Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Some Schnook That Works In The Office

And now here I am again, approaching New Year’s. Once again I’m wondering if I’ll have my own personal Miss Kubelik finally appear at my door shortly after midnight, sit down and play some gin rummy while I try confessing my love. I don’t think it’s going to happen—hell, there is always the possibility that I won’t be here at midnight anyway which would be for the best—but I still wonder. It’s interesting how Billy Wilder's THE APARTMENT ties into the holiday season encompassing both Christmas and New Year’s (how did C.C. Baxter spend his Thanksgiving, anyway? Again at the Automat?) with very little in terms of genuine holiday cheer yet it still seems absolutely appropriate to see yet again around this time. I think about Baxter sitting there at that bar on Christmas Eve already on his—really?—seventh martini. And his meeting up with the terrific Hope Holliday as the woman whose husband the jockey has been imprisoned by Castro makes me sometimes wonder if I should make my way over to the Dresden some Christmas Eve to see if anyone else is in a similar state. Would there be a Mrs. MacDougall there who I could dance with? I never do it though, maybe because I remember that Baxter’s own response to the whole thing is pretty depressing. I’m always into my annual Christmas Eve viewing of ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE on that night anyway, so that leaves out that idea. I look at the film again now and I feel like I’m in a similar place. We’re both looking at the New Year without a job. Of course, he willingly left his job on principle. As for me, I’m the one who got took, as Fran Kubelik puts it. See, I’m thinking about C.C. Baxter and the dealings with his apartment these days not just because of the holiday but because of all the other stuff around the character going on. More than few other films I know, THE APARTMENT makes more sense to me every single time I see it. Funnier, sadder, more believable, more truthful.

The film tells the story of C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon), employee at the Consolidated Life of New York insurance company-- Ordinary Policy Department, Premium Accounting Division, Section W, desk number 861. This bachelor has a “little problem” with his apartment, namely the higher-ups who take advantage of him by using it to dally with secretaries and the like from the company. Baxter makes light conversation with elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) who he obviously has his eye on but he’s too stressed to do much about it. Baxter’s favorable reports catch the eye of personnel director Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) who figures things out pretty easily and has his own idea in mind, namely to use it with his own girl, the one and only Miss Kubelik. When Baxter gets caught up in all this, he first takes advantage of what good it can do for his place at Consolidated Life but circumstances eventually lead him to having to figure out how to become, as his neighbor Dr. Dreyfus (Jack Kruschen) puts it, a mensch, a human being. But you know that, you’ve seen it, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this. If you haven’t well, that’s the way it crumbles, cookie-wise.

It’s not much of a surprise to me that I became fascinated with Wilder’s films early on. Their humor mixed with darkness, the drunkenness mixed with the sober, the sweet mixed with the sour. Way back in 1991 the Film Forum in New York put on a massive Wilder retrospective, covering films he had directed as well as only contributing to the script, and while there was no way I could take full advantage of it I went as often I was able to, taking in my first viewings of the likes of ACE IN THE HOLE, ONE TWO THREE, LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON, IRMA LA DOUCE and others. I’m sure I had seen THE APARTMENT on video before then but I was there for that one anyway. I now look at the full schedule as listed in the New York Times article on the series (Vincent Canby on the occasion: “Barring an unforeseen national emergency to be watched in prime time, the Film Forum is the place to be for at least two days out of each of the next six weeks.”) and it makes me want to weep, amazed that such a complete series was shown, grateful that I was able to see even a few of them, dreaming of an opportunity to see some of these films again. I’ve caught up with a few of the harder-to-see titles over the year—ten years ago the American Cinematheque screened PEOPLE ON SUNDAY a Wilder scripted 1929 film directed by Robert Siodmak in Germany that is fascinating to look at now and just a few weeks ago the New Beverly double-billed FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO and THE EMPEROR WALTZ (my first viewing of the latter) and there’s still a few more out there. I’ve caught it on cable before, but what I would give to see something like A FOREIGN AFFAIR in a theater right now.

Since I’m talking about THE APARTMENT here I could think about how certain points in my life have slightly resembled the schematics of the plot but that’s making more of certain things than was really there at the time and besides, most of those occasions don’t seem to matter anymore. Time moves forth, you forget, you move on. The script by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond for the film released in 1960 nails its bitter look at these individuals perfectly with its harsh humanity going perfectly with the black & white cinematography by Fred LaSalle impeccably composed in Scope which certainly gives it a different tinge than you would expect from any type of comedy—this entire film can be looked at as a lesson in how you can, and should shoot in Scope when approaching a movie set mostly in a few rooms. There’s also the brief though potent look at New York as it was when it was shot there—the production was supposed to spend more time there than it did but the cold sent them back to Hollywood a little early. I’m fairly sure that the film uses both location work and backlot to represent Baxter’s apartment building on 51 West 67th but can’t be certain. We do see Jack Lemmon waiting to go into THE MUSIC MAN, a lovely nighttime shot of the two stars leaving the office building and walking down the street of the business district as the scene plays out and, maybe most evocative for me, a brief Central Park scene as Lemmon, shut out of home, sits down to wait on that very, very long bench. Something about this offers a glimpse of the type of location work that would continue in the 60s and offers a hint of the New York that I remember still being there—a mention of the film made to it in a key episode of the first season of MAD MEN and it managed to make perfect sense on several levels.

I love watching Jack Lemmon’s bored expression at that desk in the giant office, could watch that all day. I love the way Edie Adams continually takes off and puts on her glasses. I love the cavorting during the Christmas party scene. I love how Shirley Maclaine flatly states, “I like it,” as Baxter puts his hat on for the first time. I love the non-exaggerated decency of Jack Kruschen’s next door neighbor Dr. Dreyfuss. I love how Joan Shawlee says, “Hamburger Heaven.” I love how Ray Walston sprinkles his ashes on Baxter’s desk. I love the way Jack Lemmon later drops that key down on Fred MacMurray’s desk, saying, “I dig.” I love the look on Shirley MacLaine’s face as she runs through the streets at the end (or is it the look on her face in the chinese restaurant just before? I can't decide). I love the feeling the film gives off how sometimes the holidays aren’t for celebrating but they’re there anyway and you have to deal with them. I take note of Fred MacMurray’s callous response to the times that Miss Kubelik degrades herself, saying she’s ‘the happy idiot’, responding ‘That’s more like you Fran,’ and I hate him (he lives in White Plains, but I wish it was Scarsdale), thinking of all the guys who got certain girls over me and I hate them as well. I hate that Jack Lemmon is dead. I hate that Billy Wilder is too.

The film moves through it’s plotting like the very best of Swiss watches but no matter how much it was locked into the world of 1960 complete with topical references (“Thursday? But that’s ‘The Untouchables’ with Bob Stack!”) it still holds today because, unlike other comedies from this era, its range of emotions still ring true. I’m a few weeks out from my job now. I wasn’t fired, I was let go. Laid off. Not even allowed to say goodbye to my co-workers. As Mr. Sheldrake would say, “Merry Christmas.” Of course, I also know that in the long run this is a good thing and I’m not going to miss that job any more than C.C. Baxter will miss his. THE APARTMENT ends with its characters in a better place, even though they don’t quite know where they’re going. I don’t know where I’m going either, but there’s still the hope that Miss Kubelik is out there somewhere. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get out my tennis racket since I’m making pasta for dinner.

“Shut up and deal.”


Paul Matwychuk said...

Hey there, Mr. Peel.

What a lovely appreciation of this superb film. I'm very sorry to hear about your jobless state — I hope it won't last very long. It sounds like I was fired from my own job right around the same time, so I can empathize. I just might pull out my own DVD of THE APARTMENT and give it a command screening. It's been way too long since I last saw it.

Happy new year, and best wishes for the coming decade.

christian said...

Good essay on this film that I've always liked but never loved the way many do. I find the suicide sub-plot too forced, too easy. But I do love Lemmon in this and that amazing endless office space. Was this the first American film to present corporate life in such dehumanizing terms? My problem with MAD MEN is that show so clearly deifies the period and its sexist men (whom the lady fans find hot and not creepy) that any real critique is smothered in the production design. But I digress.

I know what it's like to be booted from your job, then escorted out so you can't say your goodbyes. The worst of company expendability. Put this year to bed and bring in 2010!

joemart said...

Damn Peel,

You're providing some of the best current blog writing on film. Every entry is polished gem.

That said, what a joy to read about THE APARTMENT with fresh insight. My own Christmas Eve viewing usually consits of FITZWILLY with Dick Van Dyke, but on New Years Eve, its Wilder's THE FORTUNE COOKIE to get my sour juices flowing.

Sorry to hear about the "you know what".

Allison M. said...

Thanks for adding me to your blogroll/links (I did the same). I adore Wilder and have a list of his films ranked. I've seen everything but Avanti!

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


Thank you very much for that, I'm glad you liked the piece. I think that one needs to pull out THE APARTMENT every now and then--it can help. And Happy New Year to you as well!


I understand your take--it's not the first time I've heard this point of view--but it really has always worked for me. As for portrayals of corporate life I think one film which might interest you would be King Vidor's remarkable silent film THE CROWD which I'm fairly sure was always an acknowledged influence on the office scenes in THE APARTMENT. It pretty much contains what you're asking about. As much as I love MAD MEN, I do know a few people who have been disturbed by some of it but yes, that's a conversation for another time. Anyway, thank you for your thoughts and the very best to you in the New Year!


That really is kind of you, thank you very much. I may have to take another look at THE FORTUNE COOKIE sometime soon.


Thank you very much! I've still got one or two Wilders myself remaining but I'm intent on taking care of them during this year. And check out AVANTI!--I've always liked that one!

christian said...

THE CROWD of course! With that masterful expressionist photography. I haven't seen it in a long time.