Some friends of mine sometimes play a "where would you go if you could time travel" game, and of course there are the standard Big Ones that many people mention: Jesus' time, the Revolutionary War, the night Lincoln was shot, and on and on. I have several of those, too, of course, but there are a few Little Ones that I would have loved to have experienced, and chief among those would have been a visit to the famed Writers' Room of Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows. Could you imagine the witty repartee flying around a room which contained the likes of Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart and Neil Simon? If Brooks was the ADHD wacky "teen" of the group, and Allen the neurotic shlub, Gelbart and Simon probably were the more reasoned adults, usually crafting comedy out of character. There's probably no finer moment in Simon's writing career than The Odd Couple, a piece that has entered the public consciousness as perhaps no other 20th century comedy has. Are there more than a handful of people who can't recount the basics of neatoholic Felix and slovenly Oscar who share an apartment in the throes of their divorces?
There is some argument as to how Simon got his inspiration for this deliciously simple, yet surprisingly emotional, setup. Some say it came from seeing his brother Danny (another of Caesar's writers, and one who evidently tried to write The Odd Couple himself, ultimately handing it off to his brother) share an apartment with another guy after his divorce. Other sources point to a similar arrangement involving Mel Brooks who, perhaps surprisingly, was evidently the "Felix" of his shared living situation. However the play and subsequent film came to be is probably irrelevant, but the feel for character is what sets Simon's writing apart from mere joke-meisters, and that feel is absolutely pitch perfect throughout The Odd Couple.
It's not just the two main characters, fussbudget Felix Ungar, the sort of anal-retentive chef and housekeeper that Phil Hartman would parody so effectively decades later on Saturday Night Live, and sports writer Oscar Madison, a guy so laissez faire about his personal hygiene and living space that green sandwiches are either "very new cheese or very old meat." Simon also perfectly crafts the supporting players, sometimes in just a line or two, so that you instantly have a gut reaction to Oscar's poker buddies, like timid Vinnie (John Fiedler), always mentioning how he needs to be getting home to his wife, or lovably dimwitted cop Murray (Herb Edelman), a kindhearted if dumbfounded soul who stumbles over even simple tasks like dealing cards. Then there are the great Pigeon Sisters, Gwendolyn and Cecily (or is that Cecily and Gwendolyn?), a sort of distaff Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who wander into the proceedings and provide gist for the climax. These giggly, slightly naughty women (played brilliantly by Carole Shelley and Monica Evans) manage to capture both the awkwardness and flirtatious quality of singles reaching out to strangers in the Manhattan jungle, again due to Simon's inerrant ear for dialogue and mannerisms.
The play version of The Odd Couple starred Art Carney as Felix and Walter Matthau as Oscar. Unbelievable as it may sound, according to Chris Lemmon and Charlie Matthau in their fun anecdotal commentary, the film version was originally slated to star Frank Sinatra and Jackie Gleason. I'll let you imagine who would have played whom in this version, but it ultimately would have spelled disaster one way or the other. Evidently Matthau approached Howard Koch, the producer and then one of the head honchos at Paramount, and asked him if he wanted to be the person remembered for ruining The Odd Couple, even then a prized property. That evidently knocked some sense into Koch, and Lemmon and Matthau, who had worked so brilliantly together in Wilder's The Fortune Cookie a couple of years previously (with Matthau picking up an Oscar, no pun intended), were soon signed.
Matthau obviously had inhabited Oscar's slovenly soul for years before the film and he has the part down pat. Shuffling through a debris laden apartment, Matthau simply exudes dishevelment, clothes stained with multitudes of foodstuffs and hair stuffed under a filthy baseball cap. Lemmon, who was often associated with persnickety tic-filled characters, finds the central wounded core of Felix, which only helps make him more comedically annoying. The two actors obviously loved playing off of each other, and that banter is nowhere more fully realized than in The Odd Couple.
The play version was confined entirely to Oscar's apartment, but film director Gene Saks wisely, if minimally, opens up the proceedings, providing a darkly humorous prelude of Felix attempting suicide in a rundown dive hotel, and then occasionally getting the actors out of the confines of Oscar's four walls. There's an especially funny scene at Shea Stadium (featuring a cameo by Heywood Hale Broun), where Felix's phone call about menu choices causes Oscar to miss a triple play. Even without these opening up gambits, though, Saks makes the most of the cramped quarters that make up the bulk of the film. One very funny tracking shot has the camera chasing after the poker players as the rush to see if Felix is attempting suicide in Oscar's bathroom. Little moments like that help to break up the "stage bound" static feel that many play adaptations suffer when they're transferred to celluloid.
Chief among the pleasures of this film version is Neal Hefti's bouncy theme, which recurs throughout the movie in various guises. It's interesting to compare this composition with Hefti's similarly constructed theme for television's Batman; both are built upon simple riffs emanating from basic I and IV chords, but Hefti's genius is such that the two are as different as night and day. The Odd Couple's theme became a modest hit in its own right (it even has a lyric by Sammy Cahn which, perhaps frighteningly, I can recite to you even to this day) and of course went on to grace the long running television version. For you connoisseurs of film trivia, the original Dot soundtrack recording actually alternated music cues with dialogue from the film, a testament to Simon's comedic genius.
The Odd Couple does manage to make a few, a very few, missteps along the way, chiefly in the wrap up, when Felix and Oscar come to near blows and Felix moves out. The little scene at the end of the film feels forced and unnatural, especially after all that's come before it, with Felix's wind up soliloquoy when he thinks Murray is talking on the phone to his wife, feeling especially false. But these moments are few and far between, and the film, fully 40 plus years on from its creation, feels as fresh and funny as the day it was released.