Classic Actor Spotlight: Jack Lemmon Part II… Something Old, Something New

Greetings, all and sundry! After a rather fun first look at Jack Lemmon’s early career. I’ve decided to go a bit into those films of the 1960s that defined and reenforced the actor’s standing as a solid comedic talent. And slowly opened the door into an arena where he would stun and excel. To that end, allow me to introduce you to the next stage of of an astound career.

Jack Lemmon: Something Old… Something New.

After his winning an Oscar for his performance in The Apartment, Mr Lemmon took a brief sabbatical to hone his skills on the stage before taking on the lead in a 1960 service comedy that was received well enough for NBC television to spin the film off into a series five years later.

The Wackiest Ship in the Army (1960)

Under the direction of Richard Murphy from his screenplay. Mr. Lemmon find himself as Lt. Rip Crandall. Who is sent to Queensland, Australia without an assignment. In the middle of  the tide slowly turning towards the Allies in 1943. Little is known about Crandall, except that he was something of a yachtsman before the war. Which suits the Army Air Corps and later, the Navy just fine. Coast watchers are in short supply due to attrition. And a few are on hand with places to go, but no viable form of transportation to get them to their shallow, coral reefed islands and atolls.

Enter the ‘Echo’. An aged two masted schooner that has a crew, sort of. Who don’t know a Main Mast from a Cleat. All that’s needed is a Captain and an eager beaver Ensign as an XO. Nicely played by Rick Nelson. The guy who holds all the card is John Lund, as grandfatherly Lt. Commander Vanderwater. Who gives Crandall a week to get his ship and crew into shape. Done mostly by repetition, with the aid of always dependable Mike Kellin.

A week suddenly becomes two days with the possible substitution for Crandall in Richard Anderson’s Lt. Dennis Foster. The two do not get along to begin with and Crandall takes the Echo and his crew out of the harbor and on to Port Moresby. About three weeks before The Battle of the Bismark Sea…

Overall Consensus:

This is the film where Mr. Lemmon starts to refine and polish his trademark rapid fire delivery of lines. With changes in inflection, metering and tone. While getting used to large sets, rear projection and not a few long, on site scenes aboard the Echo while being dwarfed by larger Naval destroyers and cruisers in port. More a lesson in the bread and butter movie magic of the time. Though very well delivered by the lead actor and his crew of reliable misfits. Who would be seen in countless other service comedies and dramas and NBC’s later television re-make.

Days of Wine and Roses (1962)

Fresh off his win with Breakfast At Tiffany’s , Blake Edwards decided to collaborate with J. P. Miller and adapt his television screenplay from two years earlier for the big screen. Placing Mr. Lemmon solidly in the role of Joe Clay. A mediocre PR man in a San Francisco firm. Joe likes to have a drink and have a good time. When he does, his work suffers, but he doesn’t understand why. After one less than stellar day, Joe happens across secretary, Kirsten Armesen, magnificently played by Lee Remick. A teetotaler, she has some ambition and sparks do begin to catch. A date is agreed to and Joe introduces Kirsten to Brandy Alexanders, which she likes. More and more as time passes. They marry and have a baby girl, Debbie.

Joe tries hard to gather more clients and gets to more than like Two Martini Lunches. So much so that Joe is sent out of town more and more. While Joe is away,  Kirsten drinks. One afternoon, she passes out and their apartment catches fire. Thankfully, she and the baby survive, but Joe is fired for poor performance. Joe tries to find work, but his reputation precedes him. With nowhere left to go, Kirsten asks if she and her family can work for her father’s plant and flower nursery. The father, Charles Bickford reprising his role from earlier is cautious, but agrees. Life is good as the two dry out. Until Joe secrets a few pints of bourbon in flowerpots in the Green House. Joe and Kirsten get a buzz on during a thunderstorm and Joe goes in search of the other bottles. In a panic for not finding the buried treasure, Joe tears the Green House apart.

Joe winds up institutionalized in time for a record case of the DTs. Dries out, hits bottom and then finally goes to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Joe’s sponsor, Jim Hungerford, quietly played by Jack Klugman has been down Joe’s path and helps Joe gets his life slowly back together. Through Joe falling off the wagon, twice. Once, deliberately. To try to get Kirsten to give up drinking, but she likes it too much…

Overall Consensus:

This is the film where Mr. Lemmon taps deep into his talent for drama. Grasps the reins firmly, rides and delivers in ways never imagined. From his too quick excuses to the sadness in his face early on when passing a store window on the way home. And seeing a shabby bum looking back. To the drunken panic and rage at not being able to find the other hiding bottles in the Green House. Mr Lemmon goes places inside that few would have the ability to do today. Yet, his Joe is a oddly sympathetic character. Who has to see his own image staring back from the abyss before admitting his problem and seeking help.

Where Lee Remick’s Kirsten quickly adapts to her relationship, the marriage to Joe as a ‘Threesome’. She, Joe and booze. She likes it. Wants to keep it. And knows what buttons to push and what to say to keep Joe close by. Then lets her tongue become razor sharp, acidic and scathing as Joe pulls away to seek salvation. It’s not pretty, but it is mesmerizing to watch!

In a complete break from what everyone thinks a Blake Edwards movie should be. Certainly not lighthearted or in need of a happy ending. Sometimes raw and in your face. The B&W cinematography by Phil Lathrop is superb. Both indoors and along the steep streets of San Francisco. Art and Set Direction by Joseph Wright and George Hopkins seems to get grainier and shabbier. Aided by Henry Mancini’s bittersweet soundtrack as Joe slowly spirals downward. Hitting the bottom during the final scenes of the film.

Well worth seeking out for Mr. Lemmon’s and Ms. Remick’s Oscar nominated performances. And Henry Mancini’s win for Best Music and Original Score.

How to Murder Your Wife (1965)

This is the film that puts Mr. Lemmon at the top of the Pyramid of smartly written, adult, not quite screwball, farcical comedy. Once again under the adept touch of Richard Quine and shot for a large part in Manhattan.
Mr. Lemmon makes the absolute most of playing cartoonist, Stanley Ford. A bon vivant bachelor with an aversion to marriage. A more or less open door policy for many lovely women to his rather plush Brownstone apartment on 75th, between Lexington and Third. And a penchant to test out all of the adventurous journeys and predicaments he puts his cartoon character, super-spy, ‘Bash’ Brannigan finds himself in. All dutifully photographed by Ford’s butler, Charles. Wondrously played by Terry Thomas.

To say that Ford’s character isn’t popular in the newspapers would be anathema. His strip is responsible for a sizable chunk of his paper’s profits. So, his comic strip character can be as licentious and daring do as he wants in the swinging 60s. Until Ford attends a bachelor party for his friend, Tobey Rawlins. Has a few too many and in a very out of character moment, proposes to Virna Lisi. The stunning Italian girl who pops out of the celebratory cake clad in a very revealing bikini. A judge, also very drunk, performs an impromptu wedding ceremony and Stanley awakens the next morning, hung over, feeling miserable and… Married!

This can’t be! Stanley calls his lawyer, Harold Lamson. Stuffy and somewhat hen pecked. Played to scene stealing perfection by Eddie Mayehoff, to arrange a divorce, but legal justification is needed. And there is none. Virna Lisi’s Mrs. Ford is gorgeous, cheerful, affectionate, loving and outside of her not knowing a word of English, is as close to perfect as man can hope for. Things change and Stanley adapts. Badly. As Charles leaves to work for the jilted Tobey. Mrs. Ford starts hanging out with Harold’s near shrewish wife, Edna, who speaks Italian. Then stays up late at night to watch television and learn a new language. And Ford’s once glorious Man Cave is introduced to feminine finery and damp stockings and lingerie hanging on the bathroom’s shower curtain rod.

Something’s got to give! Stanley’s kept up by the television and the constantly churning cement mixer (The ‘Gloppitta~Glopitta Machine’) just outside and stories below his drawing room window. Some surcease is found in real life. Changing his comic strip’s tone from daring do and dames to domestic comedy, but a more solid solution must be found!

A theoretical, sub rosa one is tossed about in the steam room of an all male health club. Whose attendants are married and share to some extent, Harold’s less than Alpha male life. A doctor (Jack Albertson) with access to ‘goofballs’ describes their effect and the nugget of a plan is hatched. Sadly. Stanley lays out his scheme in his daily comic strip.  Charles returns to photograph Stanley as the host of a cocktail party after Mrs. Ford has seen it. Stanley excuses himself for a few moments. Drugs Mrs. Ford and replaces her with a department store mannequin, which he buries under an ocean of glop from the Glopitta~Glopitta Machine. As Mrs. Ford comes to and splits for parts unknown. Needless to say, the NYPD have been reading the comic strip. Put two and two together. Arrest Stanley for murder and the real fun begins!

Overall Consensus:

One of the last and possibly greatest Battle of the Sexes comedies of the 20th century. Where the buildup is exquisitely detailed and meticulous under director Quine’s less than gentle touch and George Axelrod’s deft screenplay. Where the real payoff is in the trial. Mr. Lemmon’s Stanley Ford sits patiently as witnesses testify and unwittingly paint Stanley into a corner. Until Stanley calls his lawyer, Harold to the stand and unleashes a whirlwind defense after drawing a chalk circle. A Button. On the rail of the all male witness box. Pulling every trick out of his rapid fire delivery to get Harold to “Push the button!”

An adult comedy that lays bare all the Add ons and Apps that come with marriage. Mortgages, kids, the slow cessation of power to the wife, viciously, deliciously personified in Claire Trevor’s cunning Edna. Opposite a Rogues Gallery of male character actors doing some of their best work. Especially, Alan Hewitt as the D.A. between episodes of My Favorite Martian on CBS. Eddie Mayehoff as hen peck lawyer, Harold. And Jack
Albertson’s kindly, very hip Dr.Bently. But it’s Mr. Lemmon who rules the roost, since all things circle around him. Surrounded by some superb on location photography by Harold Stradling Sr. and William Kieman’s Set Design. Most notable in the courtroom and Stanley’s lush digs. Where the only thing missing is Dave Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’ being played on a constant loop.

The Fortune Cookie (1966)

The first and one of the best team ups with Mr. Lemmon opposite Walter Matthau. Under the assured eye and guidance of Billy Wilder in and around Municipal Stadium in Cleavland, Ohio. In glorious, washed out B&W during the fading, glory days when the city was still hog butcher to the world.

Mr. Lemmon finds himself as sports camera man, Harry Hinkle. Divorced in a marriage that hit rocky shoals. Harry covers a football game between the Browns and the Vikings. Harry is on the sidelines getting some film of Luther ‘Boom Boom’ Jackson as he closes on another player. Harry is hit and is knocked to tumble on his back. The game is stopped as medics put a cervical collar around Harry’s neck and take him off the field on a stretcher. Between the time Harry leaves the stadium in an ambulance and arrives at what is to be St. Vincent’s Charity Hospital, sleazy ambulance chaser and personal damages lawyer par excellence, Willie ‘Whiplash’ Gingrich is called. Ready to make whatever injuries Harry has suffered magnify ten fold. To apply pressure in his search of the mother of all out of court settlements.

Harry has some bruises, but that’s nowhere good enough. Harry soon finds himself in a neck brace and feigning paralysis as Willie prepares to do battle with the stadium, and perhaps later, NFL lawyers. And just as slimy insurance investigator, Chester Purkey. Deftly played by Cliff Osmond. Who sets up camera surveillance across from Harry’s room and wants desperately to plant some microphones. Harry goes along with all this. In hopes of getting his less than congenial wife, Sandi back. The gauntlet is thrown down and a game of wits ensues as Willie more or less scripts Harry’s life. How to behave. What to say. Between bouts for settlement figures and making Purkey look silly.

In the interim, Luther shows up and looks after Harry. As the monetary sword rattling continues and looks to pull Luther into its vortex. The situations become more and more silly as Harry learns that Sandi’s new and sudden affections are based on greed, not genuine. Which gently coaxes Harry over the edge to do the right thing.

Overall Consensus:

An unabashed, though comical look at the lengths some will go to seek a financial boon.Told in terse scenes that average 17 seconds. With the sublime aid of Wilder’s and I.A.L. Diamond’s screenplay. Allowing just enough time for Mr.s Lemmon and Matthau to trade quips and have Matthau come out on top. Even more so for Matthau’s gamesmanship with the stadium’s and higher lawyers. Well worth the effort of seeking out and savoring. For the teaming of two masters. And Matthau’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar winning performance and Joseph LaShelle’s subdued, shabby, Oscar nominated cinematography.

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The Odd Couple (1968)

The second teaming of Mr.s Lemmon and Matthau is far more subtle and somewhat bittersweet. With Mr. Lemmon’s divorced  fastidious, hypochondriac Felix Ungar moving into the with fellow divorcee, uber slob and sports writer, Oscar Madison. What could possibly go wrong: Under the direction of Gene Saks and a screenplay by Neil Simon and his Broadway play…. Everything!

Felix is a neat freak with what would later be called Obsessive Compulsive Behavior. Who worries far too much and to the distraction of Oscar. Who’s fun loving, easy going and lives for sports. Particularly the Mets. And football. The two do not get along, but Felix has plenty to do in upgrading Oscar’s apartment from ‘Pig Sty’ to ‘Livable’. Arguments crop up over Oscar’s cigar smoking to the difference between ‘Spaghetti’, ‘Linguine’ and ‘Garbage’. To whatever indoor sports like pool or bowling, Oscar can best Felix at. Though they oddly call a truce when it comes to their new English neighbors, the Pigeon Sisters. Monica Evans as widower Cecily and Carole Shelley as divorcee, Gwendolyn.

Overall Consensus:

A well rounded, written execution of Simon’s famous, long running Broadway play. That could have had Walter Matthau playing Felix after so many months of playing Oscar. Even though Simon’s sights were set on Mr. Lemmon for the role. With Mr. Lemmon reacting more than acting to Oscar’s harangues and Felix rarely having the last word. It’s fun to watch during the second half of the film as some of Felix’s less annoying attributes seem to rub off on Oscar. And Felix dares to open up around the Pigeon Sisters. Before thinking of his ex wife and bursting into tears.

Progress, of sorts is made. And would be more deeply explored two years later. When ABC would make a long running series of the play and film two years later. With Tony Randall playing Felix and Jack Klugman fitting snugly into the role of Oscar. With occasional visits from the original Pigeon Sisters.


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