Brief Thoughts: Billy Wilder's The Apartment & Frank Capra's It Happened One Night

      The Apartment (1960) 
      Dir. Billy Wilder
     Starring: Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray

  The Apartment is a movie almost all of my film friends and colleagues have already watched and adored. I was very late to the party on this one, but was stunned by its acerbic wit, its shades of grey, and its concern for the moral weakling. It's often called Wilder's very best; it is so wonderfully multi-layered, holding forth on such a variety of issues, from workplace chauvinism and nepotism to the stiff conformity and hypocrisy of the great masculine enclaves of Manhattan office buildings. Jack Lemmon marries bumbling spinelessness with a sort of wincing likability, a deeply memorable performance that it sometimes seems he reprises in Glengarry Glen Ross (1992). Disenchantment grows as any semblance of sentiment fades -- Lemmon is the romantic booby prize. It is a film chock-full of nasty surprises; Christmas Eve a time for misplaced and lonely souls, the office a tower of bullying and casual philandering, the soft-hearted and gullible trampled on again and again. Such human frailty may reveal Wilder's cynicism, but it ultimately is his nuanced empathy toward his characters that makes The Apartment one of the great anti-romantic romantic movies. Lemmon and MacLaine are imperfect; often grovelling or deluded - they aren't simply victims, but make rods for their own backs. They are flawed, as we all are - but they nonetheless deserve love.

            It Happened One Night (1934)
             Dir. Frank Capra
          Starring: Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, 

    Squeaking past in the last year of Pre-Code Hollywood, It Happened One Night is all the more charming for the little innuendos it was allowed to contain, not to mention its half-dressed movie stars. Made at Columbia, (a minor studio at that time), the film went on to be a commercial and critical success, sweeping every major Oscar category in a manner that wasn't done again until 1975, with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Capra's longstanding attitudes seep through; his dislike of airs and graces, of the wealthy's 'lack of humility', and there's certainly some Depression-era joy in seeing the prim socialite played by Colbert being brought low. She is forced to hitchhike, wear the same clothes for much of the film; sleep in the hay, eat only raw carrots. Gable is incorrigible and handsome as a newspaperman playing at being a gentleman; smoking in bed wearing a wry grin on his face. There is a lovely moment in the hay where he offhandedly insults Colbert and tears sparkle on her beautiful gamine face; it is a stymied moment of resistance to the increasing attraction between the two, emotion flowering in soft-focus close ups. Too charming for words, really.


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