The Apartment – 1960
Goodness gracious, we are back to black and white! (OK, enough said about that.)
The Apartment was a cute movie. Honestly, I’m not sure if it really deserved the Best Picture Academy Award. I didn’t dislike the film, and I didn’t see any of its competitors, but after coming off the high of Ben-Hur, I felt sort of let down by this rather tame story. I’m not sure if the term Romantic Dramady had been invented back in 1960, but it could easily be applied to The Apartment. It was peculiar in the way it started out as a bit of a comedy, but then turned toward towards drama about half way through. Knowing next to nothing about the movie before watching it, I found the change in genre unexpected.
The problem was that as a comedy, it wasn’t that funny. As a drama, it wasn’t overly dramatic. The romantic aspect was nice, but mostly because of the two lead actors, Jack Lemon and Shirley MacLaine, both of whom did a fine job. It felt like they made the film more romantic than the script called for, and thank goodness they did. Otherwise, the movie would have been pretty dull.
Jack Lemon played the part of C. C. Baxter, a single man who rents an apartment in New York. But you immediately learn that the apartment doesn’t seem to belong to him exclusively. In fact, it is quickly established that he can’t even go home after work. For some reason, he has to stay away, even waiting in the rain if necessary, until the apartment is empty. The reason? Four co-workers who are promising him a promotion are using his apartment to have secret rendezvous with their mistresses.
It sounds like the set-up for a screwball comedy, right? And from Jack Lemon, I was expecting just that. After all, he was most known for his roles in Mister Roberts and Some Like it Hot, both of which were delightful comedies. Baxter is a nice and thoroughly average guy. He is easy to like and easy on the eyes as well. But you quickly get the feeling that he is being taken advantage of. In fact, he is allowing himself to be used. He is actually a pretty spineless guy.
Then the romance comes in as we are introduced to Elevator Operator, Fran Kubelik, played by MacLaine. Baxter tries to ask her out, but she is seeing someone else. She is sweet and likeable as well, and it isn’t until the third member of the plot’s love triangle shows up, that we learn that she is just as spineless as Baxter. Fred MacMurray plays the part of Jeff Sheldrake, the personnel director who can give Baxter the promotion he is after. He learns of Baxter’s apartment situation and figures out his dirty little secret. But instead of reprimanding Baxter for his unethical behavior, he decides to make use of it, himself. And who is the mistress he brings to the apartment…? Why, Miss Kubelik, of course.
And there, finally, we have the main conflict of the movie. From the beginning, it is easy to see that Baxter and Kubelik will end up together in the end. The plot was predictable and took very few twists. I found the story to be fairly average and uninteresting. It had the potential to be clever or witty, but for the most part, it just wasn’t .
And there was one other thing about the plot that I found a little disturbing. The movie seemed to glorify some pretty bad behavior. It seemed that most men were expected to have a mistress, and women were both portrayed as and treated as bubble headed toys to be owned, used, and fairly laughed at when they are mistreated, and it was all done with light-hearted humor. I mean, I get it – that was the little joke that the entire plot was based on. But it just wasn’t funny enough. To make it a good comedy, the dialogue needed to be wittier, maybe add a little slapstick, or maybe create some really awkward situations – something!
Interesting note: Due to its themes of infidelity and adultery, the film was controversial for its time. It initially received some negative reviews for its content. Film critic Hollis Alpert of the Saturday Review called it “a dirty fairy tale”. According to Fred MacMurray, after the film’s release he was accosted by a strange woman in the street who berated him for making a “dirty filthy movie” and hit him with her purse.
Of course, Baxter, the All-American good guy, is the only man in the movie who treats women with respect and compassion. He is unmarried, so he is not cheating, meaning that there is not much drama surrounding him. To his character’s credit, when he finally realizes that he is in love with Miss Kubelik he grows a spine and rebels against the cheating men who are using him. But even that is not terribly dramatic. To make it a better drama, his rebellion should have had more serious consequences, a physical confrontation, perhaps, or (dare I say…) Kubelik’s suicide attempt might have been successful! That would have made the movie a serious drama, and changed the ending… well, dramatically!
All that being said, I think that the flaws were in the script, not in the way the actors played their parts. Lemon and MacLaine both did a good job with what they were given, but the movie itself was, in my opinion, no more of a stand-out than any cute romantic comedy/drama ever made. A Best Picture winner should have something that puts it a cut above the rest of its genre. For example, the great comedy of You Can’t Take It With You, or the quick wit and weight of the drama All About Eve. But I thought that it fell just as flat as It Happened One Night.
Interesting note: This was the last black and white film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture until Schindler’s List in 1993, and then again, the Artist in 2011.