Saturday, April 1, 2017

Jack Lemmon in The Apartment

 (This post is part of the Jack Lemmon Blogathon hosted by Crítica Retrô and Wide Screen World)

I would guess every Jack Lemmon fan has their favourite role that he played, the one that comes to mind when he or she thinks of Jack Lemmon. For some it might be Jerry/"Daphne" in Some Like It Hot (1959). For others it might be Felix in The Odd Couple (1968). For yet others it might be Professor Fate in The Great Race (1965). For me it will always be C. C. Baxter in The Apartment (1960). It is not simply a case that The Apartment is my favourite movie starring Jack Lemmon. It's also that it is the sort of role that I think Jack Lemmon was best suited to play.

The Apartment was the second film Jack Lemmon made with director Billy Wilder. The initial concept for The Apartment emerged when Billy Wilder first saw Brief Encounter (1945). In the film Laura Jesson (played by Celia Johnson) meets with Alec Harvey (played Trevor Howard) in the apartment of a friend in the course of their affair (here it must be noted that they are both married). Billy Wilder was much more fascinated by the idea of the friend who let the two lovers use his apartment (and who is never actually seen in the movie) than the two people having the affair themselves. Another possible source for The Apartment was the real life affair between agent Jennings Lang and actress Joan Bennett, who at the time was married to producer Walter Wanger. Mr. Lang and Miss Bennett's affair was largely conducted in the apartment of one of Mr. Lang's underlings. When Walter Wanger found out about the affair, he promptly shot Mr. Lang (this being a PG rated blog, I won't say where). Walter Wanger plead insanity and served only four months in prison. Jennings Lang went on to marry songbird Monica Lewis, to whom he was married for forty years and with whom he had three sons. According to Billy Wilder's writing partner I. A. L. Diamond, another source of inspiration for The Apartment was a real life incident in which a woman committed suicide in a man's apartment after their affair had gone sour.

For those who have never seen The Apartment, the film centres on C. C. Baxter, who has a rather unique problem. Working for a large, national insurance company, the rather unassuming accountant has found himself in the position of having to loan his apartment to four different managers to use for their various affairs. As the movie progresses, this already complicated situation grows even more complicated. Making matter worse is the fact that Baxter has long carried a torch for elevator girl Fran Kubelik (played by Shirley MacLaine), who has her own share of personal problems.

In casting The Apartment, Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond only had one actor in mind for the role of C. C. Baxter--Jack Lemmon. After Some Like It Hot, Messrs. Wilder and Diamond both wanted to work with Mr. Lemmon again, and no other actor was even considered for the role. Character actor Paul Douglas was originally cast in the role of the oily insurance company president Mr. Sheldrake. Sadly, Paul Douglas died on September 11 1959 from a heart attack. He was only 52. Fred MacMurray was then cast as Sheldrake.

While the entire cast of The Apartment were perfect for their parts, it is easy to see why Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond wanted Jack Lemmon as C. C. Baxter. In my humble opinion, Jack Lemmon was born to play the role. For me Mr. Lemmon was at his best playing the average guy, the sort of well meaning fellow who is always trying to get ahead in life. This made Jack Lemmon rather singular as an actor, as in the Thirties and Forties there weren't too many actors who could play "average guys". Clark Gable was too handsome to be believable in the role. Cary Grant was too charming to play such parts. Perhaps the actor from the Golden Age of Hollywood to come closest to Jack Lemmon would be Jimmy Stewart, who could play average guys quite well. That having been said, many of the "average guys" played by Jimmy Stewart weren't quite so "average". Very few of us would be appointed to a Senate seat the way Jefferson Smith was, and not many of us would be as self-sacrificing as George Bailey was. The average guys Jack Lemmon played truly were average.

And there was perhaps no average guy as average as C. C. Baxter. Baxter only takes home $94.70 a week from his job (that would be about $792.76 in 2017). He lives in an apartment just west of Central Park, in the West Sixties. He pays $84 for his rather small, rundown apartment. Baxter works long, hard days at the insurance company, often slightly longer than he has to because his apartment is being used by someone else. Jack Lemmon described Baxter as "...ambitious; a nice guy but gullible, easily intimidated, and fast to excuse his behaviour."

Jack Lemmon's description of C. C. Baxter is entirely accurate, particularly about him being "a nice guy". For the most part Baxter is a gentleman. Miss Kubelik notes that he is the only one who consistently takes off his hat in the elevator. He is polite to his neighbours, Dr. and Mrs. Dreyfuss (who think he is a bit of a rake), as well as his superiors at the insurance company (who run roughshod over him with regards to the apartment). While Jack Lemmon is basically a nice guy, he is not perfect. As Jack Lemmon said of Baxter, he is "easily intimidated." In letting them use his apartment, Baxter is essentially enabling his superiors to commit adultery, perhaps not the most morally upstanding thing to do. That this helps Baxter get ahead at the insurance company perhaps only encourages Baxter to continue doing so.

Of course, the average guy can identify with C. C. Baxter in one other respect. Quite simply, he is carrying a torch for Fran Kubelik. I am guessing every average guy has had a crush on a much better looking girl before, one who seems to be out of one's league. While on the surface Baxter would seem to have no chance with the lovely and lovable Miss Kubelik, I have to suspect that she has some feeling for him at the start of the movie. Miss Kubelik not only treats Baxter with respect (as opposed to the various managers at the insurance company), but when he goes to meet with Sheldrake she pins a flower to his lapel. When Baxter lets her know that he actually looked up her file, Miss Kubelik is not alarmed as most women would be, but does not seem to mind in the least. I suspect Miss Kubelik had a bit of a crush on Baxter from the beginning, but never acted on it for various reasons.

Jack Lemmon played other sorts of roles than everymen. He even played villains from time to time (Professor Fate in The Great Race being a notable example). That having been said, I don't think any actor played everymen as well as Jack Lemmon did. Whether as Ensign Pulver in Mister Roberts (1955), Harry Hinkle in The Fortune Cooke (1966), or Felix Ungar in The Odd Couple, no one played average guys as well as Jack Lemmon. And of all the average guy Jack Lemmon ever played, it was perhaps C. C. Baxter that he played the best. If The Apartment continues to be one of the most popular of Billy Wilder's movies, it is perhaps because many of its male fans can identify with Baxter all too well. I seriously doubt any other actor could have done as well in the part. Jack Lemmon may have been great at playing ordinary guys, but he was an extraordinary actor.


Silver Screenings said...

I completely agree with Billy Wilder: The use of the friend's apartment in "Brief Encounter" is a much more interesting concept than the original affair, despite its beautiful cinematography and superb acting.

I like that you said Jack Lemmon was an extraordinary actor who played ordinary men. Truly one of the greats.

Caftan Woman said...

The expert blend of romance and cynicism makes The Apartment a true classic. The casting is impeccable, as is Jack's performance.

PS: My sister has a cat named Baxter. Guess who he was named for.


Although my favorite Lemmon role is Professor Fate (push the button, Max!) I agree with you that he was born to play C.C. Baxter. No other actor could have been more perfect in the role. It's also surprising how MacMurray, who often played nice guys, makes Sheldrake believable.
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