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Phffft! (DVD Review)

17 Jan, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Sony Pictures
$14.94 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Judy Holliday, Jack Lemmon, Jack Carson, Kim Novak.

Its historical distinction as the second big-screen feature of both Jack Lemmon and Kim Novak is, by itself, enough to make screenwriter George Axelrod’s 1954 marital comedy a conversation piece. But chalk up another footnote as well, given the movie’s unofficial status as the box office employee’s No. 1 headache of the era.

Imagine what it was like to call up the theater (way back in those quaint days when real humans still answered the phone) and ask what was playing. According to an old hand in theater exhibition I used to know in my formative years, Phffft engendered an even larger share of bewildered patrons than those callers who mispronounced Spartacus — which, I’m told, spurred countless queries of along the lines of, “What time are you playing “Spar-TACK-us?” (and at least one “Asparagus”). But you can hardly say that the moniker for this comedy of splits-ville is inapt.

Lemmon often cited his good fortune in getting to have the great Judy Holliday as co-star in his first two films, the first being the near classic It Should Happen to You. Given that that comedy about celebrity for celebrity’s sake is probably the most prescient Hollywood movie of the 1950s next to A Face in the Crowd, it’s probably not surprising that this follow-up (released later the same year) isn’t as good. It does, however show the extent to which a great cast can put over better than adequate material hampered by so-so execution (director Mark Robson — Champion, Peyton Place, The Bridges at Toko-Ri — didn’t have much flair for comedy or even much visual style).

Alexrod, though, knew a little bit about being released from the shackles of matrimony, having also written The Seven Year Itch — the 1952 play that eventually became, the year after Phffft, one of Marilyn Monroe’s signature movies. In Phffft’s case (a phrase that tickles me to say), the itch comes after eight years: Lemmon is a lawyer and Holliday a writer for NBC who’ve tired of their marriage but quickly become wary of the dating scene. In those days, the “scene” encompassed buying fancier clothes (Holliday dresses flashier here than in most of her comedies), trendy foreign car, taking rumba lessons or increasing one’s intake of martinis (already pretty high here by everyone). Lemmon moves in with a wolf friend (the great Jack Carson) who half-heartedly tries to put the moves on Holliday — and, as for himself, invites one of Carson’s resident knockouts up to his apartment. Novak plays her in Marilyn Monroe ditzy-blonde style — back when Columbia studio chief Harry Cohn was trying to fashion her into a Monroe rival.

Lemmon and Novak were a year away from breakout stardom — he as an Oscar winner for Mister Roberts and she in Picnic. They eventually became the biggest male-female stars on the Columbia lot, though all the movies of the period for which Lemmon is best remembered were done for other studios. Last fall, Sony brought out a box of Columbia Lemmon comedies that not only included Phffft but also The Notorious Landlady, a London-based comedy/mystery Lemmon and Novak made in 1962. By that time, both were very huge stars — though it wouldn’t be very long before her glory days were on the wane. Then, as now, casting directors and capriciously shifting audience tastes made the movies an unusually cruel profession for women.

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