Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Hollywood Production Code fell apart in the 1960s. As racy independent films and foreign imports made Hollywood fare look tame, more pictures bucked the system, looking for loopholes in the rules. Serious efforts like Sidney Lumet's The Pawnbroker stretched the code both in subject matter and taboos like nudity.
Other pictures were less likely to be described as having redeeming social content. The big offender (or scapegoat) of 1965 was Billy Wilder's rowdy comedy Kiss Me, Stupid. I continually read reviews that treat it like a leper -- it's crass, vulgar, and definitely has smut on its mind ... but nobody knows his way around a dirty joke better than Billy Wilder. His adherence to the formal rules of classic farce gives all the blue humor a formal beauty. The non-P.C. attitudes mask what is actually a fairly insightful (if cynical) lesson in the wry truths about marriage and the double standard.
Adding to my incomprehension that anybody still objects to Kiss Me, Stupid is the state of no-holds-barred comedy today. I'm shocked, shocked I tell you -- the level of pointless raunch, toilet humor, bodily fluid humor, pointless cruelty... I guess I'm showing my age. I prefer Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond's 'innocent' dirty jokes.
The story is sourced in a stage farce that had already been adapted into an Italian movie for Gina Lollobrigida, Moglie per una notte (Wife for a Night) (1952). Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond's version shifts the locale from Northern Italy a hundred years ago, to the Nevada desert, 1965. Amateur songwriters Orville J. Spooner (Ray Walston) and Barney Milsap (Cliff Osmond) are so desperate to get a pro audition for their tunes (actually songs written by Ira Gershwin) that they sabotage the car of entertainer Dino (Dean Martin) on his way back from Vegas. Rat-Pack hedonist Dino beds most every attractive woman he meets, so the pathologically jealous Orville is terrified to let him near his cute wife Zelda (Felicia Farr). But Barney has the solution: Orville must find a way to get Zelda out of the house ... to allow Barney to substitute the local hooker, Polly the Pistol (Kim Novak) as a fake wife for Dino to ravage. In between, Orville and Barney can sell Dino their songs...
Foreign films have traditionally had no problem with bedroom farces, as they didn't have to deny the fact that sex exists outside church definitions. Thanks to the Production Code, Hollywood was forced to spend years developing 'clean' approaches to similar material. Everything had to be staged in a context of wholesomeness, no matter what hypocrisy ensued. Some Shirley MacLaine and Debbie Reynolds films come to mind, but the queen of the repressed double-entendre was wholesome Doris Day. She'd say the jokes and think the thoughts, but couples never got near a bed, and anything resembling real human behavior had to be buried in slapstick. Even after George Axelrod's original had been completely cleaned up, Marilyn Monroe threw The Seven-Year Itch so far out of balance that her character had to be reduced to little more than a dream girl in a fantasy.
Kiss Me, Stupid plays the sexus-interruptus game only so far: shock of shocks, the characters really do end up in bed. What offended the censors more is that the script takes adultery for granted, an attitude unseen in Hollywood films since the pre-Code days of Trouble in Paradise.
Why Kiss Me, Stupid wasn't curbed by the Production Code office before it was shot is the biggest mystery here. Let's see, we have lechery, fornication, adultery, a lewd emphasis on certain body parts, multiple pimping and a prostitute whose lifestyle isn't condemned. The setting is a town called Climax, Nevada. Every dialogue line that isn't a double entendre is a triple entendre: "Maybe she'll take me to her garden, so I can help her pick her parsley!"
The big sex comedies usually starred emasculated comedians like Tom Ewell, Bob Hope, and Terry-Thomas. Their bedroom fantasies always had innocent intentions. Kiss Me, Stupid's Spooner and Milsap are neither cute nor innocent. Ray Walston has the look of a stupefied bloodhound, while the jovial but mercenary Cliff Osmond is borderline repulsive. Barney's counterpart in the 'safe' sex comedies would have been the debonair Gig Young or the witty Tony Randall.
Instead we have the bizarre phenomenon known as Dean Martin, whose fairly impressive acting career had degenerated into mostly cheap comedies and the trashiest of spy spoofs, the Matt Helm movies. Martin was at the time starring in a popular variety show. He came on screen every Thursday night looking totally smashed, a walking, singing liquor ad. All Dean did was sip drinks while slurring jokes about booze and sex and his Rat Pack buddies, who made frequent guest visits. Viewers with color TVs would tune in to see how red his nose was that week, not realizing that the whole thing was an act.
The 'Dino' in Wilder's film is the same guy reduced to his basics -- he sings, drinks, and has to get what he calls 'Action-action' every night or he comes down with migraine headaches. Of such broad caricatures great comedies are made. Martin never revealed they guy behind his boozy stud persona. We must credit him with having the guts to allow himself to be lampooned so directly & mercilessly.
Dino comes off as a total sleaze. He practically froths at the mouth at the sight of Kim Novak and leers at her chest and derriere for seconds at a time. He couldn't make the jokes dirtier if he said them with his hands in his pants. The sex jokes are technically tame by today's standards, but in 1965, Kiss Me, Stupid was raunchy indeed.
Kim Novak had gone the Doris Day route in pictures (Boys' Night Out) that played with promiscuity while staying squeaky-clean. Neither a particularly accomplished comedienne nor the type one brings home to Mother, Novak didn't have the Good Housekeeping® Seal of Approval, that Day used to defuse the direct appeal of her body. Wilder gives her Polly the Pistol a bad cold to make her funnier, with little effect.
Put all these unsavory (but cute) characters together in a broad comedy with real dirty jokes instead of the infantile, smirking evasions of pictures like A Guide for the Married Man or I'll Take Sweden, and you have a concoction guaranteed to ignite fires in censor land. Wilder's sex jokes were overripe in Irma La Douce, but here they're out of control. Novak's Polly crawls on the floor to retrieve a jewel from her navel. Polly's parrot likes to say, 'Bang Bang', which of course gets a big reaction from Dino.
Dino, explaining why he has to get out of Vegas,
says that if he stayed in town with the demanding showgirls,
"They'd have to carry me out in a box - a cigar box!"
Orville, showing Polly his little house: "It's not large, but it's clean."
Novak: "What is?"
Dino: "Why does your husband call you Lamb Chop?"
Polly: "Because sometimes I wear paper panties."
There are plenty of other hilarious jokes, and not just verbal ones. Looney Tunes voice artist Mel Blanc plays a dentist who can't stop laughing. Orville is a frustrated piano teacher; his sudden attacks of jealousy are accompanied by furious bursts of classical music. Ira Gershwin's songs are funny in and of themselves, especially I'm a Poached Egg. The single wittiest line is Orville's sage realization that, "You know, if it wasn't for Venetian blinds, it'd be curtains for us!" The story has a sophisticated farcical symmetry -- for every joke in one direction, there's another to balance it. The church types that darken Orville's doorstep are balanced by the excruciatingly un-sexy waitresses at the raunchy roadhouse.
The central symmetry is built around the idea that the roles of housewife and whore are interchangeable. Polly the Pistol's trailer is a portable bedroom, the mirror opposite of housewife Zelda's happy home. Polly and Zelda change places as if they were in a revolving door. Wilder and Diamond carry the comparison to its logical and even sentimental, end. Hooker and wife reestablish their roles by swapping material goods: cash earned for a wedding ring borrowed.
The censors didn't appreciate this 'symmetry'. After their film was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency, UA chose to open it under their artsy Lopert banner. The release wasn't a wide one, and Wilder had to chalk it up as a flop. Few if any critics came to the film's defense. Those aware that Peter Sellers had originated the Orville Spooner role blamed the 'cynical' Wilder for giving the star a heart attack. The great Ray Walston (Damn Yankees, South Pacific) is marvelous as Orville, but reviewers reacted as if he were the original Dirty Old Man, "My Favorite
Wilder's best pictures often have an oddball scene in the middle, deep in the second act when the plot is well underway and attention needs to be diverted from the main thread. In The Apartment it's Jack Lemmon's Christmas Eve drunk with Hope Holliday, the woman whose jockey husband is under arrest in Cuba. Here, it's Zelda's abortive trip home to Mother, a whole scene in one shot. It totally belongs to the fall-down funny Doro Merande, who played a nudist health-food waitress for Wilder in The Seven-Year Itch. While her husband sits like a lump, Merande assails Zelda with a litany of her failings as a wife and a daughter. Merande's hilarious delivery style must be seen and heard: "And he married Glady Bukich - uhh! I could have cried - uhh!" In theater screenings of Kiss Me, Stupid crowds go crazy with laughter over Doro.
Olive Films' Blu-ray of Kiss Me, Stupid is quite a revelation. Fans will definitely want it, as the transfer is far better than that on the old DVD. The picture is a great improvement -- sharper and more distinct. An entire reel of the DVD transfer was scratched, a flaw that has been fixed. The audio with its busy André Previn music score and Ira Gershwin novelty tunes, is also stronger. But there are reasons not to toss that old disc away.
What's special about this edition of Kiss Me, Stupid is that the MGM's library managers at Deluxe Digital have fully restored its International Cut, before the MPPA and the Catholic Legion of Decency got involved. This means that the final 'The End' title lists United Artists as distributor, not their subsidiary 'Lopert Pictures', credited to distance the main company from the slings and arrows of the bluenoses.
Fans of the film know about the re-shoot demanded by the censors. The original U.S. release altered the scene in Polly the Pistol's trailer where Felicia Farr's Zelda beds down with Dean Martin's character. Instead, Dino's back injury flares up and he falls asleep before he and Zelda can get it on. This bowdlerized two minutes or so never made much sense. In the morning, Zelda has been paid her money anyway. She stretches nude under her bed sheets ... smiling. Dino drives off humming and headache-free. So we assume they made it anyway. The change was also annoyingly sexist. Mr. Spooner is still seen bedding down with Polly. By making Wilder re-shoot only the wife's adulterous liaison, the MPAA sent the message that husbands could stray but wives could not.
In the slightly shorter International Cut it is clear that Zelda and Dino do indeed fall into bed together. In the late 1990s MGM archivist John Kirk found this abandoned piece of film, seen only in some foreign markets. The director's wife Audrey confirmed that her husband preferred the uncensored one, so John swapped it out in the printing negatives. That is what is seen both on the old DVD and this new Blu-ray.
But there are also three other newly restored little changes new to Olive's Blu-ray. They were caught when the Deluxe Digital representative noticed that other reels of the International Cut elements were slightly longer. The differences were identified in the continuity scripts of both versions:
1) When Zelda is showering, Orville creeps toward the back of the house to check on Dino, to make sure he's going nowhere near his wife. In the censored version, Orville just opens a door and sees Dino looking out the window, bouncing on the squeaky bed, apparently made nervous for a lack of 'Action-action'. In the International Cut Orville pauses before the door because he hears squeaking bedsprings, and of course imagines that Zelda and Dino are already having sex. (note: the noise level of the springs is rather low, masking the joke a bit. Perhaps Wilder first tried to appease the censors by lowering the volume, and forgot to reset the level?)
2) Barney delivers Polly the Pistol to the Spooner house, and Orville nervously paces the living room as she settles in. Just before Barney leaves he urges Orville to really sell their music to Dino: Put your back into it! Give it both knees! Barney delivers the line with a two-fisted forward thrust gesture. The censored version drops the words 'give it both knees', adding an extra cutaway or two to keep Barney off screen.
3) At one point Wilder and Diamond originally had Orville paraphrase the '60s catchphrase, "The family that prays together, stays together" by nervously saying, "Well, you know that they say -- the family that prays together!" The Deluxe Digital rep detected this change by noticing that the substitute line "the family that stays together" had been re-looped in the censored domestic version -- Walston's lips don't match his words. Someone was apparently not happy hearing the word 'pray' in this depraved context. Holders of the old MGM DVD can see and hear this for themselves.
These are minor differences and easy to miss, but certainly interesting enough to mention. The frustrating thing is that the new Blu-ray has no extras and no alternate versions. Fans wanting to compare versions will have to hang on to the old DVD, which retains the bowdlerized scene as an extra.
Kiss Me, Stupid is easily Billy Wilder's most controversial comedy. Being a direct lampoon of pop culture, it has an inordinate number of movie references and 'echoed' jokes from his earlier work, like the grapefruit gag. Unfairly singled out in its day as a cultural cesspool, it's still associated with Bad Taste despite its relative innocence. Kiss Me, Stupid remains a delight for lovers of Billy Wilder; nobody ever made (innocent) dirty jokes seem so funny. 1
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Kiss Me, Stupid Blu-ray rates:
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly?
No; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 9, 2015
1. An informative note from correspondent 'B', 2.11.15:
Dear Glenn: While I, of course, also find Kiss Me, Stupid fascinating and also can't account for how or why the Shurlock office didn't send UA & Mirisch a STOP -- DO NOT PROCEED wire before production even began, I have a few notes.
Since you reference (and describe) Martin's long-running NBC variety show, it's perhaps worth noting that The Dean Martin Show did not premiere until the fall of 1965 -- after the disastrous, abortive theatrical run of Kiss Me, Stupid had been completed. Kiss, by the way, is often cited as a 1965 release, but it is in fact a bona-fide 1964 release, having opened in New York just before Christmas in '64. The editorial changes had been made, and the picture was already being handled by Lopert, per the film's New York Times review.
You describe the songs as "by Ira Gershwin," but they are actually by George and Ira Gershwin -- all three melodies came out of the files of unpublished, unused Gershwin material. "Sophia" was apparently an active collaboration between George and Ira and came directly from the trunk; the lyrics for the other two songs may well have have been penned for the movie by Ira. André Previn did a fine job on the score for the film; it adds a nice soulfulness to the picture. The work of Trauner and LaShelle is also tops.
I've often speculated that the script was never really completed before shooting (not uncommon for Wilder & Diamond), and whatever material was submitted to Shurlock had little resemblance to the film that was shot.
I like this picture. I wish it had a slightly lighter touch and moved a bit more fleetly, but I do like it. While I applaud MGM deciding to make Wilder's original version the definitive one, it seems well, insane for Olive not to include the U.S. theatrical ending as an extra. The package also gives Walston billing over Novak, which is unimaginably foolish. Best, Always. -- B.
Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson
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