Orville J. Spooner (Ray Walston) gives piano lessons in the desert town of Climax, Nevada, and writes unsuccessful pop songs with the local garage owner, Barney Millsap (Cliff Osmond). Barney’s a big guy full of dreams, fast talk, and an unfailing faith in his own genius, none of it hampered by excessive scruples. Orville, who’s also the church organist, has managed to marry the beautiful and sensible Zelda (Felicia Farr), and the only fly in that ointment is that Orville’s insecurity leads to frenetic fits of jealousy over every man who comes near—the milkman, the dentist, a 14-year-old piano student.
Into this little nest, on the night of Orville and Zelda’s fifth anniversary (30 September), drives Dino (Dean Martin), the famous singer known for wine, women, and traveling with the Rat Pack. He just wants some gas for his little Italian car, but Barney arranges for it to break down so he’ll have to spend the night as Orville’s guest, being plied with food and drink while hearing the duo’s songs. To seal the deal, Barney arranges for Orville to replace Zelda (who’s been sent packing after a contrived argument) with Polly the Pistol, a “waitress” at an infamous local dive called the Belly Button, where it’s rumored there’s “love for sale”. (“Cole Porter,” notes Orville.)
That’s the tip of the navel in Kiss Me, Stupid, a sex farce of masquerades and machinations produced and directed by Billy Wilder, co-written with I.A.L. Diamond. Everything about it works more or less brilliantly. The complicated plot structure of mistaken identities, based on an Italian play by Anna Bonacci, hums along like Dino’s pre-fiddled roadster. Joseph LaShelle’s widescreen black-and-white photography is elegant, placing the characters in long, swirling takes amid Alexandre Trauner’s impeccably tatty sets, edited with spare precision and choice transitions by Daniel Mandell. Andre Previn’s score uses a mock-sinister “jealousy” theme for Walston, while the crazy songs are actually pretty good—no surprise, because they’re Gershwin—Ira, to be specific— who wrote new lyrics for previously unpublished tunes by his late brother George.
All the dialogue is funny, delivered with the right pace and tone by a perfectly chosen cast. Critics in 1964 lamented the series of “dirty” lines, as when Orville shows Polly the house and says “It’s not very large but it’s clean”, and she asks, “What is?” That’s probably the bluest joke. Today it all feels positively Wildean in comparison to a random Seth Rogen joint.
It need hardly be said that Dean Martin’s self-parody is as wickedly perfect as if, well, as if he were born to it. He’s in prime form on stage in the Las Vegas sequence (filmed at one of his actual shows), and he really does know how to make a corny song sound good. He breezed his way through a lot of self-parodic nonsense at the time—heck, self-parody was his entire persona—but this is the one with bite. And unlike a leering Martin comedy such as 1962’s Who’s Got the Action (“It’s the most riotous bedtime story ever!” screamed the poster—the movie’s about gambling), this story has follow-through on its tease.
The first time I saw the film, in Paris of all fine places, I thought Walston slightly ill at ease in a role where he replaced the ailing Peter Sellers; I always saw Sellers’ ghost behind him. (In fact, the part was first intended for Jack Lemmon, Farr’s husband.) Now I think Walston couldn’t be bettered, that his manic ill-at-easeness is the character. Although he is initially off-putting and near-tragically flawed, he endears for his flaws, hopeless love, fruitless dreams, tempations, and delayed if porous decency.
Novak is also more subtly shaded than you think at first, while Farr is absolutely on point and Osmond is funny and desperate at once. Many comic actors appear in small roles, all perfectly etched, including Mel Blanc (as a dentist and a parrot), Barbara Pepper, Doro Morande, Alice Pearce, John Fiedler, Tommy Nolan, Howard McNear, Henry Gibson, Cliff Norton and Henry Beckman.
The trailer, which is the only extra included on this excellent Blu-ray transfer, advertises the film in the tradition of Wilder’s last two hits, The Apartment and Irma La Douce. (Alas, it doesn’t mention the movie that came in between them, One, Two, Three, one of the funniest films of that decade.) Critics and public didn’t buy it. The movie was trashed as tasteless and smutty; for a rundown of choice rundowns, check Wikipedia on this once-notorious item condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency.
Imagine if critics had seen the original version. To appease the Legion (fruitlessly), Wilder reshot the scene of Dino and Zelda in Polly’s trailer so that he receives a massage after claiming a back injury. The original version, with no injury or massage, was released abroad. That original is the one in circulation now, including DVD and Blu-ray.
Today, this movie holds up better than the heavy, melodramatic, moralistic The Apartment (winner of the Best Picture Oscar), in which the heroine feels suicidal for giving herself to a married man, or the would-be naughty romp of Irma La Douce, where the American audience accepted the heart-of-gold hooker and the naive pimp because they’re French.
Kiss Me, Stupid dares to suggest that middle-class Americans, just like the ticket buyers, might not be as sexually upright as they’re cracked up to be—and even more unforgivably, that it’s forgivable. This is a truly worldly satire, not one of the pseudo-sophisticated no-sex comedies of the era where everybody talks about sex but nobody has it. Wilder had popular and critical success (another example being The Seven Year Itch) as long as he pushed at the line of public morality without actually having his horny characters cross it. Kiss Me, Stupid not only crosses the line but has them do so without punishment—nay, with reward—and that’s what the public wasn’t ready to accept. If you think about it, it’s rare even today in Hollywood’s would-be sex comedies, whose the most up-to-date elements are profanity and slinkier underwear.