Stick This Up Your Queue!
By Ryan Hill
The Apartment (1960)
Until Mad Men, the fact that people had sex for reasons other than to procreate in the 1950s and early 60s used to be a big secret to me. If someone had simply shown me Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, however, Don Draper wouldn’t have been such a shock to me. The Apartment is Mad Men during Mad Men: a beautiful and incisive cut into the mirage of post-war America that was actually made in the moment, and everyone – Mad Men fan or not – should watch it.
Written (with I.A.L. Diamond) and directed by Wilder, The Apartment stars Jack Lemmon as C.C. Baxter, an insurance company lackey who is trying to move up at work by allowing executives to use his apartment to fuck their secretaries. Or… their elevator operators. Shirley MacLaine is Fran Kubelik, one of the elevator operators in question. She’s been carrying on with Fred MacMurray’s Jeff Sheldrake, a married executive who has been promising to leave his wife for some time.
As you can likely guess, C.C. falls for Fran, creating our main problem. You won’t likely guess what then ensues, however, as you’ve likely been conditioned to believe that movies made during this time wouldn’t deal with any dilemma heavier than an overcooked roast at a dinner party. The major filmmaking accomplishment of The Apartment – and what likely helped it win the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1961 – is the balancing act Wilder does between comedy and tragedy. The term ‘dramedy’ should apply solely to films like this, and not the litany of romcoms out there named after holidays.
There is no better embodiment of how remarkable the film is than that Fred MacMurray plays a sleazebag. Fred MacMurray. The guy from The Shaggy Dog, The AbsentMinded Professor, My Three Sons… the best embodiment of happy 1950s fatherdom this side of Ward Cleaver. It is important to note that MacMurray was a lead in Double Indemnity – where his character plots to kill the husband of Barbara Stanwyck’s – but it is also easy to forget if you’re younger than fifty. MacMurray received a lot of fan criticism for his role in The Apartment – a role he had been hesitant to take for exactly that reason – and would never play a villain again.
MacMurray, Lemmon and MacLaine all pull together performances that are considered among the best of their careers. Young Jack Lemmon has been a recent revelation to me; this is the third film from that era that I’ve seen of his in the past two months (Some Like It Hot and Bell, Book and Candle are the others), and though his characters are similar in each, his lovable goofball is best used here. Get to the bar scene where he ends up dancing literally cheek to cheek with a woman he just met and you’ll agree.
And MacLaine… for Mad Men fans out there, MacLaine’s Fran Kubelik is the character you’d get if you found the middle ground between Joan and Peggy. Confident enough to catch the eye of an executive, but naive enough to believe the things he’s saying. And smart enough to convincingly deliver many of the best lines in the film.
A few more things of note about The Apartment:
-It was the last black and white film to win the Best Picture Oscar until The Artist did earlier this year.
-It won four other Oscars that year, including Best Director for Billy Wilder. Lemmon and MacLaine both lost in their respective lead acting categories.
-It was ranked by the American Film Institute in 2007 as #80 on their list of Greatest Movies of All Time.
-It was adapted by Neil Simon into the Broadway smash Promises, Promises.
I finally discovered The Apartment thanks to Valerie Temple, the Programming Manager at Bryn Mawr Film Institute, who calls it her favorite film of all time, and picked it to kick off their ‘It’s Mad Men’s World’ series over the summer. As soon as I read her blog post (http://www.brynmawrfilm.blogspot.com/2012/07/valerie-temple-why-i-love-apartment.html – WARNING: SPOILERS) regarding it, it went into my queue and even got the esteemed ‘move up to #1’ click, because Valerie has a sick tattoo of Barbarella on her left shoulder. Yes, this is a legitimate reason to take someone’s recommendation on movies. But hopefully you don’t feel the same way; my shoulder is reserved for a Shirley MacLaine/Joan/Peggy Ven diagram I’m designing.
Ryan Hill is the Programming Manager in charge of Cinema & Comedy at the ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks in Bethlehem, PA, where he also lives. He’s also a standup comic; follow him on Twitter at @RyanHillComic.