In 1962, “Barefoot in the Park” was the Broadway second production for a fairly new playwright at the time by the name of Neil Simon. Simon already had a previous hit show with “Come Blow Your Horn” and a well-earned reputation as one of the team full of writers on the classic TV show “Your Show of Shows”, whose madhouse stable included Neil’s brother Danny, Mel Brooks, Mel Tolkin, Carl Reiner and Larry Gelbart. The play starred a young upcoming actor by the name of Robert Redford along with Elizabeth Ashley as his kooky wife Corie. This would be Redford’s last Broadway play having previously appeared in “Sunday in New York”, “Tall Story” and a couple of others. Also in the cast were Mildred Natwick as Corie’s mother and Herb Edelman as the Telephone Man, both would repeat their roles in the 1967 film. The stage version of “Barefoot in the Park” was a huge success running for more than three years. It was Mike Nichols first Broadway production as a director and the beginning of a string of theatrical hits. At one point, Nichols had four plays he directed running on Broadway simultaneously, “Barefoot in the Park”, “Luv”, “The Odd Couple” and “The Apple Tree.” Nichols first taste of success came as half of the sophisticated comedy team of the 1950’s Nichols and May (Elaine May) who earlier had their own on stage success on Broadway with “An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May.”
At the time, it was a common practice that the movie version of a play could not be made until the Broadway production closed or was close to its final performance. The fear was that if people saw the movie the play would lose its audience. Subsequently, “Barefoot in the Park”, the movie opened at Radio City Music Hall in May 1967 one month prior to the closing of the play.
Redford had been a frequent visitor to the world of TV shows and had already made a few films (War Hunt, Inside Daisy Clover, This Property is Condemned, The Chase) though with little impact on his career. Therefore, it is surprising that he actually received top billing over Jane Fonda in the film who was already a more established star having appeared in both European films, most by her then husband Roger Vadim (Circle of Love, The Game is Over), and in U.S. films (Sunday in New York, The Chase, Walk on the Wild Side, The Chapman Report, Cat Ballou). Nichols was passed over to direct in favor of the more vanilla Gene Saks, a Broadway veteran director himself. Simon adapted his own play for the screen, his first.
The film is sort of an earlier version of “The Odd Couple”, focusing on opposites, in this case newlyweds Corie Bratter (Fonda), an unconventional free spirited young woman and her husband, the uptight legal eagle Paul (Redford). If this sounds familiar, that is because, yes, Corie and Paul are the original “Dharma and Greg.” After a honeymoon spent at the Waldorf where Corie embarrasses a stodgy Paul, heading to the elevator as he goes off to work, by insinuating she is a hooker he spent the night with (Fonda is standing outside their hotel room dressed in only the top half of a man’s pajamas). Corie goes off and rents a top floor apartment in Greenwich Village. Paul, the ever constipated young lawyer isn’t that crazy about having to climb several flights of stairs to reach the apartment, nor is he happy about the hole in the skylight where a cold front followed by snow easily passes through. Then there is the eccentric neighbor who can only access his attic apartment by going through the Bratter’s apartment. Corie, on the other hand sees it all as an adventure. When Corie attempts to seduce Paul for a little romantic interlude that first evening in the new apartment, he is too occupied with his first big legal case and the cold air coming in from the skylight. Before you can say sing the first verse of Tammy Wynette’s D-I-V-O-R-C-E, Corie is declaring the marriage a failure.
It is all very light, sit-comish and unbelievable. That said, Fonda and Redford make a good team; their charisma together is plainly evident and the film is fun. Admittedly, I have a soft spot for this film, one of only three I ever saw at Radio City Music Hall. It remains a guilty pleasure.
Redford came away from this film a movie star; set to explode into superstardom a couple of years later with “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” At this point in her career, Fonda’s dramatic roles (The Chase, Walk on the Wild Side, The Chapman Report) did nothing to dispel the notion that she did not have any depth as a dramatic actress. Her European films were known more for their sexiness and nudity than for her talent as an actress. This would all change in a couple of years, after one more film with Vadim (Barbarella) Fonda would display her serious acting chops in “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” for which she would receive her first Academy Award nomination. It would take almost 10 years before she would return to a comedic role in “Fun with Dick and Jane.” The supporting cast is also entertaining with Mildred Natwick as Corie’s mother, Charles Boyer as the eccentric attic living neighbor and Herb Edelman providing some laughs as the telephone repairman.
This was Gene Saks first film and like 99% of his films they are adaptations of stage plays, and like most of his other films they are all stage bound. The film is not cinema; it is a pop corn movie and in between the tired jokes about climbing five flights of stairs to reach the apartment there remains a bit of charm to the movie. The two leads win you over.
I use to like Neil Simon more than I do now. Other than “The Odd Couple”, “The Goodbye Girl” and “Laughter on the 23rd Floor”, I find much of his work tired and generally less funny than I use too. I imagine much of today’s audience would find the film a little too cute, dated or both, still if compared to some of the so-called romantic comedies that the studio’s release today, this film looks good. For one thing too many of the “romantic” comedies today seem to be funny at the expense of the female character’s integrity where they are either desperate (Knocked Up) or bitchy (The Proposal) or just plain stupid (All About Steve). While I generally enjoyed “The Proposal”, the scene where Sandra Bullock had to get down on her knees in the middle of a Manhattan street to propose was pretty degrading. If nothing else, Simon was never degrading to any of his characters.
As a play, “Barefoot in the Park” was revived on Broadway in 2006 with Amanda Peet, Patrick Wilson in the newlywed roles and with Jill Clayburgh as Corie’s mom and Tony Roberts as Victor Velasco, the eccentric neighbor in the leading roles. It ran for only 109 performances.