Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Billy Wilder's "Kiss Me, Stupid" Is Kind of... Stupid

When I think of Billy Wilder, I think of "The Apartment," "Sunset Boulevard," "Some Like It Hot," "Sabrina," that kind of thing. They're all smart and sharp, with varying degrees of cynicism and wit. But then there's "Kiss Me, Stupid," a try at a sex comedy Wilder co-wrote (with I.A.L. Diamond) and directed between "Irma La Douce" and "The Fortune Cookie." Let's just say that "Kiss Me, Stupid" was not well-regarded in its time. It even got a huge smackdown ("C" for "condemned") from the Catholic Legion of Decency because of its immorality. Normally, that wouldn't mean much to me, but in this case, I think I agree with the Legion of Decency. Not that it should've been condemned, but that it isn't a very good movie. (First time for everything...)

"Kiss Me, Stupid" begins with a character very much like Dean Martin, played by Dean Martin, on stage at a Las Vegas nightclub, whiskey glass in hand, surrounded by chorus girls, singing the Gershwin classic "S'Wonderful" and performing an act that sounds very much like what Dean Martin always did. He is called "Dino" and we see from the beginning that he is a bounder, a womanizer and a bit of a lush. You know, just like the real Dean Martin. Or the on-stage Dean Martin, at any rate.

"Dino" heads out of Las Vegas in a long white Italian convertible (IMDB notes say it's a Dual Ghia) and gets detoured through a dusty little town called Climax, Nebraska. Climax is the home of two wannabe songwriters, Orville and Barney. Orville is a schlemiel of a piano teacher, played by Ray Walston, while Barney, played by Cliff Osmond, runs the local gas station. Orville is married to a snazzy woman named Zelda, played by the lovely Felicia Farr, and he is unreasonably jealous when he thinks Zelda is receiving undue attention from various random men, like the milk man, her dentist, and a gawky teen who takes piano lessons. And that's before Dino hits town.

Wilder's script is smart enough to create some conflict for Orville. Yes, he is desperate to keep Zelda out of the clutches of any other men, but he's also desperate to sell a song. He's got a Hollywood star, someone who can create a hit song just by breathing on it, right there in his hometown. But how can Orville sell his song to Dino? Maybe by using his wife as bait?

Yeah, that's as sleazy as it sounds. Because of his overwhelming jealousy, there is no way Orville is really going to set Zelda up with Dino. So he and Barney hatch an idiotic plan to bring in a local hooker name Polly the Pistol, given a definite Marilyn Monroe blowsy-yet-adorable turn by Kim Novak, to pretend to be Zelda long enough to sleep with Dino and convince him to buy a song. Orville also has to pick a fake fight with Zelda to get her out of the house so they can bring in Polly the Pistol as a sub.

It's all very sex-farcey, like Feydeau if Feydeau were in 1960s Nevada, with everybody's virtue compromised and lots of odd touches, like the world's longest chianti bottle and a parrot that likes shoot-'em-up Westerns. One of the best things about "Kiss Me Stupid" is the amusing notion of sticking in previously unpublished George and Ira Gershwin tunes ("Sophia," "I'm a Poached Egg," and "All the Live-Long Day") as the songs written by Orville and Barney.

As a sex farce set in Nevada in the 1960s, however, "Kiss Me, Stupid" comes off scummy and crass. It doesn't help that Ray Walston, someone I normally love, seems very miscast and a little frenetic as the irrational, idiotic husband. The story is that Peter Sellers was originally cast as Orville, but a heart attack took him out of the film, so Ray Walston was given the role at the last minute. I can't see Peter Sellers doing any better, honestly. The film needs somebody like Jack Lemmon, who seemed to have the knack of taking what would've been sleazy in other hands and somehow making it fun and sprightly, who could portray a dope like Orville but somehow make him endearing, too. Plus, he was married to Felicia Farr in real life.

Farr, by the way, is charming. Dean Martin is just playing himself (or his on-stage persona, anyway), while Kim Novak is better than I would've expected as a floozie with a heart of gold, even if I never really believed her for one minute. Meanwhile, the poster shows Martin and Novak front and center as the stars of the picture, which is not remotely true. Walston is the lead, with Farr as his foil and Martin and Novak merely supporting players.

The other oddity is that Walston's singing voice is dubbed most of the time. But Ray Walston could sing, and the dubber (Ian Freebairn-Smith) doesn't sound anything like Ray Walston, if you've seen "South Pacific" or "Damn Yankees" and know what he sounds like. Or even if you just listen to his dialogue. Why in the world did they do that? It's not like Ian Freebairn-Smith sounds like Peter Sellers, either, if that was the original idea.

But the biggest problem here is not the performances, who sings the songs, or who carries the plot. It's the tone. It's the attempt to get funny out of what is really creepy, lightweight out of leaden, and effortless out of strained. I have my suspicions that I would accept this all much more easily if they were wearing fin-de-siècle clothes and dashing in and out of Maxim's in Paris instead of the crudball Nevada dive called the Belly Button. The IMDB tells me that somebody did just that, although it was Italy instead of France, in a 1952 film called "Moglie per una notte" or "Wife for a Night," directed by Italian director Mario Camerini, with Gina Lollabrigida as the wife. Both "Kiss Me, Stupid" and "Wife for a Night" are billed as based on a 1944 play called "L'Ora della Fantasia" by Anna Bonacci.

This way, "Kiss Me, Stupid" is worth a look at a Billy Wilder film that just doesn't work, as well as for its place in history as a film that was passed by the Production Code in effect at that time, but rejected by the Legion of Decency as well as by film-goers in general. You can see it and decide for yourself. Is it funny? Is it immoral? Is Ray Walston sweet and fun or just annoying? How do you like those Gershwin tunes salvaged from the dustbin of history?

"Kiss Me Stupid" opens the Normal Theater's mini-Billy Wilder film fest with screenings December 29th and 30th at 7 pm.


  1. To all Gershwin-lovers (I wrote my dissertation on him), this movie is a must-see (I've never seen it, one more strike against me) because of the details you mention. Those 3 titles Julie mentioned are brand-new songs, Ira having taken unpublished tunes from the many written down but not used by George before his death. Ira has written about the challenge of using George's music to represent "hack" (or at least amateur) songwriting in the movie. Obviously it wouldn't be actual bad music, so he tried for "trying too hard with the lyrics" or "good, but inappropriate to the situation" -- I forget the exact details. But that's a reason I want to see the movie, to check all that out myself.

  2. Oh -- and according to wikipedia, Orville was in fact first offered to Jack Lemmon (but his schedule didn't permit). Looks like you ought to be a casting director!

    Wilder has in fact committed a few stinkeroos over the years (in my opinion, at least). As I look over his filmography, I see that the ones that make me cringe are all at the end of the list, so maybe I shouldn't be harsh. Almost any movie director has trouble staying fresh after decades of the work -- it just takes it out of a person (think of late Howard Hawks), and I don't want to be unfair. Still, consider his last 5 titles: "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes," "Avanti!", that depressing "Front Page" remake, "Fedora" (deliver me), and "Buddy Buddy."

  3. Yeah, I noticed the trail of stinkers at the end of his career, too, which makes me sad. Before "Kiss Me, Stupid," I think he'd had ten hits (both in the critical and box office sense) in a row.

    I could kind of tell that about Ira Gershwin's lyrics, like the poached egg thing. It's a list song, with a really dopey list. Something like "I'm like a poached egg without toast without you." Something like that. Almost like making fun of "You're the top" or the kind of list song that was already silly, but with a melody and lyrics that went on for a long time and were just clever enough to sound like a pro had done them, even if they did rhyme "Mona Liss" with something instead of Lisa. "Sophia" (the one they sell to Dean Martin) does indeed sound like a lush Italian love song that Dean Martin would sing.

    I think Billy Wilder should've postponed the whole thing until he could get Jack Lemmon. Or maybe Lemmon made up a conflict because he realized the script was creepy.

    By the way, if you want to check that one off your bucket list, Amazon does have it on Instant View or whatever they call it. Plus I think it's collected with a few other Billy Wilders in one of those DVD packages. Or, of course, you could pop back on a plane and come to Normal, Illinois, to see it.

  4. Had Marilyn lived and she and Dino had sizzled together on-screen this unfortunate picture might have entered the pantheon with Some Like It Hot. Alas!