Words with a “K” are funny

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The advice of a character in Neil Simon’s THE SUNSHINE BOYS may be genuine showbiz lore — it certainly seems to have informed Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s script for THE APARTMENT, which I showed to some of my students as a Christmas treat.

Jack Lemmon is C.C. “Buddy” Baxter, the “x” forming our first K sound. He works for Consolidated Insurance and his boss is Mr Sheldrake (Wilder’s lucky name, dropped into several scripts). In their first conversation, Sheldrake mentions both the Kentucky Derby (another Wilder favourite*) Where it tips over into the blatant is with Shirley MacLaine’s character, Fran Kubelik. Two Ks is definitely humorous.

One of Lemmon’s oppressors is Mr Kirkeby, which looks sensible written down but sounds kind or funny spoken aloud. Another is Eichelberger, which is comical either way. Kubelik’s brother-in-law is Carl Matuschka, and Hope Holiday is Margie MacDougall, wife of the unseen jockey Mickey MacDougall.

The film uses other kinds of alliteration, rhymes, assonance and echolalia. Objects travel through the film, changing their purpose and meaning with each appearance, taking their cue from the apartment door key which circulates from doormat to in tray, sometimes switching places with the key to the Executive Washroom (a place of hallowed splendour, as we know from WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER?) — a champagne bottle, a hand mirror, a gramophone record.

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In one scene, Lemmon twirls a piece of spaghetti (which should really be dry and rigid after a week stuck to his tennis racket) and Wilder dissolves to a New Year party where Shirley is toying with a string of pearls as streamers whorl downwards — a double echo. And a meme of drunkenly inaccurate raised fingers (“Three,” says MacLaine, holding up four fingers) is transmitted from scene to scene and person to person like the “Type O” blood in SOME LIKE IT HOT. Wilder probably never achieved a script as tightly constructed as this before or since — he’s using a kind of farce structure to tell a story that’s mainly serious, and a bitter and cynical attitude to disguise a story that’s ultimately sweet at the centre.

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*In one anecdote, Wilder pitches a life of Nijinsky to the bosses at Paramount. “What kind of story is this? A ballet dancer who goes crazy and thinks he’s a racehorse?” “Yeah, but in my version there’s a happy ending — he wins the Kentucky Derby.”)

PS — a Christmas limerick!

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11 Responses to “Words with a “K” are funny”

  1. The Apartment is one of my favoirte Christmas movies.That still of Shirley Maclaine in the booth of the Chinese restaurant is just at the moment when she has her coup de foudre that Baxter is the love of her life. Fred MacMurray, who has been looking away towards the restaurant crowd, suddenly turns and we see her place is empty. At that point Wilder LAP DISSOLVES to Shirley racing down the street with a big smile on her face to return to the apartment and the film’s last mments. When I first saw the film I totally “lost it” there. Happy endings make me cry and The Apertment is right up there with L’Atalante and Les Demoiselles de Rochefort on that score — along with City Lights of course.

    Woody Allen does Shirley’s run in the ending of his Manhattan. A very effective tribute to Billy.

  2. Volker Schloendorff counts that dissolve as his favourite moment in cinema. And they had to keep showing Shirley running past the same background because they didn’t have enough set and they realized the moment needed to be extended. It works beautifully.

    Especially because the “false happy ending” — where everybody gets what they think they want — Sheldrake gets his divorce, Fran gets Sheldrake, Buddy gets promoted — is one of the bleakest things in Hollywood cinema.

  3. You certainly captured it, cookie-wise! Great post about a great film :)

  4. One of my favourite things about the film is that Baxter continually picks up other people’s turn of phrase – borrowing Kirkeby’s “wise” suffix, the barman’s “O-U-T, out!”, the doctor’s “most of them try it again” and his final decision to become a “mensch”. Miss Kubelik is the only person who ever quotes Baxter – the only person who paid attention to what he says, the only person who really cared. As a habitual quoter myself, I find it very touching.

  5. Yes, Wilder loves little verbal tics that transmit from character to character, but The Apartment really makes something out of it. Baxter’s desire to fit in and be an executive is part of what holds him back from finding love.

    Thanks, Vickie! I don’t think I’ll ever capture more than a tiny fragment of what’s on offer in this film, but I’ll keep trying!

  6. Randy Cook Says:

    And you shouldn’t be forgetting to mention, maybe, all that mishigas down at Cape Canaveral.

  7. Yes! Mrs Lieberman makes up for the lack of a K sound in her own name.

  8. David Boxwell Says:

    Does more in two hours than “Mad Men” can hope to effect in 50 hours (hard as it tries, over 5 seasons). I first saw “The Apartment” when I was 14–and it warped my fragile little mind forever.

  9. I was probably about the same age on first exposure. I felt it was Chaplinesque, which was a word I wouldn’t apply to just anything. Now I see that quality less in the moments of pathos (Lemmon along before The Music Man) than in the application of a comic tone to a serious story.

  10. My first exposure to it involved the now long gone and long lamented Vic’s Video Americain video store, which was more or less my introduction to the world beyond blockbuster and the greatest trove of tapes upstate Delaware has ever seen. Vic himself was a very quiet man in his sixties who smoked a lot of pot, and I was deathly afraid of him. I once got up the nerve to ask him what he considered the greatest movies ever made, again probably around the age of 14, and he replied with this film and The Third Man. I have not a bad word to say about The Third Man, but The Apartment is the one I fell in love with. As stated above, every line of dialogue seems to reconnect with something that comes later. There’s not an ounce of fat on this movie anywhere.

  11. It’s like a Swiss watch. (“You ever have a good Swiss watch?”) IAL Diamond said that the team usually started shooting a Wilder film before the script was finished, but I find that hard to believe with this one.

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