Let's Talk About a Couple of Lemmons

Jack Lemmon is the middle-class, middle-American, totally befuddled Everyman in The April Fools and The War Between Men and Women.

The April Fools

Director: Stuart Rosenberg
Cast: Jack Lemmon, Catherine Deneuve
Distributor: Paramount
Rated: PG
Year: 1969
Release date: 2014-01-28

The War Between Men and Women

Director: Melville Shavelson
Cast: Jack Lemmon, Barbara Harris
Distributor: Paramount
Rated: Not rated
Year: 1972
Release date: 2014-01-28
Still from The April Fools (1969)

Now that we've entered the era of made-on-demand DVD-R's, not many lesser-known older titles are hitting regular DVD from the major studios anymore. So it's a pleasant surprise that we suddenly have two cultish comedies with Jack Lemmon emerging on no-frills discs from CBS-Paramount. Both were produced by CBS' feature-film division, Cinema Center Films, which existed in the late '60s and early '70s and released several hits. Both also feature supporting roles for the same big polka-dotted stuffed green frog featured prominently on the DVD cover of The April Fools, although his coloring is wrong on the image.

This 1969 affair was a very self-consciously "mod" romantic comedy for non-swingers. It was designed for squares who wanted to vacation for a couple of hours in a cartoonish parody of the type of lifestyle they couldn't afford, although the escapist ending -- which, studied closely, is only slightly less ambiguous than The Graduate -- wasn't quite as reassuring for viewers who felt trapped in the middle-class grind.

The film follows 24 hours in the life of newly promoted investment counselor Howard Brubaker, played by Lemmon in his stammering "nice little average guy" mode, familiar since The Apartment. This is the likable persona whose neurotic anger is ready to bubble up when it gets the chance.

He's worked his way up to a noisy suburban home, complete with dog, sullen child, and condescending, busy, loveless wife (Sally Kellerman) while he's, as he puts it, "on the street". ("Don't worry, I'm sure you'll find something" goes one gag reply.) He seems manifestly unhappy with his success, which is one of those dependable if paradoxical tropes of Hollywood movies.

Success is the happy ending of movies about poor heroes, the unhappy beginning of movies about the upper middle class, who suddenly find it's all empty and meaningless and materialistic and hollow. American heroes are always digging somewhere out of their discontent, or where's the story? Wake up! Seize the day! These are Hollywood's most dependable messages. Those message are sold and absorbed so that you can then get back to your life, whatever it may be.

Howard is invited by his boss (Peter Lawford) to an absurdly parodic chic party, the kind where women pose in outrageous Op-Art dresses, their plumage waving against abstract art, uncertain furniture, and Calder stabiles. One of the art pieces is Catherine Deneuve in big fluffy hair, and not realizing she's the boss' bored and unhappy spouse, Howard impulsively takes her to another absurdist locale: a nightclub called the Safari Room, where you shoot the waitress with a pop-gun while a black doorman in Zulu garb asks if Bwana wants a taxi.

Then comes a noisy, flashy discotheque. All of this is to demonstrate that Lemmon, like the middle-class, middle-American audience he's supposed to represent, feels uncomfortable amid contemporary pop noise and youthful styles, as underscored by the perky goadings of Marvin Hamlisch, and that all of this modern stuff is silly anyway.

Mind you, being rich ain't so bad, as we learn by drifting onto a fabulous estate with mansion, pool and greenhouse owned by the eccentric Myrna Loy and Charles Boyer. The latter brushes up on his fencing indoors, knocking around the furniture, while Loy uses tarot cards to give Deneuve a reading as stacked as Professor Marvel's in The Wizard of Oz. The night becomes so magical that Howard decides to run away to Paris with what's her name if they can both leave their spouses.

Will it happen? This is where the movie becomes a little more modern and "with it" than merely making fun of those concepts, because Hollywood films before this didn't typically condone divorce and "running away from responsibility", but something was definitely in the air and even those over 40 wanted to get in on the act.

And yet that ending, which is set in the long-ago and far-away time when you could show up at the airport five minutes before your plane departed and sail on through, will leave many audiences with practical questions. As in The Graduate, we leave Howard holding his runaway lady love's hand, but the look on her face is notably less rapturous. The audience may be enjoying the escapism, but something about it feels as unconvincing as the society party, the nightclub, and the discotheque, and it's the same thing that's been rubbing at Howard's life like the grit in the oyster. For now, though, he's flying through his emotional highpoint on a 747.

Director Stuart Rosenberg's previous movie was Cool Hand Luke, also about a square peg who "failed to communicate" with the world around him, but in an entirely different key; Rosenberg's career remained more interesting the more he associated with Paul Newman and/or crime dramas. This project, scripted wispily if symbolically by Hal Dresner with heavy leaning on the klaxon of desperate suburbia (see the drunken driving gags with Jack Weston and Harvey Korman), just misses the lighter touch it needs.

I wonder if it might have been provided by Bob Rafelson, Paul Mazursky, Richard Lester, or someone more sprightly, someone who can better handle dropping in a Bacharach & David title song crooned by Dionne Warwick. The real stars here are Hamlisch and production designer Richard Sylbert, whose work makes the film worth visiting even if, like its leads, you finally must escape it.

Still from The War Between Men and Women (1972)

The other Lemmon release, The War Between Men and Women, has a direct connection to CBS' TV division. Inspired by the writings of James Thurber, this feature was made by Danny Arnold (writer, producer) and Melville Shavelson (writer, director) as a kind of extension of their brilliant-but-cancelled Thurber sitcom My World and Welcome to It. One of our fondest wishes is that this series will come to home video. Until then, we have this bastard offspring. It even brings back child actress Lisa Gerritsen from that show.

The film is a much rougher affair in celebration of a "mean old son of a bitch", the adoring final judgment pronounced upon cartoonist Peter Wilson (Lemmon) by his new wife Theresa (Barbara Harris). It's supposed to be heart-warming, and reflects the "adult" humor of 1972 movies in contrast to yesteryear, for you see, the movie doesn't punish them for sleeping together before marriage, unless marriage is the punishment.

The hero's sourness and cynicism was supposed to be refreshing in this era when Walter Matthau was a curmudgeonly star (often appearing with Lemmon), the era when old-fashioned romantic plots had to be spruced up with liberated swearing, as in Love Story and A Touch of Class. It worked, too, because all of these were hits. This film was advertised on the poster as "a very special and wonderful comedy!" Today, even nostalgics may not think so.

The movie opens (well, at about Scene 3) and closes with the same guests at different incarnations of essentially the same parodic pseudo-intellectual publishing party (cue the cameo by Dr. Joyce Brothers) that's not far removed from the "chic" New York party in The April Fools. Those New Yorkers can't have fun without Hollywood mocking them for the rest of America, but of course this kind of satire was Thurber country.

Still, the one-liners, busybody-female stereotypes, and humiliating jokes haven't worn that well. The repetitious nature of the parties and the film's cyclical use of them suggests that maybe Wilson's evolution isn't that profound, even if it's supposed to mark a restoration of order through his reunion with Theresa.

It's hard to say what she sees in him, but then they both were literally blind when they "met cute", their eyes dilated and covered by shades at the office of their opthalmologist (Severn Darden), who doesn't mind blurting out personal information about his patients. The film establishes that Wilson, who often addresses the camera, is nearly blind and may lose his sight entirely, and also that he's aggressively "anti-child, anti-dog, and anti-female", as his editor (Herb Edelman) declares. That's a selling point.

Thus, the two conditions are metaphorically, nay explicitly linked even while the script indulges in early '70s "women's lib" era misogynistic humor. Peter's only salvation from his blindness, real and existential, is to fall in love and take responsibility as a suburban family man, complete with ready-made kids and dog, so that he can finally "see". He can run away to Paris with Catherine Deneuve later, and maybe he'll have to.

For now, his post-operation rapprochement with his family is conducted via Gerritsen, as he walks her through an animated sequence based on Thurber's fable The Last Flower. It's the most elaborate of the film's few Thurber-style animated bits.

The War Between Men and Women wants to have Peter both ways -- obnoxious and likable -- and never quite manages it convincingly, despite the support of Gerritsen (good as the squinting, stammering middle daughter), Jason Robards (the overbearing war-photographer ex-husband), Moosie Dryer (the neurotic wide-eyed little boy), and Lisa Eilbacher (the smirking, condescending teen who might be sexually active, but they don't quite have that conversation). Harris' professionalism and likability make what should be a thankless role at least a character that preserves her dignity.

Well, it's their world, and they're welcome to it. We're still waiting patiently for that classic TV show.


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