Office politics has changed a lot over the years but sex in the workplace, in one form or another, is alive and well. Billy Wilder’s superb comedy/drama is a time capsule look back at one man’s struggle on how to succeed in business by lending out his apartment to four middle level company executives on various nights for their extramarital liaisons. In exchange, the four executives praise our antihero at work, writing glowing reports on him to senior management, including putting in good words with Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) the top dog at personnel.
C.C. “Bud” Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is the original lonely guy, an actuarial, crunching out numbers for a major insurance company. Baxter works at a drab grey desk in a large corporate office building, populated by faceless individuals all working at hundreds of other drab grey desks.
Baxter’s home life consists of frozen dinners, watching TV and cleaning up the empty liquor bottles left over from the night’s escapades, bottles which he leaves outside his apartment door for garbage pickup, suggesting, to his neighbors, Dr. Dreyfuss (Jack Kruschen) and his wife, that Baxter leads a wild life of swinging parties.
When Mr. Sheldrake gets wind of what is going at Baxter’s apartment he confronts Baxter informing him that such goings on is not good for the company’s image. However, instead of being fired, as Baxter suspected was going to happen, Sheldrake wants to book the apartment for himself that evening. He gives Baxter two tickets to the then Broadway hit musical, “The Music Man” as compensation. After work Baxter, with tickets in hand, builds up the courage to ask elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) who is the girl of his dreams to see the play with him that night. She agrees. Little does Baxter know that Fran is Sheldrake’s mistress and the girl he plans on taking to his apartment!
In between the many laughs, there is a sad tale about how far people, even good people, as Baxter and Fran are, will go to get ahead in the business world. Morals are tossed aside when seduced by morally bankrupt but more powerful people making promises of promotions and indecent proposals. You see Baxtcr is looking for the key to the executive washroom, he wants out from behind the drab grey desk, no longer wanting to be one of the crowd, while Fran is looking to become the wife of an important executive and stop having to smile at every leering male jerk who enters her elevator.
The germ of the idea for this movie had been with Wilder for many years going back to the 1940’s. There were actually two incidents that triggered Wilder’s imagination. First a scene from the movie, “Brief Encounter” where the two married lovers meet at the apartment of a friend. Billy thoughts were not so much on the lovers than on what the guy who lent the apartment does when he gets back his place and the sheets are still warm. The second incident involved a true Hollywood scandal. Actress Joan Bennett was having an affair with talent agent Jennings Lang. Bennett’s husband producer Walter Wanger found out about it and shot Lang, wounding him. One of the facts to come out about all this was how Lang had been taking Bennett to an apartment belonging to a subordinate at the talent agency. This was intriguing to Wilder who surmised the underling must have believed that by lending his apartment out to a higher up he was making a good career move.
The idea for “The Apartment” remained stored away in Wilder’s mind for years because he knew he could not do much with it due to the censorship standards of the day which forbid showing adultery in a movie or at least unrepentant adultery. By 1960, the censorship laws were starting to crack and Wilder, ever the provocateur, decided the time was right. He just had a big success with “Some Like it Hot” which already pushed some buttons with the see-through dress Monroe wore during her “I Wanna Be Loved by You” number. Now it was time to try something else.
The screenplay by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond is a brilliant blend of farce and melancholy, reflecting on the 1950’s, early 1960’s, pre women’s lib office politics, corporate culture and the general widespread disregard for women in the workplace as equals. Additionally, the film blatantly looks at the dark side of ambition, the drive to succeed at any ethical expense.
And it all takes place during the Christmas season! Bittersweet yet heartfelt. The film’s ending is justifiably one of cinema’s best known and moving.
Today, the office Christmas party scene is like looking through a time capsule. It was a world when booze flowed freely in the work place, being drunk was acceptable social behavior, men pinching women on the behind and making out in the office, along with other forms of sexual activity were tolerated and looked upon as not so innocent maybe, but still acceptable fun in the workplace.
While all the characters are sleazy in their ambitions you still find yourself rooting for Baxter and Fran and this has a lot to do with the extremely fine performances from Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. Lemmon manages to make Baxter come across as a decent loveable, average guy and I believe this is due to Lemmon’s real life inner decency that despite his character’s moral ethics or lack of, you still like him. It the same with Shirley MacLaine who was a perfect choice for the role of Fran Kubelik. Sweet, vulnerable, and like Lemmon’s character looking to improve her standing in life, only for her it is finding a good man with a good job. Unfortunately, Sheldrake the man she hooked up with was just using her. Both Lemmon and MacLaine were nominated for Academy Awards that year. Jack Kruschen received a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his role as Baxter’s neighbor, Dr. Dreyfuss. Surprisingly Fred MacMurray was passed over for his role as the slimy personnel boss. In the two times they have worked together, Wilder has been able to bring out the “worst” in Fred MacMurray with two superlative performances, first in “Double Indemnity” and here in “The Apartment.” There is also a wonderful cast of supporting players who are all worth mentioning and have graced more than one Wilder film; Ray Walston, Joyce Jameson, Hope Holiday and Joan Shawlee are all treasures.
This was recently posted at Wonders in the Dark as part of the Comedy Countdown. It appears here for the first time in a slightly altered version.
Nice post, John. You’re absolutely correct, The Apartment is like looking through a time capsule. I think that’s one of the reasons Mad Men does so well today. Lemmon and Maclaine had a lot of chemistry, this and Irma La Douce are my two favorite films of both actors.
I like IRMA too though it is not in the same class as this film but Lemmon and MacLaine due make a great team. Wish they did more films together.Thanks Kim!
The Apartment sprang partly from Brief Encounter? Nice Tidbit.
This is definitely a film I need to revisit.
Chris, It’s fascinating what sparks a creative mind and where it leads too isn’t it.
Great write-up on one of Wilder’s most renowned works, Jon. The movie had just about the right proportions of humour, melancholia, melodrama, romance, tragedy, and social commentary – thus making it such a memorable film. And yes, its always interesting to know about the sources of creative inspiration, though I’d been aware of the Brief Encounter bit.
By the way, the film also makes me wonder about the demarcation that we, the audience, generally end up making about the good guy-bad guy divide. Why is it that we end up naturally considering Baxter as the good guy and his boss as the bad guy, even though they both were, in essence, making use of people for their benefits, as you’ve already noted here. Baxter wanted to rise the professional ladder at a faster pace, while his boss wanted to enjoy a purely sexual relation without commitment. Even Fran, as you’ve noted, wanted to improve her social standing and entered into the relationship of convenience. Yet we, thanks to the way the director paints his characters, end up seamlessly making judgemental calls on the natures of the characters.
I think why we root for or think of Baxter as a nice guy is due to Jack Lemmon. To me, Lemmon comes across on screen as a nice guy in real life. Many of us also know what its like to be involved in a dead end job. In the business world you meet people who use others in order to climb up the corporate ladder in much more deciteful ways than Baxter. Baxter’s kind of a laid back climber, he’s being used by his higher ups and rewarded for it. There are others who will just knife you in the back for the chance to move up. I think that’s another reason why we can like Baxter, he is not a bad guy he is as Wilder describes him a bit of a smuck., a likable smuck.
For some reason I had forgotten that Wilder was behind the camera on this little gem.
It’s re-aired a couple of times on TCM this past year. (Would be great if they aired it Xmas day.)
You mention that Shirley’s character was the girl of his dreams. You don’t hear or read that often about MacLaine. Certainly a great example of how one loses themselves and who they are when greed and money are involved.
Interesting added trivia on Wilder and Brief Encounters. Always fascinated when directors/writers have an idea that they hold on to and are determined to see to fruition when it comes to literary work or cinema. I’m certainly glad he got the film made even if it did take a few years. Was worth the wait for me! Well okay, I wasn’t around when this one was released by ya know what I mean.
Another thoughtful and informative review, John. Perhaps a few who watch It’s a Wonderful Life every holiday season will give this one a go instead.
Page – Thanks! I love this film. it is a nice mix of cynicism and tender moments and as I have said, I think Lemmon’s goodness in real life comes thru even though his character is doing a sleazy thing.
Thank you for this beautiful piece. What a joy it is every time we see it. What a priceless combination, Jack Lemmon and Billy Wilder.
Thank you Martin and welcome! Lemmon and Wilder were a great team. Even some of their lesser works have nice touches that are a joy to watch.
wonderful post, but do you think that fran was just trying to get ahead in life by sleeping with sheldrake? i really don’t get that feeling from her character. that’s clearly what baxter is trying to do, but fran only comes across as someone who has sincere feelings for sheldrake, not as someone who is trying to sleep her way to better spot in society.
Rachel, Hi and welcome! You may be right about Fran but she did choose one of the top dogs in the company to fool around with. Maybe, I am being a bit too cynical here, though I do think Fran, like Baxter, is a good person, lonely and looking for love.It’s one of my favorite roles of MacLaine’s that’s for sure.
Great movie–and Hope Holiday was delitefull in it—-ha ha
Yes, you were delitefull as you were in Irma La Douce and The Rounders. Thank you!!!