By Marc S. Sanders
You ever come across a film that begins as sweet screwball, and then segues into serious sensitivity? If you have, then maybe you have seen Billy Wilder’s classic film The Apartment. Beyond the film being an Oscar Best Picture winner, Wilder’s film demonstrates that there is a screwball mentality in all of us, but we also know when the party must end.
Jack Lemmon plays C.C. Baxter, one of over 31,000 people who works for Consolidated Life in a Manhattan high rise. He’s a likable fellow who happily does his work with a typewriter amid a sea of other desk jockeys on a floor that seems to expand beyond the architectural limits of the building. When his eight hour day comes to a close, he’s normally the last one to leave for home because it is likely his apartment located outside of Central Park is occupied with one of the company big wigs that liberally uses his pad to entertain a lady friend beside their respective wives. Baxter has been relegated to a door mat who holds out hope that any one of these ranking supervisors may one day promote him to an executive position with a private office and a view of the city. Promise finally opens up when the President of the company, Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), summons Baxter to his office to commend him on the positive feedback from the other men in the office and to request some time with the apartment himself. Sheldrake would like to have some time away from his wife and children to host Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), the building’s elevator operator. If Baxter had the availability to his own apartment and a little bit of bravery, he may have asked Fran for an evening out together on another occcasion.
The Apartment begins almost like a farce or sitcom as the revolving door of Baxter’s apartment welcomes one new executive after another. You may be expecting confusion and misunderstandings that’ll lead to outrageous laughter. However, poor Baxter is the victim to all of this coming and going by even surrendering his home to Joe Dobisch (Ray Walston) who calls unexpectedly at eleven o’clock at night requesting the place for an hour. Baxter takes shelter on a park bench in the December cold. The humor of this arrangement is not so funny any longer. After Sheldrake’s regard for Fran is more apparent, then it’s more clear that these characters are not spawned from the happy home life scenarios of 1950’s television programming. Sheldrake is only charming to an adorably likable woman like Fran for as long as he cares. Some might say he’s not terribly cold hearted though. After all, though he forgets to shop for a Christmas gift for Fran, he offers her a hundred dollar bill from his wallet instead. Up until this midway point, Shirley Maclaine has been so good at maintaining a cheerful disposition that suddenly her self worth seems a whole lot less than a hundred dollars following Sheldrake’s latest disregard. Surprisingly, Fran overdoses on a bottle of sleeping pills. When Baxter discovers her in his bed, he races to revive her with the aid of a doctor neighbor. Baxter does not give up on helping Sheldrake make this right, while tending to Fran’s recovery on Christmas Eve. Yet for Sheldrake, this is all an inconvenience and now without even looking for a better way to live, Baxter finds an opportunity to allow his own personal strength to come through against the executives at the office, as well as Mr. Sheldrake, and most importantly with the woman he cares for, Fran.
Jack Lemmon has a energetic method to his performance, as I find he does with most of the roles in his career. He plays men who never break to sit and breathe. They are always on the go. They almost never sleep. So, his fast paced delivery and flirtation with Shirley MacLaine let Wilder’s film perform at a fast pace. The range of both Lemmon and MacLaine really work for The Apartment, because they can be naturally funny and intensely serious when the moment calls for it. Lemmon can sell me as a guy who will use a tennis racket to strain his spaghetti while at the same time standing up for his convictions when life can not allow humor for a moment. MacLaine can portray a woman with a menial job like an elevator operator and yet still be considered valued and recognized as genuinely hurt when disregarded. For Fred MacMurray, I think it’s fair to say he actually makes for an effective villain, someone you love to hate, with his portrayal here. I knew of MacMurray with his television program My Three Sons before I ever saw The Apartment. What a departure the two roles are. Here, he is a charming fellow on the outside with a hollow mentality inside. He’s a man who only cares for his immediate needs. He can not be inconvenienced with someone else’s feelings whether it is Baxter’s inconvenience or Fran’s despair. Nothing else matters. No one else matters.
The film may be called The Apartment, but office politics seems more at play here. Billy Wilder’s film is surprising but it’s honest too. I doubt many of us would ever surrender our own home night after night to the more powerful and influential. However, many of us, with a drive to climb a corporate ladder likely have compromised our ideals to get to a higher plateau at one time or another. Personally, I have to shamefully admit that I have committed such an act. The Apartment questions when enough is enough. What’s special about Wilder’s film is that C.C. Baxter must discover if he lives to work or works to live.