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TONY'S ONLINE TIPS
From COMICS BUYER'S GUIDE #1447 (08/10/01)

"To keep your marriage brimming
With love in the loving cup
Whenever you're wrong, admit it,
Whenever you're right, shut up."

--Ogden Nash, "A Word to Husbands" (1957)

I never met Jack Lemmon, but, if I had, I think I would have walked up to him without hesitation and thanked him for all those great performances in all those great movies. Lemmon seemed like the kind of person you could approach; the "Everyman" he played on screen not so far removed from the reality. And I can't recall any of his fellow actors, or anyone else for that matter, ever speaking of him without showing their obvious love for the man.

When Lemmon died recently, I thought there would be no better way to honor his memory than to sit back and enjoy two of his best movies, which also happen to be two of my all-time favorite movies: THE APARTMENT and THE ODD COUPLE. So, over the span of three very late nights, when my family was asleep and my work was done, I held my own private wake for Jack Lemmon.

Three nights? Two movies? Talk about your fuzzy math! But, fear not, all will be explained anon.

THE APARTMENT (1960) is as much drama as comedy. Bud Baxter (Lemmon) is climbing the corporate ladder by allowing executives of the company for which he works to use his apartment for trysts with their "women on the side." He alternately struggles to rationalize these unethical arrangements and to sever his involvement with the sordid situation, his struggle revolving around his attraction to elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine).

The film, which was written by I.A.L. Diamond and Billy Wilder and directed by Wilder, reflects this struggle. A funny scene will roll seamlessly into one that is sad or even shocking, with Lemmon playing all of them flawlessly.

That Lemmon is the stand-out performer in THE APARTMENT speaks directly to his genius because he's acting with some of the best: MacLaine as the conflicted Kubelik, a romantic with a sad history of choosing the wrong men to love; Fred MacMurray as the arrogant, calculating Jeff Sheldrake, who nearly drives MacLaine's character to suicide; Ray Walston, Willard Waterman, and David White as the adulterous executives; Jack Kruschen as the doctor who lives next door to Baxter; and Edie Adams as the scorned Miss Olsen. It's a cast that would do any script proud.

MacMurray radiates evil from the moment we meet him, quite the contrast from his patriarchal role as Steve Douglas on television's MY THREE SONS. This movie was the first time I'd seen him in such a dark role and, to this day, I get the creeps wondering how Mike, Robbie, Chip, and Ernie would have turned out had they been raised by the malevolent Sheldrake.

Kruschen's "Doctor Dreyfuss" is a joy to watch. Like Baxter, he is torn. He's disgusted by what he incorrectly perceives as his neighbor's promiscuous lifestyle, but there's a trace of admiration and envy underlying his dismay. In the aftermath of Fran's suicide attempt, he becomes the closest thing Baxter has to a friend, one genuinely concerned about the young executive.

For all the excellence of THE APARTMENT's cast, Lemmon is the star of the film. His character's growth is at the center of the story, the audience hanging on Bud's every moment of joy or sorrow. It is a remarkable performance even in a career filled with equally remarkable performances.

I've loved THE ODD COUPLE since I first read Neil Simon's play prior to it being performed at St. Edward High School in the fall of 1968. Even in the hands of teens, Felix Unger and Oscar Madison are two of the great roles of the American theater.

I didn't see the movie version of THE ODD COUPLE (1968) until the summer after we presented at my high school. I saw it at some drive-in and it would have been a perfect "date flick" except for the fact that my intended date had dumped me earlier that day and I was seeing it with my cousin. That teen tragedy turned out to be one of life's unexpected perks. Sans amorous distraction, I could concentrate on the performances of Lemmon and Walter Matthau, the first time I'd seen either actor.

Everyone knows the premise of THE ODD COUPLE. Neatnik Felix gets thrown out of his house by a wife fed up with his cleaning and his cooking and his hypochondria. After a few failed attempts at suicide-I contend Felix was just too tidy to succeed at something so inherently messy-he is welcomed into the bachelor apartment of the magnificently messy Oscar. Given the polar opposites of their characters, it doesn't take long for these best friends to devolve into raving madmen and go for the other's throat. We're talking a feel-good comedy here.

Neil Simon's play is very nearly actor-proof. As I said, even teenagers can do it and get the laughs. Okay, yeah, I do still have nightmares about the Charles Nelson Reilly/Dwayne Hickman version I once saw on cable, but my therapist assures me that it was taken off the airwaves and handed over to the government, who only uses it to torture information from foreign spies. That version aside, you'd have to be a tree stump to screw up this comedy. Put Lemmon and Matthau in the leads and you get a bona fide masterpiece, one that can be enjoyed time and time again. I don't think I've ever gone even a year between viewings.

There is, however, one thing that has always bugged me about the movie version of THE ODD COUPLE. In the play, we "meet" Felix and Oscar before the characters actually made their entrances. We "meet" them through their poker-playing pals: Vinnie, Murray, Roy, and Speed. Felix is late for the weekly game, out trying to kill himself. Oscar is in the kitchen, preparing the noshes from Hell. The poker-players are talking about their crazy off-stage friends and the audience is likely assuming that, as friends do, they must be exaggerating.

They're not.

From the moment Oscar makes his entrance, from the shortly thereafter moment when Felix enters the apartment, these characters reveal that, if anything, their friends were being conservative in describing them. For the audience, the revelations are "Ohmygawd, they weren't kidding" moments. Underlying the snappy dialogue and nigh-slapstick visual gags, there is a marvelous structure holding the play together. Everything fits, everything works, everything leads to a most satisfying conclusion.

In the movie, while the opening credits roll, we actually see Felix wandering the chaotic streets of New York and attempting to commit suicide.

Since the film audience doesn't first meet Felix through the idle conversation of his pals, they are robbed of that wonderful "Ohmygawd" moment. Fortunately, I've seen the movie so often that I can fast forward to exactly the moment when the "real" play begins.

I watched THE APARTMENT one night and THE ODD COUPLE the next, and I still wasn't ready to bring my private Jack Lemmon memorial service to an end. There were a dozen movies I could have popped into the VCR, but then I remembered that, sitting in my office, was a Lemmon film I had never seen, a movie which even has a connection to the comics art form.

HOW TO MURDER YOUR WIFE (1965) stars Lemmon as Stanley Ford, the cartoonist/creator of secret agent Bash Brannigan. Ford lives an idyllic bachelor's life. His strip, though criticized for being salacious and violent, is a popular success, likely due to Ford's resolve to be as realistic as possible. Ford acts out every scene with models while his man Charles (Terry-Thomas) takes photos which the artist will later render as line drawings.

Ford lives in an elegantly fabulous Manhattan brownstone with Charles tending to his needs. It is a man's castle, though lovely young ladies are frequent visitors. All of which changes when, as a result of drinking too much at a bachelor party, Ford wakes up to find himself married to a luscious Italian beauty (Virna Lisi) who had emerged from a cake the previous evening. Ford panics, Charles starts packing his bags, and, before long, the worlds of both the cartoonist and his creator are turned upside down.

Stanley Ford may not be one of Lemmon's greatest roles, but he brought more to the character than any other actor I could imagine. He plays him as something of a rat with women and then shifts gears to portray him as a cornered rat. His bride transforms his life, with even the Bash Brannigan strip changing from its secret agent milieu to the domestic bliss of "The Brannigans." After all, Ford still prides himself on his realism and the reality of married life is what he now knows best.

To Ford's horror, the domesticated Bash is more popular than ever. The cartoonist is receiving fan letters from housewives, his syndicate couldn't be more thrilled, and television producers are vying for the rights to the strip. One manufacturer even proposes selling his and hers Brannigans aprons.

To regain any semblance of control over his life, Ford knows he must take drastic action. He will murder his wife...albeit only in his comic strip. With his typical attention to detail, he plots out the perfect crime: buying a store mannequin to stand in for his wife in key scenes, consulting with his doctor as to the effects of a sedative commonly known as a "goofball," learning how to operate a construction crane, and even slipping the pills into his wife's drink at a party to achieve the accuracy he demands. With Charles taking the photographs, Ford carries out the "murder" and disposes of the body (the mannequin) in the foundation of a nearby building under construction. In the heat of his enthusiasm, he draws this fatal sequence.

What happens next? That would be telling, but it does involve a missing wife, a darkly hilarious courtroom scene, and an ending that brought many smiles to my face. Though the movie runs a bit long due to its complicated plot, it remains a film I would watch again and recommend to others.

As I said earlier, Stanley Ford will never be considered one of Lemmon's classic roles, but he, Terry-Thomas, and the delectable Lisi all deliver fun and funny performances. Add the fantastical backdrop of the playboy cartoonist and you have a film irresistible to a seasoned comics afficionado like myself. That Lisi is one of the most stunningly beautiful women I have ever seen also helps in that regard.

The "Bash Brannigan" comic strips shown in the film were drawn by Mel Keefer. His syndicated comics resume includes Perry Mason, Gene Autry, Dragnet, Thorne McBride, and Mac Divot. His comic-book work included various adventure comics for Toby Press and Western, including the latter's Dale Evans title. He has illustrated books on golf and also contributed to Drag Cartoons and Hot Rod Cartoons magazines in the 1960s and 1970s.

Keefer's HOW TO MURDER YOUR WIFE strips are bold and brassy, yet always models of clarity. They catch the viewer's eye whenever they appear on the screen. After seeing them, I'd like to see more of Keefer's work, especially his Perry Mason and Dragnet newspaper strips. He strikes me as a natural artist for crime and espionage stories, which, sadly, were in short supply in the comic books of 1965 and have remained so ever since.

Three Jack Lemmon movies. Three nights.

They won't be the last nights I spend with this superb actor. His amiable presence on the screen makes for a relaxing atmosphere, one conducive to pleasant thoughts that may occasionally drift off the subject, as I have done herein, but which will always draw me back to the characters he brought to life and the stories he helped to tell with those characters.

Jack Lemmon was one of the best. He will always be one of the best. He has left us with an astonishing body of superlative work which, thanks to modern technology, we will be able to enjoy for a great many years to come.

I hope that pleases Lemmon as much as it pleases me.

******

MORE ON THE ABOVE

I never met Jack Lemmon, but I did meet Walter Matthau three times and all on the same day. It was during my mercifully brief career as a DC Comics story editor, a mongrel position which wasn't the one for which I'd originally been hired. Remind me to tell you about it some time.

Anyway, while walking the streets of New York City on my lunch break, I nearly bumped into Matthau as he was exiting a building. I apologized, recognized him, and started telling him how much I'd always loved his work. If I was babbling, the likely scenario, he took it with grace and good humor.

Matthau must have been feeling generous with his time because we talked for about ten minutes. I mentioned-I was such a geek- that my high school had done THE ODD COUPLE in my senior year and that I still read the play frequently. He spoke a few lines on the spot and I gave him some passable responses. I never once thought to ask him for his autograph.

Matthau must have been conducting some business or visiting friends in the area because we ran into each other again as I was leaving the building where DC's officers were located. I saw him, but didn't think it would be right to bother him again. However, he saw me, smiled, and said "Hiya, Felix!" I lost sight of him as I floated several stories above the ground.

Later that evening, I was wandering around Times Square, not wanting to return to the small apartment I was sharing with another comics professional, his current girlfriend, and, occasionally, an assistant of his. That's another story I should tell you sometime, but maybe not in print.

Anyway, I was having a Orange Julius when, you guessed it, I once again crossed paths with Matthau. He laughed and practically shouted, "What is this? The curse of the cat people?" I came this close to doing a spit-take all over him. He shook my hand and said there were laws against this sort of thing.

It was a true New York City moment.

******

EVEN MORE ON THE ABOVE

My high school drama club put on THE ODD COUPLE in the fall of my senior year. I was one of two stage managers and the unofficial understudy for every male role in the play. Truth be told, I knew the Pigeon Sisters lines as well, but, this being an all-boys high school and all, I would have been strung up and left for dead had I deprived the cast and crew of the company of one of the actresses or their understudies from the nearby all-girls school.

When we first see the apartment of Oscar Madison, it could be the centerfold of BAD HOUSEKEEPING magazine. In between acts, the apartment is transformed by the domestically obsessed Felix Under and the hard-working stage crew into an impossibly tidy dwelling. Because the crew had to make this change quickly and exit the stage before the curtain opened again, and because the stage managers had to give the set the once-over before that curtain opened, we came upon the brilliant idea of flashing a bright red light prior to the curtain opening.

Thus alerted, the stage managers would have ample time to make our exit.

However, on the first of the three nights we put on the play, there was some confusion as to who was supposed to be flashing the red light at the appropriate time. As a result, the light didn't flash and the curtain started opening while I was pretty darn near center stage. I had a second to react before the audience would spot me. I DIVED behind Oscar's couch, made myself as small as I could, and remained motionless for the rest of the act.

The audience didn't know I was there, but "Felix" and "Oscar" did. Thus, during the key scene when Oscar throws a steaming plate of linguine against a wall, he managed to hold on to enough of it so that he could shake it off his hand. It fell behind the couch and on my head, dripping down the side of my face.

Though the audience never knew this had happened, our director didn't find it nearly as amusing as did our band of teen thespians. He assigned a terrified freshman to the red light, ordering him to remain by the switch from the start of the performance to the final curtain call.

******

ONE MORE STORY

Our director, decent man though he was, never truly understood the teen sense of humor. Our set design for THE ODD COUPLE called for a high-rise view of New York City to be visible through a faux window. How could we screw that up?

My friend Joe Rutt was called upon to paint this scene and did his usual outstanding job. Because our audience would be made up of common and simple folks--our parents--we knew we had to make it perfectly clear that they were looking at New York City through the window. So Joe and I decided to include the Empire State Building in his painting.

The painting looked good, but it was missing something. Then, Joe and I had an epiphany. We knew with the absolute certainty of youth what was missing from his painting.

King Kong.

So Joe added a figure of the legendary ape climbing the Empire State Building. He tried to make it as unobtrusive as possible, but the director spotted it during our dress rehearsal and ordered Joe to paint over it. Which made the painting look not quite right even to the director. Which is why he then had Joe add a full moon behind the building. That final addition satisfied the director. All was right with the world.

Except...

From a certain angle, when the light hit the full moon right, one could see King Kong in all his simian glory. It was as if we had shined a spotlight on the big ape.

The director never saw this from where he was sitting and I'm sure most of the audience never saw it or, seeing it, realized what they saw. But, every now and then, someone would chuckle at a joke that wasn't there and drive the director nuts.

He never caught on. It was our own twisted interpretation of the curse of the cat people.

I'll be back next week with more stuff.

Tony Isabella

<< 08/03/2001 | 08/10/2001 | 08/17/2001 >>

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THE "TONY" SCALE

Zero Tonys
ZERO: Burn your money before buying any comic receiving this rating. It doesn't *necessarily* mean there's absolutely nothing of value here - though it *could* - but whatever value it might possess shrinks into insignificance before its overall awfulness.

Tony
ONE: Buy something else. Maybe I found something which wasn't completely dreadful in the item, but not enough for me to recommend it when there are better comics available. I only want what's best for you, my children.

TonyTony
TWO: Basic judgment call. I found some value, but not enough to recommend it. My review should give you enough info to decide if you want to take a chance on it. Are you feeling lucky today, punk? Well, are you?

TonyTonyTony
THREE: This denotes something I find perfectly respectable. There are better books out there, but I wouldn't regret buying this item. Based on my review, you should be able to determine if it's of interest to you. Let the Force guide you.

TonyTonyTonyTony
FOUR: I recommend anything earning this rating. Unless you don't like the genre, subject matter, or past work of the creators, I believe you'll enjoy this item. Isn't it uncanny how I can look right into your soul that way?

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FIVE: Anything getting this rating is among the best comicdom has to offer. You should buy/read this, even if the genre/subject matter doesn't appeal to you. It's for your own good. Me, I live for comics and books this good...but not in a pathetic "Comic-Book Guy" sort of way.



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