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Director Billy Wilder was riding high in 1963 that year's Irma la Douce had been the biggest money-maker of his career. It made over $25 million at the box-office (making it the most successful non-musical comedy in Hollywood history up to that point) and it was his tenth hit in a row, an almost unparalleled string dating back to Stalag 17 (1953) which included such award-winners as Sabrina (1954), Some Like It Hot (1959) and The Apartment (1960). Wilder and his co-screenwriting partner, I. A. L. Diamond, came back in 1964 with a project that proved to be one of the most controversial pictures of its day, Kiss Me, Stupid (1964). The farce was vilified by censors, critics, and the public alike. Wilder's movie was certainly crude and unsubtle, with offensive situations and dialogue for its day, but these were not unintentional lapses in the expected Wilder-Diamond wit. Thanks to the passage of time, the "crude" humor now seems completely appropriate and integral to the storyline, even if it does have a decidedly misogynistic bite from the present angle. And if actor Ray Walston seems too shrill today, the other main players Dean Martin, Kim Novak, and Felicia Farr are pitch-perfect in tone. In fact, underneath the sordid facade is dare we say it a sensitive tale of love and fidelity.
The plot was loosely based on a farce by Anna Bonacci, L'Ora della Fantasia, which had been a hit on the Paris stage in 1953. One previous attempt to Americanize the story, a play called The Dazzling Hour with Olivia De Havilland, was intended for Broadway, but closed early in its tryout run. When they got hold of the story, Wilder and Diamond transported the characters to an intriguing location a small Nevada town called Climax, near to the adult playground of Las Vegas. Smooth crooner Dino (Dean Martin) finishes an engagement on the Strip and is driving his convertible back to Los Angeles when a detour on the highway forces him to this sleepy Nevada berg. At a gas station there he encounters the oafish grease monkey Barney Millsap (Cliff Osmond). Millsap is an amateur songwriter with Orville J. Spooner (Ray Walston), the local piano teacher. Millsap and Spooner sabotage the sports car and conspire to keep Dino in town so they can foist some of their song compositions on him. Spooner is worried, though, that his attractive wife Zelda (Felicia Farr) might become one of Dino's sexual conquests. Spooner argues with Zelda so she will leave the house, then he arranges to have a local hooker named Polly the Pistol (Kim Novak) pose as his wife to get Dino in the proper "mood" to hear his songs.
For the key roles of the Spooners, Wilder initially intended to cast a real-life married couple, Jack Lemmon (the star of Wilder's Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, and Irma la Douce) and his wife Felicia Farr. Lemmon had other commitments, so Wilder signed British film comic Peter Sellers to his first Hollywood-based film. (Sellers' most recent hit, 1963's The Pink Panther, had only been partially filmed in the States). In Kiss Me, Stupid's most charming bit of casting, Dean Martin playfully engages in self-parody there is no attempt made to pretend that his character "Dino" is anyone other than himself. The opening sequence was filmed at the Sands during an actual Martin engagement he really was billed on the marquee with just a caricature and the one name Dino. Even the Dual Ghia convertible that Dino drives into Climax was Martin's own car.
Wilder also engaged in some inventive "casting" when it came to the songs that Spooner and Barney were to foist on the Vegas crooner. He wanted the music to be accomplished, but unknown. He asked his friend Ira Gershwin if he would like to contribute, and Gershwin astonished Wilder by suggesting that he could write new lyrics to long-lost music by his late brother George. So, by using songs that were unfinished or unused in previous projects (including the 1937 RKO Astaire-Rogers musical Shall We Dance), Wilder was able to debut three "new" songs in his film by George and Ira Gershwin.
After working on the set for six weeks, Sellers took advantage of a Sunday off (April 6th, 1964 to be exact) and went with his family to Disneyland. Upon returning, the thirty-nine year old comic suffered a stroke in fact, a series of six minor strokes. After a stay at Cedars of Lebanon in Los Angeles, Sellers returned to England under doctor's orders to get six months rest, and Wilder had to decide quickly whether to recast the part or put the production on hold for half a year. Wilder hired Ray Walston, who had turned in a memorable supporting role in The Apartment, and who was currently starring as an antenna-sprouting alien in the popular CBS TV series My Favorite Martian (1963-1966).
When he returned to England, Sellers spoke to Alexander Walker at the London Evening Standard and lashed out at Hollywood, and especially at the lax atmosphere of Wilder's set. He told Walker that "at the studios they give you every creature comfort, except the satisfaction of being able to get the best work out of yourself. I used to go down on the set of Kiss Me, Stupid with Billy Wilder and find a Cook's Tour of hangers-on and sightseers standing just off the set, right in my line of vision. Friends and relatives of people in the front office came to kibitz on Peter Sellers, actor..." Sellers' former colleagues were not amused at the comments, however. Wilder, Martin, Novak and Farr sent him a telegram calling him an "unprofessional rat fink." More famously, Wilder later responded with the remark, "Heart attack? You have to have a heart before you can have an attack."
Walston found himself trying to catch up to Wilder and the rest of the cast, and trusted that the relaxed working conditions would suit him better than it suited Sellers. As Walston told Nick Tosches for his biography of Dean Martin, Dino, "As is always the case with Wilder, they did not have the ending written, but they had more than three quarters of the film on script and they were shooting. But when I read it, I thought, holy mackerel, this is not going to work; there's something wrong: it's not that funny. But at the same time, I thought, who the hell am I to say?" At issue was the intentional coarseness of the humor Wilder and Diamond were playing with; they were going to be testing the limits of censorship organizations in America, and they must have known that a fight was looming.
Kiss Me, Stupid was passed by the Production Code Administration in the waning years of that organization. Then head of the PCA, Geoffrey Shurlock, told his colleagues, "If dogs want to return to their vomit, I'm not going to stop them." As Frank Miller described the situation in his book Censored Hollywood, "Though Wilder's film treated its vulgarity with an in-your-face brashness few other directors would have attempted, it really was no worse than other pictures Shurlock had felt compelled to pass." Shurlock knew, however, that battles would rage with the Catholic Legion of Decency. Everyone in Hollywood, in fact, seemed to follow the story. As Variety reported, "Although it has a Code seal, the gag going around UA in past weeks has been that in order for the pic to get by more strenuous censor groups like the Legion of Decency, Stupid would have to be cut into a fifteen-minute silent short." Wilder met personally with Monsignor Little of the Legion and, as a result, reshot parts of a key scene near the end of the film to soften the implication that Felicia Farr's character had cheated on her husband with Dino. The Legion demanded other changes, but Wilder refused, both on principle and for the practical reason that his star Kim Novak had gone to England to shoot another film and was unavailable for reshoots. The Legion slapped Kiss Me, Stupid with a "C" for Condemned rating, the first given to an American film since Elia Kazan's Baby Doll (1956). Announcing the rating, the Legion took an additional swipe at the PCA: "It is difficult to understand how such approval is not the final betrayal of the trust which has been placed by so many in the organized industry's self-regulation." As a direct result of the Legion's rating, United Artists decided to release Wilder's film under the banner of their Lopert Pictures subsidiary, which had previously only handled imported films, including those that had also run afoul of the Legion, such as Never On Sunday (1960).
Kiss Me, Stupid was finally released in the Christmas season of 1964 - the ill-timed release date also came in for criticism by the Legion and by a number of critics. The film died spectacularly at the box-office. Wilder and Diamond eventually retreated to their office and went through the motions of developing another property to fashion into a screenplay, but work was slow. Wilder told a friend, "We feel like parents who have given birth to a mongoloid child Now we keep asking ourselves - do we dare screw again?" As he told another friend, his office was "...like the Ford plant after the Edsel was made."
Wilder preferred to ignore the existence of Kiss Me, Stupid in the many interviews he gave between his retirement in 1981 and his death in 2002. In perhaps his lengthiest comment (quoted in On Sunset Boulevard), Wilder expressed his frustration and bewilderment at the movie's failure, saying, "I don't know why the film shocked people. It's the most bourgeois film there is. A man wants a career and the person who wants to help him wants to sleep with his wife. He replaces his wife with another, but when he is nearest to success, he refuses it and throws the guy out. ...The public accepted it better in The Apartment because it was better conceived, better written, better lubricated."
Producer: Billy Wilder
Director: Billy Wilder
Screenplay: I.A.L. Diamond & Billy Wilder, based on a play by Anna Bonacci
Cinematography: Joseph La Shelle
Film Editing: Daniel Mandell
Production Design: Alexander Trauner
Art Direction: Robert Luthardt
Music: Andre Previn
Cast: Dean Martin (Dino), Kim Novak (Polly the Pistol), Ray Walston (Orville Jeremiah Spooner), Felicia Farr (Zelda Spooner), Cliff Osmond (Barney), Barbara Pepper (Big Bertha).
by John M. Miller
Billy Wilder in Hollywood by Maurice Zolotow
On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder by Ed Sikov
Conversations with Wilder by Cameron Crowe
Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams by Nick Tosches
Kim Novak: Reluctant Goddess by Peter Harry Brown
Censored Hollywood by Frank Miller