Classic Actor Spotlight: Jack Lemmon – Timing is Everything

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Greetings, all and sundry! Allow me a few moments of your time to wax nostalgic, elucidate and point out some of the finer performances of an everyman character actor who achieved Stardom the old fashioned way. By working his way up through stage roles. To small, bit parts in television and onto the silver screen. Where he stayed comfortably ensconced for decades. Yet, making and taking the time to keep his talents fresh in the theater.

Allow me to introduce, or re-introduce you to:

Jack Lemmon: Timing is Everything

Though Mr. Lemmon first caught my eye as a Documentary film maker opposite Judy Holliday and Peter Lawford in George Cukor’s It Should Happen to You. Where the first inklings of his comedic timing and delivery began to peek out for all to see. it was Mr. Lemmon’s role as Ensign Frank Thurlowe Pulver in.

Mister Roberts (1955)

That really grabbed my attention. To be working with three proven heavyweights in Henry Fonda, William Powell and Jimmy Cagney. With John Ford at the wheel. And a very little changed Broadway stage screenplay by Joshua Logan and Frank J. Nugent. The film is tight. lean and sometimes spartan. Made for the stage. Describing the boring, mundane life aboard a aged. slow, stuck in the rear, away from harm’s way cargo ship stuck in the South Pacific of WW II, the USS Reluctant. “A floating delivery girl. Transporting its cargo from Tedium to Apathy and back again.”

With Mr. Cagney as the ship’s Captain, Lt. Commander Morton and Mr. Fonda’s Lieutenant Douglas Roberts as the ship’s XO and Cargo Officer. Who wants desperately to get into the war and shares a berth William Powell’s wise and cautiously calm, ‘Doc’ and Mr. Lemmon’s constantly scheming, yet overwhelmingly scared of the Captain, Ensign Pulver easily holding his own. While also managing to steal several key scenes. Especially when Pulver stutters an answer to Cagney’s Captain Morton asking how long Pulver has been aboard his ship. Rumor has it that Cagney and Lemmon had to rehearse the scene until it wasn’t funny and Cagney wouldn’t laugh. Though Pulver’s final confrontation after Mail Call with the Captain takes the cake. In a very early funny, frightened, yet humane role that earned Mr. Lemmon and Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Keeping Mr. Lemmon well in the comedic vein for.

Overall Consensus:

John Ford must have seen something in Mr. Lemmon’s abilities to attach him to the brilliant adaptation of a popular stage play. That was written by Josh Logan with Henry Fonda being the only choice for the lead role. Which gives the film a comfortable and relaxed feel. Smooth, though not quite serene with Fonda’s Mister Roberts wanting to get into the war. Needing the Captain’s signature on any of many transfer requests. While Mr. Lemmon’s offers superbly timed comic relief between William Powell’s wise and sage ‘Doc’ and Fonda’s Mister Roberts. As a perpetual kid with big dreams of getting at the Captain. Though constantly hamstrung by fear of retribution. It isn’t until the final five minutes of the film that Mr. Lemmon’s Ensign Pulver finally grows up, becomes a man and confronts the Captain.

Well worth Mr. Lemmon’s Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Giving the young talent time to practice and hone his skills for.

Operation Mad Ball (1957)

With Mr. Lemmon as a supply clerk in a hospital unit in Europe after the war has wound down. Unfortunately, the unit has a stickler for Army regulations in charge. Catcher’s mitt faced Ernie Kovacs as Captain Paul Locke. Who catches Mr. Lemmon’s Pvt.Hogan while on Guard Duty trying to make time (Fraternizing) with a nurse, Lt. Betty Bixby. Flirtatiously played by up and comer, Kathryn Grant. Explanations don’t assuage Capt. Lock. Who confines Hogans to his barracks pending a Court Martial.

Which puts a huge dent in Hogan’s plan for a wild ball and going away party for the reassigned Company Commander, Colonel Rousch. Endearingly played by fatherly Arthur O’Connell. Undaunted, Pvt. Hogan makes calls and deals with the black market, NCOs who run the Officers and NCO Clubs, musicians, procurers, purveyors and petty thieves as a location is staked out and divergent parts start coming together. Hustlers like Hogan connect and bring in Mickey Rooney as Master Sergeant Yancy Skibo (Pronounced ‘Skeee-bo!’). The darker, more lecherous, Southern Good Ol’ Boy side of a rhyming Andy Hardy. Who, with his cousin, Corporal Bohun. Well played by Dick York ages before ABC’s Bewitched. Go out of their way to feed Captain Locke faulty Intel on the upcoming events. Leaving more time for Pvt. Hogan to connect the dots while reintroducing himself to Lt. Bixby.

All the parts come together as Captain Locke is sent on a wild goose chase and Colonel Rousch is unwittingly, though gently kidnapped and brought to the secluded Mad Ball.

Overall Consensus:

Having been around the world in Active and Reserve uniform for decades. I have a soft spot for Service comedies and dramas. And Operation Mad Ball has the right look and feel of Tent City, just post-war Europe, even though it was shot on the back lots and sets of Universal Studios. Thanks to the Art and Set Direction of Robert Boyle and William Calvert under Richard Quine’s deft touch. Leaving plenty of time for Mr. Lemmon to work his near manic magic and almost letting the audience see the gears turn behind his eyes as the game changes from moment to moment. In a role that earned Mr. Lemmon top billing and a juicy, kind of oily role for Ernie Kovacs and a mixed bag of eager young and old solid talent.

Which brings us to…

Bell, Book and Candle (1958)

As part of a stellar ensemble cast including James Stewart, Kim Novak, Ernie Kovacs, Hermione Gingold and Elsa Lanchester and once again under Richard Quine’s direction. In what is once again an adapted stage play moved to New York’s Greenwich Village during the Christmas season. Where modern day witch Gillian Holroyd. Beguilingly played by Kim Novak wants to break up with her fiance and get to know her neighbor, Shepherd Henderson. Well brought to life by Jimmy Stewart. While Mr. Lemmon cooly entertains and runs interference as Gillian’s warlock brother, Nicky. Who advises Gillian not to fall in love or she will lose her witching powers. When not startling passers by making a block of street light wink out and back on with a snap of his fingers.

Love takes the upper hand, of course. With the aid of Gillian’s familiar. A lovely Point Berman cat named Pyawacket. The spell is cast, almost needlessly. Sending Gillian and Nicky and occult writer, Ernie Kovacs seeking aid from Gillian’s aunt, Queenie. Sublimely brought to life by Elsa Lanchester. While Shep finds coven leader, Bianca de Passe, wondrous Hermione Gingold, for ways to break the curse. I’ll leave it right there and leave the door ajar. For a superior, smart, well written and executed comedy that shows love conquers all. And spawned the popular television series, Bewitched in
the 1960s.

Overall Consensus:

Mr. Lemmon seems to be a cozy fit in another film adapted from a popular stage play. Well versed in the rhythms and sways of what the theater and later film could get to in the Greenwich Village world of coffee houses. Four and five piece post war jazz, poetry and Be-Bop. The cast and settings are definitely not Bohemian. Much more upscale and romantic.

Just the right, quirky environment for witches and warlocks living not quite in the shadows. Mr. Lemmon’s role is not big, but it is essential and the actor admirably makes the most of each scene. Building credentials and credibility for his next major step.

Some Like It Hot (1959)

Who else, but Billy Wilder could take a fifteen minute Vaudeville Drag skit. Let out a seam here and tuck a few in there and turn it into iconic, character driven comedy? Taking a sleepless three thirty in the morning idea and fleshing it out well with a soupcon of Roaring Twenties Chicago. Rival crime gangs. Cops. Detectives. Bootleggers, speak easiest. Then filling those arenas with a Who’s Who of stalwart, A-List talent. Including George Raft, Pat O’ Brien, Nehemiah Persoff, and Mike Mazurki. Along with and two jazz musicians, Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Mr. Lemmon); who can’t seem to catch a break. Trudging through the raw wind and snow of a wicked Chicago winter from agency to agency to get a gig.

One is gotten and is raided by the cops. Leaving Joe and Jerry on the run and looking for a place to lay up while their car is being gassed up in a warm garage. Only to hide when they recognize a local thug, ‘Toothpick’ Charlie in a shadowy card game. When what looks like a police sedan rolls in and a group of what look like uniformed cops shake the card players down and line them up against the wall for what has to be a sanitized version of The Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre.

Unfortunately, the gas nozzle slips from Joe’s car. The gangsters turn and looks are exchanged. Joe and Jerry are now eyewitnesses to the killing and they run for their lives amidst a hail of gunfire. Back to the booking agency, which happens to know an all girl jazz waiting at Union station. That is need of a Saxophonist (Joe) and a stand up bass player (Jerry) for their month long run through Florida. Backing up lead singer and Ukelele player, Sugar Kane Kowalczyk. Stunningly and ditzi-ly played by Marilyn Monroe.

All stirred into a shouldn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of working film. But it does! Magnificently. Especially when Tony Curtis channels his best Cary Grant as a playboy pursuing Sugar. And myopic Joe E. Brown’s Osgood falls for Mr. Lemmon’s Daphne. Their Tango is not to be missed. Nor, is their final scene! Garnering Mr. Lemmon an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor amongst many. Though the film’s only Oscar was for Best Costume Design.

Overall Consensus:

Give credit where credit is due to Billy Wilder sticking with his and I. A. L. Diamond’s idea and screenplay adapted from the 1935 French comedy, Fanfare d’Amour when many doors were slammed in his face. Though, through persistence MGM finally expressed and interest and fronted Mr. Wilder close to a carte blanche budget to give life to this classic, though not quite screwball comedy.

Dues are also given to Mr. Lemmon and Tony Curtis for succeeding in a selection process that included Anthony Perkins and Jerry Lewis, amongst others. In roles that could either make or break their careers. Not as women, but as men imitating women. In this arena, both Mr. Lemmon and Curtis shine, but Mr. Lemmon, even more so. Once the principals were locked in, filling out the rest of the cast must have been a dream. And the talent shows all the way around.

Which brings us to…

The Apartment (1960)

Yea, though I have written about this film on several occasions. This is where Mr. Lemmon starts showing a flair for drama. Playing an office drone in a massive New York insurance company. A passive, cubicle bound Dilbert without a cubicle. One of countless, near faceless number crunchers. With a desk, hand crank adding machine, notepads and an endless supply of pens and pencils. Though Mr. Lemmon’s C.C. Baxter has an in. His apartment is close to the office headquarters that he allows four different office managers to use for extramarital activities.

Four soon becomes five when a new manager, Fred Mac Murray’s ‘Superb Louse‘, Jeff Shelldrake is assigned to Baxter’s section. Offering tokens, trinkets and Talismans to Baxter, to be cut in on the deal. Mr. Lemmon’s Baxter concedes and advances up the ladder. Smitten by elevator girl, Fran Kubilek. A subtle, light hearted love story starts to evolve and Mr. Lemmon’s humanity starts to shine. Topped off when the Holidays come around. When secrets and near tragedy rear their ugly heads.

Overall Consensus:

It’s a treat to watch the consummate Funny Man being given free rein to be as silly as he wishes in so many memorable scenes. Yet, take his first experimental plucks and strums at the dramatic. Letting his face and eyes grasp the thoughts and emotions that his words haven’t quite mastered yet. Especially with his first dinner with Shirley MacLaine’s fragile Fran Kubilek and the impromptu use of a tennis racquet to strain pasta. Then turning the coin when returning to his apartment with a quickly picked up, post company Christmas Party date. Only to discover Miss Kublilek has found his sleeping pills. Then, setting the crowning touch by finally and succinctly confronting Mr. Shelldrake.

Well-worthy of its Academy Awards nominations for Mr. Lemmon and Ms. MacLaine for Best Actor and Actress. And wins for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Writing, Editing and Best Art Direction. Which may have laid the groundwork for Mr. Wilder remembering Mr. Lemmon and acquiring his service in later projects that will be covered in the next installment.


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What do you think of Jack Lemmon and what’s your favorite movie(s) from his illustrious career? Do share ‘em in the comments.

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