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It's no secret that some movies age more gracefully than others. Content that shocked audiences thirty or forty years ago plays regularly for tots on TV today. So it's genuinely amusing to watch a big-studio production from 1965 that now would bring four out of five women to their feet in protest. I mean, this new Olive Films release would provoke a Tea Party matron to shout feminist slogans.
Boeing, Boeing is a light comedy that doesn't mean to offend anybody, and indeed was deemed acceptable for family audiences when new. If one had to show a girlfriend either this picture or Verhoeven's gross-fest Showgirls, choosing would not be easy. All three of the film's leading ladies are listed on one title card, with each name followed by their measurements. Some viewers consider Billy Wilder's 1965 farce Kiss Me, Stupid to be tasteless, but compared to this show it is the soul of wit. That's a sure sign that Boeing, Boeing is ripe for a major rediscovery.
The story is a bedroom farce without sex, just the way they liked to make 'em back in the days of the Production Code when nice girls didn't, at least not on the screen. The basic sex farce consisted of a prolonged tease that invariably ended up at the altar. Then The Pill came along and premarital sex suddenly became much less risky. Everything changed, and the new era of sexual liberation was soon reflected in the movies. Edward Anhalt's film adaptation of Boeing, Boeing opens up Marc Camoletti's original play but most of the action takes place within one set, a swingin' Parisian bachelor pad. Womanizing newspaperman Bernard Lawrence (Tony Curtis) can't keep his girl-hungry colleague Robert Reed (Jerry Lewis, in adult acting mode) from stopping over. Rob therefore gets a first-hand look at Bernard's fantastic dating arrangement. The playboy juggles three fianceés on a tricky timetable. Vicky Hawkins, Jacqueline Grieux and Lise Bruner (Susannah Leigh, Dany Saval & Christiane Schmidter) are all stewardesses on rigidly set flight schedules. As Bernard explains, he's always got one on the ground, one coming in and one on the other side of the world. He's so far been successful at making sure that the three women never meet each other. Robert is flabbergasted by this scheme. Unable to corner even one girlfriend, he immediately moves in on this private harem. But Bernard's bachelor's paradise goes haywire when all three stews bring Bernard the same bad news: their respective airlines British United, Air France and Lufthansa are changing over to new, faster Boeing aircraft. Their schedules are no longer predictable, and there's no way Bernard can keep their paths from crossing.
I don't imagine that Boeing, Boeing raised very many eyebrows in 1965. It's of the same vintage as the utterly tasteless Bob Hope movie I'll Take Sweden, which even when new played as one long immature joke about the supposedly sex-crazed Swedes. Today the Swedes in the film look sane while the snickering, sex-obsessed Americans come off as morons, Hope included. Boeing, Boeing derives almost all of its comedy mileage from a single burlesque-level humor situation: one fianceé is taking a shower, another is in the kitchen and a third is knocking on the door. How is our oversexed hero going to keep them from discovering each other's existence? The slim premise is barely enough to flesh out a single Playboy cartoon. Edward Anhalt repeats permutations of the idea for ninety solid minutes.
Like the previous Boy's Night Out, Boeing, Boeing obeys the basic rules of the classic Bachelor Pad comedy. Tony Curtis's ambitious Bernard is a clever guy just trying to get some, as they say. Neither he nor Robert are capable of honest behavior with a woman, or as much as a single sincere word. The girls are just there to be lured into the sack. Each seems extremely eager; each appears at least once wearing a sexy nightgown or wrapped in an abbreviated towel. They are of course differentiated only by nationality, which is expressed by choice of diet (kidneys or bratwurst or a soufflé) and insulting stereotypes. The German Lise is a robust and buxom blonde who lectures Robert on the idea that the nude body should not in itself be automatically associated with sex. One joke shows Lise having difficulty doing push-ups because of her large bosom.
Robert and Bernard race madly about the apartment to keep the girls from colliding, an effort that makes the women seem like bimbos in a burlesque act. It's the kind of comedy where one woman dressing in the bedroom cannot hear another woman shouting ten feet away, through just one closed door.
Helping out but not compensating is the talented Thelma Ritter as Bertha, Bernard's harried housekeeper. Bertha fires off smart remarks and mutinous mutterings at her employer's many unreasonable demands. She changes the photos in Bernard's picture frames and hides each girl's lingerie from the others. A typical performance highlight is seeing Bertha make shocked faces at the size of Lise's bra. Ms. Ritter has been babysitting as comedy relief for oversexed young couples since the late 1940s. In this show she looks ready to turn in her SAG card.
Making a movie like this go the distance without flagging is a tall order, so Curtis and Lewis work themselves into a frenzy. The competent director John Rich spent most of his time directing top TV shows; he'd later gain fame for his contribution to Norman Lear's All in the Family. Curtis has his charmingly insincere cad act down cold, and it's pleasant to see Jerry Lewis so effortlessly holding up his end. As a study of comedy -- what works and what doesn't, Boeing, Boeing is fascinating. The general level of humor will bring back the days of Playboy's party jokes and wink-wink cartoons, only with even less sophistication.
The actual on-screen title is Boeing (707), Boeing (707), and the movie sometimes seems like a grandiose commercial to sell American passenger aircraft overseas. All three major European airlines are apparently overjoyed by Boeing's fast new craft. The stewardesses excitedly quote the new engine thrust data as if describing an over-endowed bedmate. Does Boeing, Boeing represent some kind of early, surreptitious product placement arrangement?
With both leading men still considered top stars, a problem arose when the came time to assign billing. Neither star wanted a credit subordinate to the other. The dilemma was solved by designing a main title card that spells out Tony Curtis and Jerry Lewis in a spinning circle around the hub of a jet aircraft engine. Neither name is on top. Poster artwork for the film arranged the star names like an airplane propeller, to the same purpose.
Olive Films' Blu-ray of Boeing, Boeing is a handsome encoding of this brightly colored sex comedy. Skin tones are rich and the bits of Parisian locations we see look great. Cameraman Lucien Ballard isn't called upon to flex his dramatic lighting skills but he gets the most out of the studio sets. One exterior scene plays out on one of the raised open-air platforms around the terminals at the Orly Airport. When Tony Curtis meets one of his stewardesses there, we're reminded of the eerie conclusion of La jetée.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Boeing, Boeing Blu-ray rates:
1. From Alan Gomberg, April 1, 2012:
Hi, Glenn, I thought some background information on Boeing, Boeing might interest you. It's based on a French play by Marc Camoletti that opened in Paris in 1960 and ran 19 years. At least 19 years is what it says online. I've learned to distrust what I read online, but whether the 19 years is strictly accurate, it unquestionably was a huge success with Paris audiences.
In 1962, an English adaptation opened in the West Ends and ran seven years, which is not surprising given the British taste for sex comedy.
Also not surprising is that when the English adaptation was produced on Broadway in 1965 (with a largely or entirely English cast), it ran three weeks. Americans have never really had the same taste for that kind of sex farce.
In February 2007, a revival of the play in London was a success, running 11 months.
The London production, mostly recast but with Mark Rylance repeating his acclaimed London performance as Bernard, came to Broadway in May 2008. Again, it's not surprising that despite great reviews (which it hadn't received in 1965), it was not quite as successful on Broadway as it had been in London, running a decent but not great eight months. But at no point during the run, despite winning some major awards, did it do great business. -- Best, Alan Gomberg
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T'was Ever Thus.