Friday, May 02, 2014

the contrarian: Billy Wilder's "Irma La Douce"

"This, then, is the story of Irma La Douce..."

So starts Louis Jordan's opening narration of Billy Wilder's songless film version of "Irma La Douce," whose source was a piece of flirty material that was an international sensation (in the truest sense of that expression) in the mid-1950s/early-1960s, moving from the French stage to acclaim in translated form in both London and New York, and finally to Hollywood.

The move, in retrospect, wasn't an easy one for Irma the Sweet.  And for years, I wondered exactly what happened to her/it.  Why did she disappear?  Not Wilder's film, which still survives on home entertainment, but rather some incarnation of the stage phenomenon.

Why has it never been revived?

Well, "Irma" - the musical -will be back on stage in New York, if only temporarily, and with any hope, the old girl has not lost her saucy flirtiness.  It is being presented by Encores!, under the direction of the estimable John Dolye, at the City Center (131 West 55th Street) for an extremely limited engagement - for five days, May 7-11. Brief and unexpected as it is, Irma's comeback presents me with an opportune reason to consider her history.

The musical - spoken and sung in French, both saucy and soulful - opened November 12th, 1956 at the Théâtre Gramont in Paris, where it played for four years. It boasted music by Marguerite Monnot (famed for "The Poor People of Paris") and book and lyrics by Alexandre Breffort.

The London production opened at the Saville Theatre on July 17th, 1958 and ran for a whopping 1512 performances. It retained Monnot's melodies, with Breffort's book and lyrics translated by Julian More, David Heneker and Monty Norman. This production was later optioned for New York by David Merrick and opened September 29th, 1960 at New York's Plymouth Theatre, running for 527 performances. Sir Peter Brook ("Marat/Sade") directed both the London and New York productions of the musical, and his cast from London - Elizabeth Seal, Keith Mitchell and Clive Revill - recreated their parts for Broadway. (Elliott Gould, Stuart Damon, George S.Irving and Fred Gwynne were also in the Broadway production, playing various pimps.)

Then came the Wilder movie version, filmed in 1962 and released in 1963.

Wilder, in New York in 1960 to see Jack Lemmon in the play, "Face of a Hero," caught the Broadway production of "Irma" and immediately saw it as an ideal vehicle for Lemmon.  The premise - nonsense about a guy so deluded and desperate to keep his prostitute-girlfriend as pure as possible  that he dons a disguise and pretends to be her most valuable (and sole) client - had potential to be another winning Wilder-Lemmon collaboration, following "Some Like It Hot" (1959) and "The Apartment" (1960).

With Lemmon signed on, Wilder went into in negotiations with Elizabeth Taylor to play Irma. (Lemmon to the New York Times during an interview at the time: "Lucky girl!")

Enter Marilyn Monroe. She, reportedly, wanted the role. Desperately. But Wilder was still recuperating after their problems on "Some Like It Hot."

Meanwhile, Taylor got caught up in a little number titled "Cleopatra" and Monroe went into George Cukor's ill-fated "Something's Got to Give."

Enter Shirley MacLaine, who of course worked with both Wilder and Lemmon on "The Apartment" and who was perfect for the role.

She became Wilder's Irma.

During this period, it was never mentioned in the press that the film of "Irma La Douce" would not be a musical. (Two years earlier, in 1961, Joshua Logan dropped all of Harold Rome's songs from his film version of "Fanny." Logan had also directed the original New York production.)

One has to wonder if Wilder may have entertained thoughts of actually making a musical, given MacLaine's song-and-dance background and the fact that Lemmon had starred in a few film musicals early in his career. Also, one of Wilder's supporting players, cast in the role of Irma's pimp, was Bruce Yarnell, who was a rising young star in the musical theater at the time and had just starred on Broadway in "The Happiest Girl in the World," opposite Cyril Ritchard and Janice Rule. (Yarnell was also under consideration by Richard Lester to play Captain Miles Gloriosus in his 1966 film of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," but the role went to Leon Greene. Bruce Yarnell would die young in 1973.)

Wilder also finally got a chance to work with Lou Jacobi on "Irma."  Jacobi was Wilder's original choice to play Dr. Dreyfuss in "The Apartment," having admired his work in George Stevens' film version of "The Diary of Anne Frank" (1959). But Jacobi was committed to a play at the time - Paddy Chayefsky's "The Tenth Man" - and the role of Dreyfuss was ultimately played by Jack Kruschen, who nailed it.
OK, full disclosure: I loved Wilder's film of "Irma"... as a kid.  And, I guess, it helps to be 12 to truly appreciate it. No matter what measure one might use, Wilder's "Irma La Douce" looms as a major embarrassment - a leering piece of "tired businessman's entertainment" that's sexed-up and yet decidedly, strangely, unsexy.

Most upsetting of all, in Wilder's hands, "Irma La Douce" had lost its innate soulfulness.

What's odd is that the material, as mentioned, seemed like perfect pairing for Wilder and his cast, but the filmmaker 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.

Monnot's clever, likable melodies were promptly deleted from the Wilder-I.A.L. Diamont script, relegated (as with "Fanny") to the background as incidental music, scored by André Previn. Even reduced, however, 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 MacLaine, a moment in the film which seems to lead up an intermission break that never comes.
"Irma" was shot largely on a soundstage in Hollywood, but by the time the crew got to France for some location work, a lot had happened: Monroe had died from an overdose, Taylor and Richard Burton had started their affair on the set of "Cleopatra" and Lemmon had married Felicia Farr (with both Wilder and director Richard Quine serving as his best men in a Paris ceremony).

On the basis of the wild success of "Irma La Douce" and his two films 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. He would ultimately disavow both "Yum Yum," which makes sense (it's pretty base; it needed Frank Tashlin's touch and sensibility) and "Sam," which makes no sense (it's an engaging comedy).

Jack would have done well to have distanced himself from the adolescent smirk of "Irma La Douce" as well.

In retrospect, I wonder where Jacques Demy was when the decision was made to film "Irma."  The maker of "The Umbrellas of Cherbourgh" (1964) and "The Young Girls of Rochefort" (1967) seemed like a natural fit for "Irma La Douce."  At least, with Demy at the helm, the material would have returned to its source - as a French musical.  And I see the fabulous Bernadette Lafont as Irma. Another missed opportunity.  Oh, well...

C'est la vie.


Carol said...

A very good review of a film that is, it's true, almost a complete mess. I just saw it myself recently and it is definitely too long and 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 Wilder-Lemmon film. The magic definitely did not come together again for this reunion.

Ed 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.