A Lawford Unto Himself
IT SHOULD HAPPEN TO YOU is pretty damn good fun. If you watch it right after BORN YESTERDAY you might get slightly annoyed by the repeated trope of a smart male trying to educate Judy Holliday out of her false values, which is effective once but starts to seem a bit retrograde second time round. But watch them a few months apart and I think that won’t be a problem. And anyway it helps that William Holden plays it so well in the earlier film, without a hint of patronizing patriarchy, and Jack Lemmon is too light to come across like some kind of hectoring Glenn Ford figure also.
But my favourite bit in ISHTY (good acronym!) is when love rat Peter Lawford is pressing his luck with Judy. Several of her films make comedy out of the dubious situation of a guy refusing to take the hint — PHFFFT has an unpleasant moment when Jack Carson is coming on very strong and one feels that his agreeably oafish presence could swiftly become intolerable and downright sinister if they take this one hair further — but Judy is the great enabler for sexist comedy because she makes everything funny, and therefore inoffensive. If you’re laughing you are by definition not offended.
This sequence particularly illustrates George Cukor’s skill, which is generally an art which conceals its art — you know he’s good because the films FEEL good, but it’s hard to put your finger on his exact technique. But this one is a very artful use of the frame, creating a surprise out of repeated action — the performances enhance it immeasurably, not just Judy who can ring infinite changes on a recurring gag, but Lawford who is a pretty underrated light comedian, only lacking the authentic charm that would have pushed him into the major league. He’s ideally cast here, in other words.
Judy has bought a billboard to advertise her mere existence so she can be a celebrity (it’s a very modern, relevent story about being famous for no reason) and Peter Lawford needs the sign for his business so he’s going to wine and dine Judy and even romance her to get her to give up her sign.
CLOSE ANALYSIS TIME!
Lawford drives Holliday back from their date. Cukor delivers a standard-issue establishing shot.
He cuts in closer as Judy exits the car, and Lawford disembarks offscreen (“Shoot the money!” as Cukor would say) and circles the vehicle to, apparently, say goodnight. Judy smiles and says “Well, good night,” and he goodnights her back, but then simply follows her as she turns to her apartment.
Same shot: Judy turns to wave goodbye but is surprised to find him right there, not back at the car where she assumed she’d left him. Priceless expression from JH. And the comedy of finding yourself waving at someone who’s about six inches from your face.
Same shot: Judy has to say something, so she says “Thank you very much,” obviously feeling this has an appropriate ring of finality to it. “Not at all,” replies Lawford earnestly, and then, as Judy starts up the stairs to her brownstone, he joins right alongside her. Second hilarious reaction from Judy as she glances over at him with a slight sense of one in a dream.
Same shot: she’s now at the front door. Nervous laugh. “I had a real good time.” The conversation seems to be extending itself like a ramp.
Same shot: up to the front door (the camera follows weightlessly). Judy opens one door, Peter opens the other. She nods to him slightly: it’s meant to mean GOODNIGHT but, fatally, she doesn’t actually say it. Or GOODBYE might be better.
They go in the first door. Cukor now cuts to inside and Judy comes in the second door and turns to head Peter off before he can follow. “Well… good night.” “Good night,” he replies, amiably. Judy turns, now confident that the correct message has now been delivered and understood.
But (same shot) she’s only climbed one step when her spider sense starts tingling, warning her of danger. Back hair rising. Like one that on a lonesome road doth walk in fear and dread / Because he knows that Peter Lawford doth close behind him tread.
Same shot: Judy turns and says “WELL” again, quite emphatically, and then “good night” as a whisper because they’re in the communal stair, and she wants him to realize that. Judy’s indefinable comic genius: she knows that the audience will laugh at the awkwardly repeated line anyway, but she can get two more distinct laughs out of it by saying the first bit surprisingly loud and the second bit surprisingly quiet. Comedy being this strange mix of anticipation and surprise.
Same shot: Peter whispers “Good night” back and Judy mounts the stairs, growing in confidence as she gets further up: halfway to the next landing her neck distinctly straightens up, with a sense of being home free and no longer under observation and feeling in might even be safe to make a sprint for it, possibly. Cukor is ascending right along with her by crane, not to be Ophulsian and elaborate — he’s planning to cut pretty soon anyway — but because this comic movement demands it.
Whoops! Same shot. Lawford accelerates into frame right on her ass. Judy immediately detects him (spider sense going like the clappers) and spins around as soon as she gains the landing. This should keep Lawford on the stairs, at a slight psychological disadvantage, but he just keeps on coming — the Sperminator — causing her to back away and get on an even footing with her. He’s playing it very louche — like the City Wolf in Tex Avery’s LITTLE RURAL RIDING HOOD, made some years before. Judy gives him a smile which gives every appearance of sincerity except when she drops it like a mask, and then gives him a brisk wave, practically semaphore for GO AWAY PETER LAWFORD.
Peter smiles indulgently: “Foolish child!” Judy bolts, and George cranes straight up, letting Judy leave shot screen left, her movement somehow driving the camera’s ascent even though she’s no longer even in view, then he reaches the next landing ahead of her and she, having rounded the corner, arrives from screen left and looks over the banister to make sure he’s not following her —
Puzzled expression, telling us that, like Michael Myers after going out the window at the end of HALLOWEEN, Lawford is not there where he should be.
“Whoops!” Peter glides into view right behind her. Judy bolts off, screen right.
Cut. Judy is now advancing at speed, sort of pretending he’s not there anymore in the hopes that he’ll get the message and start playing the role of a man that’s not there anymore. Maybe even method-acting the part. The other day upon the stair / I met a man who wasn’t there…
The apartment door is reached. A new strategy: “Well [slight laugh] this is it.” Regal, fluttering gesture at door. Awkward pause at realization that sentence with subtext “We have reached the end, beyond which nothing further can be expected,” might in fact be misread as “Here it is, big boy.”
Fanatical density being Peter’s main weapon, he replies “What?” “Where I live,” explains Judy, advancing to ever-higher levels of discomfiture (most actors probably only have about three, but Judy has one for every step of the way here). “Oh…good…” replies the wolf, sidling closer. “So… I guess I’d better go in.” “Very well,” he breathes. “Eh… because it’s pretty late?” says Judy, here enhancing a line by delivering it as a hopeful question rather than a statement.
“Yes it is,” murmurs Lawford, now pressing close as if in a rush hour subway. In a sexy scene, the camera would be equally intimate. By staying wide, Cukor maintains Judy’s interpretation of the scene: the absurd, unwanted closeness of this man in a spacious hallway.
Judy breaks free, which means leaving her doorway, and tries another strategy: “Besides, I don’t think your car’s safe down there.” “Oh?” breathes Lawford, attempting to be seductive about his parking. “You don’t know this neighbourhood!” exclaims Judy, in a thrill of panic, trying to imbue the neighbourhood with an outrageous amount of automotive peril, and holding her hat at pelvis level like a kind of tabard against the unwelcome waves of Lawford’s penile radiation.
Peter dangles his little car key smugly. “Locked.” The subtext reads: “I think of everything. Always prepared. Ever ready. you know what I mean, baby?” Judy laughs this off: it wouldn’t stop the really determined car thieves in HER neighbourhood. “I’m scared you’ll lose your car.” “I have another one,” he says, matter-of-factly, which makes the boast even worse, but he’s also paying a compliment by letting her know that the loss of an expensive sports car would be a small price to pay for a night of passion with Judy.
Judy has left her key in her front door so the masterful Peter now opens the door, inviting her into her own apartment — Cukor cutting to the view from inside. “Shall we?” Meanwhile, in the far background, neighbour and unofficial boyfriend Jack Lemmon bursts floundering from his own apartment to see what is up. Seeing what is up, and having no actual claim here, he beats a noisy retreat, but Judy uses the distraction to get inside and yelps “See that? Better go!” and Lawford finally gets the message but, departing, plants a big oily kiss on Judy. He is evidently a powerful kisser, for Judy goes into a swoony daze as if Christopher Lee’s Dracula were putting his mesmeric ‘fluence on her with both contact lenses.
But Judy, in this movie anyway, is no dope. She whispers, “But I don’t think I want to give up my sign.” Proving that, nice as the evening has been and nice as the loverboy power kiss felt, she is under no illusions about what it’s all about.
Defeated — for now — Lawford slopes off, already planning the next stage of his battle plan, while Judy closes the door backhanded with a huge erotic sigh. And CUT.