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Kiss Me, Stupid (Blu-ray Review)

16 Feb, 2015 By: Mike Clark

Street 2/17/15
$24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Rated ‘PG-13.’
Stars Dean Martin, Kim Novak, Ray Walston, Felicia Farr.

At its very least, Billy Wilder’s career Armageddon is the ultimate Rat Pack movie, though some will inevitably make a strong case for Vincente Minnelli’s deservedly esteemed Some Came Running, even if the latter is on a different track and certainly no one’s idea of a dead-on Pack manifesto. In contrast, Wilder’s film wears the RP ethos on its sleeve, as when Dean Martin (self-parodying his showbiz self and cast as simply a “Dino”) says he’ll just take “a bowl of bourbon and some crackers” when he’s offered a snack.

There’s never been a day in the last 50 years when Wilder’s most controversial picture wasn’t one of my favorite movies of all time — though, at the time, it took six months to reach my town (and at a far-away drive-in at that) after United Artists and exhibitors bowed to Catholic Legion of Decency pressure (complete with the first “Condemned” rating since Baby Doll’s) and squelched any hopes of a wide release. In fact, UA even released the movie through subsidiary Lopert, which was usually its conduit for British acquisitions. After Wilder and collaborator I.A.L. Diamond more than got away with the prostitution fairy tale Irma La Douce in 1963 (it the biggest box office hit of the writer-director’s career), the two responded with Wilder’s most corrosive achievement since another box office failure: Ace in the Hole (which, in the pre-Stupid days, Wilder called “the run of my litter”). Both films even share a similar shot: its amusingly slimy protagonist (first Kirk Douglas, then Martin) sitting in the front seat of a car that’s being towed. And both have dramatically better reps today than they did at the time.

Inspired by an obscure Italian play and observing something pretty close to a three-act structure, Stupid is the greatest film I’ve ever seen about what the artistically driven (if not necessarily talented) will do to get out of a podunk hellhole — which is almost anything. In this case, an aspiring songwriter (Ray Walston) and his collaborator at an adjacent gas station (Cliff Osmond) come very close to selling the former’s beautiful wife for a literal song after the latter strands Dino in town by detaching the fuel line in the singer’s Italian sports job and warning him that they might have to send to Milan for parts. Consumed by jealousy over his mighty comely, if mildly ditsy, spouse (Felicia Farr), Walston then precipitates a domestic quarrel to temporarily get rid of the Mrs., hires a local hooker (Kim Novak) to pose her and then encourages Dino to have his way — all to facilitate the unloading of Sophia and their other unsold compositions to the singer’s musical canon. Of course, all this is happening just as the Beatles hit, and one of the delicious subtexts here is how the movie more than suggests the disdain of the Tin Pan Alley generation toward flash-in-the-pan younger sounds (as in Mel Torme’s deathless question/quote from a few years earlier: “What’s a Fabian?”).

When the film ultimately seemed to condone adultery, it proved too seamy for critics who were giving much less inventive comedies of the era a lazy free ride and audiences who were making The Carpetbaggers something close to the year’s top box office attraction — though several who chided Walston’s broad performance did (and still) think that Peter Sellers might have made much of the role had he not suffered a serious heart attack shortly into the shooting. Maybe, but I’ve never been totally convinced that Martin and Sellers would have been that simpatico a team (though Martin’s work with not just Jerry Lewis but also Judy Holliday, Shirley MacLaine and Frank Sinatra absolutely cement him as the greatest straight man of all time). Martin with Walston rekindles a lot of the old Martin & Lewis tension, while one can easily rate Stupid’s as Novak’s best performance if he or she is convinced that her effectiveness in Vertigo was due to Hitchcock’s casting of her built-in somnambulant qualities in the first place and his own direction. Kudos as well to Osmond, Farr, Doro Merande, Howard McNear, Mel Blanc, John Fielder and all the rest who attest to how well Wilder always stage-managed subsidiary performers — as well as the spectacular production design by Alexandre Trauner that’s as much as a character as anyone in the movie.

Atop everything else, Life magazine crucified the picture on moral grounds in a feature article — after which I never bought another issue (though I did break down when it came to a couple of its coffee table books). Yet after all the negative press and permanent box office fall-out for Wilder even after, under pressure, he shot and released a softer ending, the joke is that the film is now rated ‘PG-13’ and shows on Turner Classic Movies during the day. Well-received in a far less priggish Europe even at the time, Stupid took a long time to become a revisionist cult item; initially, only Joan Didion (the equal of a lot of big states in the electoral college) and Newsweek gave it any love in 1964.

But much, much later, Andrew Sarris, Jonathan Rosenbaum and the L.A. Times wrote laudatory pieces, and I once read that showbiz gadfly Michael Musto had the movie on his all-time top 10. Of people I know, I can tell you that fans include the great film academic Jeanine Basinger; the best film programmer I’ve ever known (Detroit’s Elliot Wilhelm); and great college friend and all-around court jester Bruce Vilanch — who, noting all the cacti/Chianti bottle phallic symbols that abound in the movie, commented, “close” when “A Phalanx Production” appeared in the opening credits. Olive’s Panavision but typically no-frills Blu-ray does justice to the widescreen Trauner accomplishment; this is a movie that simply doesn’t exist sans letterboxing. But I wish it included the re-shot (and formerly standard) ending at least as an extra — because in a minority opinion, I think it’s funnier and better performed, even if it does cop out some. The way the film exists now, we don’t get to hear Farr’s character tell Dino that he doesn’t even sell as many records as The Singing Nun.

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