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Kiss Me, Stupid

Kiss Me, Stupid
MGM Home Entertainment
1964 / B&W / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 114 min. / Street Date July 15 2003 / 19.98
Starring Dean Martin, Kim Novak, Ray Walston, Felicia Farr, Cliff Osmond, Doro Merande, Tommy Nolan, Mel Blanc
Cinematography Joseph La Shelle
Production Designer Alexander Trauner
Art Direction Robert Luthardt
Film Editor Daniel Mandell
Original Music André Previn
Written by I.A.L. Diamond, Billy Wilder from a play by Anna Bonacci
Produced and Directed by Billy Wilder

Also available in The Billy Wilder Collection Boxed set (129.96), with The Apartment, Avanti!, The Fortune Cookie, Irma La Douce, One Two Three, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Some Like it Hot and Witness for the Prosecution.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The Hollywood production code fell apart in the 1960s. Racy independent films and foreign imports made Hollywood look tame, and a number of studio pictures bucked the system, looking for loopholes in the rules. Serious efforts like Sidney Lumet's The Pawnbroker for instance, 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've read a number of new DVD 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 makes sure that all the blue humor has a point, and viewers sufficiently open-minded to get past the non-P.C. attitudes will see some wry truths about marriage in the picture's somewhat cynical message.


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. Dino is one of those womanizing Rat-Pack hedonists that can take any attractive woman they meet, so the pathologically jealous Orville is terrified to let him near his cute wife Zelda (Felicia Farr). But Barney has the solution: Orville has to pick a fight with Zelda to get her out of the house ... allowing 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 him their songs ...

The key to what came to be known as the Hollywood Sex Farce was keeping the censors thinking Comedy instead of Smut. Shirley MacLaine and Debbie Reynolds come to mind, but wholesome Doris Day was the queen of repressed double-entendre. She'd do 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. Marilyn Monroe threw The Seven-Year Itch so far out of balance that her character couldn't do any of the things that happened in the source play. For the film, all the hot content had to be converted into fantasy material.

Kiss Me, Stupid plays the same sexus-interruptus game, but only so far: everybody really does end up in bed, and the script finds a higher value in adultery unseen in Hollywood films since the pre-code days of Trouble in Paradise.

How Kiss Me, Stupid wasn't curbed by the production office before it was shot is the biggest mystery here - either films were no longer routinely submitted for pre-approval, or Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond sent the censors a fake script as a decoy! 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 in 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!"

Then we have the bizarre phenomenon known as Dean Martin, whose fairly impressive acting career had degenerated into cheap comedies and the trashiest of spy spoofs, the Matt Helm movies (rumored coming for DVD). Martin was at the time best known for his variety show where he came on every Thursday night looking totally smashed, a walking, singing liquor ad. All he did was sip drinks while slurring jokes about booze and sex and his Rat Pack buddies, who made frequent guest visits.

The 'Dino' in Wilder's film is basically 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, but we have to credit Martin, who never revealed a different guy behind his boozy stud front, 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, leering at her chest and derriere for seconds at a time. He couldn't make the jokes dirtier if he had his hands in his pants while saying them. The sex jokes are technically tame by today's standards, but in 1965, Kiss Me, Stupid was incredibly raunchy.

The big sex comedies usually starred comedians who were less than virile, like Tom Ewell, Bob Hope, and Terry-Thomas. They always had innocent intentions behind their bedroom fantasies. Kiss Me, Stupid's heroes, 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 ... his counterpart in the 'safe' sex comedies was Gig Young or Tony Randall.

Kim Novak had done Doris Day-like pictures (Boy's Night Out) that played with promiscuity while staying squeaky-clean. Neither a particularly accomplished comedienne, nor a type one brings home to Mother, Novak didn't have Day's Good Housekeeping smile to defuse the direct appeal of her body. Wilder gives her a bad cold to try and make her funnier, with little effect.

Put all these unsavory characters together in a broad comedy with real dirty jokes instead of the infantile, smirking evasions of pictures like 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:

Dino, telling why he has to get out of Vegas and away from the demanding showgirls, says that if he stayed, "They'd have to carry me out in a box - a cigar box!"

Walston, showing Novak his little house: "It's not large, but it's clean." Novak: "What is?"

Dino: "Why does your husband call you Lambchop?" Novak: "Because sometimes I wear paper panties."

Novak crawls on the floor to retrieve a jewel from her navel. Novak's parrot likes to say, 'Bang Bang', feeding Dino at least one good setup line. Walston touts his 'wife' Novak to Dino like a creep character from a Playboy Ribald Fairy Tale.

There are plenty of other great jokes, and not just verbal ones. Looney Tunes voice artist Mel Blanc plays a dentist who can't stop laughing. Frustrated piano teacher Orville's uncontrollable jealousy attacks 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 Walston'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 namby-pamby church types that darken Orville's doorstep are balanced by the excruciatingly un-sexy waitresses at the raunchy roadhouse. Polly the Pistol's trailer is the mirror opposite of housewife Zelda's happy home - the film has the gall to equate whore with housewife, at least as far as sexual desires go. Polly and Zelda change places as if they were in a revolving door. And Wilder and Diamond carry the farce to its logical - not cynical - end. Hooker and wife reassert their roles by swapping material goods: cash earned for a wedding ring borrowed.

The formal balance didn't charm the censors. The film was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency and UA chose to give it a stealth release under their artsy Lopert banner. The release wasn't a wide one, and Wilder had to chalk it up as a flop.

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. It's all in one shot, and totally belongs to the fall-down funny Doro Merande, the nudist health-food waitress from 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 has an hilarious delivery style that's hard to describe: "And he married Glady Bukich - uhh! I could have cried - uhh!" In theater screenings of Kiss Me, Stupid, crowds go crazy with laughter. If you have no intention of buying this disc, consider renting or borrowing it.

MGM's DVD of Kiss Me, Stupid is a definite improvement over the old laser disc. The enhanced picture brings out more detail in the classic gray-on-gray B&W photography, and the show looks great on a large monitor. For extras there's an original trailer and an original animated teaser trailer, neither of which keeps the show from looking like boozy smut.

The newsworthy extra is misleadingly listed as an 'alternate scene' with no further explanation offered. Kiss Me, Stupid's MPAA production seal was withheld until Wilder re-shot the end of the encounter between Dino and Zelda in Polly's trailer. The disc's 'alternate scene' is actually what's been seen in the film for the last 38 years. (spoiler) Dino's back injury flares up, and it looks like 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 and happily stretches nude under her bedsheets ... and Dino drives off humming and headache-free. So we assume they made it anyway. Wilder movies are so densely written, nothing can be changed without serious structural damage.

The change was also sexist. (still a spoiler) By making Wilder re-shoot only the wife's adulterous liaison, the MPAA sent the message that Mr. Spooner, who was still seen bedding down with Polly, could stray but his wife could not.

(last spoiler) The original version of the scene has a string of alternate jokes but leaves no doubt that Zelda and Dino get together: they fade out in a definitive clinch. MGM archivist John Kirk found this abandoned piece of film, seen only in some foreign markets, shortly before Billy Wilder died last year. The director's wife Audrey confirmed that her husband preferred the uncensored one, so John swapped it out in the printing negatives. Henceforth, the little-seen original sequence will be the official one, and the compromised MPAA version, will be the alternate left on the shelf.

Kiss Me, Stupid is perhaps Wilder's last classic comedy. Being a direct lampoon of pop culture, there are an inordinate number of movie references and 'echoed' jokes from his earlier work, like the grapefruit gag. Spectacularly vulgar and shocking in its day, it'll seem less scandalous now, when even family comedies consist of witless sex jokes and bodily function jokes, complete with full visuals and explicit dialogue. But nobody ever made misbehavior as funny as Billy Wilder, and Kiss Me, Stupid is a delight for lovers of his talent.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Kiss Me, Stupid rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: 'alternate scene' (actually the old scene, see above); trailer, teaser
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 15, 2003


1. The big behind-the-scenes story of Kiss Me, Stupid is the fact that Wilder shot for a couple of weeks with star Peter Sellers, who was so unhappy with the role and Wilder's style, that he worried himself into a heart attack and had to back out. Critics frequently criticized Walston as insufficiently charismatic to defuse the story's smut factor. Besides falling into the trap of thinking that Kiss Me, Stupid was meant to be just another sexless Hollywood Sex Comedy, the critics implied that Sellers' charm would have transformed the film to sweetness and light. Picturing Sellers in the role (which wasn't materially altered after he left) makes him seem much less appropriate than Walston. He would have had to concoct some oddball accent, as he did in Lolita. I think Ray Walston, with his 'ordinary schlub' quality, is superb. Walston was mostly wasted in movies, and this show finally gave him his big chance. It's a shame Walston was given the blame, when he did such good work.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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