Cast & Crew
After eight years of marriage, daytime television serial writer Nina Tracy asks her lawyer husband Robert for a divorce. Robert agrees, admitting he had been considering the idea for several months. When Robert asks Nina on what grounds she will ask for the divorce, she says mental cruelty, pointing out that Robert has never taken her job seriously. Robert is initially angry, but then admits that Nina is right. When Nina receives her Reno divorce, she feels elated and imagines Robert sitting around in despair. Instead, Robert is cheerfully moving in with his best friend, confirmed bachelor, Charlie Nelson. Robert reflects about the divorce with Charlie and recalls that Charlie introduced him to Nina eight years earlier: Just after World War II, Charlie and Robert are lieutenants in the Navy. Charlie, who is in public relations, asks Robert to handle an NBC radio reporter's request to interview a hero and hastily palms Nina off on him. Robert is quick to confess to Nina that he spent the entire war behind a desk, but that as a lawyer, he saved the Navy $75,000, which impresses her. When Robert offers to help Nina with her taxes, she agrees and invites him to her studio apartment. After dinner, Robert asks Nina where she sleeps, and she presses a button to display her bed, which shoots out of the wall with a distinct "whooshing" sound that alarms, then delights Robert. Later, the two find themselves falling in love over Nina's old checks. After Robert receives his discharge and a position as an associate in a prestigious law firm and Nina receives a promotion to radio serial writer, Robert asks Nina if she would like to file a joint tax return, and the two marry. In the present, Nina is welcomed home to New York City by her mother Edith, who takes her to a swank restaurant, where they spot Robert and Charlie at another table. Both Nina and Robert drink too many martinis and glare at each other throughout the evening. The following week, Rick Vidal, the co-star in Nina's TV serial, asks her to dinner, which she is pleased to accept. At a lively nightclub, however, Nina refuses to dance with Rick, admitting that since Robert never danced, she never learned. Later, she goes to Rick's apartment, and is startled then amused when Rick's initial romantic overtures turn into a plea to make him the star of the serial. Meanwhile, Charlie arranges a date for the reluctant Robert with Janis, a beautiful if vacuous young woman. After an uncomfortable dinner, during which Robert realizes he has nothing in common with Janis, he takes her back to Charlie's, but is put off by her clinginess and asks her to leave. Weeks later, Nina begins taking French lessons, only to have the instructor peg her immediately as a recent divorcee trying to make changes in her life to compensate for her failed marriage. Robert enrolls in an art class, but is asked to leave early in the term because of his lack of skill. Charlie then advises Robert to overhaul his lifestyle, so Robert purchases a sporty convertible and Italian clothing, grows a pencil-thin mustache and takes private dance classes. Unknown to Robert, Nina is also taking private dance lessons and has spent a large amount of money remodeling the house and buying new clothes. One evening at a nightclub, Robert and Nina, each with dates, are surprised to encounter each other on the dance floor. When a mambo is played, each tries to out dance the other and end up dancing together, to the delight of the other patrons. The following day, confident that Nina still thinks of him as much as he thinks of her, Robert telephones her and reminds her that it is tax deadline day. Nina accepts Robert's offer to come out to the country to go over her taxes, and both prepare for the evening as if it were a date. When Robert arrives and goes over Nina's old checks, however, he chastises her for her frivolous, foolish overspending and criticizes her flagrant new décor, which was selected by Edith, an interior designer. Nina responds by mocking his gigolo look, and Robert departs in a huff. Nina calls Edith to admit she may still be in love with Robert, and her mother advises her to continue dating. When Robert runs into Edith and Nina's psychiatrist, Dr. Van Kessel, he takes the doctor's advice to continue dating. Robert, meanwhile, invites Janis to his apartment and prepares enthusiastically for their date. All goes well until Janis reveals that Charlie is seeing Nina that evening. Outraged, Robert leaves Janis and drives out to the country, where Nina and Charlie sip cocktails and wonder why they never got along before. When Nina hints for Charlie to be more forward, he is shocked, then enthused, to her horror. Later, Robert arrives at the house and eavesdrops on a phone conversation between Nina and Edith, in which Nina declares the evening with Charlie a disaster and vows to try and get Robert back. After an ebullient Robert makes a batch of martinis, he and Nina are reunited. Once remarried, they return to a smaller apartment in the city, which has a bed that whooshes in and out of the wall.
Carter Dehaven Jr.
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
George Axelrod, 1922-2003
Born June 9, 1922, in New York City to the son of the silent film actress Betty Carpenter, he had an eventful childhood in New York where, despite little formal education, he became an avaricious reader who hung around Broadway theaters. During World War II he served in the Army Signal Corps, then returned to New York, where in the late 40's and early 50's he wrote for radio and television and published a critically praised novel, Beggar's Choice.
He scored big on Broadway in 1952 with The Seven Year Itch. The comedy, about a frustrated, middle-aged man who takes advantage of his family's absence over a sweltering New York summer to have an affair with a sexy neighbor, won a Tony Award for its star, Tom Ewell, and was considered daring for its time as it teased current sexual mores and conventions. The play was adapted into a movie in 1955 by Billy Wilder, as a vehicle for Marilyn Monroe, with Ewell reprising his role. Unfortunately, the censors and studio executives would not allow the hero to actually consummate the affair; instead, Ewell was seen merely daydreaming a few romantic scenes, a situation that left the playwright far from happy.
Nevertheless, the success of The Seven Year Itch, opened the door for Axelrod as a screenwriter. He did a fine adaptation of William Inge's play Bus Stop (1956) again starring Marilyn Monroe, and did a splendid job transferring Truman Capote's lovely Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961). Although his relationship with the director Blake Edwards was rancorous at best, it did earn Axelrod his only Academy Award nomination.
So frustrated with his work being so heavily revised by Hollywood, that Axelrod decided to move from New York to Los Angeles, where he could more closely monitor the treatment of his scripts. It was around this period that Axelrod developed some his best work since he began producing as well as writing: the incisive, scorchingly subversive cold war thriller The Manchurian Candidate (1962), based on Richard Condon's novel about an American POW (Laurence Harvey) who returns home and is brainwashed to kill a powerful politician; the urbane comedy Paris When it Sizzles (1964) that showed off its stars William Holden and Audrey Hepburn at their sophisticated best; his directorial debut with the remarkable (if somewhat undisciplined) satire Lord Love a Duck (1966) that skewers many sacred institutions of American culture (marriage, school, wealth, stardom) and has since become a cult favorite for midnight movie lovers; and finally (his only other directorial effort) a gentle comedy of wish fulfillment The Secret Life of an American Wife (1968) that gave Walter Matthau one of his most sympathetic roles.
By the '70s, Axelrod retired quietly in Los Angeles. He returned to write one fine screenplay, John Mackenzie's slick political thriller The Fourth Protocol (1987) starring Michael Caine. He is survived by his sons Peter, Steven, and Jonathan; a daughter Nina; seven grandchildren; and a sister, Connie Burdick.
by Michael T. Toole
George Axelrod, 1922-2003
A December 1953 Variety news item noted that George Axelrod's unproduced play Phffft: Chronicle of a Happy Divorce, for which Columbia paid an estimated $80,000-85,000, was "uncomfortably similar" to his earlier play The Seven Year Itch (see below). According to Variety, producer Charles Feldman owned the rights to The Seven Year Itch, but was contractually restricted turning it into a film until the play's run was over, thus allowing Columbia to bring the similarly themed Phffft to the screen before Twentieth Century-Fox's The Seven Year Itch. The word "phffft" was originated from a phrase coined by well-known radio broadcaster Walter Winchell, who often refered to broken romantic relationships as "phffft." Columbia's ad slogan for Phffft was: "Don't say it-see it." Hollywood Reporter casting lists include Richard Webb but his appearance in the film has not been confirmed.
Released in United States Fall October 1954
Released in United States Fall October 1954