December 2, 2023

Gabbing Geek

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AFI Countdown Challenge #93: The Apartment

Jack Lemmon is consistently pushed out of his own apartment by philandering supervisors at his job, but then he meets the delightful Shirley MacLaine in this 1960 Best Picture winner.

Watson, when I mentioned I was going to be watching The Apartment for this project, mentioned that it is one of the rare comedies to win Best Picture.  A quick check shows that, if you don’t count musicals (and I don’t), then there are only two such comedies.

I’ll get to the other one later.  For now, let’s look at 1960’s The Apartment.

The Apartment is the story of CC Baxter (Jack Lemmon), a put-upon, fussy guy who has a nice apartment.  Or, at least, he has a convenient apartment that he doesn’t get to use very often.  He’s a number cruncher for a big insurance company who often works late because various managers and supervisors at his company use his apartment as a freewheeling bachelor pad to entertain their mistresses and girlfriends rather than see their wives.  As is often the case, Baxter can’t go home and will even leave his apartment to sleep on a park bench when some philandering jackass has a potential one-night stand who looks like Marilyn Monroe.  He may have one outlet:  the cute elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) that he flirts with a little in a fairly harmless way if you don’t see the harm in flirting with someone at work.

My guess is that would be more frowned upon today.

Why does Baxter do all this?  Well, he’s hoping it will get him a long-promised promotion.  He actually does get it when the latest addition to his revolving key party, Big Boss Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), starts to make use of the place.  Who does Sheldrake take to Baxter’s place?  Miss Kubelik.

There’s a lot to like about this movie.  It has aged a bit better than it should, considering it is sort of a sex comedy that, due to being made in 1960, can’t really talk directly about sex.  Baxter suffers from clearly lacking a spine as various philandering party guys keep using his living space as if he can be packed up and moved out at any moment.  When he finally does get the promotion, it seems as if he is still expected to give up his key to anyone who asks.  Yes, he climbs the corporate ladder, but it isn’t because of his work ethic or the quality of his overall performance.  It’s because he’s a doormat.

As it is, Miss Kubelik doesn’t have it much better.  She’s fallen for Sheldrake’s lines, and as she learns she isn’t the first person, and as Sheldrake’s idea of a good Christmas gift for someone he’s claimed he cares about is $100 (a gift that is both impersonal and implies Kubelik is little better than Sheldrake’s prostitute), she attempts to take her own life with an overdose of sleeping pills in Baxter’s apartment.  She survives, but as she isn’t going anywhere for a while, Baxter and Kubelik manage to get to know each other.

The crux here is both Baxter and Kubelik are, in their own ways, very lonely people.  Baxter never really gets out and relies on TV dinners in front of the TV on those few nights when he actually is able to stay home.  Plus, not only do his company’s managers see no problem pushing him out on a routine basis, but his neighbors never see the men and only see and hear the various women, assuming Baxter is the worst kind of swinging bachelor.  The highlight of that misconception may be when Kubelik’s brother-in-law comes to claim her, believing Baxter is the one responsible for his disappearance and her attempted suicide.

Essentially, Baxter has never been allowed to show people who he really is.

And, as it turns out, the same is true for Miss Kubelik.  She and Baxter are both lonely people.  Baxter is seen alternately as a pushover or a debauched sleaze.  Kubelik is just some easy thing whose feelings aren’t important.  As it is, Baxter is the only one who ever treats her like a person, someone with feelings and thoughts, and not just a sex object.  The idea that Miss Kubelik could just be a nice young lady who wants a nice guy is alien to the other men in Baxter’s office, especially Sheldrake.

Then again, at one point, we learn Baxter looked up all kinds of personal information about Kubelik by checking her insurance information.  Sure, she didn’t mind, but that sounds too much like stalker behavior to me.

Some things don’t age well.

The Apartment comes from director Billy Wilder.  Wilder was a comedy genius, a man who made many funny movies over the course of his career, and whose tastes tended towards clever wordplay and situations.  Working with frequent collaborate I.A.L. Diamond on the script, we see Baxter and Kubelik as two people who get along well and make a nice couple.  Sure, the future for these two is uncertain at first, but that doesn’t make it any less of a nice romance between two people who finally found someone who legitimately loves them.

NEXT UP:  The next few movies are ones I’ve never seen before, and heck, I’m not sure I’d ever even heard of 1951’s A Place in the Sun.  It’s based on Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, a book I haven’t read either.  I’ll need to rectify those gaps soon.