retains that film's flagrantly cynical disposition and, in a sense, broadens it. Like fugitives from an early 30s Warner Brothers musical, Orville and Barney may appear to be driven by the prospect of show business success and all that it implies in terms of mammon and public adoration, but theirs in truth is a quest to sell their souls, with the cheapest forms of sex exploitation the only paths to achievement they either know or can understand. For all his rectitude and position in that dried out community, Orville really has no qualms when it comes to pimping out his wife to Dino . . . as long as she's not really his wife. His is not, then, a case of small-town hypocrisy ripped from the pages of everyone from Sherwood Anderson to Grace Metalious; far from it. In a struggle endemic to Wilder’s protagonists, the man Orville sees himself as is fatally at war with the man he really is, and it’s a losing struggle at both ends. But once he commits himself to Barney's scheme and employs Polly to be his wife for the evening, ultimately in every respect, he finds he can cut it all loose: the ambition, the rectitude, the fidelity, the whole meaningless shot. In the earlier film Chuck Tatum is immolated by the fruits of his ambition . . . his final self-sacrifice seems less like an eleventh-hour bid for redemption than a purebred act of suicide . . . but Orville prevails. Barney's scheme, lurid and byzantine as it is, works; Dino gets some quality, cash-on-the-barrelhead action with Mrs. Spooner; Polly fulfills her inchoate longing for domesticity before being sent back to her trick wagon; the Spooners' mutual adultery is forgiven; and nothing is spoiled by this anarchic gavotte of sex and avarice that wasn't already rotten long, long before.

**********

NOTE: I started writing this article at a time when the question of why I pursue this endeavor had reached something like the apogee of its persistence . . . and, after more than two and one-half years, it is still a far distance from being in any way finished. For those who may be curious, here's a brief rundown of what I did not post (though all of it is alluded to in these excerpts):

* A few paragraphs on the diversionary social function of Sex farces, beginning with their active patronage by King Charles II (court and courtiers alike) at the outset of the English Restoration, and ending with the explosion of their more artless descendants on Broadway during the 1950s, when the general purpose of mainstream American culture was to induce a state of narcolepsy in the general population.


* An extremely long passage on the institutional and, yes, spiritual disintegration of mainstream American cinema after 1960; the gradual expulsion of the
auteur class (FordHawksWalshWellesRay . . . eventually Wilder); and the cinephile hordes (or, as I put it, "the vast army of Orville Spooners and Barney Milsaps") who swooped in like a pack of vultures and, in the name of their 'love' of cinema, made any number of killings off the whole tragic spectacle.

* An equally long, concluding section on Ernst Lubitsch, The Lubitsch Touch (both as a critical and aesthetic phenomenon), Billy Wilder's career-long obsession with replicating said Touch in his own cinema, and my overarching thesis that Kiss Me, Stupid is the single most perfect emanation of The Lubitsch Touch in Cinema; but with every fiber of charm and continental sophistication scraped off the surface.

This afterword has already gone past its 'Sell by' date, but if anyone finds these matters intriguing in the context of the article and wishes to know why I left out this material . . . in the event that the reason isn't immediately apparent . . . I'll be only too happy to explicate in the Comments section.

And that, as they say, is all.

116 comments:

Greg said...

Jesus, Tom (no intended reference to Miller's Crossing) that is one fantastic piece! You are far too harsh on yourself for what amounts to a superb piece on Kiss Me, Stupid as well as the Lubitsch Touch. In fact, this line from the afterward - Kiss Me, Stupid is the single most perfect emanation of The Lubitsch Touch in Cinema; but with every fiber of charm and continental sophistication scraped off the surface is a brilliant summation of the film. My question is does that make Lubitsch a fraud? Does this film prove that once the veneer of charm and sophistication is removed a base burlesque lies beneath or that the charm and sophistication prove that burlesque is as valid an artistic choice as Shakespeare?

And what of the performances? Was the charm and sophistication stripped from them by the writing, the director, the actors, a combination, all three or none? Walston and Farr have no believable chemistry to get the farce to work but if one is removing the veneer does that mean a lack of chemistry is preferred so that the nuts and bolts can be visible?

What about Novak? Was she in on it? I got the impression she thought it was going to be her Some Like it Hot, her "Sugar" role. In fact, I found her to be the most charming of the lot. Maybe her faith in the Wilder touch elevated above the nuts and bolts while Walston wallowed in them.

Greg said...

That of course should be "afterword."

bill r. said...

Yeah, Tom, this was pretty great stuff. I watched Kiss Me, Stupid with the mental equivelant of my jaw hanging open. I couldn't quite believe that anything like this could have possibly "played" in 1964. This line of thinking actually began around the time Dean Martin made the joke about the Sinatra kidnapping.

One thing I wondered about is if this film also heralded the beginning of major stars playing themselves as assholes. That's very common, even hip, these days -- see The Larry Sanders Show, Extras, etc. -- but I think Dean Martin's performance (which is easily the best in the film, I think) is the earliest example of it I can think of. And Martin really makes himself look bad in this. Of course, everybody looks bad, but Martin allows all the warmth to be sucked out of him, to the point where he's essentially an amoral predator.

Fox said...

Hi Tom-

Don't think we've ever met before, but it's nice to meet you this way, and I would be lying if I said I wasn't going to go back and read through your notes again because they are very thoughful and dense (in a good way).

You say, about Kiss Me, Stupid:

There was nothing especially charming or even adult about its humor...

I agree. And though Wilder seems to have dismissed and downplayed the picture, it does feel like a film that, at the time, was made as a loud scream in the face of... whomever. Though the content is not shocking by today's standards, I still felt shocked while watching it knowing that it came from a mainstream director in 1964. But is the content intended purely to shock... and that's all? In 1964 or in 2009, I think that Kiss Me, Stupid is indeed a crude and crass and cynical film.

Which brings me to Ace In The Hole, which I'm glad you've brought up. That's a film that I really feel disconnected to when it comes to Wilder's overall work. In fact, I kind of despise the film. Like Kiss Me, Stupid, I don't think its aged well, because I don't think it ever intended to be anything but a shot across the b(r)ow. (Do those things ever age well?). As you noted, it feels like the bitterness of Ace in the Hole is addressed at the audience. But it feels like a sneer instead of an engagement, and that turns me off.

That's to begin...

Krauthammer said...

A friend came in while I was watching this movie and said "what the hell is Dean Martin doing to that poor girl?" which I think is as good a summation as any.

A lot of it was a fairly uncomfortable experience for me to be quite honest, and sometimes I wondered to what degree that was intended and to what degree it was just looking at it through my eyes. Did Martin think that he was playing an "amoral predator" or did he think of it as just an exaggerated "boys will be boys" role?

Greg said...

And yet he's "Dino" only, never "Dean Martin." A minor difference to be sure but it's as if by doing that he's not playing himself for real, despite mentions of his songs, the Rat Pack, etc.

And how did Wilder's "everyone's going to be doing sex and language" get Walston off his back exactly. Wouldn't, shouldn't Walston have replied, "That's irrelevant to what we're doing here. The future of debauchery has no bearing on whether what we're making works or not." Was Walston that in awe of Wilder?

Greg said...

By the way, I should mention (and I hope Tom doesn't think me rude for stepping in to do this) but I know from working with Tom at Charlie Parker that he often only has a brief spot in the afternoon to check in during his day. No matter as his piece is quite exhaustive even in its unfinished form and leaves much room for discussion amongst us.

Fox said...

Does this film prove that once the veneer of charm and sophistication is removed a base burlesque lies beneath or that the charm and sophistication prove that burlesque is as valid an artistic choice as Shakespeare?

Greg-

I'm tempted to say "both" to that question, because, well, it seems that's what Lubitsch was going for in films like One Hour With You. What separates Lubitsch from Wilder, for me (and I'm far from an expert on either), is that Wilder seemed much more bitter than Lubitsch. For instance, I ultlimately find One Hour With You to be a sweet film.

But maybe I am misreading your question.

Krauthammer said...

Fox - I don't want to derail but although I've cooled on Wilder over the past couple of years I still think that Ace in the Hole is a masterpiece of some sort. It feels legitimately angry and sad rather than a "cynicism that too cynical to believe in its own cynicism" as Sarris might say.

I do understand it applied to this though, which did honestly feel crass and bitter to me at times.

bill r. said...

Krauthammer -

Did Martin think that he was playing an "amoral predator" or did he think of it as just an exaggerated "boys will be boys" role?...

Who knows? I can't imagine he was so lacking in self-awareness as to think it was simply a "boys will be boys" situation, but, at the same time, everybody's morals are pitched at roughly the same level -- it didn't take much convincing to get Felicia Farr to sleep with him, or for Ray Walston to sleep with Kim Novak, or for Cliff Osmond (worst performance in the film) to come up with the whole twisted plan to begin with. It's just that nobody else was playing a version of themselves.

Fox said...

Bill-

I agree that Martin's performance was the best of the group, but I definitely like Novak the best (agreeing with Greg on her charm). I really, really felt for her charatcer, where I can't say I really did for anyone else.

Rick Olson said...

Hi, all --

Tom, fabulous piece, un-completed or not.

If, as Fox and others suggest, this is a "shot across the bows", I'd ask "whose bows?" Bill points out that Martin leeches all his charm out of the role, the charm that made his standard character of drunken rake tolerable, and if he represents the new hollywood aesthetic that Wilder expected, he's no more a prize than the prissy, burned-out, buttoned-down townsfolk. Is this film just a general, cynical jab at everyone? Whose bows is this a shot over?

Fox said...

And how did Wilder's "everyone's going to be doing sex and language" get Walston off his back exactly. Wouldn't, shouldn't Walston have replied, "That's irrelevant to what we're doing here. The future of debauchery has no bearing on whether what we're making works or not."...

Well said, and agreed. The way Wilder seemed to be justify his intentions for Kiss Me, Stupid seemed to have nothing to do with wanting to make a quality film and everything to do with just wanting to be brash. OK, Billy, but why? That type of agenda reminds me of horror directors who just want to "push the envelope" with no care for anything else.

bill r. said...

The thing about Martin's performance, for me, is that it was actually funny, nasty though his character was. I love Ace in the Hole, and the other "dark" Wilder films I've seen, but I've actually never liked his comedies, because I've never though they were funny.

My favorite comedy that has Wilder's name on it (and Diamond's, I believe) is Hawks' Ball of Fire, and I don't even think that one is funny. It's just really good anyway. All of this is to say that I've always thought that Wilder's comic meter was way off, at least as it applied to me, so I can't say that while watching Kiss Me, Stupid I ever considered that it might be willfully bitter and nasty. I thought that Wilder's meter had just plum broke.

Everything in his comedies (again, saving Ball of Fire) is pitched at such an exceedingly broad level that they're basically live action cartoons, so couldn't Kiss Me, Stupid just be the 60s sex comedy of Wilder's naturally excessive comic tendencies? Clearly, Walston knew something was up, and apparently so did Wilder, but how did Wilder really view the material? I'm tempted to think he was playing it "straight", or as straight as he was capable of playing that script, but his sense of comedy, and of the social climate, was just wrong. Wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong.

Rick Olson said...

Bill, Wilder's comic sensibilities have never impressed me all that much, either. "Some Like it Hot" is interesting socially, in what it says about Wilder and his times, perhaps, but I think it's too broad to be too funny to me.

Interesting that the theme of gender role reversal, so up front in "Hot", is buried here, but still visible ... and all the movie references.

Krauthammer said...

Wilder's comedies are usually funny to me, not uproariously funny, but chuckle worthy at least at the beginning, this being no exception. But he really over stuffs these things, this movie did not have to be over two hours long in my opinion.

My favorite comedy with Wilder's name on it is Ninotchka, but it doesn't really feel like a Wilder movie at all. Too warm.

Greg said...

Cliff Osmond (worst performance in the film)

Well Bill we are in full agreement there. It wasn't bad, it was awful. And it is a problem with the film that none of the performances are calibrated to the same standard. I think that's why Martin comes off the best (although, with Fox by my side, I liked Novak the best) because he probably ignored everything and everyone on the set and just did his Rat Pack thing.

I find sixties comedies severely lacking period and it is my experience that it was because of the transition that Tom discusses in his piece. They were entering a period where they could go "out there" so to speak but didn't measure or temper their "out there" with substantial character or story. Bad sex jokes in the sixties that come off as the filmmaker thinking they're being risque while looking to the modern eye just five years later as being hopelessly dated sink most comedies of this period for me.

Fox said...

Krauthammer-

Fair enough, because I would agree that Ace In The Hole and Kiss Me, Stupid have somewhat different intentions. Even though I dislike Ace, I do admit that it is focused, while Kiss Me, Stupid feels scattershot, like a drunken Peckinpah on a bad day had put on the skin of Wilder and decided to direct a sex farce, but then collapsed on the floor but continued to direct from there anyways.

Greg said...

I've often been a big supporter of Some Like it Hot but at the same time can completely understand why people find it too broad to be funny. There was an "overstuffing" as Krauthammer puts it with Wilder that took even that revered film well over two hours, for no good reason.

As a filmmaker though, Wilder has been much more interesting visually than here which gave me the feeling he wasn't too interested in what was going on. Even The Fortune Cookie displays a stronger visual aesthetic than this and that's saying something.

Greg said...

Even though I dislike Ace, I do admit that it is focused, while Kiss Me, Stupid feels scattershot, like a drunken Peckinpah on a bad day had put on the skin of Wilder and decided to direct a sex farce, but then collapsed on the floor but continued to direct from there anyways.

That's one hell of a description Fox but mainly I'm happy to see your statement at the top of the quote as I have never liked Ace in the Hole much either despite its reputation. I agree with the Sarris quote above. Its cynicism seems phony, too cynical to be real. The kind of cynicism one might get from Paddy Chayefsky on a bad day, or good depending on your view of Chayefsky. It's all too loaded with subtext and finger wagging.

Rick Olson said...

he wasn't too interested in what was going on.

Perhaps all the casting problems had taken the wind out of his sails ... I mean, Ray Walston. Really.

Krauthammer said...

I'm a sucker for widescreen black and white so I didn't really have a problem with the visuals. But whatever quality there was to it I'm more tempted to hand to LaShelle than Wilder himself.

Also, I was kinda dreading this movie because The Fortune Cookie was the only other late-period Wilder I'd seen and that is just dreadful.

Fox said...

Whose bows is this a shot over?...

The public's? His peers? I don't think I can confidently say at this point, Rick. Maybe it's just a gasp by Wilder.

But, it does feel to me like he wanted to poke the viewers with a crudeness. As Tom says, Kiss Me, Stupid feels so "dirty-minded". It goes beyond double-entedre and innuendo jokes and has kind of a tongue-hanging-on-the-ground swing to it.

bill r. said...

In his piece, Tom says that Orville "really has no qualms when it comes to pimping out his wife to Dino . . . as long as she's not really his wife." That's not really true, though, is it? At first, yes, and I'll concede that his protests are weak and easily overcome, but he finally decides that he can't bear to pimp out Polly/Zelda and gives Dino his walking papers. And then, of course, he bones Polly himself, because she's exactly like his wife, and stuff. Actually, she's not at all like his wife, but he's been calling her Zelda for a whole hour and a half, which is good enough, I guess.

But anyway, does Wilder really view Orville as noble, in some way? Again, I'm not convinced that Wilder was being intentionally cynical or bitter with this film, so was Kiss Me, Stupid his ill-considered free love statement, delivered a few years before the idea took hold? Did this movie gain any cache' with the hippies three years down the line? Probably not, because Kiss Me, Stupid is probably the squarest swinger film ever made, but still...

Fox said...

My favorite comedy with Wilder's name on it is Ninotchka, but it doesn't really feel like a Wilder movie at all. Too warm....

That's why I like Lubitsch much, much better.

Krauthammer said...

Greg - It's really strange that the older I get the more I agree with Sarris' judgement of Wilder in The American Cinema even though he's very publicly gone back on it. As I said though, Ace in the Hole is one of the exceptions for me.

Fox said...

Greg (on Ace in the Hole):

It's all too loaded with subtext and finger wagging....

Agreed. And the fact that Wilder doesn't appear to include himself in the people he castigates, turns me off.

Pat said...

Tom,

I believe this is my first time commenting on your blog, and may I join in the previous commenters' congratulations on an excellent piece, digressive or not. There's a lot of get your mind around with "Kiss Me Stupid," it's difficultnot to take the disucssion in a few different directions.

I'm not conversant enough about Lubitsch to KMS in terms of his films as you have done, though I'm aware of Wilder's connection to him. I can, however, echo other semtiments I've seen on the thread here:

1)Kim Novak is charming, and here is easily the most sympathetic character. I saw a similarity to Marilyn Monroe's character in "Some Like it Hot" - the kitchen conversation between her and Orville where she tells him about the hula hoop salesman who abandoned her is very, VERY reminiscent of the scene where Monore poured out her sad romantic history with saxophone players to Tony Curtis.

2) I think it was Krauthammer's friend who asked "What is Dean Martin doing to that poor girl?" My feelings exactly. I was very uncomfortable watching him pay Novak while Walston joked and sang and turned a blind eye. Were these scenes supposed to be funny? I found them appalling.

Also, some people like Felicia Farr's performance; I didn't so much. She's pretty and a little charming,but I tend to think she got the part because she was Jack Lemmon's wife.

I also wondered whether some of the contoversy over "Kiss Me Stupid" was due to the fact that not only do all the major characters behave badly, but they all get exactly what they want in the end - be it songwriting fame, a revitalized marriage, or a car and a second chance. No one gets punished, no one atones for giving into their basest instincts. (Or,as you put it more eloquently Tom -"nothing is spoiled by this anarchic gavotte of sex and avarice.") That seems the most shocking part of this film, given the times.

Krauthammer said...

Fox- I prefer Lubitsch too, although I don't mind cold films as a general rule. With all of Wilder's genuflecting over Lubitsch in interviews and such it doesn't really seem like he learned a lot from him. They tackle the same subject matter from time to time but Lubitsch takes something that could be considered vulgar and makes it warm while Wilder takes things that could be considered vulgar and shoves your nose in them.

Fox said...

I've always thought The Fortune Cookie was underrated. And, in fact, it's probably the Wilder film I laugh at the most (possibly b/c I find Mathau to be hilarious).

I also really like Irma La Douce. I like when Lemmon is in Wilder's films because it seems to take some of the cynical sting out of his films. And Shirley Maclaine in those early days was just so precious.

Fox said...

No one gets punished, no one atones for giving into their basest instincts. (Or,as you put it more eloquently Tom -"nothing is spoiled by this anarchic gavotte of sex and avarice.") That seems the most shocking part of this film, given the times....

What I found most disturbing about the infidelity of both Orville and Zelda was how "ho-hum" they felt about it the day after. Really!?!?

And, I mean, how disturbing is it that Dino kind of date rapes Zelda. OK, maybe that's a strong phrase to use, but I admit I was disturbed that Zelda was just kind of like "well, what else am I gonna do???", tossed the liquor back, and went along for the ride right after showing fear that a strange man had walked through the door. Granted, this "strange man" ended up being one of her teen idols that she lusted after, but would she turn her ethics over so quickly because of that?

Greg said...

Krauthammer, I should clarify that I don't have any problem with the visuals per se, it's just that they're bland, uninspiring. There's not a setup here that couldn't be achieved by a home movie enthusiast with no eye towards the cinema. Wilder chooses to shoot in 70mm Panavision and then crams all the action into a bungalow and a trailer and then makes sure the camera just sits there.

Pat said...

Fox,

I think you're right on with the observation that Lemmon takes a bit of the cynical sting out of some of Wilder's best films (especillay in "The Apartment.") But I can't join you on "The Fortune Cookie" - even with Lemmon on board, it feels about as cold and bitter and foul as does "Kiss Me Stupid" to me.

Krauthammer said...

Greg-yeah I definitely agree with that. On wikipedia they quote J. Hoberman talking about its "detailed mise-en-scene" and far be it from me to go against Hoberman but I kinda want what he was smoking.

Greg said...

Rick, it's true, Ray Walston is an odd choice. I was wondering after reading Tom's piece about what research Tom left out. For instance, Sellers couldn't do it (read: didn't want to). Okay, so then why wasn't Wilder's best bud Lemmon enlisted. Christ, look at the role. It's clearly written for a Lemmon style hysterical performance. I think you've got to go through quite a few a, b and c list actors before getting to Walston (and let me be clear - a terrific character actor and supporting player but not a lead and for God's sake not a romantic lead). That alone should have signalled something to Wilder before the first day of shooting.

Pat said...

Fox, I didn't get the feeling that Orville was so "ho hum" about his night with Polly; there is that scene the next morning when he brings Polly home that he seems to be disappointed in himself and his behavior and says so. As for Zelda, yeah, that scene was a little strange. And uncomfortable.

Greg said...

On wikipedia they quote J. Hoberman talking about its "detailed mise-en-scene" and far be it from me to go against Hoberman but I kinda want what he was smoking.

About this movie? I have to read that now. Didn't think it would even have an entry.

Fox said...

In his piece, Tom says that Orville "really has no qualms when it comes to pimping out his wife to Dino . . . as long as she's not really his wife." That's not really true, though, is it? At first, yes, and I'll concede that his protests are weak and easily overcome, but he finally decides that he can't bear to pimp out Polly/Zelda and gives Dino his walking papers. And then, of course, he bones Polly himself, because she's exactly like his wife, and stuff. Actually, she's not at all like his wife, but he's been calling her Zelda for a whole hour and a half, which is good enough, I guess....

But Bill, I read that as Orville not going back to "rescue" Polly, but to rescue his reputation because he didn't want to be bested by the big Hollywood wise guys who think they own everything and everyone. I think it had less to do with his feelings for Polly.

I will admit that Orville's feelins for Polly seem all over the place. He doesn't care, seems to care, then doesn't seem to care again, the "bones" her, then maybe likes her in the tow truck again in the end.

Anyways, I think Polly got the raw deal in the house with both Orville and Dino, but at least she got a fair smile on her face at the end as she drove out of town.

Rick Olson said...

Greg, apparently the part was originally offered to Lemmon, who had scheduling problems (real or imagined) and then Sellers actually shot some scenes, then had some mini-strokes, and left to recuperate for 6 months in London. Wilder, unwilling to wait that long, recast and actually had to reshoot some of Sellers' stuff.

Fox said...

Pat-

I'll take note of what you said about The Fortune Cookie and remember it next time I see it. It has been awhile, and I'm much less accepting of bitterness than I used to be, so maybe I will see it differently in the future.

Also, good point about Orville the next morning with Polly in the truck. However, I still feel the overall issue of infidelity got glossed over a bit. And I'm not saying that the film had to get all moral about cheating because I do think it's a reality that movies of the time didn't seem able to accept, but I just wish Kiss Me Stupid, would have at least acknowledged it more. Zelda definitely feels too comfortable with the whole thing that went down with her and Dino. I wanted to hear what she was gonna say to him as he drove away and she yelled his name.

Greg said...

With Orville it does seem egocentric, that is he is going back because he doesn't want to be bested by some showbiz jerk.

But - why should we believe it's any different for his wife? Is he constantly jealous because he loves her so or because he doesn't want anyone besting him - or simply taking what he believes he owns? After an hour or so he decides Polly is his so now she is in the same position as Zelda.

As for the Zelda divorce schtick at the end I think Wilder felt like putting in crap like that would fool people into believing he was "empowering" his female characters after spending two hours patting them on the ass and calling them "Toots."

Rick Olson said...

I think Orville acts like Wilder thinks it really is in "small-town America" -- a thin veneer of propriety covering an inner core of rot. Remember, the big romantic scene, with strings and everything, is when he goes to bed with someone who is not his wife? When he has perversely traded her identity for that of a prostitute?

The strings, the romantic moment, there is more than a little irony there, intentional or not. I tend to think it was intentional, all part of his statement.

Fox said...

Rick-

I read in Cameron Crowe's Wilder book that Wilder also clashed with Seller's instincts to improvise. Apparently Wilder liked his actors to read word for word, and Sellers felt differently.

Rick Olson said...

spending two hours patting them on the ass and calling them "Toots."

Yeah, the objectification is pretty severe ... what about that shot, late in the film, when Orville discovers Dino and Polly on the floor, and they stand up, and her face is obscured by the lamp, and all she is is a torso with breasts, just like the mannequin that first Dino and then Orville have the hots for, have both substituted Zelda/Polly for in their minds?

Kevin J. Olson said...

Well I feel like a real jerk for not getting the chance to watch this and contribute. I was really excited too as this one Wilder film I haven't seen yet. But alas...the dreaded H1N1 found its way into my immune system and has prevented me from doing a lot of things I planned for the weekend...which ended consisting of me lying on the couch watching 12 straight hours of college football.

Tom, I haven't seen the film so I can't really respond to your thoughts, but you did a damn good job here. Sorry I can't add anything more to that.

Carry on.

Rick Olson said...

So, Fox, maybe the "strokes" were as manufactured as (perhaps) Lemmon's scheduling problems?

Fox said...

But - why should we believe it's any different for his wife? Is he constantly jealous because he loves her so or because he doesn't want anyone besting him - or simply taking what he believes he owns? After an hour or so he decides Polly is his so now she is in the same position as Zelda....

Greg, I think that's a good point. Orville is so suspicious of everyone - even a 14 year old! - that his trust issues seem to come from something much larger than his wife's sexual loyalty. I mean, he didn't even remember their anniversary! If he so loved her you'd think he would have.

Rick Olson said...

Kevin, you be careful with the H1NI ... take it easy, man.

Fox said...

So, Fox, maybe the "strokes" were as manufactured as (perhaps) Lemmon's scheduling problems?...

Ha! Yes, Seller's was all "I'll give you some improv you little jerk!"

Krauthammer said...

Yeah Kevin, get well soon.

Greg said...

I wanted to hear what she was gonna say to him as he drove away and she yelled his name.

That happens after she sees the 500 dollars. I got the distinct impression that she was going to tell him she wasn't a prostitute, the joke being essentially "oh honey, that one was for free!" Because women are helpless sluts for Dean Martin.

Greg said...

Kevin, it's got everyone at my house save me and the oldest daughter. I hoping against hope that I'm immune. Time will tell. Feel better soon.

Rick Olson said...

Because women are helpless sluts for Dean Martin.

And what about that Sinatra? The voice, the voice ...

Krauthammer said...

Ok I need to leave for class now, happy talking.

Greg said...

I mean, he didn't even remember their anniversary! If he so loved her you'd think he would have.

Exactly! And as Rick mentioned, the bust in the bedroom is as much Zelda as the actual human being. Honestly, what exactly does Zelda see in him? Is that initial ballad so bewitching that its effects last the duration of the marriage? If Zelda runs off with Dino and Polly ends up with Orville within a few weeks (or days) she will be the accessory to his ego that Zelda was and nothing more.

Rick Olson said...

Orville is no prize, I don't see him having many redeeming features at all. Seems to embody Wilder's view of all those family values ... but if so, what does Dino embody? He's as big a sleaze ... is he Orville, stripped of all "civility"? After all, the role-identiy-swapping theme cuts both ways. They are both substituted for each other ...

Are Dino and Orville the best that women can do in Wilder's vision?

Fox said...

Rick-

I'm glad you brought up the mannequin.

I thought about it in the way that Wilder was showing how Dino and Orville (or men in general) were just sex-obsessed pigs who are fine with anything as long as it has a bodacious shape. I mean, Orville shows more affection for the headless dummy in the final scenes than he ever does for Zelda. True, it's because the dummy REMINDS him of Zelda, but I think it still speaks to something of the character of men in this movie.

So... when it comes to the treatment of women in this movie, I can't say Wilder did such an outstanding job (I'm thinking specifically of the way he handles Zelda in the trailer with Dino), but he does make Polly the most human among them all, and, in my opinion, gives her the best ending, a kind of "see you chumps later" moment.

The men in this film are clearly horrible people, and while I would entertain anyone's argument that Wilder is being crude to his female characters, I think the men get the biggest beating in Kiss Me Stupid.

Now, I suppose you could argue that Wilder endorses the behavior of someone like Dino but I think the sympathy (admittedly mild) he builds up for Polly kind of undercuts that.

Rick Olson said...

Are Dino and Orville the best that women can do in Wilder's vision?

Or is he such a misogynist that in his eyes that's what women deserve?

Rick Olson said...

he does make Polly the most human among them all, and, in my opinion, gives her the best ending, a kind of "see you chumps later" moment.

Yes, but she's such a stereotypical, whore-with-a-heart-of-gold character, what does that say about his overall view of women? I mean, in "Some Like it Hot" he said that men make just as good women as women ... "nobody's perfect," after all.

Rick Olson said...

And, I don't think he endorses Dino's behavior at all, I think he sees Orville's and Dino's as essentially the same.

Fox said...

Rick, I agree with you on all of what you said above, but should we see Wilder's views as more overly cynical of the human race as a whole (I don't want to go as far as misanthropic), both male AND female, or do you think he's primarily a misogyinst?

Because, for what it's worth (again), I think the men end up looking the worst in this film.

Fox said...

BTW...

Did Rick just quote himself and then add a question to it? That was pretty cool.

Greg said...

Not to take Marilyn's place in her absence (because I never could) but the more I discuss Wilder online, watch his films and learn of their histories he does seem to have a very primitive view of women that I find uncomfortable.

bill r. said...

Greg, and everyone else, pretty much -- Yeah, the treatment of women in Kiss Me, Stupid is pretty awful. I would sort of agree with Fox that the men come off worse, but, outside of Martin, I don't know that Wilder intended them, too. I'm not ever convinced he intended Martin too come off worse, although that was my initial reaction to it. But look at Martin by the end...back on TV, giving our beloved songwriters their due, and beloved by millions. Full on cynicism, or something else?

And let's not forget Roy's initial suggestion to Orville about how to make his wife angry: "Hit her!" Or, you know, something like that.

Tom Sutpen said...

Good God. I wasn't expecting anything close to this much comment action.

First, thanks to everybody for the kind words. I'll try to get to all the issues raised here, but as Greg mentioned my time during the day is often woefully limited. I'll have some downtime this afternoon (since I will in all probability be here til 9PM this evening), but I'll get to everything eventually. In fact, I may even move some of the comment discussion into the main blog.

Just to get started, however:

Greg:

My question is does that make Lubitsch a fraud? Does this film prove that once the veneer of charm and sophistication is removed a base burlesque lies beneath or that the charm and sophistication prove that burlesque is as valid an artistic choice as Shakespeare?

I don't think Lubitsch was any more or less of a fraud than Busby Berkeley or Powell & Pressburger or Max Ophuls or any other film artist who routinely reconstructed the universe into a more artful and elegant form. On one level a movie like Trouble in Paradise is, yes, an absolute lie. People engaged in that activity would never behave in such a sparkling manner; it has almost no connection to any standard of ordinary human behavior. But the veneer makes it such a wonderful lie, such a charming and beguiling lie, that any sense of scorn one might have for it on general principles is neutralized from the outset; to the point where no one would even think of questioning it (aka, The Willing Suspension of Disbelief).

In a sense it's not only a valid artistic choice, it's a necessary one. This is how most mainstream commercial cinema operates; a form of escapism where artist and audience, as one, steadfastly flee from the implications under the surface of a given work. Lubitsch simply brought a higher level of craft, through his own, often astonishing formal gift as a storyteller, to that enterprise.


And what of the performances? Was the charm and sophistication stripped from them by the writing, the director, the actors, a combination, all three or none? Walston and Farr have no believable chemistry to get the farce to work but if one is removing the veneer does that mean a lack of chemistry is preferred so that the nuts and bolts can be visible?


I actually haven't written anything about the performances. Ray Walston has been many times beaten up (with much justice) for his work in this film. Part of the problem is that, being primarily a stage actor (as he was at that time), his film acting knows no subtlety, no nuance. It's all played to the balcony (Peter Sellers, by every account, was doing brilliant work, and I daresay if his anxiety over his Hollywood debut, and Wilder's working methods, hadn't brought him salvation in the form of a heart attack, Kiss Me, Stupid would have been a very different film).

Dean Martin's performance was magisterially summed up in Saint Nick Tosches' 1992 biography (incidentally, the opening bit about Walston is a commingling of his accounts from both Tosches' book and Ed Sikov's Billy Wilder biography). I could add nothing to it; except, perhaps, that if any of the principal actors was 'in on' what Wilder was doing, it was probably Martin. In fact, there's every indication that he encouraged Wilder to make 'Dino' as slimy a character as he needed him to be. He loved it.

Cliff Osmond is pretty terrible, but that may just be due to his inability to transcend what was already a repulsive character. According to Walston, there was an immense amount of friction between he and Osmond on that picture. Wilder, God knows why, actually had high regard for him and gave him a wide berth.

As for Kim Novak . . . she was always an underrated actress, and I think she gave a more than decent performance in Kiss Me, Stupid, but she hobbled herself by trying to replicate Marilyn Monroe as comprehensively as she did.

More soon!

Rick Olson said...

Yes, I did, Fox ... who better to quote than me?

should we see Wilder's views as more overly cynical of the human race as a whole (I don't want to go as far as misanthropic), both male AND female, or do you think he's primarily a misogyinst?

I don't know how to answer that, but even though the men turn out the worse, here, that doesn't mean the overall tone of the film isn't misogynistic ... it's clear Wilder views women as objects to satisfy male egos, even if those egos are out of proportion or just plain wrong.

Perhaps his view is misanthropic, after all ... I think it's certainly, as we've said over and over in this thread, a deeply cynical view of human beings.

Rick Olson said...

And let's not forget Roy's initial suggestion to Orville about how to make his wife angry: "Hit her!" Or, you know, something like that.

Constant references to "Public Enemy" ... is that it playing on the TV in Polly's trailer when Zelda gets there?

bill r. said...

The grapefruit was a reference to Public Enemy, but was "Hit her!"? I don't know, it's been a while since I've seen that movie.

Fox said...

Bill and Rick-

When Roy said "hit her", I was struck with the feeling that Wilder was just provoking there (I'm starting to think that this was the case with much of the movie). He had to know that people would gasp, but I kinda just rolled my eyes b/c I saw it as a weak reach for shock humor.

And as for all the men looking bad, I forgot that the milk man seemed like a pretty decent guy. So, at least we can say that Wilder is pro-milk man.

Fox said...

Constant references to "Public Enemy" ... is that it playing on the TV in Polly's trailer when Zelda gets there?

I thought maybe that was the car chase scene at the beginning of Some Like it Hot, but that's just a guess.

Also. I kind of found the whole grapefruit thing humorous, especially when he found a perfectly ready half grapefruit in the fridge, and then when the pastor/priest cleaned out the whole fruit and left just the peel.

Tom Sutpen said...

Two hit and run responses:

I'm in total agreement about how women are treated in this film. There was always a hint of misogyny in Wilder's screenwriting, but after 1960 it started to metastasize. I actually don't think Kiss Me, Stupid is as bad in this respect as The Fortune Cookie or The Front Page . . . two films where he really lets it off the leash . . . but it isn't very appetizing. In his later work he developed this tendency to linger on moments where women are either vulnerable, confused, beset by unwanted attention.

I don't want to climb into Billy Wilder's head here (he does a better job of that himself in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes), and it has to be noted that his view of men isn't much better on the whole, but there was a definable streak of a particularly well-defined disenchantment with the female of the species that emerged in his last handful of films, and it accounts for why so much of it is at times so ugly.

*****

Everybody who's illin' . . . please get well!!

bill r. said...

Fox - I don't know about just going for shock. There's an episode of The Andy Griffith Show -- such a gentle show, by and large -- where much light is made of domestic violence. I can't quite remember it well enough to quote it, but it's pretty jarring.

bill r. said...

The point being (which I should have mentioned before) that maybe the idea of "hit her!" being just a regular joke wasn't that out of the ordinary in those days.

Fox said...

Bill-

You could be right. I just felt weird forced feeling with that line. Doesn't Roy even kinda turn towards the screen (and away from Orville) when he delivers it to give the line more punch (no pun...)? I can't remember.

I will admit to laughing at some of the humor that was aimed at women, though. I thought Dean Martin's reaction to the homely bar waitresses was pretty funny, even though, yes, he's being a scumbag about it. I mean, he's the guy who says he can't go a night with banging a lady our or he'll get a headache.

Speaking of banging, I could've done without the "bang bang"ing of the parrot,

Tom Sutpen said...

Okay . . . another quick one:

I doubt if it was The Public Enemy, since that film was owned by Warner Brothers and Kiss Me, Stupid was a United Artists picture (until they distanced themselves from it). Having watched the film most recently about 6 weeks ago, it sounds to me like a run of the mill Western the parrot is providing accompaniment to.

bill r. said...

I agree, Fox, Martin was funny. Assholes can be funny, and he was.

Fox said...

Bill-

I think it's also because I know I can be an asshole too, and would probably react to waitresses in the same light who thought they were sexy but weren't.

And, I'd like to say, that while I've been pretty hard on Kiss Me, Stupid today, I enjoyed watching it. It was a bizarre film. I can't say I liked it or hated it.

Rick Olson said...

Bill, Martin WAS funny, some of the time, at least. Like you say, assholes can be funny.

And when Barney delivered that line "hit her" it seemed to me like he was dead serious, and I do remember that turn to the screen, Fox.

Pat said...

Hi,I'm back and kind of struggling to keep up with the discussion, but as I work through the thread,I have a few thoughts:

Greg - As for the Zelda divorce schtick at the end I think Wilder felt like putting in crap like that would fool people into believing he was "empowering" his female characters after spending two hours patting them on the ass and calling them "Toots." Amen!

Rick - I doubt that Lemmon's scheduling problems were an invention. Lemmon was Wilder's favorite leading man after their initial collaboration on "Some Like it Hot," and Lemmon was equally nuts about Wilder. They were very close frieds away from the set as well. (And Lemmon later starred in even worse Wilder films than this one, such as "Avanti" and "Buddy, Buddy"). Also, Lemmon's wife played Zelda, so there may have initially been some intention to pair the two for the first time onscreen. Just guessing.

Pat said...

Kevin - sorry to hear you've been hit by the flu - sending you "get well" vibes.

Greg said...

Tom thanks for that response. While I meant to ask does it reveal Lubitsch as a fraud, not make him one, you nonetheless provided the answer I too have arrived at.

It's not too surprising that Wilder had high regard for Osmond as he seems to like guys who can play it big in his comedies, it's just that Osmond has a smarminess about him that makes the big presentation fall flat.

Greg said...

Bill, I think you're right about the attitudes towards domestic violence. Like you, I can't pull a quote off of the top of my head to prove it but I know I have cringed at wife-hitting jokes in movies and television right up through the late sixties. It seems that it wasn't until the seventies that it was frowned on. I mean, beating a woman was always frowned upon but a hit here and there to keep her in her place... well, that's a different story old sport. That was what a good husband was expected to do (or so it seems sometimes).

Krauthammer said...

Well yeah that's to be expected unfortunately, I mean, just look at the Honeymooners. Maybe not the best example, as I don't think he'd ever really hit her, but that kinda thing is still in the air.

Greg said...

"One of these days, Pow! To the moon!"

Or "right in the kisser!"

That's actually a very good example Krauthammer as Ralph's most famous catchphrase involved a physical threat to punch his wife.
That was his catchphrase! I mean, what does that tell you?

Greg said...

Or take the scene in The Philadelphia Story which Michael Caine tries to gloss over in his Cary Grant tribute on TCM by saying it was Cary's grace that saved it from being an ugly gesture. Yeah, whatever. Point is, for comedy's sake, he walks up to Katherine Hepburn with his fist up ready to PUNCH HER IN THE FACE! Then he "merely" pushes her with his palm fully in her face instead. To the ground! I saw this movie a few years back at a classic (now defunct) theater in D.C. and there were plenty of audible gasps when that moment happened. No laughter.

bill r. said...

Krauthammer's right, though: Ralph would never actually do it, and Alice knew that. With Ralph, it was just a thing to say. I guess it IS a good example, but I was never jarred by THE HONEYMOONERS as I was by the episode of ANDY GRIFFITH.

I was just wondering about what Tom wrote regarding Wilder's prediction that soon there would be things in film that Walston wouldn't believe, like nudity. There are only two Wilder films between KISS ME, STUPID and AVANTI!, his first (and only?) film with a nude scene. I've always had the feeling that Hitchcock was just licking his chops, waiting for the day when he could pull out the stops (witness FRENZY and his plans for the never-made KALEIDESCOPE) -- could Wilder have had the same urges to put certain things on screen, and he was on the edge of his seat for that day to come? Could, in fact, KISS ME, STUPID have been his attempt to push things forward (or backwards, depending on your point of view)?

Krauthammer said...

Ha. I just found out that Wilder was one of the writers on Lubitsch's Bluebeard's Eighth Wife. That actually has perhaps the funniest domestic violence scene in classic film I've seen (and yes, that sounds absolutely terrible) Where Gary Cooper, feeling powerless in a relationship with Claudette Colbert, reads The Taming of the Shrew. In a crazy daze he walks right up to her, lays her across his knees, yells "SHAKESPEARE" and spanks her.

It doesn't work out so well for him.

Krauthammer said...

Bill: It's always interesting to imagine what these filmmakers would do without the Hays Code, or, more generally, without significant cultural pressure. Hitchcock definitely gave us a glimpse with Frenzy, though I haven't seen Avanti! yet. Wilder would seem naturally attuned in some ways to a post-hays era but on further reflection so many of his comedies are built around the tease that some of his films would be unrecognizable.

Rick Olson said...

Again, I didn't think Osmond delivered that line with any hint that he wasn't serious, as Bill points out, in the Honeymooners, it was all part of the game ... she knew and we knew that he wasn't going to do it. Still, they couldn't get away with that in a modern-day Honeymooners, and rightfully so.

Greg said...

I get the feeling from a few directors like Wilder and Hitchcock and Wyler that once the time came that they could have their characters do and say what they wanted to they weren't in tune with how to do that. All three directors have modern movies that still feel like they're from the Golden Age of Hollywood, even with language and violence. Hitchcock's Frenzy has the same feel his mid-fifties films had, like The Man Who Knew Too Much, but with nudity and violence.

Other directors, or at least in single projects, like John Huston's Fat City seem wholly in the modern era as if a young Scorcese was behind the lens.

I think Wilder had that Catskills stand-up dirty joke sensibility that didn't translate well to the modern era. To give it a face, I imagine him as the older comedian in Annie Hall that Woody is being forced to write for and Woody would reflect the modern sensibility that Wilder, in the form of the older comedian, just can't get.

Greg said...

To clarify the above comment, I don't mean to say that The Man Who Knew Too Much and Frenzy are similar thematically or that TMWKTM is on the same level artistically, just that the basic style is an older more formal one than was generally being employed in 1972.

Krauthammer said...

Reading over this thread again I'm surprised there isn't anyone really sticking up for Wilder here. I think this movie was ultimately a failure (though not a waste of time) but I kinda hope that someone could come here and truly heartily defend the film.

Greg said...

Well Ed Howard couldn't be here today and he usually is one of our biggest commenters but I don't expect he would've liked it very much either. I will say though that I don't detect any outright hatred for the film just the belief that it didn't succeed and thus it has made for a very good discussion.

Greg said...

Which isn't to say that a great film wouldn't make for a good discussion just that I think "imperfect" films make for the best TOERIFC posts. And maybe it's true that you learn more about how things work by observing why some things don't work.

Rick Olson said...

Krauthammer and Greg -- I really liked this discussion, perhaps because it didn't descend too far into stuff that weren't film-related.

I didn't hate this film, either. And I think you're right on in the assessment of the way imperfect films show us as much (or more) than their more perfect brethren.

Greg said...

Rick, agreed. I think this was one of the more measured and interesting conversations we've had yet on a Toerifc post and I think Tom's superb lead-in post is in no small way responsible for that. And Ed Howard and Marilyn weren't even involved, two members of the club who always bring more conversation to the table with their thoughtful observations and questions.

Greg said...

And thank you Tom for hosting this month. These conversations usually happen in a day (like a book of the month club meeting to discuss a book on a particular day) but since you had work obligations I look forward to returning to read your thoughts on the comments once you've had time to go through the conversation up to now.

JOSEPH CAMPANELLA said...

Tom-

I'm always a day late to these things because work always gets in way of my film blogging. So for that I apologize.

I'm finding more and more as we get into this little club of ours that I'm seeing movies, enjoying them, as I did with this one, only to find out that they were critical bombs.

Of course, I'm viewing this picture in the eyes of a 25-year-old male that has seen just about everything you could ever imagine being on screen. So it's very likely that, while this movie was slimy, it couldn't even bare comparison to some of the trash we see in multiplexes today.

That said, after reading your great post, I can see what all the fuss was about. You certainly right that the film had much of its charm ripped off the top. It wasn't a very classy picture at all.

This though is part of what I liked about it. It was kind of like watching the manifestation of Orville's fever dream. The pop super star his wife has a crush on stops for gas in his town and ends up staying in his own place! If that's not a contrived setup, I don't know what is.

But somehow, for me at least, Wilder makes it work. I have a difficult time looking at movies from filmmakers I like and writing them off as this or that. I'm the definition of the word "apologist" and that standard extends to this picture which I found to be quite enjoyable...

Ed Howard said...

I'm sorry I couldn't be here for this, as I haven't had a chance to watch the movie yet (maybe soon). But I've browsed through the conversation and Tom's original piece, and have to say, great job! A very thought-provoking conversation about what seems to be a problematic film. Wilder is very spotty for me: he's made some of my favorite films and some others that I find aggravating or uneven or just plain lackluster. So I'm curious to see what I'll think of this one. If I get a chance to watch it soon I'll try and come back to weigh in as well.

Tom Sutpen said...

Very, very well phrased.

NATHANIEL R said...

Tom, you seem to have taken offense to my phrasing in my link post. I must have misunderstood "unfinished" which to me equates with "rough draft" but to each writer their own. No critique intended... just trying to send any Wilder fans or those interested in film clubs your way.

I haven't seen Kiss Me Stupid, (argh!) or I would comment on the actual text right here.

I love that TOERIFC generates such huge comment conversations each time.

Greg said...

Ed I'm sorry you missed it. I have come to look forward to your input in these discussions and find your critiques both insightful and engaging.

Matt Barry said...

Tom,
This is one of the best evaluations of any of Wilder's work I've yet read.

I see "Kiss Me, Stupid" as something of a transitional work in Wilder's filmography; a transition that finally reached completion with his next film, "The Fortune Cookie".

This transition, I think, has much to do with bridging a sensibility gap between the "implied vulgarity" of his 50s work, and the comparative freedom of his later period. "Kiss Me Stupid" is undoubtedly an ugly and bitter film in many ways, but for me, "The Fortune Cookie" reaches the heights (depths?) of this approach in Wilder's work. The difference is that "The Fortune Cookie" is successful in presenting a totally ugly, cynical, selfish and mean-spirited view of the world (the only two characters with any redeeming values-Lemmon, and the football player-are practically devastated by the greed and selfishness of the other characters). Perhaps that's ultimately where I feel "Kiss Me Stupid" fails-it doesn't go "all the way", or at least, not far enough.

Douglas Fairbanks said...

Point is, for comedy's sake, he walks up to Katherine Hepburn with his fist up ready to PUNCH HER IN THE FACE! Then he "merely" pushes her with his palm fully in her face instead. To the ground! I saw this movie a few years back at a classic (now defunct) theater in D.C. and there were plenty of audible gasps when that moment happened. No laughter.

Hmmm.

I hope that the audience was later ashamed.

Hepburn's character deserved to be punched, not just pushed.

Greg said...

Hepburn's character deserved to be punched, not just pushed.

Now that's pretty funny.

Marilyn said...

Punch a woman for breaking a golf club? Lovely.

Tom - I'm sorry I couldn't participate, but I think your essay was great and as well as the discussion that followed. Thanks for carrying the TOERIFC torch in style.

Vanwall said...

Tom, a really wonderful analysis, and it's made even better by the commentary here, altho it's like shooting at a fly with a howitzer. I saw it recently, again, and it doesn't bear repeat watching as a form of entertainment - only for picking at the bones, and sucking the marrow, 'cause it was absolutely ordinary - a forgettable film from an era of similar forgettable films, and if Wilder or Martin or Novak hadn't been attached, it would be even less of trivia question. I must say, amongst the spate of snickering films from this era, and despite the fact that those have always been with us, it's discouraging to see Wilder's failure so nakedly onscreen, and so utterly like the others of that ilk. If I was seeing it on first run, at that point, I would be wondering what ever happened to that guy? He used to be a director.

elgringo said...

Sweet Moses! I was picturing Toerific as more a blog-a-thon thing where everyone typed up a little something about the Film of the Month. But you, sir, you've raised the bar to skyscraper levels. Really knocked it out of the park. Thanks for educating me (and it would appear "all of us" would be a more appropriate phrase) on Kiss Me, Stupid, The Lubitsch Touch, and more.

El Gringo
He-Shot-Cyrus.blogspot.com

Flickhead said...

"If I was seeing it on first run, at that point, I would be wondering what ever happened to that guy? He used to be a director."

Van, I think it goes beyond Wilder. I think it's the Ray Walston curse. For some odd reason, his mere appearance in a film destroys it, at least for me.
He was great as a TV Martian, and OK as Mr. Hand. But after that? The minions poo-pooh The Sound of Music, but isn't South Pacific truly the worst R&H musical? And who's in it? That's right. He's there. Funky as hell, sporting tattoos no less.

Flickhead said...

BTW, Tom: I've yet to read your piece. I need to print it out (the white on blue at such length screws up my eyes) and put aside some proper time -- this coming week, in fact, when hours at my job diminish with the close of the season.

Vanwall said...

M. Flickhead, I kinda think he's a victim of the choosing process, like he's the unlucky one. There was a discussion of SP at the Siren's recently, and the static aspect of its direction did more than anything to ruin it.

Wombatz said...

Beautiful analysis.

I find it much easier to watch Kiss Me than The 7 Year Itch or Some Like It Hot, since those always nudge and wink at me and expect me to be part of their sexist and reactionary worldview. At least Kiss Me has almost no offensive fake sentimentality, except for a couple of scenes towards the end. But the fascination when watching the film really lies in that nagging question: Why on earth was it ever made.

I get the same kind of empty feeling from a lot of the Jerry Lewis films (and lo and behold, Dino's the sidekick again).

Ray Walston is perfect for the role, I think. Sellers would have lent the character a suspicious element, while Lemmon would have hammed him up into something remotely likable. Both would have taken away from the remorseless dreariness without which the film would be just tatters.

D Cairns said...

God this is brilliant, how did I miss it? I look away for a month and...

Wilder's admiration for Cliff O is an enduring mystery (he called him the next Charles Laughton, for chrissakes) but I don't find him out of keeping with Ray Walston. Those two kind of set the style. Novak and Martin somehow emerge with credit, somehow blend in too...

Always found this a strange, troubling film...

tom hyland said...

Tom:

Good for you to share your thoughts on KMS and how it fits in Wilder's overall vision. There's something very unusual about this film. I loved it the first time I saw it on video about 6 months ago, but when I went back just a month ago, I thought it stale and funny only in parts. Maybe I expected a breakneck pace, which isn't there.

Yet for me, the scene where Orville take Polly to bed, after throwing Dino out of the house (and thus feeling his true manhood) is classic Wilder with all the pathos and bittersweet feeling you get in The Apartment. That one scene alone (made even more touching by Andre Previn's romantic reworking of one of Orville's tunes) is the highlight of this film.

As for not even being close to finishing, hey, why worry when what you've done to this point is this good?

tom hyland said...

Tom:

Good for you to share your thoughts on KMS and how it fits in Wilder's overall vision. There's something very unusual about this film. I loved it the first time I saw it on video about 6 months ago, but when I went back just a month ago, I thought it stale and funny only in parts. Maybe I expected a breakneck pace, which isn't there.

Yet for me, the scene where Orville take Polly to bed, after throwing Dino out of the house (and thus feeling his true manhood) is classic Wilder with all the pathos and bittersweet feeling you get in The Apartment. That one scene alone (made even more touching by Andre Previn's romantic reworking of one of Orville's tunes) is the highlight of this film.

As for not even being close to finishing, hey, why worry when what you've done to this point is this good?

Stan Denski said...

I was 11 years old in 1964. If you can imagine a time before the internet, maybe you can imagine generations of kids slowly assembling the pieces of the puzzle of sex in hushed schoolyard conversations and the airbrushed images in Playboy magazines peeked at in the dark corners of sympathetic newsstands.

I grew up in a Catholic family and the only movie ratings system at the time was the Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency whose ratings would circulate in small newsletter mailings. As I recall, films were either rated the equivalent of “G” acceptable for all audiences, or “A,” suitable for adult audiences only. There was a third rating, “C” for ”Condemned” which meant, and I’m not making this up, if you were Catholic and you went to a condemned film you could no longer receive the sacraments and would slowly roast forever in the fires of Hell. Perhaps this is what’s needed today, a ratings system backed up by the doctrine of infallibility.

I have a vivid memory of a movie that came to the neighborhood theater and the torrent of secret conversations it generated. The movie had been rated “C” for “Condemned” and it was, to our knowledge, the first C-rated movie that had ever played anywhere where we could just walk by and actually look at the actual doors behind which an actual movie that had the actual power to actually doom your immortal soul to hell was actually playing.

Talk about your forbidden fruit; this was forbidden fruit salad.

Forbidden ambrosia.

We’d ride our bikes by in silence every afternoon, a slow procession, slowing even more as we swung past the doors of the movie house. It was as if we thought if we listened really hard we might hear the voice of Eve herself whispering through the wood and glass and describing just how impossibly beautiful the apple was.

Rumors began to circulate based on thoroughly unconfirmed stories about the uncle of somebody’s neighbor’s friend who’d seen the movie. Stories about the film’s stars engaged in things we didn’t understand, couldn’t spell or even pronounce right up there on the huge screen where all the lucky bastards who didn’t care what the nuns thought about them could look right at it.

OK… now jump forward to the early 1990s and a Sunday morning about ten o’clock. Sitting down with the Sunday paper and a cup of coffee, flipping through the channels I stopped on Showtime to see what movie was about to start. I heard the announcer, “The following feature has been rated G, acceptable for all audiences….” and it’s THAT movie! By this point I hadn’t been a Catholic since the end of the Sixties but I could almost feel whatever was left of my immortal soul running for cover.

This film could never be remade today simply because there is no one in contemporary entertainment who could play the part of Dino, the superficial womanizing heavy drinking Vegas star whose car breaks down in Climax, NV. Dean Martin’s performance in Kiss Me, Stupid is in the top three most fearless self-parody performances, ever (along with Arnold Schwarzenegger in Last Action Hero and Madonna in Guy Ritchie's BMW commercial) and worth the price of admission alone.

Kim Novak, as the slut/barmaid/hooker, is both brilliant (think about it, when wasn’t she?) and the thing that 1960’s hetero Catholic boy dreams were made of. Perhaps it’s time for a Kim Novak revival as I’d happily spend the weekend in a theater for the chance to see Picnic, Man With The Golden Arm, Bell, Book and Candle, Of Human Bondage, The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders, and Pal Joey on the big screen again.

And the MUSIC! The seeds of Ishtar are here - two harmless and inexorably awful amateur songwriters with big dreams. But here the bad songs are written by George & Ira Gershwin having one helluva good time doing it! The soundtrack by Andre Previn... also perfect in its heavy-handedness.

I love the film.