The romantic comedy has proved an enduring genre for the silver screen, from the screwball comedy of the 30s to its peak in the 90s, and resurgent popularity in the 2010s. Set The Tape presents Rom-Com Rewind, a series looking at the history of the genre and how it has developed over the course of nearly a hundred years of movie history.
‘A dirty fairy tale’ was how the critic Hollis Alpert greeted The Apartment upon its release in 1960. While acclaimed in some quarters, as well as winning the Best Picture Oscar at that year’s Academy Awards, and nowadays frequently appearing in lists of the best films ever made, there was still a level of indifference by some to the film upon its premiere, not least in its depictions of adultery and infidelity.
Make no mistake, this is not a film that revels in the behaviour of many of the characters at the insurance company where much of the plot takes place (and if it’s not there then it’s in the titular apartment).
The romantic comedy genre is one of those where so many of the films within have a habit of not ageing in the best way because of how they reflect the social and gender politics of the time. The Apartment is very much a product of 1960, but it’s also a film that has more critical bones to it than other films of the period.
The film is awash in callously chauvinistic behaviour, but the cynicism inherent in Billy Wilder and I.A.L Diamond’s screenplay extends to disdain for the actions of so many of its male characters. Even its romantic leading man is not exactly squeaky clean here, although the decision to cast Jack Lemmon in that role is perhaps a major reason why we still root for C.C. Baxter throughout the film’s duration.
If 1954’s Sabrina had been something of a lighter, frothier kind of romantic comedy from Wilder, although one with its own sets of problematic male behaviour that it was less prone to criticise, then The Apartment had a touch more of the cynicism from Sunset Boulevard in its veins.
Following on a year after the success of Some Like it Hot, The Apartment would reunite Wilder with screenwriter Diamond and star Jack Lemmon for another comedy of sorts, and another with one of Hollywood’s finest ever last lines of dialogue. It would revel in an observational cynicism that, while not just as pitch black as that of Sunset Boulevard (The Apartment gives its audience a happy ending), is still one that gets in the gutter with its characters while on the way to that most perfect and wonderful of final scenes in a movie.
Amazingly the genesis of the project came from Brief Encounter. Wilder had been fascinated during one of that film’s most pivotal scenes involving a near tryst between the two central characters in a flat being interrupted by the owner of the property in question. It was this idea that would be extended to the central plotline of Wilder and Diamond’s screenplay, as Baxter loans his place of residence to his fellow workers, all of whom work above him in key positions, in an attempt to move his own way up the corporate ladder.
The film is awash with sleazy gender politics, not least when Baxter’s boss Mr Sheldrake makes his appearance. Sheldrake was portrayed by Fred MacMurray, reuniting with Wilder following his starring role opposite Barbara Stanwyck in Wilder’s iconic film noir Double Indemnity. Like his appearance in that film, MacMurray would subvert his generally likeable screen persona by playing an absolute douchebag of the highest order. On top of being the main obstacle keeping Baxter from Fran Kubelik (a wonderful Shirley MacLaine), he is also very much responsible for pushing Fran’s depression over her relationship with him in a bad direction, culminating in a suicide attempt.
The film’s treatment of mental illness and suicide is perhaps the main aspects of the film that haven’t aged the best. The themes are handled with grace one moment, but then they are also being used a means to bring the lead characters together because it’s a film that’s falling into the realm of a romantic comedy-drama. The implication here is that all Fran needs is the love of a good honest man and all her problems will be fine.
On the other end of things, the film’s portrayal of an office filled with toxic males who pursue extramarital affairs and abuse their positions of power by pursuing sex with their secretaries or the elevator operators is perhaps all too prescient, especially in light of #MeToo and #TimesUp. The film takes the stance of depicting such negative behaviour without endorsing it, particularly when it comes to Sheldrake who learns nothing from his actions, frequently lies to his wife and still wants to string Fran along before she makes the ‘last dash’ in the final reel.
Baxter himself could almost be as bad. He’s effectively pimping his apartment out in order to help his own career, but the masterstroke of the film is the casting of Lemmon. One of the screen’s most lovable performers, there was always something about Lemmon on the screen that was hard to dislike. Even when in more serious fare such as Missing or The China Syndrome (two of the best films of the 1980s that are sadly not as remembered as they should be), there was something so engaging about him that you couldn’t help but be charmed or won over.
That persona was even more lovable when in comedic fare and the same goes for here. The image of him straining pasta in a tennis racket or constantly being mistaken for the apartment building’s resident Casanova are wonderful pieces of comedy, but when the film calls for more serious moments he hits it out of the park too.
Lemmon would subvert the C.C Baxter persona in 1992 when he played the Baxter-like Shelley Lavene in the film adaptation of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross in 1992. To watch Lemmon in that role was to see what Baxter would be like if he relented to his own career goals and had given Sheldrake the key to his apartment in the film’s final moments.
When the film centres itself more on having Lemmon sharing scenes with MacLaine, it shifts gear for a while into a two-person romantic comedy play of sorts as they get to know each other on the way to the film’s happy ending. Remarkably there is no big kiss or even bedroom scenes between the two (in fact MacLaine is in bed but Lemmon isn’t during one of the film’s most pivotal moments), but the spark between them is palpable and wonderful and gives the more cynical qualities of it a human component that is genuinely charming, and which allows the film to earn that wonderful, human and all too lovely final moment between them.
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Like ‘nobody’s perfect’ from Some Like it Hot, Double Indemnity’s final declaration of love from MacMurray’s character to Edward G. Robinson’s, or Gloria Swanson walking into the camera lens for her one final close-up in Sunset Boulevard, Wilder had a brilliant ability to end his films perfectly, with lines or sequences that you could never get out of your head. The final moments of The Apartment feature Fran running through New York back to Baxter before settling in for that game of gin rummy and Fran’s insistence that he ‘shut up and deal’.
It’s as perfect a moment as the movies have ever given us, a moment that doesn’t try to end with a cheesy flourish or the type of declaration of love that so many romantic films aim for. It says everything perfectly about the characters, who they are, and what they mean to each other and is perhaps the best final scene of any movie ever. That the preceding two hours are just as wonderful makes it even more perfect.