More than a half-century ago, Fred MacMurray was stopped in the street by a woman who swung her purse at him while berating the affable actor for appearing in a “dirty movie.”
The “dirty movie” was the recently-released The Apartment (1960), which would go on to win Academy Awards for picture, director, screenplay, editing, and art design.
It speaks volumes about how far we’ve come as a society that a film denounced from the pulpits at the time of its release now seems charmingly quaint, romantic, and utterly harmless.
In the wake of his gender-bending success with Some Like It Hot, writer/director Billy Wilder was looking for another idea that could build on the sexual insouciance established by that Marilyn Monroe hit. He was interested in pursuing ideas about modern sexual morality...and he desperately wanted to work again with Hot star Jack Lemmon, the comic actor who had pretty much stolen the movie from co-stars Monroe and Tony Curtis.
Wilder and his writing partner, I.A.L. Diamond, were inspired originally by Brief Encounter, the 1946 British release that opened this current series of romantic films at the Library. In that classic a married doctor and a British housewife rendezvous at the apartment of one of his friends.
Of course, the characters played in that film by Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson never consummate their dalliance. The film was released when the Hollywood Production Code was in full force and even without its restrictions (married couples had to sleep in twin beds, no toilet could be shown on screen, adulterers had to be punished), the public outcry would be huge if a film even suggested sexual impropriety on the part of its characters.
But Wilder and Diamond wanted to push modern sexuality to the forefront. The movies, they realized, were way behind the curve when it came to reflecting the changes in American society.
They knew from experience – for instance, Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch – that the best way to put over controversial material like adultery was to make their audience laugh. And so The Apartment was conceived as a comedy, albeit a comedy with some highly dramatic moments and very serious underpinnings.
Lemmon was cast a C.C. Baxter, a desk drone at a huge Manhattan insurance company. C.C. is naïve but he’s also ambitious. He’s been loaning his Upper West Side apartment to company executives for their extramarital liasions. This means he spends a lot of time sitting on frigid park benches waiting for the trysters to vacate the apartment. But C.C. hopes that his superiors will be so grateful they’ll put him on the short list for promotion.
C.C. doesn’t really have much of a private life, though he’s drawn to Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), the pixie-haired elevator operator. So he’s shocked and disappointed to learn that Fran has been having an off-and-on affair with Sheldrake (MacMurray), the company’s powerful personnel manager...and using C.C.’s apartment for their trysts. (MacMurray replaced Wilder’s first choice, Paul Douglas, who died before production began.)
Obviously, The Apartment had to tread lightly when it came to sex. It suggests much and shows nothing.
But it satirically depicts the lechery, manipulating, and lying of middle-aged men with cheating on their minds.
Lemon is fine comic form, playing C.C. as an innocent doofus whom we forgive because we realize that deep inside he’s just a big kid incapable of meanness.
MacClaine is quietly heartbreaking as the girl who always makes bad choices in men and must be rescued by C.C. from a suicide attempt. It’s pretty obvious they’re going to fall into each other’s arms.
And you really can’t blame that lady for taking a swing at MacMurray. He’s absolutely hateful as the suburban husband and callous boss who always keeps a little action on the side.
Like Some Like It Hot, The Apartment was a huge hit earning $25 million (which in 1960 was a very big deal) and cleaning up at the Oscars (although Lemmon and MacLaine, both nominated in the lead acting categories, didn’t win).
Other films in the series “Give Us a Kiss”
August is “Romance Awareness Month.” Who knew? In any case, you’ll get a romantic charge from this series of films about love.
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- August 3: Brief Encounter (1946) Not Rated
- August 10: Stairway to Heaven (1946) Rated PG
- August 17: The Apartment (1960) Not Rated
- August 24: Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) Not Rated
- August 31: Casablanca (1942) Rated PG
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.