The Journey So Far

A chronological stroll thru the history of Broadway Musicals as they came to be recorded by Hollywood--the summation of a lifelong vocation, and a journey of self discovery. Equal parts cultural history, critique and personal memoir. Coming next: Beauty & the Beast

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Irma La Douce

June 5, 1963   United Artists   143 minutes

The advent of R&H sent American musicals to London and all over Europe, Israel, Japan, Argentina, Australia--in triumph everywhere. Except in Paris, where the French couldn't be less interested. Not until one of their own, writer Alexandre Breffort in collaboration with Edith Piaf's songwriter, Margeurite Monnot, composed a local tuner that became a sensation in late '56. The buzz quickly spread to London, where three Brits took a chance on translating the parochial Gallic flavor for an English audience. With great assist from acclaimed experimental director Peter Brook, it became, a 4-year smash hit. Next, Bway's David Merrick who was importing new British plays like they were Volkswagens, quickly shuttled the show over the pond, with stars Elizabeth Seal, Keith Michell, Clive Revill and director Brook in tow. One more polish, and some new dances by the now ubiquitos Onna White, fine-tuned the musical to Bway's higher standards. Merrick scored another sellout hit, Seal won a Tony Award, and the show got a Best Musical nomination over both Camelot and The Unsinkable Molly Brown. In short order the little Parisian romp about a whore and her pimp was an international success, with productions on every continent save Antartica. Not since Offenbach had a French musical traveled the globe.
Naturally, the next stop in the Paris-London-New York axis would be Hlwd. And as usual, the changes were more radical still. This time the French musical was stripped of its music. Was this a trend? Conceivably the studios might make a tuneless bio of Fiorello!; or turn Milk & Honey into a travelogue comedy of Jewish widows on tour in Israel--starring Roz Russell; or a Little Me so full of farce and plot, a score would be superfluous. Warners did it to Fanny, and few complained--in fact in all likelihood it helped the grosses. Now here it was again--a Bway tuner excised of its tunes, and during the height of the Bway musical's prominence in Hlwd. But as bought by the Mirisch Bros. as a property for Billy Wilder, the show's origins were irrelevant. Whatever Billy wanted Billy got.

As a student of cinema from an early age, my favorite directors were Alfred Hitchcock, David Lean, Federico Fellini, but most of all Wilder. A writer first & always, Billy was a  consummate story-teller, with a mordent wit and relaxed morality, who worked with equal brilliance in many genres, but admitted to being clueless about westerns and musicals. The latter he attempted in '47 with a Mitteleuropian operetta for Bing Crosby called The Emperor Waltz--his single misfire in a ten year streak (1944-54) of Oscar nominated (and awarded) films. After years of original scripts he began adapting Bway plays in the '50s: a prison-camp thriller, a high-toned romantic comedy, a Manhattan sex farce, a courtroom mystery. In each instance, Wilder (and his co-writers) did the unthinkable: improved on the original. Even Agatha Christie was surprised with his extra twist in Witness for the Prosecution. You can see why Wilder (and longtime collaborator, IAL Diamond) were drawn to Irma for the story alone. He'd always pushed the limits of censorship, and now the production code was really loosening up; you could do a comedy about an happy hooker, without having to condemn or redeem her. (They went so far as to name the pimp's union--in a dig at the Motion Picture Producer's Association--the MPPA: Mecs of Paris Protective Assoc.) As usual, Wilder makes the screenplay into his distinctive reconstruction, using little more than the premise. The stage show was written for 13 men and a single woman. Wilder gives us a block full of whores, a parade of cartoon tarts including a blonde African, "Kiki the Cossack," and a set of twins; and featuring previous Wilder scene-stealers, Hope Holiday (Margie MacDougal in The Apartment) and Joan Shawlee (Sylvia Gilhooley in same, and Sweet Sue in Some Like it Hot) in platform bits. Holiday's Lolita wears Sue Lyon's heart-shaped sunglasses in reference to Kubrick's recent film. Shawlee bears a strong resemblance to the pre-Mame middle-aged Angela Lansbury. On stage Irma's lover, Nestor, starts out a law student. Wilder smartly reassigned him as a rookie cop--who quickly gets fired for raiding Irma's bordello; among whose visitors is the chief of police--Herschel Bernardi. Broke and jobless, Nestor defends Irma from her pimp and winds up winning her heart, her bed, and her income. Predictably he becomes jealous of her clients, and poses as a wealthy Englishman to lay exclusive claim to her services. So now he has to support her--in secret and at great cost to his own health and sanity. Breffort's original was more centered on a band of criminals within the Parisian hood, which was dropped to focus entirely on Lemmon's plight. Wilder originally sought Elizabeth Taylor for Irma, but she was too embroiled in Cleopatra. Ultimately, reuniting Jack Lemmon & Shirley MacLaine was a shrewd commercial decision. Whether intentional or not, more than a few moments recall similar scenes they played in The Apartment: Lemmon's modeling a bowler hat, getting slugged for defending her honor; facing a wised-up boss/police captain; attending an office/"office" party; the long climbs up apartment stairs; even talky heart-to-heart scenes while playing cards. Lemmon gives a hammier performance here, playing a cartoon Englishman as Irma's exclusive new "benefactor." (Wilder can't resist using "the rain in Spain" for speech practice.) The British charade isn't nearly as funny as Wilder intends, Nestor fumbling his way thru English references by name-dropping British film titles--his "disability" a result of the blown-up Bridge on the River Kwai.

MacLaine, who still looks amazingly youthful, plays Irma with a cool indifference: she's the only whore on the block who doesn't lift an eyebrow to lure her prey; they flit like moths to a flame. With her ivory skin, black hair and a fetish for green lingerie, she's an eyeful. (Here and in Gambit her looks peak for me.) She alone would get an Oscar nod this time--her second under Wilder's direction. It's one of her quietest, most subdued performances. But many of the best lines and bits are given to the cafe owner, Moustache--a role Wilder intended for Charles Laughton, who was too weak, and shortly died. Moustache espouses a "French" liberal philosophy, providing homilies on sex and economics; dropping repeated mentions of previous professions, only to add, "but that's another story"--another Wilderian touch: the repeated phrase. The Jewish comedian, Lou Jacobi plays Moustache, and makes it fresh by subsuming his thickly Yiddish persona into a convincing Parisian. Aside from the opening voice-over narration by Louis Jourdan there's a decided lack of any French actors (let alone accents), that the casting of Charles Boyer--tho spot on--would have thrown this Anglicized Montmarte off. (Even that well-known kiddie song, "Alouette" is translated to "L:ittle Birdie.")

Margeurite Monnot's music--which is quite jolly in its left-bank honky-tonk piano and accordian way--was part of the film's sale. The score was adapted by Andre Previn; but unlike his recent work on Porgy & Bess and Bells Are Ringing, his arrangements consisted more of his own compositions than Monnot's. Of the musical's 15 songs, only a few were retained; primarily "Dis-Donc" which serves as a main theme; and the one ballad which had pop cover recordings, "Our Language of Love" used as underscoring for nearly all the romantic scenes. Aside from that, we hear "She's Got the Lot" as a jukebox selection in Cafe Moustache, and traces of "Valse Milieu" (which reprised in the second act, becomes a soliloquy for Irma, and the title tune.) It's such an engaging melody--the show's best-- that I'm surprised Previn didn't feature more of it. He certainly wrote enuf themes of his own, successfully capturing the spirit of Monnot's melodic line, but there's a good deal strikingly reminiscent of Frederick Loewe as well. Monnot was also known for "The Poor People of Paris"--a Piaf song that in mangled translation became a #1 record in America by Les Baxter. Retitled by mistake from "Ballad of Poor John"--its tale of a sap who consorts with the "bad girls" of Paris would have equally suited Irma La Douce. Just as well, MacLaine could have played the role as it was written for the stage, and tho Wilder shied away from making a musical, he nearly gives her a full-out number with "Dis-Donc," performed as if the film were a real musical.

The movie has the usual establishing roll of postcard shots (the sort still being done as Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris proves) but the rest of the film uses a studio Montmarte built entirely off Santa Monica Blvd. It isn't often you see the art director sharing equal billing with the main players on a movie poster. But Alexander Trauner's detailed streetscape is a true marvel; expertly aged and trashed, with a remarkable capacity for absorbing a downpour. The sets thru-out are knockouts, somehow more impressive in our knowledge that they are sets--and lit in spectacular fashion as well (unlike theater, lighting credit in film is virtually anonymous.) Cinematographer Joseph LaShelle received an Oscar nomination, but strangely not Trauner--who was absurdly passed over in favor of Paramount's Come Blow Your Horn, featuring a contemporary East Side apartment. Wilder got no love from the Academy this time either, but this snub to Frenchman Trauner was more of a slap in the face. Costume designer Orry-Kelly, who sounds French, but was actually an Australian born John Kelly, designed gowns in Hlwd since 1932. Irma was his final (296th) film. Most recently he'd been nominated for Gypsy; and won 3 Oscars for Some Like it Hot, Les Girls and An American in Paris. Amusingly, his De-Gaulle era hooker designs within a few years were subtle enuf to pass for office wear.
I first heard of the movie from our neighbor, the one with the highly contagious laugh, Gloria Milano. How she roared recalling the story with my mother--something about Shirley MacLaine in green stockings--but little more would they share in front of me. I was over ten years old now; all the racy adult films my parents didn't hestitate to expose me to in my single-digit years came to a halt. Irma La Douce was for grown-ups. This, of course, made me want to see it all the more. But it would be take a decade before I finally caught it on network TV (shown uncut: the culture shifted so much, it was now tame). It was among the last four Wilder-directed films I hadn't yet seen. And as Lemmon & MacLaine were nearly my favorite stars, and The Apartment nearly my favorite movie, there was great anticipation for this reunion. The American public proved that point in 1963; becoming not just Wilder's biggest box-office hit, but the highest-grossing comedy of all time. (A record shortly broken by It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and not again until The Graduate.) Everything about it screamed great expectations--which of course meant inevitable disappointment. It's one thing to like a movie, it's another to hope it enters your pantheon. Over the decades I've returned to Irma far less than other Wilder pics, but with these lastest viewings, I'm starting to enjoy the film's details, if not always its leisurely pace. Even more than usual, Wilder has taken a stage property and transformed it into his own idea. But Wilder falters here; by removing any genuine French milieu; the band of theives, the Devil's Island sequence, the ocean voyage escape and all the musical numbers, the film is left with long stretches of time filled with physical comedy from Lemmon; dressing, undressing, climbing drainpipes, appeasing a dog, hauling sides of beef, seltzer-spraying, on and on. . . it could almost be a Chaplin silent. Only this being a Wilder film there's a great deal of dialogue--much of it, also stretched to fill the holes of the score. What would have been a breezy comedy at 100 minutes is, unfortunately, a leaky balloon at 143.

Next Up: The Unsinkable Molly Brown

Report Card:    Irma La Douce
Overall Film:    B
Bway Fidelity:  for score/ C  for story
Songs from Bway:  0 
Songs Cut from Bway:  15
Casting:   Prime Hlwd--No French Required
Standout Cast:  MacLaine, Lou Jacobi
Cast from Bway:  None
Direction:  Leisurely paced Wilder
Choreography: None
Scenic Design: Exceptional, gritty, detailed
Costumes: Hooker couture by Orry-Kelly
Standout Set: Rue Casanova--the large main
    streetscape that curves in many directions
Titles:  Set over Monnot's snappiest tune,
    establishing the milieu and its operation
Oscar Noms:  3:  1 Win: Scoring (Previn);        
    Actress (MacLaine); Cinematography

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