Tuesday, January 27, 2009

TCM Helps Turn Jack Lemmon Into A Lime

I've long avoided films with Jack Lemmon in them. Because of Tony Curtis' poor treatment of Marilyn in Some Like It Hot, all things & persons connected with that movie were sour. I don't have to explain it (and frankly, if you weren't ever a teen aged girl who idolized Marilyn, you'll never understand it anyway), it's just the way it was. So Jack Lemmon became a real lemon to me -- about as welcome as lemon scented dishwasher tabs which leave that smell which makes me think what I'm drinking has a (most unwelcome) lemony taste. I hated lemons before Jack, but they both elicited the same nose-wrinkling "No, thank you," response.

Enter TCM with it's broadcast of several Jack Lemmon films.

I don't mind telling you that I'm a TCM addict -- and I have no plans for quitting, either. I was more than greatly disappointed to find Jack hogging my favorite television channel; I was twitching for something to watch.

Eventually I decided to give Irma La Douce (1963) a try -- the lure of a retro Parisian prostitute played by Shirley MacLaine was too much to pass by. And since I'd never heard of the film before (or if I had, I'd blocked it due to Lemmon), I figured it might just be train-wreck-y enough to make mocking of Lemmon my evening's real entertainment.

Enter my surprise that Irma La Douce is a fabulously fun film.

Just campy enough, but not overdone with kitsch; gorgeous in fashion, rich in absurdity, and lush in MacLaine's beauty; all good things. Perhaps most surprising was the blend of risqué & reality -- sans the predictable post code moral judgments.

The plot revolves around an honest & naive Paris policeman, Nestor Patou (Lemmon), who falls in love with titular prostitute (MacLaine) who always appears in her signature color green, and the lengths to which he goes to win her affections -- which, in typical male thought, means she will give up her life of impure sex crime and sexually belong to him alone.

She, like any independent career woman, doesn't want to give up her work, her life, for some man who will probably only be temporary anyway.



Her practical stance, one most any sane woman holds today, is quite unusual for the time; but her high regard for her sex work career is still something not oft depicted in media even today. I'm not saying that this film is a true rendering of sex work, then or now, but it was far more frank and unapologetic than I had anticipated. (Perhaps it was a 'blame it on the French' attitude which allowed Wilder to get away with it all?)

Nestor, unable to convince her to quit, divines a plan which will keep Irma off the streets and only in bed with him. He dresses up as a rather foppish elderly English lord, pays her 500 francs just to play cards with him, and promises to visit her twice a week.



Irma excitedly does the math and, as Nestor had hoped, concludes she only needs to work twice a week with Lord X as her only client. She announces the happy news in public and all the prostitutes and pimps elect Nestor as their leader -- which means he's to pay the huge bill for the party along with the 500 francs he borrowed to start his plan. And so begins the multiple lives of Nestor.



He works multiple jobs at night, spends time with Irma by day, and twice a week appears as Lord X, the money ticket. Now, the money Nestor earns is given to Irma by Lord X, but Irma spends it nearly as quickly as she gets it, putting Nestor further and further behind. In the rather typical 1960s comedy-of-errors-fashion, Irma becomes suspicious of so-tired-I-can-barely-can-keep-up Nestor, believing he is seeing other prostitutes.



So, at Lord X's next visit, Irma seduces him into playing more than cards and tells him that she wants to leave Nestor and go with Lord X to England.

Nestor decides it's time for Lord X to leave permanently. Shouting "Goodbye your bloody lordship!" and other insults, Nestor throws his Lord X costume into the river -- which, of course, is overheard by one of Irma's former pimps, who then thinks Nestor has literally rather than symbolically murdered Lord X. Irma becomes convinced that Nestor killed Lord X out of love for her and decides to stand by her man -- even when Nestor goes to jail.

The bar owner (far larger in film character -- and person -- than mentioned here) helps Nestor escape jail and return to a very pregnant Irma.



In a very absurd scene, Nestor brings Lord X to life and then is able to meet Irma (all in white - the only time she is not seen in green) at the church just in time to marry her -- right before the babe is born.

While the ending is one of Moral Right, it isn't the usual post Hollywood code judgment in which Shirley MacLaine's Irma, like Tom Hanks' Michael Sullivan in Road to Perdition, must die for her sins.

And what of Jack Lemmon's sins?

Well, despite the fact that Irma was a role one could easily see Marilyn playing (and in fact, Billy Wilder was so impressed with her performance in Some Like It Hot, that he originally wanted Marilyn Monroe to play Irma -- but Marilyn died before film production began), I forgave Jack Lemmon his sins.

It was Lemmon's acting, not the green of Irma's wardrobe, which cast Lemmon in a new light -- a greener light of a lime, a fruit I much prefer in everything from drinks to dishwasher tabs. He is so funny & touching in this film, I would have preferred him to have been in The Seven Year Itch (though Lemmon's age may have been an issue there?) rather than Tom Ewell.

I enjoyed Irma La Douce so much that I have since watched several other Lemmon films.

Other notable tidbits from Irma La Douce:

The film was one of the biggest box-office hits of the year, grossing twice as much as The Great Escape and The Birds; I'm going to put part of the film's success down to the unapologetic risqué attitude.

Tura Satana played street walking prostitute Suzie Wong.



Jane & Ruth Earl played the fabulous kitschy Zebra Twin prostitutes.



More screen shots can be found here.

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1 Comments:

Anonymous John Coulthart said...

I like all Billy Wilder's films, he pushed the boundaries of sexual discussion more than most at the time. I think his outsider status helped, he had little time for American prudery. The Apartment is a great film.

Irma la Douce caused amusement the time I watched it with my parents when I was about 11. Sat through the whole thing enjoying it but feeling slightly nonplussed. At the end I had to ask, "But what was it that she did?" My parents both laughed but wouldn't explain.

6:45 PM  

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