Thursday, April 19, 2018

double bill: Swift's "Good Neighbor Sam" (1964) and Jewison's "The Thrill of It All" (1963)

~a recurring feature devoted to the double bills that have been rummaging through my mind for decades~
It hasn't been until relatively recently that I've acknowledged to myself just how much I enjoy - and miss - movies from the 1960s, particularly the decade's fizzy sex/suburban comedies. One might say I'm obsessed with them. A friend/colleague, Carrie, once referred to them as my porno.

I  admit - unapologetically - that comedies made by Doris Day, Jack Lemmon, Debbie Reynolds and Tony Curtis are indeed my porn.

And two of my favorites are Day's "The Thrill of It All" (from 1963) and Lemmon's "Good Neighbor Sam" (1964). Both are set in the suburbs, both skewer advertising (and brilliantly), both feature that character actor extraordinaire, Edward Andrews (honored below), in supporting roles and both will be paired tomorrow night (April 20th), starting at 8, on TCM.

The two films have a lot more in common but more about that later...
Norman Jewison's "The Thrill of It" - the first of two titles that he made with Doris Day - benefits from Day's incredible ease in front of a camera, her natural rapport with co-star James Garner and especially from Carl Reiner's acerbic script which uses the clear eyes of Day's character - Beverly Boyer - to expose the inanity of the advertising business.

Beverly is an average housewife who lives comfortably in suburban New York with a live-in housekeeper, two adorable kids and a tomato-strewn basement where she pursues the hobby of bottling her own ketchup.

Her husband (Garner) is an obstetrician who just delivered the baby of a middle-aged couple (played by Arlene Francis and Andrews), the husband being the son of the old entrepreneur (Reginald Owen) who runs the Happy Soap company. One thing leads to another, and Beverly is recruited to hawk the product on the weekly Happy Playhouse which (comically) stages the same play every week, only with a different backdrop and different costumes. The public loves the straight-shooting Beverly. She becomes a star, a big star, much to her husband's chagrin. Comic misunderstandings ensue.

Day's first attempt at a TV commercial, aired live, is a classic of perfect timing and deadpan delivery. She is naturally funny throughout and fastidiously makes sure that Beverly isn't played for ridicule. (She is just as winning in her follow-up film with Jewison, 1964's "Send Me No Flowers.") Reiner turns up three times as the actor playing the weekly villain on Happy Playhouse, and Beverly's two housekeepers are memorably played by a dithery Zasu Pitts and a hilariously Germanic Lucy Landau. And James Garner, branching out at the time after doing much TV, is solid in one of his first comedy roles.
 David Swift's "Good Neighbor Sam" gets off to a delightful start with its titles sequence which features Jack Lemmon and Dorothy Provine as Sam and Minerva Bissell rolling around on their bed at daybreak in a scene that seems almost choreographed to fit DeVol's snappy music. (That's Frank DeVol - billed, as usual, only as DeVol.) Their cover-pulling movements are a familiar image and cinematographer Burnett Guffey has filmed them in soft tones, while also capturing the two stars (rather hilariously in a series of extreme close-ups) as they are adrift in the throes of sleep.

Based on the comic novel by Jack Finney (also the author of "The Body Snatchers" and "Time and Again"), "Sam" casts Lemmon as a "clean-living family man" who has a serene life in Marin County and works at an ad agency in San Francisco, whose biggest account is the Nurdlinger Dairy Farm, owned by the Bible-thumping Simon Nurdlinger (Edward G. Robinson) - who immediately disapproves of the agency's wildly salacious billboard ads which promote Nurdlinger Eggs as a veritable virility drug.

Think Viagra with a yolk.

Sam lands the account because of his squeaky-clean image (it also helps that he and Min have pet ducks) and his promotion coincides with the arrival of one of Min's friends from college, Janet (Romy Schneider), who has come to San Francisco from Europe to claim an inheritance and finalize her divorce (from Mike Connors). But there's a catch: She has to be happily married to get the money. So, Sam is drafted to play her husband for a few days to fool an insurance investigator and nosy relatives. When his boss (Andrews) and Nurdlinger catch him with Janet, Sam is forced to pass her off as his wife - much to his real wife's chagrin. Again, comic misunderstandings ensue.

"Good Neighbor Sam" is one of my top ten Lemmon movies, along with "Phffft!" (1954), "My Sister Eileen" (1955), "Bell, Book and Candle" (1958), "It Happened to Jane" (1959), "The Apartment" (1960), "The Notorious Landlady" (1962), "The April Fools" (1969), "The Out-of-Towners" (1970)  and "Glengarry Glen Ross" (1992). Not all are exactly Lemmon classics - and the usual suspects are notably missing - but, for me, they're irresistible. All of them. And I'd feel remiss, if I didn't reference "Operation Mad Ball" (1957), "The Prisoner of Second Avenue" (1975), "The Entertainer" (also '75),  "Alex and the Gypsy" (1976) and "Missing" (1982).

In addition to the invaluable Edward Andrews (again, see below), "Good Neighbor Sam" is brimming with gifted character actors - Charles Lane, Richard Hale, Louis Nye, Robert Q. Lewis, David Ketchum, Gil Lamb, Joe Palma, Anne Seymour, Neil Hamilton and Linda Watkins. Director David Swift himself, as usual, turns in a nifty cameo as the director of Hertz rent-a-car commercial featuring The Hi-Los.

A word about Romy Schneider, the enchanting German actress who made largely French movies and who died way too young in 1982 at age 43: She is visibly having a good time in one of her first American films and certainly her first comedy. She's all giggly and adorable opposite Jack Lemmon.

Now, a bit more trivia: Both films also share DeVol as the composer of their respective music scores; actor Bernie Kopel, who plays the director of Beverly's TV commericals in "The Thrill of It All" and a photographer in "Good Neighbor Sam," and the child actress Kim Karath, who plays one of Day's children (with Brian Nash) in "Thrill" and one of Lemmon's kids (with Vicki Cos) in "Sam." Talented Karath was also memorable in "Spencer's Mountain" (1963) and played little Gretl in "The Sound of Music" (1965).

And, finally, there's Hollywood's top "dress extra," the one and only Bess Flowers, who also appears in both films - in the background, of course. She's one of the extras at a party honoring Beverly in "The Thrill of It All" and a guest at Edward G. Robinson's dinner party in "Good Neighbor Sam." Flowers, who seems to be in every old film that I've seen, amassed - now get this - 910 credits during her career and she rarely had any dialogue. She was indeed a dress extra, part of the scenery. Her last film, coincidentally, was "Good Neighbor Sam," which she made the year she died - at age 84. What a trouper! There is a wonderful and well-deserved tribute to Bess on the must-read site, Vienna's Classic Hollywood.

Character Counts:  Edwards Andrews (1914-1985), who had totaled 182 credits during his lengthy career, began dabbling in acting with a few shorts in the late 1930s before moving into television in the 1950s. He made his film debut in 1955 in Phil Karlson's "The Phenix City Story," played John Kerr's homophobic father in Vincente Minnelli's "Tea and Sympathy" in 1956 and made an average of four films a year after that. He was tall and amiable, always seemed to have gray hair and was known for his horn-rimmed glasses. While Andrews was solid in his dramatic roles in such films as Richard Brooks' "Elmer Gantry" (1960) and Otto Preminger's "Advise and Consent" (1962), he was effortlessly funny in the comedies he made. His last two films, both from 1984, were Joe Dante's "Gremlins" and John Hughes' "Sixteen Candles," in which he played Molly Ringwald's grandfather - fabulously. Edward Andrews, much missed, died a year later at age 70.

Note in Passing: The climatic scene in "Good Neighbor Sam" - where a paint splattered Jack Lemmon chases Joyce Jameson, playing a prostitute, up and down the stairs of a curious old
hotel - was filmed at The Bradbury Building, which is not in San Francisco but is located at 304 South Broadway (at West 3rd Street) in downtown Los Angeles. It is something of an architectural landmark. It was commissioned by Los Angeles gold-mining millionaire Lewis L. Bradbury, constructed in 1938 by draftsman George Wyman from the original design by Sumner Hunt and is noted for its ornate ironwork and its melange of walkways, stairs and elevators. It's quite something to behold.

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(from top) 

~Poster art for "Good Neighbor Sam"~

~Poster art for "The Thriller of It All"~

~Doris Day, as Beverly Boyer, selling Happy Soap on TV in "The Thrill of It All"
~photography: Universal-International 1963©

~James Garner in a scene from the film
~photography: Universal-International 1963©

~Jack Lemmon during the titles sequence of "Good Neighbor Sam"
~photography: Columbia Pictures 1964©

~Lemmon and Romy Schneider in a scene from the film
~photography: Columbia Pictures 1964©
~Vintage studio portrait of Bess Flowers~

~Edward Andrews in "The Thrill of It All"
~photography: Universal-International 1963©

~Andrews and Edward G. Robinson in "Good Neighbor Sam"
~photography: Columbia Pictures 1964© 

~ The interior of The Bradbury Building, used in "Good Neighbor Sam"

~Joyce Jameson, Hal Taggart, Lemmon and Schneider in a scene from the film
~photography: Columbia Pictures 1964©


Randy said...

i love the names of those drugs in "Thrill" -- really relevant today when there are so many new medications, each with dire side effects. Have to pay attention to see if I can pick out Bess Flowers. What a hoot!

joe baltake said...

Randy- You're thinking of a different Day film. All those hilariously named medications are referenced in "Send Me No Flowers." And, yes, when you watch a film on TCM, look out for Bess. Spotting her is a terrific movie game. -J

Bill from Philly said...

These two make a great double bill. I'm excited that Turner is screening them together and that you wrote about them. "Sam," in particular, gets too little attention among Lemmon movies.

m.h. said...

Great, Joe! So much information, not only on the films per se, but also on some of the character actors in the films, like Bess Flowers and Edward Andrews. I also found your brief discussion of the actors who played the kids very informative. m.h.

Sheila said...

Your favorite Lemmon films are wild. No "Some Like It Hot"? Where's "Mister Roberts"? How about "Days of Wine and Roses"? You march to a different drummer, Joe. Good for you!

Mike Schlesinger said...

I've always felt that the early to mid-60s were a kind of Silver Age of the romantic comedy and have pondered programming such a festival if anyone were willing. Glad to know I'm not the only one who's noticed the riches therein. (BTW, I saw both of these first-run when I was a kid, even though they were not kiddie films. Pretty precocious, I was.)

Gary said...

DVR set, haven't seen these two in a hundred years but somehow scenes from both have popped into my head a lot over time! thanks for the reminder!