I keep reading about Mad Men and how people think it’s really cool to have this retro series about sexist times when everyone smoked a lot of cigarettes. In fact, the 1950s and early 60s have become the setting for modern bodice rippers, the kind of story where women have to use their wiles to prevail even as they are forced to perform all kinds of terrible, terrible acts. This has become such a happening genre that there’s a series about stewardesses of that time and another about Playboy bunnies. Now I think everyone is entitled to the porn of their choice but, having lived through that era, I don’t find these shows very appealing. I saw, back then, this blockbuster about stewardesses (“stewardii”, as Shelley Berman called them), though not the 3-D version and, though I have no desire to watch it again, I think current day critics and commentators might be informed by it. In fact, there are other, better, movies on these topics that were made back then that are deserving of your time. One such is The Apartment from 1960.
Billy Wilder had viewed Brief Encounter and mused that the interesting part of the film was not about the clandestine couple, but the guy whose apartment they used, the man who had to come back to a lonely place where the bed was still warm. Wilder sat down with his new favorite writer, I.A.L. Diamond, and they hashed out a script about a nebbish who has to lend his apartment to men who want a quick assignation. This has been called one of the greatest filmscripts ever. Jack Lemmon was a mid-level star that had made Some Like It Hot (as second lead) the year before. Billy Wilder appreciated Lemmon’s comedic talents but wanted to cast him in something deeper and darker. Shirley MacLaine had been good in Some Came Running but had a couple of duds afterwards, still she was perfect as the working class girl whose soft heart overcomes her native distrust.
Lemmon and MacLaine worked extremely well together but the script also called for a slimy insurance executive. Originally Wilder had Paul Douglas in mind, but Douglas suffered a heart attack and Wilder returned to an actor he had previously cast as a slimy insurance man: Fred MacMurray, who was the insurance salesman in Wilder’s Double Indemnity. It was a fine choice. Lemmon and MacLaine both got Oscar nominations, but Jack Kruschen, who plays another role in this movie, got the Supporting Actor nomination. Too bad for Fred who soon went to television and My Three Sons. But let’s remember him here and in Double Indemnity and The Caine Mutiny as a guy who could play slime very well. MacMurray got so much hate mail after The Apartment that he swore never to act as a slimeball again. He never had another good movie.
Now from here on are Spoilers, okay?
The story is this: Lemmon plays C.C. (Bud) Baxter, one of 31,259 employees at Consolidated Insurance. We see some shots of office hell that may tell the modern viewer that cubicles were quite a step up in worker comfort. In fact, Consolidated looks like some of those Chinese cyber-sweatshops where workers grind out computer games, the places that make us all shudder. Yes, that was the United States in 1960. Running one of the elevators is Fran Kubelik, MacLaine’s character. Yes, they still had elevator operators then but they were swiftly being phased out. The last elevator operator I ever saw was in Vancouver’s Sun building (once the tallest in the city) in 1971.
Well, Bud likes Miss Kubelik (as she is called throughout the movie) and she may like him, but they are merely two cogs in a huge machine. Bud has something going for him, though; he has an apartment near to Consolidated’s Manhattan office. This apartment is used by Bud’s managers as a place to meet up with women for sex. Bud is required to keep track and re-assign the guys who miss out because someone a little higher in the pecking order requires his place. He sits outside waiting for these guys to leave. Here’s some dialogue between one of these busy businessmen and his sweetie:
Where do you live?
I told you — with my mother.
Where does she live?
A hundred and seventy-ninth
street — the Bronx.
All right — I’ll take you to the
Like hell you will. You’ll buy me
Why do all you dames have to live
in the Bronx?
You mean you bring other girls up
Certainly not. I’m a happily
Bud goes up to his place, but it’s not really his yet. Kirkeby runs back up because Sylvia has forgotten her galoshes:
Mr. Kirkeby, I don’t like to
complain — but you were supposed
to be out of here by eight.
I know, Buddy-boy, I know. But
those things don’t always run on
schedule — like a Greyhound bus.
I don’t mind in the summer — but
on a rainy night — and I haven’t
had any dinner yet —
Sure, sure. Look, kid — I put in
a good word for you with Sheldrake,
That’s right. We were discussing
our department — manpower-wise —
and promotion-wise —
(finds the galoshes
behind a chair)
— and I told him what a bright boy
you were. They’re always on the
lookout for young executives.
Thank you, Mr. Kirkeby.
(starting toward door)
You’re on your way up, Buddy-boy.
And you’re practically out of liquor.
I know. Mr. Eichelberger — in the
Mortgage Loan Department — last
night he had a little Halloween
party here —
Well, lay in some vodka and some
vermouth — and put my name on it.
Yes, Mr. Kirkeby. You still owe me
for the last two bottles —
I’ll pay you on Friday.
(in the open doorway)
And whatever happened to those
little cheese crackers you used to
Got it? Bud is looking to advance his career from desk schlub to executive by selling his home. So Kirkeby leaves and Bud cleans up, dumping the empty bottles that used to hold his booze, cleaning their mess up, and finally fixing a TV dinner (in the oven, no microwaves yet). He settles in front of the TV (probably black-and-white like the movie), sticking his fork in the foil of the TV dinner, a great moment that shows some of the emotion Bud usually swallows. He gets no satisfaction from the TV. He takes a sleeping pill and climbs into bed. He unwraps a brand new Playboy and leafs through it. He unfolds the centerfold, the refolds it and starts reading an article about what young executives should wear. He imagines himself in a bowler hat. Then the phone rings, an exec wanting to use his place for just a little while. Bud says No, but the exec reminds him that he’s writing up efficiency reports and if Bud wants to be classed as efficient… So Bud leaves his place and collapses on a park bench where he goes to sleep.
Now here you may be asking, “Where’s the laughs?” because this movie is billed as a comedy. Okay, first of all there’s this funny dialogue, like with Sylvia and Kirkeby above, and then there’s the fact that all of Bud’s neighbors think he’s some kind of terrible sex monster, that it’s him sexing up all these young women when, in fact, he’s sleeping on a park bench in order to keep his job as one of 31,259 employees at Consolidated. Ha Ha. And let’s not forget that this is a Billy Wilder movie.
Wilder’s Ace in the Hole was a movie about media manipulation of a human tragedy — a guy trapped underground and the effort to get him out, you know the story, there’s been a thousand versions since Wilder’s, the most recent was those guys in Chile. Anyway, that movie wasn’t a success and the studios kept Wilder down until he came back with Stalag 17 that still upset the studios when he refused to allow them to change it to be more palatable to the German market (Wilder having lost a lot of friends and family in concentration camps), but he got away with that because the movie was a success. Now he was coming off of Some Like It Hot and the studio was clamoring for another Wilder comedy. But Wilder had a darker view of humanity, one that he developed in pre-war Germany, and his comedies are usually satiric (except Some Like It Hot which is more a farce) and that satire can be pretty bitter.
So Bud shows up at work and there’s Miss Kubelik. Bud has a bad cold that he’s caught somehow sleeping on a park bench in the rain and he and Miss Kubelik chat about it. The elevator empties. Kirkeby smacks Miss Kubelik on the butt with a newspaper. Are the guys in Mad Men complete assholes? Because that was real life back in 1960.
Eventually, Fred MacMurray, playing Mr. Sheldrake (not Walter Neff), calls Bud into his office. He needs Bud’s apartment once in a while and in exchange, promises to make Bud an executive. Bud agrees. Sheldrake outranks Kirkeby and the others so they now have to find another place. BUT — the big story thingee — the person Sheldrake is taking up to Bud’s place is, wait for it, Miss Kubelik! It seems Miss Kubelik and Sheldrake had a summer fling and Sheldrake told Miss Kubelik that he was going to divorce his wife and he didn’t, of course. So now Miss Kubelik says, No more, you scoundrel, and Sheldrake lays on that greasy Fred MacMurray charm and she says I Love You.
Well, on one fine night, shortly before Christmas, Bud is now an executive and he invites Miss Kubelik to his office for her advice on whether or not he should wear the Playboy-prescribed bowler and then he discovers that Sheldrake is banging Kubelik and that is all a little upsetting.
Sheldrake and Miss Kubelik go to the apartment and Miss Kubelik discovers that this guy is never going to get a divorce. He leaves to go back to his family for Christmas and Miss Kubelik goes into Bud’s medicine cabinet and swallows a whole lot of pills. Bud comes home to find her passed out. He gets a doctor neighbor (Jack Kruschen) to help him. The doctor keeps Miss Kubelik from dying. Of course, he figures she’s suiciding because of Bud.
Miss Kubelik stays at Bud’s apartment over Christmas (he sleeps on the couch). He makes spaghetti for her and they play gin rummy and exchange their life stories. Miss Kubelik’s brother shows up and beats up Bud. Miss Kubelik gives Bud a kiss on the cheek, because that’s what noble guys got, back in 1960.
Now, you know what’s coming: Bud stands up to Sheldrake and tells him to piss off. He’s fired, of course. So when Sheldrake meets Miss Kubelik at New Year’s, he doesn’t have anywhere to take her. He tells her that Bud told him where to get off and Miss Kubelik is enlightened: if one schmo can stand up to this asshole, so can I. Fuck the job! So she runs back to Bud’s apartment and they start to play gin rummy. Bud says, “Miss Kubelik, I absolutely adore you.” And Miss Kubelik, who has learned the wisdom of love, refuses to respond. “Shut up and deal,” she says, and Bud does.
So, in 1960, this was marketed as a comedy. People since have said, wha? This is a bleak, dark satire. The USSR said that the movie was an indictment of capitalism. Wilder, who loved America, said that it could have happened anywhere except the Soviet Union, because no one in the USSR could have an apartment. Jack Lemmon:
I always felt that Billy Wilder grew a rose in a garbage pail with this one. He was throwing cold water right in our faces about the terrible false premises with which most of our society lives. He challenged our priorities and the way we rationalize our behavior on the grounds of getting ahead in America – at a time when it wasn’t fashionable to challenge these things. He gave us a pretty good jolt, and it hasn’t been done a hell of a lot better since then.
Well, no, it hasn’t. The Apartment was nominated for a bunch of Academy Awards. Neither MacLaine, Lemmon, nor Kruschen won, but Wilder and Diamond scored Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and there were two other Oscars out of ten nominations. This was the last time that a black-and-white movie did so well.
And that brings us back around to the the era in which this was made. It’s a black-and-white movie without any Negroes, the Cold War made it propaganda for both sides, Shirley MacLaine ran with the Rat Pack for a little while, Billy Wilder survived Nazi Germany, little people were slaves to corporate bosses — that’s 1960. Yeah, I don’t watch Mad Men or its lesser imitations, but I do like this movie a whole lot.