DVD Review: “The Jack Lemmon Film Collection”

“The Man Behind the Magic,” the title of the mainstage extra within this five-film set of movies the genial two-time Oscar winner made for Columbia Pictures from 1954-1964, tells you not to expect any kind of expose. Then again, there’s doesn’t seem to be any dirt to dish on Lemmon. His son, Chris, whisks us through the life and career of his dad, with guest genuflections by, among others, Shirley MacLaine, Andy Garcia, Kevin Spacey and Peter Gallagher (reminiscing about the 1986 Broadway revival of Long Day’s Journey Into Night), screenwriter Larry Gelbart, and golf pro Peter Jacobsen, on Lemmon’s other passion. It’s a cozy session, punctuated by a few hilarious anecdotes.

The one undercurrent of discontent is Lemmon’s struggle to break out of the light comedy mode that made him a star and find more meaningful parts. And that’s the problem with the films in this film collection—they’re all light comedies, and undistinguished ones at that. If I were putting together a Jack Lemmon Film Collection (and I realize that Columbia, Lemmon’s first cinematic home, was obliged to go with what it had in the stacks) my top picks would be The Apartment (1960), Days of Wine and Roses (1962), The China Syndrome (1979), Missing (1982), and Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)—the first the darkest of his comedies, and the rest dramas free of the collar-wringing overstatement that marred some of his work when he got his wish.

That list omits his two Oscar winners, 1955’s Mister Roberts and 1973’s Save the Tiger (he was the first actor to win both Best Supporting and Best Lead Actor Oscars), favorites like Some Like it Hot (1959) and The Odd Couple (1968), and movies I like him in, including The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1975) and Airport ’77, where he tried on a Charlton Heston part for size (Syndrome, a real-life disaster picture, fit better.) If I were to put Jack in a box, none of the films gathered here would make it, which is not to say that they’re entirely free of interest. What emerges is a portrait of an actor honing, then straining against, a persona.

Lemmon debuted in 1954’s It Should Happen to You. It did happen to him: he was fortunate to be paired with the one-of-a-kind Judy Holliday, and was under the sensitive guidance of George Cukor, the same year Cukor directed Judy Garland in her best adult role, A Star is Born. The actors reteamed that same year in Phffft, a marital farce. The director here is Mark Robson, best known for the nuance-deaf Valley of the Dolls (1967) and Earthquake (1974), and the air goes out of the lightweight proceedings as surely as Lemmon’s marriage to Holliday goes “phffft!” in the film. There are laughs; Lemmon falls up a staircase with aplomb. Playing the other woman, as he tries (but fails) to shake Holliday, is Kim Novak, a fellow member of Columbia’s Class of 54. The movie establishes the Lemmon template, that of the frazzled Everyman tempted by life outside the marriage-and-kids norm but unable to squirm free, finally surrendering to the establishment. That theme, played to the sound of the constant clink of martini glasses, gives off a Mad Men vibe.

The best film of the set is easily 1957’s Operation Mad Ball, a service comedy. That genre has pretty much been furloughed since the early 80s and Private Benjamin and Stripes, but it’s in full swing here, as Lemmon’s upstart private plans a wild party with nurses under the nose of suspicious security officer Ernie Kovacs. The movies weren’t really big enough to contain Kovacs, a brilliant talent; in his film debut, however, he takes a stock part and runs with it, giving each line distinctive little spins and keeping Lemmon, a friend offscreen, on his toes. (It was Lemmon who identified Kovacs’ body at the morgue when he was killed in a 1962 car accident.) Lemmon’s generosity as an actor is at its peak: he holds up his end of the screwball antics while giving co-stars Mickey Rooney (one of his best parts), a pre-Bewitched Dick York, Arthur O’Connell, and ingénue Kathyrn Grant a chance to shine (Grant, a Columbia player who subsequently appeared in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Anatomy of a Murder, was married to Bing Crosby, who was 30 years her senior.)

Richard Quine, who directed Operation Mad Ball, also helmed The Notorious Landlady (1962). It reteams Lemmon and Novak, who was by then a star in her own right, but one who required special handling to shine. She usually got it from Quine, who directed her first screen test and made her first film, the excellent 1954 noir Pushover, sculpted her warmest and most appealing performance, in 1958’s Bell Book and Candle (with Lemmon in support), and had directed her previous film, the fine 1960 drama Strangers When We Meet, with Kirk Douglas (and Kovacs, and Lemmon’s best co-star, Walter Matthau). I assume their offscreen relationship was in a state of phffft, as she’s uneven and uncomfortable here, in a comic mystery (written, off-handedly, by Gelbart and Blake Edwards) that casts Lemmon as an American diplomat who falls hard for his London landlady, who’s under a cloud for having allegedly offed her missing husband. All too obviously shot in Culver City, England, the movie leans on co-star Fred Astaire for a touch of class, which isn’t enough.

In the documentary, we learn that Lemmon turned down the title role in 1967’s Cool Hand Luke, figuring that Paul Newman was right for it. Proof that nice guys finish last is 1963’s Under the Yum Yum Tree. The part of a notorious landlord with a letch for the fetching Carol Lynley (and anything else in skirts) was written with Lemmon in mind, who rejected it for Broadway, where Gig Young played it in full leer. Lemmon deeply regretted doing the movie, a time capsule whose “swinging” attitudes and bachelor pad décor are best viewed under glass, and I figure appearing in the play and the film drove co-star Dean Jones to Disney pictures and later Christian conversion. (Paul Lynde shows up as a sniggering handyman at Lemmon’s apartment building.) This and Billy Wilder’s smutty (and achingly dull) Irma La Douce that same year made him Hollywood’s top boxoffice star, and strengthened his resolve to find more challenging parts.

But first, he and Yum Yum Tree director David Swift (best known for Pollyanna, The Parent Trap, and the film version of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying) had to get through 1964’s strenuous Good Neighbor Sam, Lemmon’s last contracted film for Columbia. The studio didn’t let him coast. As an ad man whose family values are tested by demanding client Edward G. Robinson, Lemmon huffs and puffs through a 130-minute marathon of comical complications, involving French neighbor Romy Schneider (whom he has to pretend to marry to preserve her inheritance), the Rube Goldberg-type inventions cluttering his home, and the car chase that every Hollywood comedy had to work into its plot after the massive success of 1963’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Though the movies weren’t very good I still cherish that period where Continental stars with heavy arthouse resumes like Schneider were shoehorned into U.S. confections like Good Neighbor Sam, which casts the sexily squeaky-clean Dorothy Provine as Lemmon’s flummoxed wife for the sake of comparison. You can sense his relief when the amusing but top-heavy film is finally over.

With the exception of Sam, which didn’t fit into two-hour time slots, these movies were in constant rotation on syndicated stations when I was growing up, never looking as good as they do here in whistle-clean, enhanced widescreen versions. Additional extras within the sturdily bound six-disc set (one for each film, and another for the documentary) include the original trailers (Mad Ball’s, with Kovacs in his peculiar element, is a gem) and a 1955 Ford Television Theatre episode “Marriageable Male,” with Ida Lupino.

Sony, which did well by Michael Powell in January (http://popdose.com/dvd-review-the-films-of-michael-powell-a-matter-of-life-and-death-and-age-of-consent/), has some excellent sets promised by the end of the year—Toho sci-fi, film noir, Sam Fuller. The Jack Lemmon Film Collection footnotes a major career, but fills in the niches of that career with care and warmth.

How loved was Jack Lemmon in Hollywood? Who can forget this moment, from the 1998 Golden Globes:

Buy The Jack Lemmon Film Collection at Amazon.

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  • http://playitandbedamned.blogspot.com/ Rob

    Thank you for acknowledging Lemmon's later dramatic work – in particluar, “Missing,” where he his character had to pull off a very difficult transition or the film falls apart.

    Have the Ernie Kovacs TV shows been released on DVD yet? Another generation needs to discover how brilliant he was. I remember Comedy Central aired “Your Show of Shows” late night many years ago. It should do the same with Ernie.

  • http://robertcashill.blogspot.com BobCashill

    Very little of Kovacs seems to have made it to DVD. My introduction came via PBS, which aired a lot of his programs in the late 70s and early 80s. The “Mad Ball” trailer really brought me back; there's no way a studio would go with something like that today.

  • http://robertcashill.blogspot.com BobCashill

    Very little of Kovacs seems to have made it to DVD. My introduction came via PBS, which aired a lot of his programs in the late 70s and early 80s. The “Mad Ball” trailer really brought me back; there's no way a studio would go with something like that today.

  • http://playitandbedamned.blogspot.com/ Rob

    Thank you for acknowledging Lemmon's later dramatic work – in particluar, “Missing,” where he his character had to pull off a very difficult transition or the film falls apart.

    Have the Ernie Kovacs TV shows been released on DVD yet? Another generation needs to discover how brilliant he was. I remember Comedy Central aired “Your Show of Shows” late night many years ago. It should do the same with Ernie.

  • http://robertcashill.blogspot.com BobCashill

    Very little of Kovacs seems to have made it to DVD. My introduction came via PBS, which aired a lot of his programs in the late 70s and early 80s. The “Mad Ball” trailer really brought me back; there's no way a studio would go with something like that today.