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.

KISSMESTUPID_COVER

 

 

 

 

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