Jane Fonda can be remembered for a lot of things. Her controversial visit to North Vietnam, earning her the nickname Hanoi Jane, is certainly at the top of that list. In the 1980s, she "reinvented" herself in a way, releasing a series of exercise tapes. None of this even mentions her film roles, including campy space sex romp Barbarella or her five Academy Award nominations or two Oscar wins. Before all that though? A handful of light 1960s romantic comedies, including 1963's Sunday in New York.
Now as I write this in an age of inept, annoying and downright awful romantic comedies, it's safe to say that the concept of romantic comedies has taken a bit of a hit, a public relations debacle. At some point, romantic comedies stopped being romantic, smart and enjoyable, resorting to moronically stupid stories that put stereotypes to shame and characters doing things no sane or rational person would ever do. Just because it was released in the 1960s doesn't mean these are perfect movies. But there is a charm, a style, and a sense of enjoyment that has been lost in so many movies since.
After a bad breakup with her fiance, 22-year old Eileen (Fonda) visits her older brother, Adam (Cliff Robertson), in New York City, planning to spend a week or so with him and just get away from her problems. She corners him, asking if men are only interested in sex in relationships. A globe-trotting airline pilot and all-around ladies man, Adam does the only thing he can do for his sister's benefit...he lies. Eileen isn't so sure, meeting Mike (Rod Taylor) later that day and hitting it off immediately with him. She intends to put Mike to the test to see if he'll be interested if she throws herself at him. Her plan doesn't go quite as planned though, putting her in an awkward situation when her ex-fiance, Russ (Robert Culp), bursts into the apartment with Eileen and Mike only wearing bath robes. Uh-oh, Eileen's got some explaining to do.
More than the well-written, semi-intelligent script or the interesting and still believable characters, there is that style and charm in 'Sunday' that you just can't duplicate. Director Peter Tewksbury shot the movie on location in NYC, and let's face it, it is hard to mess up that city in a movie, especially downtown Manhattan. It could serve as a companion piece to Breakfast at Tiffany's, (released two years earlier), serving as a time portal into a very cool city some 50 years back. All the guys wear suits (at all times too), the ladies get dolled up to go out. Adam's apartment -- where much of the shenanigans take place -- is immense and ends up being an additional character. Imagine the Friends' apartment in 1963, and you've got your set. The whole story takes place in under 24 hours -- that one rainy Sunday afternoon -- but never feels rushed. Charm and style, 'Sunday' has it to spare.
As for the semi-intelligent part involving the script, this movie was probably a little shocking to audiences in 1963. Now, it seems tame although there are some instances that caught me off guard watching it for the first time. Fonda's Eileen is a virgin, wondering if she's the last one on the planet. Culp's Russ dumped her because their relationship wasn't developing physically quick enough for his liking. Fonda even makes a reference to Russ having to play "handball" several times a week (that line and Fonda's delivery really cracked me up). The point is though, it's never dirty or filthy, just adults talking about sex and relationships. It will seem tame to modern audiences, but you enjoy the story and its developments and the characters. Smart? Maybe not, but it feels real.
A well-written script is one thing, but having the actors/actresses to pull it off is another thing. 'Sunday' goes 4-for-4 in that department. Fonda is the all-American girl here, so perfectly cute that you can't help but like her. Her chemistry with Taylor is as natural as they come, their friendship/relationship serving as an easy blue print for what romantic comedies should aspire for. As for Taylor and Robertson, neither would seem like an obvious choice for their parts, both men more at home in a "guy's movie." They're too talented not to leave a positive impression though, both getting a chance to show off their lighter, comedic sides. Culp is the unknowing dupe, the somewhat sympathetic but mostly clueless boyfriend. Also look for Jim Backus as Drysdale, Robertson's flight controller boss, and Jo Morrow as Mona, Adam's girlfriend who just can't seem to buy a break.
For all my writing about an intelligent romantic comedy, the last third of the movie does resort to a needlessly ridiculous plot twist about a case of mistaken identity. Culp thinks Taylor is Fonda's brother, not a stranger she just met, and Robertson is Taylor's pilot friend. Yep, I Love Lucy syndrome, a "dilemma" that could be solved with one simple explanation. It never panders or tries too hard to be funny though, just going along with the developments. A high point is Robertson and Taylor dancing together, showing Fonda how to explain the situation. Physical comedy that isn't overdone. It's just right. Now if only some more recent romantic comedies could be even halfway as good as this one....then we'd have something.
Sunday in New York <---TCM trailer (1963): ***/****