Sunday, February 17, 2008

Kiss Me, Stupid

Tags: Billy Wilder, Dean Martin, Kim Novak, George & Ira Gershwin, Cinema of the 60s.

I was 11 years old in 1964. If you can imagine a time before the internet, maybe you can imagine generations of kids slowly assembling the pieces of the puzzle of sex in hushed schoolyard conversations and the airbrushed images in Playboy magazines peeked at in the dark corners of sympathetic newsstands.

I grew up in a Catholic family and the only movie ratings system at the time was the Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency whose ratings would circulate in small newsletter mailings. As I recall, films were either rated the equivalent of “G” acceptable for all audiences, or “A,” suitable for adult audiences only. There was a third rating, “C” for ”Condemned” which meant, and I’m not making this up, if you were Catholic and you went to a condemned film you could no longer receive the sacraments and would slowly roast forever in the fires of Hell. Perhaps this is what’s needed today, a ratings system backed up by the doctrine of infallibility.

I have a vivid memory of a movie that came to the neighborhood theatre and the torrent of secret conversations it generated. The movie had been rated “C” for “Condemned” and it was, to our knowledge, the first C-rated movie that had ever played anywhere where we could just walk by and actually look at the actual doors behind which an actual movie that had the actual power to actually doom your immortal soul to hell was actually playing.

Talk about your forbidden fruit; this was forbidden fruit salad.

Forbidden ambrosia.

We’d ride our bikes by in silence every afternoon, a slow procession, slowing even more as we swung past the doors of the movie house. It was as if we thought if we listened really hard we might hear the voice of Eve herself whispering through the wood and glass and describing just how impossibly beautiful the apple was.

Rumors began to circulate based on thoroughly unconfirmed stories about the uncle of somebody’s neighbor’s friend who’d seen the movie. Stories about the film’s stars engaged in things we didn’t understand, couldn’t spell or even pronounce right up there on the huge screen where all the lucky bastards who didn’t care what the nuns thought about them could look right at it.

OK… now jump forward to the early 1990s and a Sunday morning about ten o’clock. Sitting down with the Sunday paper and a cup of coffee, flipping through the channels I stopped on Showtime to see what movie was about to start. I heard the announcer, “The following feature has been rated G, acceptable for all audiences….” and it’s THAT movie! By this point I hadn’t been a Catholic since the end of the Sixties but I could almost feel whatever was left of my immortal soul running for cover.

I haven’t read the Bible since back then either, but I’m betting that there is a translation of the book of revelations somewhere that actually lists the DVD release of a film by Billy Wilder starring Dean Martin as one of the signs of the end of the world.

On it’s release in 1964 Billy Wilder’s sex farce, Kiss Me, Stupid, was dismissed by Time Magazine as “One of the longest traveling-salesman jokes ever committed to film.” While it does not challenge the status of Wilder’s greatest films, The Apartment (1960), Some Like It Hot (1959), Sunset Boulevard (1950) or Stalag 17 (1953), I will argue that it comes right behind those and stands as Wilder’s underrated masterpiece.

In addition to a hostile critical reaction and bombing at the box office in the US following the coup de grace of a national Catholic boycott, Kiss Me, Stupid was beset with problems from the start of the production. The central role of the jealous piano teacher/failed songwriter was originally filled by Peter Sellers, but assumed by Ray Walston four weeks into production when, according to Wilder biographer, Kevin Lally, Sellers "suffered a mild heart attack while making love to his wife of less than two months, the actress Britt Ekland (and using amyl nitrate to intensify the experience)."

The farce revolves around two would-be songwriters living in the tiny town of Climax, Nevada. The film’s score by Andre Previn is wonderfully heavy-handed, and all the genuinely awful songs the two hopeful losers write were written by George & Ira Gershwin having the time of their lives getting to be so horribly inept on purpose.

This film could never be remade today simply because there is no one in contemporary entertainment who could play the part of Dino, the superficial womanizing heavy drinking Vegas star whose car breaks down in Climax, NV. Dean Martin’s performance in Kiss Me, Stupid is in the top three most fearless self-parody performances, ever (along with Arnold Schwarzenegger in Last Action Hero and Madonna in Guy Ritchie's BMW commercial) and worth the price of admission alone.

Kim Novak, as the slut/barmaid/hooker, is both brilliant (think about it, when wasn’t she?) and the thing that 1960’s hetero Catholic boy dreams were made of. Perhaps it’s time for a Kim Novak revival as I’d happily spend the weekend in a theatre for the chance to see Picnic, Man With The Golden Arm, Bell, Book and Candle, Of Human Bondage, The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders, and Pal Joey on the big screen again.

Felicia Farr shines as Walston’s wholesome wife who ends up in bed with Dino. Her adultery, along with Walston’s (who ends up in bed with Novak) is what caused the condemned rating - the Catholic Church in 1964 was cheesed-off to no ends by depictions of happy adulterers. Cliff Osmond, as the owner of Climax's one service station and Walston’s partner in songwriting crime complete what is really a bedroom farce five character cast.

The film does have a stark sexuality about it that would have made it somewhat of an aberration in 1964, a quality enhanced by Wilder’s decision to shoot in black & white. The recent DVD release offers the US theatrical release as well as a slightly racier version edited for the European market (where the film was far better received at the time).

Any fan of Billy Wilder, the Gershwins, Dean Martin or Kim Novak not familiar with this movie would be very well served to seek it out. As you watch it, try to imagine (or remember) a world in which a film like this caused controversy and threats of eternal damnation.


Steve said...

Thanks for a dogmatic trip down memory lane. As a recovering Catholic, I remember those movie ratings. I also recall one of the ratings being "objectionable in part" or something like that. I was always confused by that rating. How did you know when the objectionable part was coming, and what were you supposed to do when it arrived?

Coffee Messiah said...

Weren't those ratings a hoot?

We just saw the 1930ish Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde with Frederick March. Talking about racy.....It was hard to believe it made it to screen for that time period.

Amazing, compared to what's out there today, isn't it? ; (


blogzer said...

I remember the movie ratings too, but from the perspective of a non-Catholic who found himself terminally attracted to Catholic girls. There was something about the inherent fear associated with going to the "forbidden" film that, more often than not, set up other forbidden activities in the inevitable, post-film interaction. From my recollection, there was some sort of newspaper (the Catholic Chronicle, maybe...I don't recall) that would publish these ratings. And as we all know now, if it's written in the paper, it must be true!

In the spirit of full disclosure, I am also a former "student," of sorts, who you met (and once yelled at a little, but definitely with good reason...) at your time at "The Ohio University." It was a little surreal running across your blog, but that's the power of Web 2.0, right? I enjoy your work.

Stan Denski said...

I don't remember yelling at people at OU, I thought I started yelling at people at Wooster.... You're right, the web is this amazing thing that allows people to reconnect years after the fact and helps buoy a sort of continuity that's more comforting than not. If you would, email me and remind me where we met and what was going on.

TheIntrepidPie said...

I literally just watched this movie on TCM - well, I PVR'd it a couple days ago, but just got around to watching it. However, it stopped recording before the end of the film. The last thing I saw was everyone standing outside the hardware store/divorce court? watching Dino sing on TV - Kim Novak pulls up in her car/trailer and waves. Then it stopped.
I've been looking online, but no one seems to want to tell me how the story ends - did Ray Walston and his wife get back together? Or did they get a divorce? What did I miss?
I thought it was a very cute movie - very mature for a "retro adult romantic comedy." I too am a Catholic, but since I was 11 in 1998 I obviously cannot remember the old movie ratings!