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"Don't say it - see it!" declared the posters for Phffft (1954). Based on an unproduced play by George Axelrod, it's a comedy of a divorced couple (Jack Lemmon and Judy Holliday) who realize they still love each other. The story has similarities to The Seven Year Itch (1955), another Axelrod play which had already been acquired by a rival studio. Phffft made it to the screen first, however, because The Seven Year Itch was still in production on Broadway, and under the terms of the movie agreement could not be filmed until the play's run was over.
This was Lemmon and Holliday's second film, after It Should Happen to You (1954). That film was a big success and Columbia Pictures could see it had a new star in Jack Lemmon. After putting him in a Betty Grable musical called Three for the Show (1955), the studio paired him with Holliday once again in Phffft. "It was a good film," recalled Lemmon, "almost a very good film. The thing I remember best about it was an emergency break that was called while we were filming a big ballroom scene. [Director] Mark Robson had to shut everything down while he went to a front-office meeting. There must have been a hundred extras, plus all the technicians, just sitting around waiting for two and a half hours with money just pouring down the tubes. When Mark finally came back, he was in hysterics. I asked him what the meeting had been about, what was so urgent? 'It was a meeting about a title change,' he said. 'They changed it from Phfffft to Phffft. They took out an f.'"
According to a magazine article of the time, Holliday suffered from a viral infection during the making of Phffft and "was under pretty heavy sedation most of the time. In fact, after a scene was shot, Judy would totter off to bed and stay there, limp and ill, until time for the next one." The article quotes Holliday, "It was the strangest sensation seeing the rushes of those scenes. I couldn't even remember having done them and yet most of them were just fine. I'd made them when I was half-drugged, but I guess I just instinctively did the right thing."
For Phffft, his first-ever screen credit, George Axelrod was nominated for a Writers Guild of America award for Best Written Comedy. He lost to Roman Holiday (1954), but his career was certainly off and running, for shortly afterwards he wrote the screenplays for The Seven Year Itch, Bus Stop (1956), Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957) and Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961). Axelrod once said, "I had a small and narrow but very, very sharp talent, and inside it, I'm as good as it gets."
Producer: Fred Kohlmar
Director: Mark Robson
Screenplay: George Axelrod
Cinematography: Charles Lang
Film Editing: Charles Nelson
Art Direction: William Flannery
Music: Frederick Hollander
Cast: Judy Holliday (Nina Tracey), Jack Lemmon (Robert Tracey), Jack Carson (Charlie Nelson), Kim Novak (Janis), Luella Gear (Edith Chapman), Donald Randolph (Dr. Van Kessel).
by Jeremy Arnold
Don Widener, Lemmon
Betty Randolph, "An Intimate Talk With Judy Holliday," TV and Movie Screen magazine, May 1955