Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
One of Hollywood's most engaging and likeable stars, Jack Lemmon made his share of classic comedies and dramas with some of the best directors of his day. Sony's new The Jack Lemmon Film Collection reaches into the Columbia vault for the studio's few remaining Lemmon movies not already in release on DVD. It's a mixed bag of light comedies, but Lemmon always shines. A sixth bonus disc provides an affectionate tribute to Jack Lemmon hosted by his son Chris.
Jack Lemmon had the good fortune to co-star with Judy Holliday in his first film, 1954's It Should Happen to You, directed by George Cukor. Lemmon's second picture Phffft sees him re-teamed with Ms. Holliday, but the director is Mark Robson. Even with a screenplay by George Axelrod (his first), Phffft is no classic. The sitcom-like story presents a couple struggling with post-divorce hysteria; the title is meant to represent the noise made by a marriage evaporating. Nina (Holliday) is a TV writer who has to fight off a lecherous actor and deal with a pushy mother.
Robert (Lemmon) suffers when his new roommate Jack Carson attempts to hook him up with hot dates, including one with the very willing Janis (newcomer Kim Novak). Both Nina and Robert take Arthur Murray Rumba lessons and meet on the dance floor for a fairly forced comedy scene. Robert grows a bachelor's moustache but drops Kim Novak cold when he learns that Carson is going to his ex-wife's house for dinner.
Phffft is nothing special but will satisfy fans of Lemmon and Holliday. Besides the tempting Ms. Novak, connoisseurs of 50s and 60s starlets will pick out Merry Anders and Joyce Jameson in small parts.
The more distinctive Operation Mad Ball (1957) is the most successful feature in the set. This is the movie that set the formula for the "service comedy" subgenre, in which conniving enlisted men try to put over various scams on clueless officers. Lemmon's resourceful schemer Pvt. Hogan was probably inspired by his acclaimed performance two years before as Ensign Pulver in Mr. Roberts. In a French Army camp right after V-E day, Hogan conspires to put on a large-scale "Mad Ball" which will give the lonely GI's and frustrated nurses an opportunity to get "friendly" -- something strictly prohibited by army regulations.
The wild scheme involves practically every man on the base. Hogan goes to special lengths to hoodwink the obnoxious, egotistical Captain Paul Locke (Ernie Kovacs, in his first film) and the softheaded C.O., Colonel Rousch (Arthur O'Connell). This means stealing supplies and labor, and conniving with crazy port controller Sergeant Yancy Skibo (Mickey Rooney, really funny) to scramble troop movements in Hogan's favor. Hogan feigns a serious ulcer to get cozy with supply nurse Lt. Betty Bixby (Kathryn Grant, never cuter). The setup for the party is not unlike a crime caper, with Hogan spiriting bodies in and out of the morgue, and pulling a major hoax on his commanding officers.
Kovacs is suitably hiss-able, Arthur O'Connell turns out to be a swell guy, and Hogan's crazy plan is fun to watch unfold. Operation Mad Ball features most every young male actor on the Columbia payroll: Dick York, James Darren, William Leslie, L.Q. Jones, Dick Crockett, William Hickey. The vivacious clutch of nurses include Anna Lee Carroll (Not of This Earth), Marilyn Hanold (Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster), Betsy Jones-Moreland (Last Woman on Earth) and Mary LaRoche (Bye Bye Birdie).
A special treat is the original trailer, which turns out to be a crazy comedy concept cooked up by Ernie Kovacs. His fans will want to see it, without fail.
1962's The Notorious Landlady has an excellent pedigree but comes off as both forced and budget-starved. Weak studio sets stand in for London. The entire project needed a fancier production and better direction, as the considerable star power involved is mostly wasted.
In the script by Blake Edwards and Larry Gelbart, American Embassy staffer Bill Gridley (Lemmon) falls fast in love with his new landlady Carly Hardwicke (Kim Novak), much to the consternation of his boss Franklyn Ambruster (Fred Astaire). Scotland Yard suspects Hardwicke of murdering her husband, and Gridley soon has the Embassy involved in a scandal. But Bill sticks with his new girlfriend, even though he's supposed to be spying on her for Scotland Yard inspector Oliphant (Lionel Jeffries). When the missing husband turns up, more murder and blackmail ensue, and Bill has to convince Carly that he's on her side.
Finessed performing was never Kim Novak's strong suit, and the ambiguities of her role just seem above her abilities. Despite Jack Lemmon's solid support the film never draws us into its mystery romance. With the exception of George Duning's pleasant music score, very little works at all, in fact. The final mystery hinges on a silly courtroom scene, followed by a painfully unfunny finish at a cliff-side rest home, with runaway wheelchairs, etc.
Fred Astaire is almost completely wasted, as is Lionel Jeffries. Estelle Winwood and Henry Daniell have okay supporting bits.
1963's Under the Yum Yum Tree is the most dated picture in the bunch. Nicely produced and well cast, its basic story now comes off as both trite and offensive. Writer-director David Swift, the clever comedy talent behind Disney Haley Mills hits and the later, wonderful movie version of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, helped adapt the successful play by Lawrence Roman. The basic idea is a Production Code- cramped sex farce that prefigures the Los Angeles "singles apartment" syndrome of the late 60s and early 70s, where the real sexual revolution took place. (I was there, the stories must be altered to protect the guilty.)
In this dirty fantasy, hedonist landlord Hogan (Jack Lemmon) rents only to beautiful tenants, seducing all that prove vulnerable to the lure of his plush bachelor pad. College professor Irene Wilson (Edie Adams) has finally seen through Hogan's slimy tricks, and is moving out; her niece Robin Austin (Carol Lynley) grabs the attractive apartment as a place to experiment with platonic co-habitation with her boyfriend Dave Manning (Dean Jones, repeating his stage role). Hogan uses all of his wiles to entice Robin into his lair, while putting Dave on an all-exercise regimen to suppress his, uh, natural desires.
The picture is one lame "isn't this shocking?" gag after another. Hogan dallies with his shapely tenants (who seem to dress and shower in full sight of large windows) while the building's handyman (Paul Lynde) does Burlesque double-takes and congratulates Hogan on his empire of fleshly delights. The talented Imogene Coca is also on hand for plenty of mock-puritan eye rolling. All the acting is fine, with Carol Lynley acquitting herself very well, but it's really strange to see Jack Lemmon trying to stretch his nice guy persona by playing such a letch. Ex- Tex Avery writer Swift is surely responsible for Hogan's "red" motif, which includes devil-like red socks -- he's always tempting somebody. Poor Edie Adams (wonderful personality) is shocked to find that the heart-shaped red key and monkey toy Hogan has given her aren't as special as she thought -- he has an entire closet of replacements.
Robert Lansing has a thankless role as Adams' new boyfriend. The titles play over a dancer who might be Eve cavorting around the Yum Yum Tree, which appears to be the Tree of Knowledge in Eden. The most daring scene (and a memorable still) features one of Hogan's tenants leaning out of her window clutching a towel to her chest, yet covering almost nothing. Impressive TV event of 1967!
1964's Good Neighbor Sam jams quite a few 60s satirical targets into a lively but also severely dated comedy: suburban sprawl, advertising, and the struggle for affluence. The basic story is by Jack Finney, who also authored the source book for Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Director David Swift scored a big budget and a hot European co-star, the dreamy Romy Schneider.
The story begins a bit like a sequel to The Apartment: Clean-living Sam Bissel (Jack Lemmon) is thinking of quitting his job in the art department when he's kicked upstairs to oversee the ad account for the fussy milk magnate Simon Nurdlinger (Edward G. Robinson), who feels that the agency's executives lead immoral lives. Meanwhile, Sam's wife Minerva (Dorothy Provine) greets old friend and new neighbor Janet Lagerlof (Romy Schneider) a German beauty. Janet finds out that she stands to inherit fifteen million dollars, but only if she can prove that she's happily married! Then Nurdlinger sees Janet dropping Sam off at work, and assumes she's his wife! The only way for Sam to keep his $$ job and for Janet to reap her $$ inheritance is for Sam to pretend to be Janet's husband. When a private detective watches the house, Sam has to sleep with her too! Things become more complicated when Janet's ex-husband Howard (Mike Connors) shows up. To play along with the scam, Howard pretends to be Minerva's husband.
In other words, Good Neighbor Sam twists itself into a pretzel to concoct a farce about (gasp!) wife swapping, but not really. It's a clever enough job of scripting that loses itself in puritanical misery -- "Moral America" apparently cannot handle even a slightly credible look at reality. What was false in 1964 now comes off as simply dishonest: the all-important success payday seems to be everything to these people.
But the actors have fun with the silliness as best they can, escaping with their dignity and a bit more. Romy Schneider takes naturally to comedy, and the underrated Dorothy Provine is quite good as well. Director Swift loads the film down with cartoonish gags, such as Bissell's backyard Rube Goldberg sculpture, and a midnight raid to vandalize a bunch of billboards. Swift also stages an elaborate running gag showing a harried film director (Swift) trying to get the Hertz man ("Let Hertz put You in the driver's seat!:) to fly properly into a convertible, while the Hi-Lo's sing the Hertz jingle.
Look fast and you'll spot Neil Hamilton (TV's Batman), Barbara Bouchet (Casino Royale) and Aneta Corsaut (The Blob) in fleeting bits.
The best news about Sony's new The Jack Lemmon Film Collection is that all the transfers are pristine-perfect, enhanced widescreen in their proper aspect ratio. The pictures all looked unfocused when shown flat in old TV screenings.
A sixth disc holds an extended featurette tribute to Jack Lemmon, Man Behind the Magic. It's basically a series of sentimental and admiring testimonials overseen by son Chris Lemmon, who is promoting a similar tribute-themed book on his father. The anecdotes and stories from the celebrities are all pleasant, even if many of them refer to un-illustrated non-Columbia pictures. For instance, we're surprised to see actress Melanie Mayron, until we remember that she co-starred with Lemmon in the political suspense film Missing.
In addition to a photo gallery, the extra disc also contains a Ford All-Star Theater TV episode called Marriageable Male. Artist Ida Lupino mistakes Lemmon's ad executive for a male model. It's an odd show: Ms. Lupino is only eleven years older than Lemmon, but she started her feature career almost 25 years before he did!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Jack Lemmon Film Collection rates:
Movies: Phffft Good; Ball Excellent; Landlady Good ---; Yum Good ---; Sam Good.
Video: all Excellent
Sound: all Excellent
Supplements: Bonus disc with docu Man Behind the Magic, photo gallery, Ford All-Star Theater Episode Marriageable Male
Packaging: Folding plastic and card holder in card sleeve
Reviewed: June 3, 2009
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2009 Glenn Erickson
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