This article was written exclusively for The Film Magazine by Craig Sheldon.
“Shut up and deal” are the iconic final words spoken in Billy Wilder’s 1960 Oscar winning romantic comedy/drama The Apartment.
This atypical send-off serves as a palate cleanser to the usual Hollywood “I love you’s” that litter most of the holiday’s festive feel-goods. It’s a neat reminder that The Apartment is far from your typical Christmas love story. In fact, an argument could be made that this isn’t a Christmas film at all.
Although both Christmas and New Year’s play prominent roles in the story, The Apartment is a film that does away with conventional Holiday themes in exchange for sex, adultery and even suicide. These rather un-Christmassy themes, if handled poorly, could detract from the comedic and ultimately uplifting end product, but under Wilder’s masterful guidance, the film maintains its fun, quirky and raucous tone throughout, ultimately delivering one of cinemas most beloved comedies.
The plot goes a little something like this…
Lovable New York office lackey C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemon), or “Bud” to his colleagues, (he doesn’t seem to have any genuine friends) is desperate to climb the corporate ladder. In order to do so, Bud loans out his Upper West Side apartment to his superiors so they can carry out extramarital rendezvous in return for favourable reviews. This seems to pay off when Personnel director Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) gives Bud the promotion he’s been hoping for. The catch is that Sheldrake wants in on the use of the apartment too, as he’s having an affair with elevator operator and all-round cutie, Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine).
Still with me? Good.
Everything seems to be going well until said cutie turns out to be the one woman in the building that Bud has his eye on. All this comes to a head at the office Christmas party when Sheldrake’s secretary informs Fran that she’s just one in a long line of office flings Sheldrake has had over the years, leading to an eventual fight at Bud’s apartment over his reluctance to leave his wife for her. It’s also here that Bud realises that Fran is the one Sheldrake has been taking back to his apartment. Needless to say, he doesn’t take it well. After returning home from a drunken night out Bud finds a passed-out Fran on his bed following an attempted suicide. Bud enlists help from his neighbour (who just so happens to be a doctor) and together they manage to save Fran’s life. As Christmas day arrives, Bud helps Fran to fully recover and his feelings for her only grow.
Nearly there, promise.
Fran’s brother-in-law arrives to take her home and ends up punching Bud in the face after he takes the blame for her less-than-perfect state. For his efforts, Bud is given another promotion but declines to give Sheldrake further access to his apartment, quitting the company. Soon after, Sheldrake is kicked to the curb when his wife learns about his affair, but he continues to string Fran along with false promises of commitment nonetheless.
As New Year’s Eve rolls around Fran suddenly ditches Sheldrake in a bar after hearing the reason behind Bud’s walk out. Fran decides Bud was the one who loved her all along and hightails it to Bud’s apartment where the two lonely hearts reunite and sit down to play Gin Rummy on the sofa. It’s here that Bud finally musters up the courage to tell Fran how he feels, and in turn she replies with that killer end line – “shut up and deal”.
High off the heels of Some Like It Hot (1959), Wilder was on fine form when it came to his second collaboration with Lemon – a partnership that would go on to span seven films. The Apartment would also be end up being Wilder’s most critically praised feature of his career, taking home Oscars for writing, directing and Best Picture as well as film editing and art direction at the 33rd annual Academy awards. Lemon and MacLaine both missed out on statues for their portrayals, but It was easy to see why Wilder was so eager to work with Lemon again following his stand out performance the year prior, The Apartment transforming him from supporting player to leading man.
Lemon’s performance of a downtrodden company man carefully walks the line between upbeat, workaday nine-to-fiver (or rather 8:50 – 5:20) and damaged, self-deprecating loner. His occasional Porky Pig-esque delivery of lines and boyish, often slapstick mannerisms help give a vulnerability to a man who clearly has no problem acting as an enabler for cheating spouses in order to get ahead. The success of the character is a testament to Lemon’s on-screen likeability and his charm is never in short supply throughout. Co-writer on the film and regular collaborator of Wilder A. I. L. Diamond once said, “Drama’s tough, comedy’s tougher. But being funny in a drama is one of the most difficult things of all.”
A scene in the kitchen where Bud uses a tennis racket to strain spaghetti and mimic batting food onto the plate, (“wait till you see me serve the meatballs”), is a prime example of the character’s redeeming quirkiness.
Equally as impressive is MacLaine’s pixie-haired Miss Kubelik, who manages to steer clear from the cliched object of affection role that most screen beauties were lumped with at the time and instead gives us a real woman, imperfect and far from innocent.
Yes, she plays a victim. And yes, her arc is a simple one – want sleazebag, get treated badly by sleazebag, realise you deserve better, end up with good guy – but MacLaine’s depiction easily compensates for this with both sweetness and dissolution, as well as a sadness behind the eyes that demands sympathy from the viewer. She’s a dame in distress, yes, but one you want to save.
Having the film centre around the holiday season proved crucial from a story point of view. The black and white picture drowning out any of the luscious reds and greens usually abundant in similar seasonal fare. The film also does a good job of highlighting the loneliness that Christmas and the New Year can bring, but maintains its warmth, never taking a turn for the outright depressing. However, where other Christmas films would focus on good will to all men and acts of generosity, The Apartment homes in on the hedonistic attitudes of our characters. They’re all wanting something as opposed to needing something. Bud wants to climb the corporate ladder to success, when what he needs is to respect himself and stop letting others use him. Fran wants Sheldrake to commit to her and leave his family, when really she needs someone that genuinely loves her. And Sheldrake and the other managers of the firm… well, they just seem to want to get their end away.
If that’s not the true meaning of Christmas, I don’t know what is.
This theme of self-indulgence is further explored in scenes of drunken office parties, late-night bars, loose women with the highest pitched voices imaginable and general debauchery all round. Even the morality of infidelity is never really brought into question. Instead, it’s treated as a common occurrence and the picture has no problem dragging the sanctity of marriage through the dirt, which was seldom seen in cinema up to that point. Upon its release the film was considered relatively controversial, even leading to a time that Sheldrake himself (Fred MacMurray) was accosted by an elderly lady in the street who took umbridge with his against-type character in the film.
This blemish didn’t last forever though, and it was eventually regarded as a stand out of the genre. It’s now frequently listed as one the greatest films of all time and Wilder’s most accomplished title of his career.
It’s Wilder’s ability to perfectly balance the cynicism of the story with the tenderness of the performances that gifts The Apartment a pathos that most other comedies just don’t have.
So, if you’re looking for the perfect Christmas movie to watch this December, then The Apartment should be the one. It has both humour and warmth in equal measure.
By Craig Sheldon