Saturday, September 26, 2015

holliday with lemmon

Judy & Jack, together (too infrequently)
During his five-decade film career, Jack Lemmon pretty much varied his co-stars, particularly his leading ladies.  But he managed to appear with Kim Novak in three titles ("Phffft!," "Bell, Book and Candle" and "The Notorious Landlady") and he made two movies each with Shirley MacLaine ("The Apartment" and "Irma La Douce"), Lee Remick ("Days of Wine and Roses" and "Tribute"), Dorothy Provine ("Good Neighbor Sam" and "The Great Race"), Sally Kellerman ("The April Fools" and "That's Life") and best of all - drum roll, please! - the inimitable, the one-and-only Judy Holliday.

Judy and Jack made two films - George Cukor's "It Should Happen to You" and Mark Robson's "Phffft!" - that were released back-to-back in 1954, although they weren't made consecutively (more about that later). And they almost made a third (and more about that later, too).  Jack often remarked that he felt blessed that, for his film debut in "It Should Happen to You," he was paired with Judy Holliday who, during the 1950s, was the darling of Columbia Pictures, where Lemmon was a new contract player.

Surprisingly, Holliday, who died of breast cancer way too young (age 44) in 1965, had substantial roles in only eight major films (with bits in four others).  Her movie career is bookended by two Metro titles - George Cukor's "Adam's Rib" (1949) and Vincente Minnelli's film musical, "Bells Are Ringing" (1960), an adaptation of her Comden-Green Broadway hit.

In-between, she appeared in six titles at Columbia, beginning with her Oscar-winning "Born Yesterday," also directed by Cukor and also an adaptation of one of her stage successes. The other titles were two more by Cukor, "The Marrying Kind" (1952) and "It Should Happen to You," "Phffft!" and two made with Richard Quine, "The Solid Gold Cadillac" and "Full of Life" (both released in 1956), after which Holliday left Columbia to return to Broadway for a run in the aforementioned "Bells Are Ringing."

All of Holliday's Columbia titles were filmed in black-&-white (with the exception of the final scene in "The Solid Gold Cadillac," a novelty showing the title car in glimmering gold). "Bells" was her only full color movie.

OK, I have to stop here and ask Sony Home Entertainment:  Where the heck is a boxed DVD set of Judy's six Columbia titles?  It's long overdue.
That said, back to the topic... "It Should Happen to You," based on an original screenplay written by Garson Kanin (under the working title, "A Name for Herself"), is a rather prescient - and very witty - tale of a New York model and wannabe celebrity named Gladys Glover (Holliday) who hatches a clever scheme to make a name for herself by renting a huge Columbus Circle billboard and having her name emblazoned across it:

Gladys Glover.  

Gladys Glover. That's all. Just her name. But it's enough to prompt curiosity and a buzz around Manhattan. Who - or what - is Gladys Glover?
 "It's Glover! Not a C, like you got it - G, like you haven't got it!" -Judy Holliday as the incorrigible Gladys

Gladys' eccentricity isn't enough to initially deter the ardor of a struggling documentary filmmaker, Pete Sheppard (Lemmon), who shrewdly finds a way to move into the apartment building where Gladys lives.  As her signs around New York multiply, Gladys' modeling career is kicked into high gear.  But she becomes a joke - the symbol of nothing, a dubious distinction that she seems to relish.

She's living a fraudulent life.  And Pete simply can't compete with - or stomach - her growing obsession with empty fame. It's become disruptive.

This makes for a cautionary tale but one that, thanks to Holiday's flawless timing and inimitable line readings, is hands-down hilarious.

As for Lemmon, he makes an auspicious, pleasing screen debut and, for once, the display ads introducing him as "a guy you're gonna like" are spot-on accurate.

The next film that Lemmon filmed was H.C. Potter's "Three for the Show," one of those irresistible piffles about someone who ends up, inadvertently, with two spouses. Officially, Potter's film is a remake of Wesley Ruggles' 1940 film with Jean Arthur, "Too Many Husbands." Betty Grable has the Arthur role here, with Jack and Gower Champion as her husbands.

You've also seen this before, of course,  in Garson Kanin's 1940 "My Favorite Wife" (with Cary Grant and Irene Dunne) and Michael Gordon's 1965 remake, "Move Over, Darling" (with Doris Day and Jame Garner).

The release of "Three for the Show" was held up and delayed until 1955 while Columbia dealt with the Catholic Church's Legion of Decency, which slapped the film with its notorious "Condemned" rating because, according to the Legion, it encouraged adultery.  Consequently, Lemmon's third film, "Phffft!," was released as his second - this one a comedy about divorce.

But it had no censorship problems.

Robson's "Phffft!" is a marital comedy written by playwright George Axelrod that has remained impressively contemporary for more than 50 years now.  This terrific film has always existed, inexplicably so, in the shadow of "It Should Happen to You!" Actually, maybe it's not all that inexplicable, given that Cukor's name always went further in movie-critics circles and among buffs than Robson's ever did.

Nevertheless, both films have one thing in common - uncommonly smart, alert scripts written by people who honed their skills on the stage. Axelrod - the author of the scripts for "The Seven Year Itch," "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and "The Manchurian Candidate" and the director of "Lord Love a Duck" - came up with sharp, ageless observations as he investigates the disintegration of the marriage of Nina and Robert Tracy (played by Holliday and Lemmon) and the way it inevitably rebounds.

"Phffft!" could be called post-trendy.

Axelrod's dialogue is a particular treat. That invaluable character actor,
Jack Carson, plays Charlie Anderson, Lemmon's best friend - a confirmed bachelor who forever hands out both bad and interesting dating advice. His lecture on the allure of facial hair provides an excellent case in point:

Charlie (to Robert): "Grow a moustache. A moustache is very important, It's all part of the famous Charlie Anderson Theory on the Efficacy of Face Hair in Dealing with the Opposite Sex. Sure. Always remember this, Bobby -- dames become unpredictable when faced with a moustache -- it both arouses and angers them -- Being as it is a symbol of masculinity, they feel drawn toward it."

At this point, the camera shifts to Lemmon's reaction and the remainder of Carson's pontification as scripted by Axelrod is deleted from the release print: "And at the same time, because of envy, they feel impelled to cause its removal. All men should raise moustaches from time to time."
Then there's the very funny dance sequence. Both the Lemmon and Holliday characters take dance lessons (independent of each other) at an Arthur Murray's, only to unexpectedly end up together in the next scene on the dance floor of a nightclub, doing a wickedly hilarous mambo (choreographed by an uncredited Jack Cole, who also designed the dances for "Three for the Show") - a movie moment every bit as memorable, and as witty, as anything in a Billy Wilder film.

By the way, Axelrod's full, original title for the film was "Phffft: Chronicle of a Happy Divorce."
The movie that Lemmon and Holliday almost made was Richard Quine's "My Sister Eileen" (1955), a wonderful film musical, thanks largely to a pleasing Jule Styne-Leo Robin score, early Bob Fosse choreography (before it became terminally mannered) and a smashing lead performance by Betty Garrett as Ruth Sherwood, her only real lead role in a film.
Garrett had inherited the role of Ruth when Holliday had to back out at the last minute. Janet Leigh is charming as her sister Eileen (and also dances well with Fosse) and Jack, in a largely supporting role, has fun with his giddily salacious number (pictured below), "Bigger Than Both of Us."

Director Quine started out as an actor and appeared in 25 titles, including Rosalind Russell's original "My Sister Eileen" film (1942), in which he played soda jerk Frank Lippincott, the young man nursing a crush on Janet Blair's Eileen. Thirteen years later, he would direct this film, with the role of Lippincott going to Fosse (billed here as Robert Fosse, incidentally). One can only imagine what Holliday would have been like in the role of Ruth, but frankly, I can't imagine "My Sister Eileen" without Betty Garrett. She's the film's heart, first-rate, plus her chemistry with Lemmon is grown-up, smart and sublime.
Notes in Passing: Lemmon made a fourth film with Kim Novak - George Sidney's "Pepe" of 1960 - but they never appeared together on screen.  Each had their own brief vignette with star Cantinflas. Also Garson Kanin's script for "It Should Happen to You" (with "A Name for Herself" on the cover page) is available for review at Lincoln Center's library in New York.


Alex said...

I've often wondered why Holliday's work hasn't been honored with a boxed set, especially since Sony has given "The Three Stooges" and the "Gidget" series such class treatment.

Daryl Chin said...

So glad you're writing about Lemmon and Judy Holliday! In terms of Judy Holliday: in the George Cukor films, she's playing the same type (the "dumb blonde"), but in PHFFFT! she's playing an adult, an intelligent career woman (a writer of radio dramas), and the film is notable for telling a story from a distinctly mature viewpoint. I should also add that she's also playing a mature character in FULL OF LIFE, a pregnant woman trying to adjust to her in-law; these films show a much wider range than the four films directed by George Cukor.

I saw Jack Lemmon talk about his career twice, and both times, he was adamant in his praise for Judy Holliday, saying how smart she was, but also how kind. (George Cukor would also stress how intelligent Holliday was, "frightfully intelligent, very highbrow".) And IT SHOULD HAPPEN TO YOU and PHFFFT! are excellent examples of his work, his "everyman" appeal and his crackerjack timing. And he and Holliday establish such a rapport, it's a pity they didn't get a chance to work together. (Aside from MY SISTER EILEEN, there was another Cukor-Kanin project... i forgot the title, but the story was that a girl saves up for a vacation, she wants to take a trip for two weeks, but things happen, and she winds up stuck in New York City, and she spends two weeks going around the city, like a tourist, eventually meeting a young man who's moving to the city for work, and they discover the city together. But it was planned as a vehicle for Holliday and Jack Lemmon, but it obviously was never done.)

joe baltake said...

Thanks, Daryl. I'm happy that you pointed out Holliday's "intelligent woman" roles. Funny, I always thought she came across as whip-smart (and shrewd) in her "dumb blonde" roles ("Born Yesterday" and "It Should Happen to You"). In those roles, she simply marched to a different drummer. The unmade film with Lemmon sounds as if it might have been promising. Too bad. They should have worked together more often.

Charlotte said...

I always thought that Lemmon would have been terrific with Holliday in "Bells Are Ringing." You're right. Their chemistry was sublime.

joe baltake said...

Thanks, Charlotte. I agree. Jack was a natural for "Bells Are Ringing." But, frankly, I think Dean Martin is just about near perfect in the movie. The role seemed handmade for him, and he worked especially well with Minnelli and evidenced by "Bells" and "Some Came Running..."

Adrian said...

Loved her! The Gladys Glover character is a harbinger of what actually happened with reality stars famous for only being famous (hello, Kardashians)

Marvin said...

You mention in your excellent discussion of Jack Lemmon's films that Kim Novak was in Pffffffffffft! I have never seen this film; and now I must! However, I had no idea that Kim was in Pffffffffffft. It must have been a very small role. Are you certain that Kim was in that film?

joe baltake said...

Absolutely, Marvin. Novak is one of the film's four leads.

Marvin said...

Thanks, Joe, And I AGREE AGREE AGREE AGREE that Columbia should offer a "set" of the Judy Holliday films which she made for said studio. Some are soooooo obscure.

wwolfe said...

I've always thought that its title might have been a big reason for the relative obscurity of "Pffffffffffft!" Specifically, I'd bet that most people have the same problem with it that I do - namely, I have no idea how to pronounce it. It's hard to talk about a movie when you don't know how to say its title.

joe baltake said...

You're in good company. Jack Lemmon also didn't like it. But I think it's kind of neat. And as the display ads for the film advised, "Don't say it! See It!"

John/24Frames said...

Joe, Judy obviously died way too young. She was one of the great comic actresses of all time.. Her two films with Lemmon are minors gems. Both, as you wrote, are smartly written. Excellent stuff as always.

Brian Lucas said...

In response to wwolfe's comment, I agree with you, Joe, and like the title "Phffft!," too. (It's certainly better than the potential alternative, "Kaput!") By the way, if I recall (and I'm dating myself here), the title comes from a recurring word used by Walter Winchell in his column whenever he reported on a celebrity divorce in the 1950s.

joe baltake said...

Brian! You are absolutely right about the Winchell reference. That's where Axelrod got his idea for the film's title. I was remiss in not mentioning that myself.

Kiki said...

I have some Judy Holliday records singing Irving Berlin. What a wonderful little quaver she had. I shall always, always, always remember getting my first passport in Rockefeller Center NY in . . . 1962? at the latest ,early 1963 ,and the passport office had these big posters of celebrities passport photos on the wall. And Judy Holliday's was there with her son. In those days you could put two people on a passport -- even a husband and wife. OY!

I think what made Lemmon/Holliday work was because they looked like average New Yorkers but from somewhere else like Ohio or Illionois-- which is what working class New Yorkers looked like back then. There was such a difference between the way the rich and the "middle class" looked back in the 50s and 60s -- you know Shirley MacLaine in The Apartment would never be taken to the Café Carlyle. Ever.

joe baltake said...

Kiki- Those are such vivid memories. Yes, there was nothing quite like New York in the 1950s and ‘60s. Maybe I feel that way because that’s when I first discovered and experienced the city. BTW, Jack Lemmon recorded a wonderful reading of the E.B. White essay, “Here Is New York,” which we play every time I feel the need to be transported.