The Shape of Walter

FEBRUARY IS BILLY WILDER MONTH

Released a year after the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Bill, Billy Wilder’s scathing 1966 classic THE FORTUNE COOKIE, skewering American class structure, race relations and the cultural “art of the steal” arrives in a dynamite limited edition Blu-Ray from the goniffs at Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Entertainment/MGM Studios.

This was a late watershed movie for Wilder and Co., reuniting the writer-director with arguably his favorite star, Jack Lemmon; it also introduced popular Walter Matthau (whose personal fortune cookie this comedy was) to the Billy Universe.  The pic also proved an admirable comeback from the lambasting Wilder had unfairly endured from his previous work, Kiss Me, Stupid; THE FORTUNE COOKIE was a critical and box-office success.

The story, in brief, concerns hapless, likeable middle-aged schlump Harry Hinkle (Lemmon), an (up-till-now) honest cameraman for CBS, who, during a televised football game, gets a milder version of what Jimmy Stewart got in Rear Window.  Instead of a race car ruining his shot and injuring the photog, Hinkle is tackled and flipped by Luther “Boom-Boom” Jackson, a lauded black athlete, whose guilt and concern for crippling the videographer slam dunks his rising star.

But Hinkle’s only dazed and confused, resting in a local hospital for the night – until visited by unscrupulous brother-in-law, shyster ambulance-chasing attorney “Whiplash Willie” Gingrich.  Gingrich, discovering that Hinkle has a permanent twist in his spine due to a childhood accident, parlays the painless disfigurement into a million dollar lawsuit against the football team, the stadium, and the television network.  Harry, a lovesick sad sack, still pining for his sleazy ex, Sandy (who ran off with a lowlife musician), is coerced into the scam after a renewal of their vows (she, too, sees the dollar signs, and knowing Gingrich is involved, dumps the dump she dumped Harry for) is dangled in his puss like catnip is…well, dangled to a puss.

How it all plays out is Wilder at his best, turning a rogue’s gallery of reprehensible characters into specimens we concurrently cheer and jeer.  Suffice to say, everyone gets what’s coming to them – sort of.

The situations and dialog (as constructed and composed by Billy and Iz Diamond) is like one of those Swiss watches you’ve always heard about.  The timing is impeccable; Matthau’s Gingrich slamming Lemmon’s reluctant Hinkle for not reaching for a silver platter (while extending a bedpan) will bowel you over.  Ditto, his roller-skating spawn, careening through the hospital corridors, asking Daddy to put some coins in a donation box (“Unwed Mothers,” reads Gingrich, “Well, I’m for that!”  He later pilfers the contents for change to make a telephone call).  Gingrich, who’s smarter than his 1% elite opposing lawyers, plays them like a fiddle, which also a joy to behold.

The cast is first-rate, one of Wilder’s greatest, and, aside from the two leads (in their initial teaming together), features Ron Rich (as the sympathetic quarterback), Les Treymayne, Kiss Me, Stupid’s Cliff Osmond (as a private eye determined to get the goods on Willie), Lurene Tuttle, Harry Holcombe, Noam Pitlik, Ann Shoemaker, Archie Moore, Howard McNear, Judy Pace, Robert DoQui, Helen Kleeb, the wonderful Sig Ruman (in his next-to-last role as a sadistic old-school surgeon yearning for the “snake pit” days), and John Anderson.  A special nod must be given to Judi West (in her big-screen debut) as Sandy; the actress’s interpretation of the harpy, money-grubbing spouse is the skankiest female ever to prowl WilderWorld since Jan Sterling in Ace in the Hole.  Billy also has the audacity to cast Herbie Faye AND Ned Glass in the same movie!  What chutzpah!

When I called this flick Walter Matthau’s fortune cookie, I wasn’t kidding.  On TV, in the movies, on stage and radio for over fifteen years, Matthau’s COOKIE turn allowed the reliable character actor to zoom to the top of the Hollywood A-list; he was suddenly a star (and more or less remained there until his passing on July 1, 2000).  Icing on the cake, his portrayal of “Whiplash Willie” won him his only Oscar, for Best Supporting Actor.

The best of all the Wilder-Lemmon-Matthau teamings, THE FORTUNE COOKIE is doubly astounding in its progressive approach to mid-twentieth century mores.  Often credited with directing every Lemmon-Matthau pic, Billy Wilder only actually helmed three (the other two being The Front Page and Buddy, Buddy).  He was offered The Odd Couple, which he wisely turned down, due to his penchant for revising scripts from other sources; FUN FACT:  many movie buffs still believe Wilder directed the 1968 Neil Simon screen adaptation (it was Gene Saks).

The Twilight Time Blu-Ray of THE FORTUNE COOKIE is aces.  It looks just terrific, perfectly showcasing the beautiful black-and-white/Panavision photography of Joseph LaShelle.  An excellent score by Andre Previn is also accessible as an IST, which includes the song, “So Nice to Come Home To,” quite a sarcastic choice considering the narrative.  The only complaint, and it’s slight, is the audio, which I noticed occasionally goes minutely out of synch, but then pops back in perfect unison.  Again, this is so slight that I was the only one to catch it.  Don’t let it dissuade you from adding this Sixties gem to your collection (remember, it’s a limited edition, so, when it’s gone…that’s it, buddy!).

As indicated earlier, THE FORTUNE COOKIE canceled out the Kiss Me, Stupid debacle, and in many ways.  While the Wilder/Peter Sellers relationship was hate at first sight, the director’s bonding with Matthau was instant delight; yet, there was one tense similarity. Midway through the production, the veteran actor (as Sellers had on Stupid) suffered a massive heart-attack. This was getting to be a habit that Billy didn’t like.  The picture remained on-hold for several weeks until Matthau was given the green light to return to filming.  When Matthau returned, he was thirty pounds lighter, a visual contrast Wilder addressed by having the actor wear a heavy black overcoat for the rest of the shoot (this would be the first of three heart-attacks Matthau would endure, the final one being fatal); furthermore, a seemingly unending series of accidents and mishaps appeared to be periodically confined to Wilder productions.  In 1981, during the filming of Buddy, Buddy, Matthau took a calamitous fall down a flight of stairs, smashing his collar bone.  A frantic, concerned Lemmon ran to his friend, pillow in hand, placing it under his head until EMS arrived. “Are you comfortable?” he tearfully asked. Matthau stared mournfully at his costar and Wilder, shrugged and replied “I make a living.”  Billy beamed at this perfect response that thoroughly validated how fifteen years previous, on the set of THE FORTUNE COOKIE, an exclusive professional love affair with Lemmon expanded into a threesome.

THE FORTUNE COOKIE.  Black and white. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios.  CAT # TTFORTUNECOOKIE.  SRP: $29.95.

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Wife Swap

FEBRUARY IS BILLY WILDER MONTH

Perhaps the most problematic and controversial movie in Billy Wilder’s filmography, 1964’s KISS ME, STUPID lap-dances its way into our…hearts via a terrific looking no frills Blu-Ray from the gang at Olive Films/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios.

An uphill battle on and off the camera, KISS ME, STUPID began as a daring project for the then seemingly unstoppable Wilder.  Following the surprise 1963 blockbuster smash Irma La Douce (Wilder’s greatest box-office hit to that point), STUPID was designed to take “screen taboo” to new heights.

Using the D.W. Griffith cinematic theory of various stories converging like streams into a river, KMS tells the tale of two under-achievers in the small hamlet of Climax, NV.  Orville Spooner is a genius musician reduced to giving piano lessons and playing the organ for the church choir to make ends meet; Barney runs a gas station so “feh” that truckers literally only stop there to have their cigarette lighters filled.  Orville’s and Barney’s one fantasy escape route is songwriting – hoping to interest a major star to turn one of their ditties into another “Moon River.”  Spooner’s personal triumph is his marriage to Zelda, a smart, witty woman who also happens to be the most beautiful female in the vicinity.  And there’s the rub.  Orville’s a jealous lunatic when it comes to Zelda, suspicious of every male within walking distance, even his teenage, pimply student Johnny (Tommy Nolan), who he terrifies out of the house.  What a schmuck.  So much for dreams and happiness.

Concurrent to the above is the unscheduled arrival of Dino, an American superstar en route from Vegas to Hollywood (coproducer Dean Martin, in a hilarious and devastating parody of his image) to make a movie with the Pack.  How fortuitous for Dino’s car to break down in Climax.  Or did it?  SPOILER ALERT: Barney actually tinkered with the vehicle to assure the entertainer remain in the burg for at least 24 hours – long enough to hear at least 300 of the team’s unending trunk of “can’t miss” tunes.  And here’s the second rub:  Dino’s a notorious womanizer, always on the prowl for some “action.”  Ergo, Plotline # 3.  Have him stay with the Spooners, and hook up with the beauteous Zelda for a night of passion, then guilt him into taking at least one song (hopefully, their Italian ballad, “Sophia”).  Of course, Orville is outraged, but Barn has that taken care of too.  Get Z out of the house, go to the local brothel/bar, hire their best babe, have her pose as Mrs. Spooner and bingo, “That’s Amore!”

Narrative # 4.  Enter Polly the Pistol, the Belly Button’s hottest number, who yearns for Hollywood herself, having been abandoned by her ex-lover years ago, and now is reduced to turning tricks.

After successfully starting a fight with Zelda (who first retreats to her racist parents’ home, then to the Belly Button to get sloshed), Orville introduces Polly to her new digs, replete with Wilder wit (“It’s small, but it’s clean,” he boasts to a wary Polly, who uncomfortably asks “What is?” not realizing he’s referring to the accommodations).

Natch, Dino’s interested, but there’s a…dare we say…fly in the ointment.  Orville, being protective of his wife (even a phony one), is taken over by his jealousy forcing Dino to flee for his life, ending up at the BB and Polly’s trailer, where a now-near passed out Zelda hopes to sleep it off.

Suffice to say (with the scenario’s many participants ignorant of what transpired where, when and how), everything turns out aces.

Unfortunately, that’s not how the production unspooled.  Originally, the pic began on a super high note. The cast was A-list perfect; in addition to Dino, Polly was handed to Kim Novak (one of her best performances) and Zelda to the underrated Felicia Farr.  Wilder immediately bonded with the first two thesps; Farr was already like one of the family, being married to Wilder pal and frequent costar Jack Lemmon.  Orville, however, was the greatest coup of all – offered to and accepted by the then top box-office attraction in the world, Peter Sellers (cresting the wave of Lolita, The Pink Panther and Dr. Strangelove).  Alas, it was hate at first site.  Sellers, fully playing the primadonna, made ridiculous demands, acted like a spoiled brat (audibly remarking that he was incapable of taking direction from the multiple Oscar winner), and did the unthinkable on a Wilder pic – he threatened to dick with the dialog.  It all came to a head on April 6, 1964, when the star suffered a massive near-fatal heart attack (Wilder immediately told the press not to worry as one cannot have a heart attack if one lacks the appropriate cardiac muscle).  It was the perfect out for all concerned.  This left the lead male role unfilled.  Wilder, whose credo was to NEVER work with someone guaranteed to stress you out (the reason he and Sinatra couldn’t come to terms for Some Like it Hot, which, in an embryonic stage, was to costar Old Blue Eyes and Dean), needed someone whom he trusted, could easily work with and who could get to the soundstage pronto.  He loved working with Ray Walston in The Apartment (Walston was known throughout the industry as one of the nicest guys in the biz), so he wired the versatile actor.  Walston arrived ASAP, and, is actually quite wonderful in the part; yet, as good as Ray Walston is – he’s no Peter Sellers, and the trifecta of star power becomes seriously unbalanced.  Insult to injury:  Wilder, in reviewing the Sellers footage, cursed the actor, admitting that the rushes encompassed some of the best stuff he’d ever shot – forever to be tossed into the writer-director’s library of My Greatest Never To Be Seen Material, incorporating the original ending to Double Indemnity, the opening to Sunset Boulevard and lengthy sidebars to The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (only bits of excised footage from Holmes eventually surfaced, some of it sadly sans audio).

United Artists, who was partnered with Wilder, had reservations about the previous pic, Irma La Douce, a wacky comedy also about prostitution and jealousy.  They seriously thought about releasing it under their ancillary “art house” company, Lopert Pictures (also used to distribute pics they were frankly ashamed of).  They didn’t and basked in the glow of Irma’s favorable reception, but nevertheless, up until the eleventh hour, the studio considered not releasing KMS under the UA banner.  Eventually, they did, but, this time wished they hadn’t.  KISS ME, STUPID was lambasted by U.S. critics, and received some of the worst reviews in Wilder’s career.  That said, in Europe, the movie was considered a modern masterpiece, but the damage was done (Sellers’ bad mouthing the experience in a volatile interview with Alexander Walker didn’t help).  KISS ME, STUPID died a quick death.

The good news is that in the half-century-plus since, the movie has been re-evaluated for its unflinching cultural throttling of Kennedy-Johnson era American hypocrisy.  It has consistently climbed its way up the Wilder pantheon, surpassing Irma La Douce, Avanti!, and others.  And so it should (the supporting cast alone is worth the purchase, and features Cliff Osmond as Barney, Doro Merande and Howard McNear as Zelda’s scumbag folks, Barbara Pepper as the Belly Button’s Madam, Bobo Lewis as one of da goils, and Henry Beckman, Skip Ward, Alice Peace. Cliff Norton, Henry Gibson, plus Mel Blanc as the local dentist, Dr. Sheldrake – also on Orville’s radar regarding his wife – AND as the voice of a talking bird).

Aside from dagger-like dialog by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond (from a play by Anna Bonacci), the movie looks sensational, in black and white and Panavision, courtesy of Billy’s favorite d.p. Joseph LaShelle.  The original music score by Andre Previn is another asset, as are the show’s sprinkling of tunes (not composed by Orville and Barney, but from the songbook of George and Ira Gershwin).  Granted, there is a sordid nastiness about the flick, but that’s often Billy at his peak (his writing do’s and don’ts physically included a banner over his office, brazenly stating “If she’s not a whore, she’s a bore!”).

When I first heard that KISS ME, STUPID was getting the Blu-Ray treatment, I salivated at the prospect of it comprising at least some of the Sellers material as a supplement.  While this is not the case (the only extra is the trailer, which does contain a bit not in the final cut), the pristine 1080p transfer is A-1, and definitely needs a home in any collector’s Wilder (or Dino, or Novak) library.

KISS ME, STUPID.  Black and white. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition); 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Olive Films/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios.  CAT # OF912.  SRP: $29.95.

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Maedchen ‘n’ Uniforms

FEBRUARY IS BILLY WILDER MONTH

If their parents were movie lovers, any Boomer’ll tell you that A FOREIGN AFFAIR, Billy Wilder’s rollicking 1948 look at the postwar experience in Berlin, was a title often bandied about the house as one of the greatest pics ever!  I know it was at Casa Neuhaus (and from the lips of my folks’ friends as well).  It is a very progressive movie, and certainly an adult one; it showed that American cinema was growing up, and that the then-fourteen-year-old Production Code better get ready to be shaken to its gills.  Oh, BTW, a fantastic new Blu-Ray, from Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Pictures is now available for Golden Hollywood fans’ viewing pleasure.

The movie was a personal one for director/cowriter Wilder, who cowrote the script with his usual partner Charles Brackett, plus Richard Breen’s additional assist (adaptation by Robert Harari, from a story by David Shaw).  Wilder, who was able to follow his dreams to Hollywood, desperately tried to get his parents out of Germany.  The up-and-coming writer-director used his influence, but was stymied by his own mother and father, who refused to believe the rumors of death camps, and chose to stay in their homeland (both perished).  Wilder was going to pull no punches in his uncovering the hypocrisy on both sides of the fence.  True, the former Nazis were starving and suffering (yay!), but so were the innocents, and the Occupation countries (America, the UK, France, the Soviet Union) took full advantage of the situation, via a thriving Black Market, financially and sexually.  And that was the crux of A FOREIGN AFFAIR.  To add realism to the proceedings, Wilder received permission from the government to actually film much of the movie on-location (a rarity in 1947, when production began), and the footage is devastating.  Paramount not only rolled out reams of publicity from this fact, but also used excess footage to pad other pics, like Sealed Verdict, which dealt with the still on-going Nuremberg Trials.

Of course, maybe Billy Wilder wasn’t the only one who would find such American pluck treachery funny, but he was certainly the only one (at the time) who could make it funny.  And he did.

Flying from the United States to post-war-torn Berlin is yet another of a seemingly neverending gaggle of righteous American congressmen and women.  Among the most prim and proper of the bunch is the suitably christened Phoebe Frost, representing the great state of Iowa.  Bespectacled, humorless, hair pinned up and looking like every librarian who ever “shushed” frightened youngsters, Frost is rabid for blood.  Anybody’s.  The determined woman is out to check up on American morale in the less than convivial surroundings.  What she finds is astonishing.  Giggling frauleins wheeling baby carriages with American flags; basically, people getting rich and getting laid at remarkable rates (or as wise Colonel Rufus J. Plummer puts it “parlaying a pack of cigarettes into something more than twenty smokes”).  It would be a mild understatement to say that Pheobe’s shocked, but that merely this iceberg’s tip.  Congresswoman Frost is carrying a birthday cake parcel for one of her constituents, Captain John Pringle.  Problem is Pringle is the Bilko of the Black Market network, having his hand in everyone’s pie – but mostly in that of (literally) the beauteous Erika von Schluetow, a chanteuse with a shady past.   How Pringle attempts veer Frost off von Schleutow (by trying and achieving a melt faster than the current glaciers in Alaska), and ends up falling for her himself (but still reluctant to give up Erika) evolves into a mad melee of double entendres, romantic adventure, hilarious situations and even suspense (fleshing out a vengeful ex-Nazi, aspiring to reclaim Erika and to revive the Reich).

The cast is flawless, led by the great Jean Arthur as Phoebe; this could be her finest performance (the sequence where she meticulously packs up an attaché case in one take should have won her an Oscar!).  As Pringle, the underrated John Lund likewise gets his finest role; a gifted light comedian, the leading man was usually handed one-dimensional, stiff no-brainer roles (catch him in Miss Tatlock’s Millions, he’s also wonderful in that).  Best of all for movie goddess buffs, is Erika von Schluetow – well, Marlene Dietrich, who, along with this triumph (and the previous year’s Golden Earrings, another Boomer Procreator fave) cemented her status as a permanent A-lister, never again to be tainted with the tag “box-office poison.”  Dietrich being so Marlene effortlessly releases a barrage of “oh, no she dint!” snaps on Arthur’s character.  She also gets to sing several songs, which became standards for her in the entertainer’s subsequent career as a mega-successful nightclub performer.  “Black Market,” “Illusions,” and “The Ruins of Berlin,” all written for her by pal Friedrich Hollaender (who also composed the lovely score, and, with Wilder, became part of the pic’s Bavarian kaffeeklatsch – and is seen on-screen as von Schluetows’ accompanist in the notorious dive she sings in).

There are so many fantastic moments in A FOREIGN AFFAIR that it’s hard to pick the best; however, I’d say my favorite is the sequence where Pringle vainly tries to play down von Schluetow’s participation in the Third Reich “A few minor Nazis,” offers the Captain to Frost, regarding the scandalous woman’s old acquaintances – a claim totally kiboshed by simultaneously screened captured grainy newsreel footage showing Dietrich’s Erika cavorting with Hitler.

Much of the joy of this movie is due to the first-rate supporting cast surrounding the three leads.  Millard Mitchell is key as the sarcastic Plummer, with Gordon Jones, Stanley Prager, William Murphy, Peter von Zerneck, Damian O’Flynn, Freddie Steele, Henry Kulky, Harry Lauter, Paul Panzer and Edward van Sloan trailing behind.

You couldn’t ask for a better Blu-Ray 1080p transfer of A FOREIGN AFFAIR (Jeez, those awful 1960’s 16MM MCA prints!), sparkling in 35MM with beautiful contrast (only intermittent slight emulsion scratches occasionally mar the B-D viewing journey, but it’s a small price to pay) finally doing justice to the grand monochrome cinematography Charles Lang.  There’s also the original theatrical trailer (as well as a gallery of other Wilder movies available from K-L), and audio commentary by the excellent Joseph McBride.

My only bittersweet comment on this release is that my parents aren’t around to enjoy this edition.  I close my eyes, and can practically hear their contagious laughter filling our old Washington Heights apartment.  And now I’m smiling.

A FOREIGN AFFAIR.  Black and White; Full frame [1.37: 1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Pictures.  CAT # K23894.  SRP: $29.95.

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Girl’s Fare in Love and War

FEBRUARY IS BILLY WILDER MONTH

I’m giving myself a birthday present this year by making February Billy Wilder Month.  Wilder, one of my favorite writers and directors, has recently had much of his work remastered and restored from a variety of distributors, via the Blu-Ray format.  Chronologically, it’s appropriate that we begin with Billy’s first directorial effort, the sparkling, risqué and downright hilarious 1942 comedy THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR, now in a terrific 1080p transfer from the folks at Arrow Films/MVDvisual/Universal Pictures.

Wilder hit the ground running with this in-your-face Production Code buster (too clever for the right wingers on the Board to grasp) concerning wartime probs on the homefront.  Aside from one of the greatest titles of all-time, MatM shines with the Viennese émigré’s already trademark dagger-sharp wit (from his script with Charles Brackett; suggested from a play by Edward Childs Carpenter and a story by Fannie Kilbourne) concerning a gorgeous small-town woman’s breaking point with being pinched, compromised, rubbed up against, and otherwise sexually harassed in 1941 Manhattan.

Susan Applegate, a smart and sassy Midwesterner, vowed that if (over an allotted period of time) New York City to be a disaster area, she would return to her tiny hamlet and marry the goofball next door.  To this end, she has set aside return trip train fare.  Her final encounter (she’s an in-call hair egg shampoo and scalp massager) with a lecherous one-percenter in his apartment while the wife’s away is the last straw.  Mushing him in the puss (along with the pimply elevator operator), Applegate makes a beeline toward Grand Central, only to discover the rail fare has gone up.  Thinking fast, she retreats to the ladies room, loses the makeup, and re-emerges as a 12-year-old – hoping to take advantage of the half-price for adolescents.

The train ride, too, is a harrowing experience, as Susan (now-SuSu), is watched by suspicious conductors.  Countering inquiries about her height by explaining she’s from Swedish stock, Applegate is asked to recite something in her Scandinavian tongue.  “I vant to be alone!” is her response that only further irritates the train crew but guarantees to rupture any and all viewers with laughter.

Escaping into what she perceives to be an empty compartment, the grown woman ends up spending the night with a kindly, understanding young major en route to his post at a teen military academy.

That’s where this riotous farce really begins although it’s a never-ending hoot from beginning to end.

Certainly the cast makes it and Wilder couldn’t have asked for a better leading lady than Ginger Rogers, here at her post-Astaire peak.  Rogers’ timing is impeccable and she and the director got on famously.  Ray Milland, as the perplexed and conflicted major, chalks up another comic coup in his still-evolving career (he had previously scored in two scripted Wilder outings, Arise, My Love and uncredited assist on French without Tears).  Two other key members of the roster include the vastly underrated Diana Lynn as the genius science-obsessed teenage sister of skanky Rita Johnson, the waspy fiancée of Milland’s Major Philip Kirby – supposedly supporting his desire to get into the fight, but, in reality scheming with her D.C. contacts to keep him out of the fray (not cool in 1942).  Bringing up the rear (so to speak) is the great Robert Benchley as the horndog Big Apple predator, whose son is a cadet at the academy (and every bit a creep as his dad).   There’s also Tom Dugan, Norma Varden, Charles Smith, Frankie Thomas, Aldrich Bowker, Blossom Rock, Stanley Andrews, Mary Field, Dell Henderson, Milton Kibbee and Will Wright.

The gags are fast and furious, both visually and verbally.  A Veronica Lake snipe still bowls me over (Wilder harbored a particular distaste for the actress, referring to her as “Moronica Lake”).  And the dialog is consistently Wilder-wild, fresh and brilliantly funny.

 

SIDEBAR 1: the aforementioned Lynn would appear in a 1955 Martin & Lewis MAJOR AND THE MINOR redux, You’re Never Too Young (as Dean’s love interest).

SIDEBAR 2:  Paramount M&L remakes always cast cartoonish Jerry Lewis in parts previously portrayed by women (Living it Up, You’re Never Too Young) or POC (Scared Stiff); talk about Hollywood pecking order!

 

Wilder was naturally nervous during the commencement of MAJOR AND THE MINOR, resulting in a terrible and embarrassing bout with diarrhea.  Wondering if he was equipped to direct, he contacted his mentor, Ernst Lubitsch (for whom he had cowritten Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife and Ninotchka).  Lubitsch calmed him down, stating the runs were a sign of dedication, adding that “I’ve been crapping in my pants for the first two weeks [of every production] for twenty years!”

Wilder’s other concerns regarded how the scenes cut together.  Sometimes the continuity seemed off.  Editor Doane Harrison became a constant companion on the set, and guided the novice as to set-ups and framing.  Harrison would become a permanent member of the Wilder unit, eventually serving as associate producer until his death in 1968.

Rogers’ own mother, Lela, even got into the act, playing SuSu/Susan’s mom in the last act, with a jaw-dropping lookalike Ginger herself disguised as mater for a confrontation with the bewildered Major Kirby.  Indeed, Milland’s Kirby is one of the most tortured characters in pre-1950 cinema, especially for a comedy.  It’s okay for Rogers’ Susan to be falling for the officer (she’s a twentysomething playing a role); but his anguish is another story and increasingly omnipresent, essentially presenting a grown adult male sexually obsessed with a supposed twelve-year-old.  It bothered Paramount, too, but the censors fortunately missed those moments (and they ARE there).

The Arrow Films Blu-Ray of THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR is wonderful, shimmering in a beautiful remaster from 35mm materials (what a joy to see Leo Tover’s cinematography this way; an excellent mono soundtrack, featuring Robert Emmett Dolan’s delightful score, is yet another treat).  A number of enticing extras append the platter including a 1943 radio adaptation, featuring the two leads, a 1975 audio interview with Milland, commentary by Adrian Martin, the theatrical trailer, and an image gallery.

A textbook on how Hollywood pros got around the Production Code and still remained in top form, THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR, a Forties smash hit with critics and audiences alike, is a comedy classic worthy of any collector’s library shelf.

THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR. Black and white; Full Frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition.  1.0 PCM audio.  Arrow Films/MVDvisual/Universal Pictures.  CAT # AA051. SRP: $39.95.

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