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An upper-middle-class traveler's nightmare is played for laughs in Neil Simon's The Out-of-Towners (1970), directed by Arthur Hiller.
When suburban businessman George Kellerman (Jack Lemmon) is offered a big promotion, he and wife Gwen (Sandy Dennis) take a jaunt to the Big Apple to confirm the appointment and start scouting an apartment. George's breezy optimism begins to crumble when air traffic congestion delays their landing. This, however, is only the tip of the transportational iceberg that threatens to wreck their overnight business trip.
Three hours and a good deal of turbulence later, the plane lands -- in Boston. Separated from their luggage, George and Gwen attempt to use planes, trains and automobiles (to reference a film clearly indebted to The Out-of-Towners) to reach Manhattan. But even when they set foot in the big city, things go from bad to worse, as fate seems to be elaborately orchestrated against them. They are thwarted by a transit strike, sanitation strike, rain, troublesome hotel reservation policies, robbers, muggers, faulty dental work, a gas main explosion, a lost child, and a TV crew (to name only a few). George, meanwhile, undergoes a gradual meltdown, becoming overbearing, litigious and, in Gwen's words, "sarcastic... whining, irritable, insensitive and intolerant."
To George, this is not just a run of bad luck, it is an epic struggle, and he remains determined to triumph, even if it kills him.
The Out-of-Towners was originally conceived as a one-act play, to be combined with three other stories to compose the anthology drama Plaza Suite. However, Simon quickly realized the epic journey was better suited to the screen, and put it aside, with the intention of revisiting it later as his first original screenplay. When Plaza Suite reached the stage in 1968 (under the direction of Mike Nichols), the play was comprised of three one-act segments, rather than four.
The inspiration for The Out-of-Towners came from an incident (circa 1967) when Simon flew to Boston to work on David Merrick's musical How Now Dow Jones. "Flying up there, I was caught in a major snowstorm, lost my luggage, spent three hours getting to the hotel on icy streets, a trip which normally was a ten-minute ride."
Simon found time to return to the traveler's nightmare after completing his 1970 play The Gingerbread Lady. While it was being rehearsed and staged, Simon began expanding his one-act comedy into a feature script. During a business trip to California, Simon decided to let Lemmon have an early peek at the work-in-progress, to see if he might be willing to attach himself to the project. They met for lunch at the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel -- as Simon calls it, "then the hub of all business deals made in Hollywood."
In Chris Lemmon's book, A Twist of Lemmon: A Tribute to My Father (2006), Simon recounts the birth of the film project: "I remember that when I first wrote it, it was just a draft of a new play, and in no shape to show anyone, especially a star of Jack Lemmon's standing. So on the day that I had lunch with him to discuss the possibility of involving him in the project, I had no script; I just wanted to tell Jack about it for future reference. As I sat there talking, it suddenly occurred to me that there I was pitching an unwritten idea to Jack Lemmon, and that he was far too big a star for me to be offering so little... When I finished talking, I said to Jack, 'Well, that's all I have, but I just wanted you to hear it.' What I expected in response was, 'Fine, Neil. When you write it, send it to me.' But that's not what I heard at all. What Jack said instead was, 'I like it. In fact, I love it. Let's do it!' 'Really?' I said, my mouth open in amazement. 'You really like it?' "Tell me when we start shooting and I'll be there.'"
In his 1996 memoir, Rewrites, Simon continues: "I said, 'Don't you want to wait til I finish the second draft?' He said, 'I already like the first draft so I know the second draft will only get better. Tell me when you want to start and I'll bring my face and my makeup.' To be trusted like that, from a star of Jack's stature, was the greatest compliment I could think of. The studio okayed both our deals and we were in business."
According to Simon, such an impromptu deal would not be possible today: "It's highly unlikely that a movie would be green-lighted with such ease in today's world. Deals today take longer than making the film."
The half-written script, once completed, would go on to win the Writers Guild of America award for Best Comedy Written Directly for the Screen.
"I don't remember how many films I wrote for Jack Lemmon, but I know it wasn't enough," recounted Neil Simon, "I gladly would have done it forever...Of the films Jack and I worked on together, The Out-of-Towners was one of my favorites."
Though enthusiastic about the original idea, Lemmon was not completely satisfied with the finished product. "I love Neil Simon who wrote it. Sandy Dennis was quite good in it. And Arthur Hiller, the director, was a ball to work for... Unfortunately, he's no flaming genius as a filmmaker. There was a five-minute sequence in the film that Hiller chose to cut that was better than anything left in it. It was a terribly important scene in terms of character motivation." No further clues are offered as to the content of the missing footage.
On the topic of missing footage: according to one source, when The Out-of-Towners was broadcast on television in the early 1970s, a high-jacking scene was cut from the film -- probably owing to the widespread fear of terrorism after the Munich Olympics hostage situation and subsequent high-jacking incidents.
One of the most appealing aspects of The Out-of-Towners is the use of actual locations throughout the film. This cinematic time capsule includes footage of New York's Central Park, the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, and assorted Manhattan street corners, as well as Boston's Logan Airport and South Station. It should be noted, however, that the space age airport of Twin Oaks, Ohio was actually filmed at MacArthur Airport in Islip, Long Island, New York.
The Out-of-Towners also allows sight-seers to spot a slew of great American character actors in bit parts: Anne Meara, Paul Dooley (Breaking Away ), Dolph Sweet (Sisters ), Billy Dee Williams (The Empire Strikes Back ), and Ron Carey (TV's Barney Miller [1975-82]).
When The Out-of-Towners was released on May 28, 1970, critics were mixed. Time Magazine called it "a frantic, funny tale that frazzles the nerve ends...Simon is a careful comic craftsman who is at pains to draw belly laughs from basically realistic -- and therefore emphatic -- situations. His humor never becomes bizarre, even though it is a bit strained by director Arthur Hiller's nerve-wracking pace."
In The New York Times, Roger Greenspun was less kind, "Between Lemmon and Sandy Dennis there is no conversation -- only bullying, mostly by him. I can't fault Lemmon's performance; I simply can't see the reason for it." He then remarks, "About two-thirds of the way through, in Central Park, a boomed microphone appears in the upper part of the screen. It pretty much stays there, twisting and turning to catch each speaker, for the rest of the film. The Out-of-Towners may thus rank as technically the sloppiest as well as the most witlessly uncomfortable movie for some time." In all fairness, the visible boom was probably due to the print being projected at the wrong aspect ratio (without the 1:1.85 aperture plate masking the image).
The year after the film's release, Simon collaborated with Hiller on the screen version of Plaza Suite (1971), the episodic drama for which The Out-of-Towners had originally been conceived. They reteamed again in 1984 for the Steve Martin comedy The Lonely Guy. Martin in turn starred in his own remake of The Out-of-Towners. Produced without Simon or Hiller's involvement, the 1999 film co-starred Goldie Hawn, was directed by Sam Weisman, and, as one might expect, judged generally inferior to the 1970 original.
"The 1970 Neil Simon screenplay that provided the so-called inspiration for this excursion into relentlessly silly mediocrity won no hosannas from the critics, but at least it had its sensate creative fingers firmly on the pulse of an anarchic era when municipal strikes frequently crippled New York City, muggers and squirrels vied to top the census of wildlife in Central Park," wrote Lawrence Van Gelder in The New York Times in 1999, "But...the new Out-of-Towners is so feeble and unfocused as to make the Farrelly brothers of There's Something About Mary  appear to have suckled at the bosom of Aristophanes."
Producer: Paul Nathan
Director: Arthur Hiller
Screenplay: Neil Simon
Cinematography: Andrew Laszlo
Art Direction: Charles Bailey, Walter H. Tyler
Music: Quincy Jones
Film Editing: Fred A. Chulack
Cast: Jack Lemmon (George Kellerman), Sandy Dennis (Gwen Kellerman), Sandy Baron (Lenny Moyers), Anne Meara (robbery victim), Robert Nichols (passenger), Ann Prentiss (airline stewardess #1), Ron Carey (Barney Polacek), Carlos Montalban (Manuel Vargas), Graham Jarvis (Murray the mugger).
C-98m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning.
by Bret Wood