By the time Garson Kanin’s play, The Rat Race, premiered on Broadway the playwright, director, actor, biographer, novelist and musician already had 11 previous productions on Broadway, including his super hit, Born Yesterday, which ran for 1642 performances. The Rat Race opened only days before Born Yesterday closed after an almost five year run. It had a less auspicious run of only 84 performances. The film plays as a warning to Middle America – Beware of New York, it will eat you up! The two lead characters are naïve wannabe artists. So, where else do you go but to New York if you want to hit the big time.
For Debbie Reynolds, doing this film was a change from the past decade. After ten years filled with sweet ingénue type roles that have been the backbone of her career, here we have Ms. Reynolds playing Peggy Brown, a dime a dance hostess (or whatever tickets cost in 1960). Originally from Tampa, for the last five years she is still looking for her big break. Her dance/hostess duties are at a Times Square dance hall run by a scuzzy low-life named Nellie (Don Rickles). Into Peggy’s life come Pete Hammond Jr., (Tony Curtis) a saxophonist, who left his Midwest (Milwaukee) home to hit the big time Jazz scene in New York. He’s an innocent in the big bad city. Not exactly a new premise.
Upon his arrival, Pete can’t even find a cheap hotel room. He ends up in a boarding house sharing a room with Peggy who is about to get kicked out due to her owing back rent. This being 1960 the living arrangements are on the straight and narrow. She’s broke and about to be thrown out. The two need each other and reluctantly agree to share the one room apartment. Separate beds with a curtain for privacy. Pete, fresh off the farm, is sure he is going to take the town by storm and the living arrangement will be short term. After all, New York has been waiting for him.
They have been waiting for him alright. Three weeks later, he still does not have a job. Then one day, talking to some fellow musicians in a diner, a guy overhears his hard luck story and tells him he can probably use him in his band. They need a sax player. He just has to audition. In a rehearsal hall, with two other musicians, Pete auditions. However, they say they’re not really sure he’s good enough. A decision is made to take a break. A coin is flipped to see who’s going to do the beer run across the street to Jack Dempsey’s. Pete loses. While he’s gone, the other three pack up, stealing his three instruments and leaving him flat. Pete discovers New York has been waiting for him and the vultures are eating him alive.
With no money and no instruments, Pete may be down, but he’s not out. He gets an offer for a one month gig on a Cruise liner. However, he still needs an instrument. Peggy who has been working the dime a dance circuit for Nellie borrows $200 dollars from him even though she already owes him $400. In exchange for the money, she’s agrees to meet with some “gentlemen” clients of Nellie’s for dinner and companionship. Nothing too sleazy, he says. After all, it’s 1960 and we can’t show or have much sleaze, only insinuate.
With the $200 in hand, Peggy buys Pete a new sax and he gets the cruise job. While he’s away, Peggy manages to avoid keeping her appointments with her “dates” arranged for by Nellie. Needless to say Nellie is livid. One evening, while she’s doing her dime a dance thing with a sailor, he drags her into his office and tells her to strip. Again, this being 1960 the stripping is mild: jewelry, shoes, removing a low cut gown and stockings.
The point of Nellie forcing Peggy to remove her clothes is not sex but power. A reminder that as long as she owes him money, he owns her. She has nothing without him. She will go out on the “dates” he arranges and will from now on not be a no show as she was in the past. But hey, this is wholesome Debbie Reynolds and despite the sexy low cleavage of her gown and the potential tawdriness of the “dates,” she is still America’s sweetheart. She does what any good America girl will do…skip town. At least that’s her plan.
We and she know Nellie will seek revenge. Break her legs or even worst if he catches up with her for once again reneging on their deal. She starts packing to get out of the city. Unfortunately, Nellie arrives at her apartment before she leaves. Also arriving home at almost the same time is Pete, back from his ocean gig with 300 hundred dollars in pay that he forks over to Nellie who was just about to disfigure Nellie’s face. That’s only half, he complains. Pete’s 75 dollar watch and his musical instruments make up the rest satisfying Nellie that the debt has been paid.
The film is interesting in a couple of different ways. For Debbie Reynolds this was her first time playing against type. Peggy is cynical and bitter. After five years of failing to find success as a dancer, she sees New York as one big rat race filled with chiselers and hustlers. And as mentioned earlier she reveals an unusual amount of cleavage, at least for Debbie Reynolds. Also of interest is Don Rickles for his sleazy, hard-nosed, tough, no nonsense performance as Nellie, the manager/slug of the dance hall where Peggy works. After spending a few moments with Nellie you want to take a shower to wash off all the slime. Last, but not least, are the great on location shots of late 1950’s New York’s Times Square area which adds a fabulous time period feel to it all. The image below is interesting with a bit of inside humor added. We see Curtis in Times Square; he just arrived in New York. Off to the left side of the image is the Victoria theater. Notice what’s playing. (1)
Speaking of sleaze, look for a young Norman Fell as a low life telephone worker who has orders to remove Peggy’s phone due to non-payment. Peggy manages to get a two week extension with insinuated promises of sexual payment to come later. Fell was definitely practicing the leering look that he used a decade or so later in the TV sit-com, Three’s Company.
As for Tony Curtis, he’s adequate. Not completely convincing in the role of the hick saxophone player; you never get over the feeling he’s acting. Curtis had to learn to play the sax for the role. Interesting enough, he had recently learned to play the flute in real life and there is a short scene where we see him play it in the film. (2)
This was only director Robert Mulligan’s second feature film, his first was Fear Strikes Out, after years of working in television. Within two years he would make the first he is best known for, To Kill a Mockingbird.
Finally, one other thing to look for is in the scene where Pete is given an “audition.” The practice session features two real life jazz greats, Gerry Mulligan and Sam Butera, the latter was a career long collaborator with the great Louis Prima.
(1) Some Like it Hot opened in March 1959 at the Loew’s State in New York. The Victoria run which would have began after the completion of the Loew’s State run most likely means The Rat Race was filmed toward the summertime or early fall.
(2) Curtis, Tony & Paris, Tony, 1993, Tony Curtis: The Autobiography, New York, William Morrow & Co. Inc., Pg. 178