There’ve been a few attempts, over the decades, to rewrite the history of Billy Wilder’s 1964 clunker “Kiss Me, Stupid.”
It’s “underrated” thanks to a winning Dean Martin as “Dino” (Dean Martin) performance, worth re-assessing because of a risque late scene Wilder was forced to edit out, somehow worthy of elevation because of its satiric intent.
I’d always missed it, and it’s safe to say that the reason it never fell into “classic” TV reruns rotation is that it’s a serious stumble, and not nearly as entertaining as the run of Wilder/I.A.L. Diamond hits — “Some Like It Hot,” “The Apartment,” “One, Two Three” and “Irma la Douce”– that preceded it.
Let me say two things at the outset of this “reconsideration.” First, my favorite Wilder film, one that grows in stature and delirium with each re-viewing, is “One, Two, Three,” a Cold War spoof that was cute when it came out, with its satire and broad lampooning of capitalism and totalitarian socialism (communism) stinging more, the laughs landing harder with every passing year.
A manic, screwball farce with James Cagney’s staccato bark paced by Aram Khachaturyan’s “Sabre Dance?” Film comedy doesn’t get any funnier than that.
And secondly, I had to chase “Kiss Me, Stupid” with a Christmas Eve re-watching of “The Apartment” just to get the foul taste of the flop out of my mouth.
The most ingenious thing in “Kiss Me, Stupid,” is Wilder’s assistance in helping Martin perfect the most comically popular version of himself, the persona that would give his late career TV host years their bounce. Playing “Dino,” a “pop star,” Vegas mainstay and actor on his way to do a movie “with me, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Joey Bishop – it’s called “Little Women”.” When he adds Bing Crosby, we know that’s a “Robin and the Seven Hoods” riff.
Martin is a stumble-on-stage-for laughs drinker with drunk jokes and leering womanizer gags at the ready.
“I have an amazing mother, you know. She’s 85 years old and she don’t need no glasses…she drinks right out of the bottle.“
Dino’s act, interrupting his crooning rendition of Gershwin’s “‘S’Wonderful” in front of a leggy Vegas chorus-line, would be repeated by Dean Martin, ad nauseum, for most of the late 60s through the ’70s. It’s funny and “new” here, the peak moment of “Kiss Me, Stupid,” and it’s over just as the opening credits end.
The plot had cobwebs all over it long before Wilder and collaborator I.A.L. Diamond, adapting an Italian play, started typing it. Dino leaves Vegas in his Dual Ghia convertible, bound for LA and the start of filming. But he gets detoured into tiny dirt-road Climax, Nevada.
That’s where a wily mechanic (Cliff Osmond) conspires with his songwriting partner, the local piano teacher and church organist (Ray Walston) to waylay him so that they can pitch their mostly-inane/wholly-derivative songbook to a captive (a sabotaged car) audience.
The “wrinkle” in all this is that for their scheme to work, they have to satiate the incurable womanizer with “some action.” As Dino is put up in piano teacher Orville’s house, he’s sure to put the moves on Orville’s wife Zelda (Felicia Farr). And as Orville’s already insanely jealous and suspicious of her, that’ll never do.
Mechanic Barney recruits cocktail waitress Polly the Pistol (Kim Novak, slatternly slinging an amusing gum-snapping accent) to pretend to be Zelda, and Orville picks a marriage-threatening fight with his wife to send her “home to mother.”
The way’ll be clear for Dino to make his move, and for the song-pitchers to make theirs. So they think.
The sexuality in this movie was fairly daring for the time, even considering Wilder’s previous film (“Irma la Douce”) was about hookers in Paris. It’s implied that Polly puts out for a price, although she makes it clear she ain’t “easy.”
The comedy is pitched broad and low for a Wilder farce — lots of leering from guys (Osmond, Walston and Martin) who know how to mug. It’s as if they know the zingers need some help to land.
“I need another Italian song like a giraffe needs a strep throat… If it weren’t for Venetian blinds, it’d be curtains for us!”
The best joke in it sounds like one Martin made up on the spot, at a police roadblock.
“What’sa matter? That Sinatra kid missing again?”
Although there’s a chuckle here and there, everybody about “Stupid” seems hoary and moldy and dated before a camera ever rolled. It’s self-aware enough to recognize that tumbleweed Tin Pan Alley wannabe songsmiths were a thing of the past in a post-Beatles-and-Dylan young singer-songwriter age. But the transition was so rapid that “Kiss Me, Stupid” had no hope of a shelf life, even back then.
The partner-swapping stuff may have seemed “daring,” but the way it’s played here is tacky, not titillating.
It’s not until you reach into the film’s history and realize there were casting issues which contribute to its clunkiness.
Peter Sellers had the Walston role, and had a heart attack a few weeks into filming. Walston was a funny man, at home in musicals on stage and screen. But the singing wasn’t what made the character, and Wilder stupidly had him dubbed with another singer’s voice in any event. Walston was never in Sellers’ class as a comic. How would Martin have played off Sellers? It might not have worked at all, but we’ll never know.
Novak is game, and aside from Martin, the best player in the picture. But it’s a superficial turn in a role that demanded more Shirley MacLaine vulnerability. Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield were both set to play the part which delays, death and a pregnancy prevented. MacLaine was pitched the “Zelda” role, initially. Mrs. Jack Lemon, aka Farr, got the role.
All the detailed, contrast-rich black and white cinematography guaranteed was that future HDTV generations would notice how poorly the makeup hides how bad everybody’s skin was.
The Catholic Legion of Decency condemned the film, everybody kvetched about the “bad taste” of it all. But the satiric target — American mores — is broad and the laughs just don’t land.
The thing that’s obvious watching “Kiss Me, Stupid” now is that the passage of time and shifting of societal mores aside, “restored” scene or not, the damned thing just doesn’t play. It’s two hours and five minutes of compromised comedy that never finds a rhythm or a reason it needed to be filmed.
Rating: approved, quite racy and sexual for its time
Cast: Dean Martin, Kim Novak, Ray Walston, Felicia Farr and Cliff Osmond, with Barbara Pepper, Mel Blanc, John Fiedler and Howard McNear.
Credits: Directed by Billy Wilder, scripted by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, based on a play by Anna Bonacci.
Running time: 2:05