It's the Christmas movie season at SteynOnline - even if this is less a Christmas movie than a movie that happens to be set at Christmas. Nevertheless, I think of this picture almost every holiday season, and it seems particularly apt this Yuletide after the Fall of Weinstein et al. We now know that beloved network anchormen have under-desk buttons to lock you in their offices, that PBS hosts think 25-year old interns at meetings enjoy seeing penises three times their age, that fashionable Manhattan restaurants have rape rooms, and that, when you clear out the sex fiends from NPR, there isn't a lot left on the schedule. This picture is also about sex and power in the workplace, but from an era with very different cultural mores - although certain aspects of the scene remain entirely unchanged over six decades ("everybody knew"). I'm not the biggest Billy Wilder fan, nor the biggest Jack Lemmon fan, nor Shirley MacLaine fan. But all three did some of their best work here. It won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1960, but it doesn't always get its due: A decade or so back, it scraped into the American Film Institute's all-time Hot 100 at Number 93, although it is, to my mind, vastly superior to Wilder's more celebrated Some Like It Hot and Sunset Boulevard. Lots of good things in it apart from Lemmon and MacLaine. By the way, I am a huge Fred MacMurray fan and he is terrific in this:
The Apartment is a sad but true urban Christmas fable: there's no snow, just flu all month long; the office-party booze makes everyone mean and sour; the only sighting of le PÃ¨re Noel is an aggressive off-duty department-store Santa chugging it down at a midtown bar; and the Christmas Eve climax is an attempted suicide. I hasten to add I'm not one of those seasonal cynics, like so many of the cheerless souls in the media: I remember some years back driving out of London on the M40 on Christmas Eve and tuning the dial in search of a "Winter Wonderland" or "Deck the Halls". No such luck. Every disc-jockey at Thames Valley Supergold, EastMid FM, Clwyd Sound et al was picking out his all-time worst Xmas records â€” or, as the hosts amusingly called them, "Christmas turkeys". "Ho, ho, bloody-ho," as the Daily Telegraph rock critic began his Xmas round-up a couple of years ago.
But that's what I love about The Apartment: its Wilderian cynicism is redeemed by one of the sweetest Christmas Day scenes in any movie. In his review of Rodgers and Hart's amoral Pal Joey, Brooks Atkinson wrote: "How can you draw sweet water from a foul well?" Well, The Apartment pulls it off, wonderfully. Wilder got the idea after seeing NoÃ«l Coward and David Lean's Brief Encounter (1945) and finding himself wondering about the fellow who lends his flat to Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard for their illicit trysts. "The interesting character is the friend," Wilder said, "who returns to his home and finds the bed still warm, he who has no mistress." So Wilder and his screenwriting partner I A L Diamond came up with CC Baxter, a lowly cog in the corporate machine who advances to the heights of the 27th floor and a key to the executive washroom of his Madison Avenue office building - not by hard work but by loaning his apartment to various adulterous superiors.
Distracted by the traffic in the stairway, the clink of cocktail glasses, and the make-out music, Baxter's neighbors assume he's the swingingest cat in town. In fact, he's a lonely schlub freezing to death on a bench in Central Park waiting for that night's executive vice-president and whichever gal from the typing pool he's picked out for the evening to exhaust themselves and call it a day. Baxter has no moral qualms about facilitating adultery. He assumes it's what a go-getting guy has to do to get going. His misgivings arise only when he discovers that his boss, the predatory Mr Sheldrake, has turned his attention to Fran Kubelik. Miss Kubelik is an elevator operator in the building and the girl Baxter loves, although he hasn't told her yet, as their relationship to date has consisted of a few pleasantries exchanged as he rides her car up to the office each morning.
Fran is Shirley MacLaine at her early best: a rare American gamine in a Euro-dominated field (Leslie Caron, Audrey Hepburn), she's full of round-faced vulnerability and unable to accept that her boss's interest is strictly carnal. As Sheldrake, Fred MacMurray is the apotheosis of Fifties corporate man, smooth, assured and ruthless as he exercises his droit du senior exec. As Baxter, Jack Lemmon's likeable nebbish shtick is captured in embryo, before it got out of control and degenerated into a collection of exhibitionist mannerisms. But Wilder put together one of the most perfectly cast ensembles in film history and it goes way beyond the leads: there's Edie Adams as Sheldrake's secretary, sitting in the outer office and watching this season's "new models pass by", and David White as Sheldrake's fellow corporate swordsman Eichelberger. (White's most memorable turn as corporate exec would come a couple of years later, as Darren's boss in "Bewitched". He died in 1990, two years after his son was killed in the terrorist takedown of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie.)
Wilder and Diamond's script catches the argot of the day beautifully, not least in Mr Kirkeby's inability to get through a sentence without using the suffix "-wise" â€” situation-wise, business-wise, etc. AndrÃ© Previn, Betty Comden and Adolph Green wrote a whole song on the subject a couple of years earlier in the film It's Always Fair Weather ("Audio-video-wise, video-audio wise, wise-wise..."). But The Apartment makes it a kind of corporate code â€” the Masonic handshake of the 27th floor â€” that the ambitious Baxter lapses into almost subconsciously. When Kirkeby thinks CC has actually snared the elevator operator, he congratulates him: "So you hit the jackpot, eh, kid? I mean, Kubelik-wise?"
But, Kubelik-wise, the jackpot is a long way off, and how loser boy gets there is forlorn and funny all at the same time. The Apartment is a comedy, but it catches the desperation of inconsequential people passed over by the holiday season. And so it is that Christmas-wise CC gets to spend the day with the recuperating Fran, who's abandoned at his apartment after Sheldrake goes home for the holidays with the wife and kids. In Fran and CC's bedsit Christmas, there are no chestnuts roasting, but they do play gin rummy. Baxter's face is never happier than when he's straining spaghetti through his tennis racket and never more loving than when he innocently tucks in his sleeping elevator gal and heads away from the bed (with no Al Franken slumber-grabs). It may not be much of a Christmas, but it beats the previous year when he went to the zoo and had Christmas dinner at the automat.
You'll recall that in Christmas in Connecticut Barbara Stanwyck plays a columnist who files blissful dispatches of family life midst the rolling acres of her New England estate, when in fact she's a bachelorette living in a seedy flat in New York. I find myself in the opposite situation. I'm writing this piece midst the rolling acres in New England, but when I see The Apartment I find myself pining wistfully for Christmas in a rented room in a crummy brownstone. A lot of it's the script, a lot of it's the chemistry between Lemmon and MacLaine. But, for whatever reason, The Apartment is one of the best, both Yuletide-wise and masterpiece-wise â€” oh, and uniforms-wise. I've never been much of a uniforms fetishist, but I do think Shirley MacLaine's elevator get-up is awfully cute. If anyone's minded to send me a specialty strippergram next birthday, that's my choice. (Last year there was a booking error and I wound up with the open-bathrobed Charlie Rose-alike Chippendale.)
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If you're in the mood for more conventional seasonal storytelling this weekend, later this evening Mark will be reading the final episode of our classic Tale for Our Time, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Alternatively, we have a different take on Yuletide loneliness in tomorrow's live-performance edition of our Song of the Week.
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