Friday, October 24, 2014

Movie Review: Dean Martin, Kim Novak, and Ray Walston in Billy Wilder's Kiss Me, Stupid (1964)

Dean Martin and Kim Novak in Kiss Me, Stupid, 1964. There's no symbolism in that really long chianti bottle Dean is holding. Sometimes a really long chianti bottle is just a really long chianti bottle.

Dean and Kim tidy up. Hey, Dean, do you have a permit for those guns?

Ray Walston as Orville Spooner in Kiss Me, Stupid.

Kim Novak and director Billy Wilder on the set of Kiss Me, Stupid, 1964.

A rare color photo of Kim Novak in the dress that she wears when she's pretending to be Zelda.
Billy Wilder’s trashy 1964 sex comedy Kiss Me, Stupid, was a film that shocked many moviegoers at the time with its raunchy subject matter. The plot is that popular singer Dino (Dean Martin) is driving from Las Vegas to Los Angeles when he stops in Climax, Nevada. (This movie is not subtle.) Gas station owner Barney Millsap (the very funny Cliff Osmond) sees in Dino his chance at fame and fortune. Barney writes songs with Orville J. Spooner, (the excellent Ray Walston) a piano teacher who lives across the street. Barney sabotages Dino’s car, forcing him to stay as a guest of Spooner’s so they will have a chance to pawn their songs to him. Dino is looking for action in Climax, as he tells Spooner that if he doesn’t have a woman every night he gets painful headaches. (John F. Kennedy once said much the same thing to British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan: “If I don’t have a woman for three days, I get terrible headaches.”) Spooner is married to the beautiful Zelda (the beautiful Felicia Farr) but he is terribly jealous of her. Zelda reveals that she’s always had a crush on Dino-she saw him driving through town, but doesn’t know he’s currently napping in their guest bedroom. So Barney concocts the ridiculous idea that Spooner should get into a fight with Zelda so she goes back to her parents, and then pick up a trollop from the Belly Button, the local roadhouse, and pass her off as Zelda. Oh, and let Dino sleep with her so he doesn’t get a headache and buys some of their songs. What could go wrong with a plan like that? 

Of course, plenty goes wrong with the plan, as Barney picks up a beautiful cocktail waitress with a heart of gold, Polly the Pistol (the delicious Kim Novak). Polly actually likes Orville, and she gets to fulfill a fantasy by acting like a wife, instead of a girl with a dubious reputation. And once Polly meets Dino she is repulsed by his smooth charm and fast moves. The irony of the movie is that when it comes time for Orville to step aside and let Dino get his action with Polly, he fights for Polly’s honor and throws Dino out of his house, thus losing his chance at selling any songs. But Orville gets to enjoy Polly for a night, as they retire to the bedroom. Meanwhile, Zelda returned home, and Barney, who is spying on the action from the porch, tells her not to go into the house. But he left out some crucial information, so she doesn’t know he’s trying to sell songs to Dino, she just thinks he’s having a great time with Polly. So of course Zelda goes to the Belly Button and gets drunk, whereupon the owner deposits her in Polly’s trailer. And where does Dino go once Orville throws him out? The Belly Button, natch. But Dino is unimpressed by the girls on duty and asks the bartender where the hottest girl is. He directs Dino to Polly’s trailer. Dino finds Zelda there and assumes she’s Polly. Zelda, although star struck by Dino, quickly figures out that he’s a jerk. When she finds out he’s not going to buy any of Orville’s songs, she uses reverse psychology, telling him that the song isn’t right for him anyway, and saying what great things Bobby Darin, Jack Jones, or Robert Goulet could do with it. Zelda and Dino spend the night in Polly’s trailer, and he leaves without a headache the next morning. But everything ends happily, as Zelda gives the $500 that Dino gave her to Polly, so Polly can buy a car and find happiness outside of Climax. Dino sings Orville and Barney’s song “Sophia” on his latest TV special, and Orville and Zelda are happily reunited, although Orville doesn’t understand what has happened. 

Kiss Me, Stupid is, well, a stupid movie. At 126 minutes, it’s far too long, and it takes way too much time to get to the setup. Too much screen time is spent on Orville’s jealousy at the beginning of the movie. If you get bored during this part of the movie, look for Mel Blanc, voice of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Porky Pig, among many others, as a dentist. Also, look for John Fiedler, the voice of Piglet, as a minister trying to get the Belly Button to close down. There’s also a super long and only sort of funny sequence where Orville is trying to pick a fight with Zelda, but she deflects everything he says. It’s kind of funny, but Orville is also an overly jealous jerk. If you see Kiss Me, Stupid, you’d better be well-versed in the pop culture of the mid-1960’s; otherwise there will be many jokes that will go over your head. Two of my favorite jokes were lines spoken by Polly. Orville tells her that she’ll flip over who the third person at dinner will be, and that he’s “very exciting.” She asks, “Who is it, Richard Burton?” When Orville reveals that it’s Dino, she isn’t excited and says, “I like Andy Williams better.” Those jokes cracked me up, but I realize they might not be that funny to other people.

The casting of Kiss Me, Stupid was quite excellent. Dean Martin was superb as Dino and I like that he was fine playing a parody version of himself as a total jerk. Dean Martin wasn’t a saint, but from what I’ve heard and read about him, he sounds like a genuinely nice guy. I know a guy who played softball with my Dad who was an extra in the movie Airport, and he told me that when he broke the rules for extras and went up to Dean to shake his hand, Dean took off the glove he was wearing before shaking hands. That’s always stuck with me as a classy thing to do. The role of Dino must have been written especially for Martin, and the line between real life and the movies is blurred as the beginning of the movie is just Martin’s usual nightclub act, filmed for the movie cameras as Dino’s act. Martin’s jokes at the beginning will be familiar to anyone who has heard recordings of his live act. One joke is about Bing Crosby, as Dino says, “Bing’s always so cool. That’s because he has $21 million dollars. On him.” The movie doesn’t include this line that would have fit with the smutty tone of the movie, but in live performance Martin would preface that joke by saying, “I ran into Bing and I said, ‘Hiya Bing, what’s up?’ He said, ‘Not much.’ Oh, you think that’s funny now, wait till you get home it’ll be hilarious!” The car that Dino drives is Martin’s own Dual Ghia, and when Barney talks about Dino’s hit songs, he’s naming Dean Martin’s hit songs. Martin was an extremely gifted comedian, and he makes the most of this part. My only complaint in that someone in wardrobe should have told Martin to unbutton the shirt he wears in the second half of the movie, as he almost always has it buttoned up all the way. Also, the boxy plaid jacket he wears over that shirt doesn’t do much for him. When he takes the jacket off, you can see what good shape he was in. Dean Martin was just awesome, and he had such a great voice. When Dino sings “Sophia” to Zelda just before they have sex in Polly’s trailer, his voice sounds so good. In order to get approval from the Motion Picture Production Code, an additional scene was filmed which shows Dino being bothered by a back problem as he is about to seduce Zelda, and it’s implied they don’t have sex. That footage was shown when Kiss Me, Stupid was originally released in the United States, but it’s since been replaced by the original cut of the scene, which fades out with Dino and Zelda in an embrace. 

Peter Sellers was originally cast as Orville Spooner, and he filmed for several weeks before he had a series of heart attacks, which very nearly killed him. Sellers was actually pronounced clinically dead in the hospital, but doctors were able to revive him. While on the set, Sellers clashed with director Billy Wilder. Sellers was replaced by Ray Walston, and shooting had to start over. No footage of Sellers as Orville seems to have survived. It would be interesting to see what Sellers’ interpretation of the role would have been. As much as I like Peter Sellers, and as funny as he was, I think that Ray Walston was better in the part than Sellers would have been. I know that might sound like heresy, but I think Walston was a better fit for Orville. Walston was such a normal, ordinary-looking guy that there’s a huge contrast between him and Dino, which the script needs in order for the movie to be funny. Peter Sellers always wanted to be a leading man, and he might have played the role more over the top in order to compete more with Dean Martin. You can argue that Walston played the role over the top, but it’s also written over the top. Ray Walston is really the star of Kiss Me, Stupid, as he has much more screen time than Martin or Kim Novak, and he does a great job. 

Kim Novak is one of my favorite actresses. I find a lot of movie actresses to be very pretty and beautiful, but there aren’t a lot of actresses that I find truly sexy. But I find Kim Novak extremely sexy. I’m not sure exactly what it is about her. I guess part of it, besides her obvious physical beauty, is that she feels more like a real person than say Marilyn Monroe, who always seemed to be obscuring herself behind the persona she created. I will always adore Kim Novak, despite the fact that she’s obviously had some bad plastic surgery work done. It surprises me that she’s had work done, because she always seemed to remove herself from Hollywood and the nonsense that sometimes surrounds movies. Novak is both beautiful and sexy as Polly, but I’m a little surprised that she took the part. Novak was a gifted actress, and I think she tried hard to be seen as more than just a pretty face. Which begs the question, why did she take a part that objectified her so much? As funny as Kiss Me, Stupid is, it’s a little uncomfortable to watch the way in which Novak’s body is exploited for laughs. Dean Martin’s character paws Polly as often as he can, and as much as a 1964 movie will allow him to do. In the parlance of 2014, Dino commits a lot of acts of microaggression towards Polly. Actually, it’s more like acts of macroaggression, as he literally can’t keep his hands off of her. Since Polly finds Dino so objectionable, and it’s clear that he just sees her as an object and not as a person, it’s not fun to watch her get felt up. 

Felicia Farr was well-cast as Zelda, who is pretty much the perfect wife and is really not deserving of Orville’s crazy jealousy. In real life, Farr was married to Jack Lemmon from 1962 until his death in 2001. According to IMDB and Wikipedia, Lemmon, a favorite of Billy Wilder’s, was offered the role of Orville Spooner, but had to decline due to other commitments. 

There are some other interesting facts about Kiss Me, Stupid. The movie was rated a “C” for “condemned” by the Catholic Legion of Decency, which meant that you would have to say a lot of Hail Marys and Our Fathers in order to cleanse yourself of the sin of having watched Dean Martin feel up Kim Novak. The songs that Barney and Orville write in the movie are actually by George and Ira Gershwin, incredibly enough. Wilder was a friend of Ira’s, and asked him if he would write some songs for the movie. Ira said yes and wrote lyrics for melody fragments that George had written but never used. The songs are quite witty, as “I’m a Poached Egg” features classic Ira Gershwin wordplay. 

If you’re in the mood for a 1960’s sex comedy, or are a fan of any of the lead actors, you should give Kiss Me, Stupid a try. Just don’t expect to be intellectually challenged.


2packs4sure said...

I've always longed to see the footage with Peter Sellers.
I read it doesn't exist but who knows....
I read that he had Dean hysterical most of the time.
Ray Walston had his talents, but i never saw any hint of comedic ability there.
Ray just wasn't funny and that is a large part of why the movie is so weak.

dino martin peters said...

Mr. Mark, thanks for this particularly powerful, potent review of Dino's most controversial big screen effort. Glad to met another digger of our most beloved Dino! Never was, never will be anyone as cool as the King of Cool...oh, to return to the days when Dino walked the earth. Special thanks for sharing your dad's friend's memory of being on the set of "Airport" with Dino! Know that your remarks are being shared at ilovedinomartin this very day!

Mark said...

Hi Dino Martin Peters, Thanks for the kind words! Dino was such a cool guy, I've always been a big fan of his music, movies, and style. Thanks for sharing my review!

dino martin peters said...

Hey pallie, likes Mark you are most most welcome...always always glad to share 'nother's devotion to our one and only Dino!