Billy Wilder didn't do over a career that spanned six decades. He did one of the best comedies of all-time in Some Like It Hot, one of the best dramas in Sunset Boulevard, some of the best noirs in Ace in the Hole and Double Indemnity, and many more I'm not even listing. How about something out of the ordinary then? Yeah, a romantic comedy...of sorts. Here's 1964's Kiss Me, Stupid.
Having closed out a successful show in Las Vegas, a highly successful musician and performer named Dino (Dean Martin) jumps in his car and starts driving toward Los Angeles. What's waiting him? A TV special and everything L.A. has to offer. Well, that's the plan at least. He stops in the little Nevada desert town of Climax where two aspiring songwriters, Orville (Ray Walston), a piano teacher, and Barney (Cliff Osmond), the gas station owner, see a chance to make their riches if they can sell a song or two to the famous singer. How should they go about it though? Dino has quite the reputation as a hard-drinking, partying womanizer so....what if he was interested in Orville's wife? The piano teacher can't go along with it, not with his actual wife at least. He enlists the help of a waitress, Polly the Pistol (Kim Novak), from the local roadhouse (that appears to be doubling as a bordello of sorts). Can they somehow pull this wacky plan off?
Leave it to Billy Wilder to completely throw an entire genre on its side and do it well. The 1960s were the age of the screwball sex comedies that as you watch them now 50-plus years later....they're not always that good. The jokes and innuendos are tame to say the least, and the attempts at humor are usually so overdone that any natural laughs get killed on the spot. Sure, there are some exceptions. There always are when the number of movies continues to pile up. This 1964 satire on the whole has some bite. All those laughs that fell short in the played straight for laughs comedies land with an effective boom here. The laughs crackle, they're subtle but not too subtle and overall? That formula just works so well. Sure, it's a little slow, a little long at times at 126 minutes, but for the most part it hits all the right buttons.
In production, 'Kiss' sure seemed like it was going to be a difficult film to make. Wilder originally wanted to cast Jack Lemmon (a frequent Wilder collaborator) in the Walston role, but Lemmon had prior obligations. Next up, Peter Sellers who was cast, started filming and had to bail when he had 13 freaking heart attacks!!! Six weeks into filming, Wilder had to recast the part, choosing Walston and then re-filming all those scenes. Does it show? No, not especially. Walston is excellent and the movie moves on without missing a beat. It was filmed in black and white -- I watched a beautiful print on MGM-HD on TV -- and is based off an Italian play and was later turned into an Italian feature film. The story develops like a play, the entire story taking place at Orville's home, Barney's gas station and the Belly Button (the roadhouse). It all fits together in pretty perfect fashion.
A movie that loses potential star power and quite the acting chops in Lemmon and Sellers could be quite an issue, but not here as the ensemble carries the sexually-charged comedic story. Martin plays a variation on himself, sleezy and without a care in the world other than hooking up with a different woman every night. Considering how harsh the script is, it's somewhat surprising Martin even took the role! Walston gets to ham it up some as Orville, paranoid and convinced his far prettier wife, Zelda (Felicia Farr), is cheating on him with anyone and everyone. In a role originally intended for Marilyn Monroe, Kim Novak -- one of my favorites -- is a sultry scene-stealer as Polly, a girl down on her luck who has to take some rather drastic measures to save some money. Playing Orville's sidekick of sorts, Osmond gets some big laughs as the big, boisterous Barney, putting this crazy plan into action.
The script/screenplay itself screams I Love Lucy episode when it comes to the gag Orville and Barney try to pull off. That's where some of that risque quality comes in. Using a stand-in wife, Orville just turns a blind eye to Martin's Dino making brutally obvious advances at his wife. He intends to give her to him. This is 1964?!? You can see why it met with some objections. Things get downright crazy and completely out of left field in the last 15 minutes in ways I was not expecting. So yeah, the ending kinda falls apart, but getting there is a lot of fun. The innuendos building up to it work pretty well, especially Orville talking about the size of his...well, never mind, and Polly overhearing the plan for what she's intended to do with Dino. Misunderstandings and all sorts of hijinks like that just shouldn't work, but it does.
A pleasant surprise. Go figure. Worst case? Kim Novak is downright perty here in one of her sexiest roles.
Kiss Me, Stupid (1964): ***/****