Tuesday, June 17, 2008

the contrarian: Billy Wilder's "Irma La Douce" (1963)

No matter what measure one might use, Billy Wilder's film version of "Irma La Douce," airing on Turner Classics at noon (est) on Sunday, June 22nd, looms as a major embarrassment - a leering piece of "tired businessman's entertainment" that's sexed-up and yet decidedly unsexy.

Full disclosure: I loved this film as a kid and, I guess, it helps to be 12 to truly appreciate it.

What's odd is that the material - nonsense about a man pretending to be his prostitute-girlfriend's most valuable client - had potential, and worked very well as a saucy international stage musical with music by Marguerite Monnot (famed for "The Poor People of Paris") and original book and lyrics by Alexandre Breffort.

The musical originated at the Theatre Gramont in Paris, opening November 12th, 1956. The London production, with the book and lyrics translated by Julian More, David Heneker and Monty Norman, opened July 17th, 1958 and ran for a whopping 1512 performances. Later, it was optioned for New York by David Merrick and the original Broadway production opened September 29th, 1960 at New York's Plymouth Theatre and ran for 527 performances. Sir Peter Brook ("Marat/Sade") directed both the London and New York productions of the musical.

Wilder somehow managed to take what was a light soufflé on stage and turn it into an obvious, leaden and, at 147 minutes, elephantine mess - 147 minutes and that's without all the songs.

The famed director took Monnot's clever, likable melodies and promptly deleted them from his script, relegating them to the background as incidental music (scored by André Previn). Even reduced, Monnot's contribution remains the only worthwhile thing about the film. That and designer Alexandre Trauner's sprawling soundstage recreation of Paris' Les Halles district - a "Disneyland for adults," Wilder quipped.

The play's rousing showstopper, "Dis-Donc, Dis-Donc," was retained - well, sort of - as a dance number for the film's eventual Irma, Shirley MacLaine, a moment in the film which seems to lead up an intermission break that never comes.

Wilder had always intended Jack Lemmon to play a guy desperate to keep his girlfriend as pure as possible, so much so that he dons a disguise and hires her to pleasure him. When Lemmon signed on, Wilder was in negotiations with Elizabeth Taylor to play Irma. Bachelor Lemmon to the New York Times at the time: "Lucky girl!"

Meanwhile, Wilder was trying to ward off Marilyn Monroe who, reportedly, desperately wanted the role. Taylor got caught up in a little number called
"Cleopatra" and Monroe eventually segued into George Cukor's
"Something's Got to Give." MacLaine, who of course worked with both Wilder and Lemmon on "The Apartment" and who was perfect for the role, ultimately won it and played Irma.

An aside: one has to wonder if Wilder may have entertained thoughts of making a musical given MacLaine's song-and-dance background and the fact that Lemmon had starred in a few film musicals. And also because one of Wilder's supporting players here is the late Bruce Yarnell who played the role of Hippolyte and who was a rising young star in the musical theater at the time (B'ways's "The Happiest Girl in the World" with Janice Rule). Yarnell was once under consideration by Richard Lester to play Captain Miles Gloriosus in the film of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," the role eventually played by Leon Greene.

"Irma" was shot largely on a soundstage in Hollywood, but by the time the crew got to France for some location work, Monroe had died from an overdose and Lemmon had married Felicia Farr (with both Wilder and director Richard Quine serving as his best men in Paris).

On the basis of the wild success of this film and the two that followed it - "Under the Yum Yum Tree" and "Good Neighbor Sam," both directed by David Swift - Lemmon was the Number One box office star of 1964. Lemmon would disavow "Yum Yum" which makes sense (it's pretty low) and "Sam" which doesn't (it's an engaging comedy).

He would have done well to also distance himself from the adolescent smirk of "Irma La Douce" but I guess he had too much regard for Wilder.

(Artwork: Window card for Billy Wilder's "Irma La Douce," and the dust jacket for the reel-to-reel tape of the original Broadway cast album)

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Jason said...

Yes, an embarrassment and also a disappointment but, you know, I still like it. It's long but weirdly entertaining - almost in spite of itself.

Ed Howard said...

A very good review of a film that is, it's true, and almost complete mess. I just saw it myself recently, and my own review comes to a lot of the same conclusions as yours. The movie's too long, unevenly paced, and the staging of the jokes and physical humor is almost unbearably off. Shirley MacLaine was much better -- not to mention much sexier and more appealing -- in The Apartment, an infinitely better film that was also helmed by Wilder and starred Lemmon. The magic definitely did not come together again for this reunion.