The Christmas Movie That Isn't A Christmas Movie
The Apartment is a Christmas movie that isn’t really a Christmas movie. Yes, there is a lot of celebrating and good cheer, a “swinging” office Christmas-party, and decorations and even a Santa Clause, albeit a drunk one. Actually, the film centers around two suicidal loners who end up meeting each other amidst the throng of Corporate America, in a glitzy, New York City high-rise. Not a very cheerful plot, but Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, along with a talented cast of characters, make the film extremely entertaining!
Shirley MacLaine is adorable as Fran Kubelik. She looks to be about eighteen - wearing an elevator girl’s uniform, bubbling with spunky repartee and fending off the wolves in business suits who are constantly trying to get a piece of her. As Fran’s character evolves, she wears the snug, jacquard skirts, high heels and swirling, wool coats of the 1960s “career-woman.”
Jack Lemmon narrates the beginning of the story, as the camera pans over the misty, Manhattan skyline – a mere skeleton of how the city appears today. Lemmon had a natural, talkative cadence, and his delivery draws the audience right in and never lets go. Jack Lemmon was a true, classic talent: His malleable facial expressions and vivacious spirit rendered him magical. Lemmon had a dancer’s body and probably could have played a first-rate mime. He is not just hilarious but mesmerizing in The Apartment because of his impeccable timing.
As C.C. “Bud” Baxter, he marches up to the 19th floor every day to a menial desk-job in a sea of working, breathing drone-like people. They are all accountants. Baxter is different, however, not only because he is probably smarter and lonelier but, as we learn, he has gotten himself corralled by the older CEOs on the top floor into being the company dupe – or, a pander of sorts. Baxter has a one-bedroom, bachelor apartment near Central Park. He hands over the key to his apartment almost every night of the week to these aging, married, executives so they can, one at a time, bring in their young girlfriends for a bottle of champagne and a quickie.
With painful hilarity, we watch Baxter struggle to pencil these demanding men into his desk calendar like a crazed secretary. Then as if being taken for a fool were not punishment enough, Baxter walks the streets of New York City at night, subsequently catching a bad cold, waiting for his apartment to empty of the poachers inside who’ve over-extended their time – all this for the dangling carrot called job-promotion.
Meanwhile, Baxter and Fran have established a promising chemistry, but she remains mysteriously unavailable. What we begin to see is that Baxter and Fran have something more than chemistry in common - they are both being used by corporate heavies, including the big boss, Mr. Sheldrake, played by a formidable Fred MacMurray. He is the ultimate greedster: self-serving, manipulative and powerful. The film addresses two important themes: 1. Suicide, and 2. Corporate Greed - the latter exemplified in the businessmen of the upper echelons who have no conscience and think they have license to walk all over their “inferiors.” But, frayed moral-codes and even suicide lurk beneath the hopelessness they engender.
These darker themes are wrapped in a package of humor and romance. Baxter’s neighbors are a funny lot: a fussy landlady and a wonderful, middle-aged, Jewish couple next door. The husband is a professorial doctor and his wife - a scolding, Jewish-mother-type, who brings hot soup when it is needed but clearly disapproves of Baxter. The Jewish couple is under the impression that Baxter has a different woman over every night, because of the noises heard through the apartment walls, which of course, are actually the sounds of the CEOs and their girlfriends. At a pivotal crisis-point, the doctor advises Baxter to slow down and to “be a mensch… a human being.” He warns Baxter against living a reckless life, unmindful of others and of his own health.
“Live now! Pay later! Diner’s club!” complains the doctor, sardonically.
My favorite scene in the movie is when, at the office Christmas-party, Baxter shows Fran his newly bought bowler hat. The facial expressions of both Lemmon and MacLaine are priceless; it is the kind of cinematic moment I live for, performance-wise! But the ending is the best, and that’s as far as I’ll go without giving away the whole movie.
The Apartment was made in 1960 and won five Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director (Billy Wilder), Original Screenplay, Film Editing and Art Direction (Black & White).