Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Blue Christmas: Billy Wilder's 'The Apartment'

By Lars Trodson

I suppose it’s not traditional to think of Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment” as a Christmas movie, or to even recommend it as something to watch during the holidays. It’s the saddest romantic comedy ever made. But the heart of the story -- the broken heart center of the story -- takes place on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

This is a movie for people who maintain hope that their lives will work out okay, even if their run of bad luck has been long and arduous. That probably applies to a big chunk of the population during any Christmas season. Not everything is easy, but no day is ever without hope. This is to some extent what “The Apartment” is about.

This is not meant to be depressing. But not everyone is headed to joyous homes filled with family, presents, holiday decorations, a big fat turkey and reunions with long-lost loved ones. Some people are sitting in front of slot machines and at the bus station, waiting for something to happen. If you're lucky enough not to be doing that this year, you may be able to remember the times when you felt like you were.

Billy Wilder’s movie, which was released in 1960, catches that lonely feeling. But since it ends so joyously, with the right touch of reluctant bliss, it makes you feel almost like “It’s A Wonderful Life” does -- you feel like you’ve been on a tough journey, a real journey, with real hurt, and that you’ve come out all right on the other side. That may be what any given year feels like for most of us. Real hurt, real joy for 11 months -- but hopefully we’ve come out okay at the tail end.

There are no actual angels in “The Apartment.” There’s only C.C. Baxter, a low-level schnook who may appear to be a guardian angel to all the rats and super-rats working at the Consolidated Life Insurance Co. in New York.

C.C. offers up his apartment to an array of executive philanderers who don’t want to pay for a hotel. C.C.’s neighbors in his apartment building think he’s some kind of sexual superman because there seems to be action in his room every night. C.C. doesn’t try to correct the impression. He’s discreet, if he’s anything, and he’s rewarded with one promotion after another.

C.C. -- magically played by Jack Lemmon -- is in love with Miss Kubelik, who runs one of the elevators in their downtown office. Miss Kubelik is played by the impossibly appealing Shirley MacLaine, and MacLaine avoids almost every inclination to give her character self-pity or schmaltz.

The problem is, Miss Kubelik can’t return C.C. affections because she just so happens to be having a secret affair with the head of Consolidated Life, the dryly condescending J.D. Sheldrake, played by Fred MacMurray. She’s actually in love with the guy, poor thing.

So C.C., to fill the void and to get ahead, lets his apartment out. The cynicism in the movie begins right away. In an early scene, a Mr. Kirkabee complains that the telephone operator he's sleeping with lives in another borough.
"Why do all you dames live in the Bronx," he says.

"You bring other girls here,?" says Sylvia.

"Certainly not. I'm a happily married man."

C.C.'s apartment gives some hint as to his inner life; the walls are covered with prints of modern paintings: there's a Modrian and a couple of Picassos. You wonder what he's thinking when he's all alone. His next door neighbor is Dr. Dreyfus, played by the Academy Award-nominated Jack Kruschen, who is an ethnic caricature until a brilliant scene in which he attends to a sick Miss Kubelik.

A hint of Fran Kubelik's inner life is revealed during a moment at the Consolidated Life Christmas party -- the kind that companies don't have any more but you sure wish you had been invited to. Miss Kubelik hands over a compact mirror to C.C. Baxter and he notices a crack in the glass.

"I know," she says. "It makes me look the way I feel."

But all of this is levened by humor that is mordant, silly, that is a little racy and a little physical. A woman C.C. picks up in a bar starts to recite "The Night Before Christmas" and in a Noo Yawk nasally voice, she says: "Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring...nuthin...no action...dullsville."

When she asks C.C. if he has any family and he says no, she says "Night like this it's sorta spooky to walk into an empty apartment."

Noting that Sheldrake is with Fran Kubelik at that very moment, C.C. says, "I said I had no family. I didn't say I had an empty apartment."

This is the world of "The Apartment." A Christmas story for those people outside on the sidewalk looking inside at the parties swirling about in the warm lighted buildings.

If you're one of the people feeling a little blue this holiday season, it's okay to watch this flick. It may remind you where you are, but it may also give you a glimpse of where you can be going.