Wednesday 13 August 2008

Kiss Me, Stupid (1964)

Forget all those other names people throw out there as the greatest American director of all time: Martin Scorsese, John Ford, even Orson Welles. I'm starting to realise that the most consistent and versatile of them may just be Billy Wilder. He didn't make a huge amount of films, by most standards, just 27 of them as a director from 1934 to 1981, and this one makes two thirds of them for me. That's 18 films and all of them are great to some degree or other. In my rating scheme, I rated 11 of them as classics. I'm getting to the point where I'm already finding films of his that I'd never even heard of and enjoying the heck out of them. This one is a great example: it's a riot!

Orville Spooner lives in the small town of Climax, NV, and is played with complete relish by Ray Walston, everyone's favourite Martian. He's a piano teacher who gives lessons for a buck and a quarter an hour, but in his spare time he composes songs, to which Barney Millsap, the local gas station owner, writes the lyrics. Spooner is awesomely and hilariously paranoid, to the degree that he thinks that when he sends his songs off to the famous artists of the day, they just steal the stamps off the return envelopes. He's also convinced his wife is cheating on him (which she isn't), so much so that he even chases his fourteen year old student out of the house because he brought her flowers.

Orville and Barney are destined to get precisely nowhere, with songs like I Left My Heart in San Diego and Two Coins in the Fountain. Their latest is called I'm a Poached Egg. However suddenly their opportunity lands right in their lap when Las Vegas show legend Dino, on his way to a TV special in Hollywood, gets detoured through Climax and stops at Barney's gas station. Barney is good at grabbing opportunities so subtly sabotages Dino's car and puts him up in Orville's house so that Orville can play and thus sell their songs.

And from there this gets seriously twisted, but in a screwball comedy way. Dino is played by none other than Dean Martin, who obviously relished the chance to send up his own personality and reputation. He's basically playing himself, except a lot more so. This Dino is so addicted to the ladies that he falls in lust with Orville's wife just by seeing the shape of her dressmaker's dummy in the sewing room. Needless to say, paranoid Orville notices this and realises that to reach for the American Dream, he only has to throw his wife at Dino the nymphomaniac. What would you do for the American Dream? That's the question!

Orville won't give up his wife (especially as she's been crazy about Dino since she was sixteen) but, with prompting from Barney, he will give up a fake wife. So he upsets her enough to get her out of the house on their fifth wedding anniversary, then hires a waitress from a dive called the Belly Button (drop in and get lost) to pretend to be his wife so that he can throw her at Dino. It doesn't work out the way you'd expect but the way it does work out is even worse, at least from the perspective of the Catholic Legion of Decency, who were seriously upset about it. There's synchronicity in what happens and it's masterfully set up but wow.

There are lessons to be learned here and answers to be found to hard morality questions, but they aren't the answers you'd expect from a Hollywood movie made under the Production Code. What would you do to be rich and famous, to have a star sing one of your songs on air, to sell a million records, to appear on the Ed Sullivan show? Would you whore out your wife? If not, would you whore out someone else? Would you whore out yourself to make it yourself or to help someone else make it? And the biggest question of all is this: if the American Dream is so wholesome and above board, why are even asking all these other questions?

The stars of the show are Dean Martin and Kim Novak, though the real focus is on Ray Walston and both Felicia Farr and Cliff Osmond are perfect in their roles. Novak plays Polly the Pistol, the waitress from the Belly Button, and it's patently obvious that it was written for Marilyn Monroe. I'm guessing the last scenes were shot first because Novak is most reminiscent of Marilyn in them, but finds her own niche elsewhere in the movie. Walston's part was intended for Peter Sellers, who actually began filming but had to leave the production after suffering a heart attack. And as a Peter Sellers fan, I don't know how he could better what Walston gave us here. He does this sort of thing perfectly.

I didn't know Farr or Osmond, but I certainly do now. Felicia Farr made a string of movies in the fifties, mostly westerns, but tailed off in later years. This came four years after her previous film, Hell Bent for Leather and it would be another seven before her next film, Kotch. I saw her recently in the original 3:10 to Yuma and I've also seen her in The Venetian Affair with Boris Karloff, but it's here that I'll remember her most. She's probably best known though for being Mrs Jack Lemmon, which she was for almost 40 years until his death in 2001. He credited her with every good business decision in his life. Given that they married only two years before this film, questions must be asked!

Osmond appeared a few times for Billy Wilder. This was his second, after the previous year's Irma La Douce, and he'd follow it up with The Fortune Cookie and The Front Page. In between, he made things like She Devils in Chains and Invasion of the Bee Girls, proving that he didn't have Felicia Farr to make his business decisions for him. However they now sound like even more of a guilty pleasure than they would have been anyway. While he didn't write songs in real life, he did write and there's a film called The Penitent with his name on it as both writer and director which sounds intriguing. Given that this didn't happen until 1988, I wonder who he had to whore out to get that chance.

Incidentally, there are jokes everywhere, even in places I don't notice and need my wife to explain, such as with Zelda's parents. Mr Pettibone is played by Howard McNear, better known as Floyd the Barber from The Andy Griffith Show, the one who never shut up. Here he cant get a word in edgeways because his wife won't shut up. My favourite though has to be this line: 'The miserable liar! He was telling the truth!'

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