Irma, I Love You, But You’re Breaking My Heart

IRMA LA DOUCE (1963)

When I decided to write about Billy Wilder’s Irma La Douce (1963) for this week’s StreamLine piece, I originally intended to argue on the film’s behalf. In discussions of “lesser Wilder films” Irma La Douce is guaranteed to be on the list, arguably one of Wilder’s most baffling creations, along with The Spirit of St. Louis (1957), which I’m convinced Wilder made solely so he could direct James Stewart in something. Not that I blame him one bit. As an aside, I’d like to note that Wilder made three films in 1957: the aforementioned biopic with Stewart, Love in the Afternoon with Gary Cooper and Audrey Hepburn and Witness for the Prosecution with Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power and Charles Laughton. An incredible feat, even for a master like Billy Wilder. But back to Irma La Douce: I’ve staunchly defended the film on more than one occasion, having mainly fond memories of the zany, haphazard plot. I’m a huge fan of Wilder’s Kiss Me, Stupid (1964) and I ride-or-die for the much-maligned Avanti! (1972). Irma La Douce has always fit nicely alongside the two in the “Billy Wilder films that Jill loves for some insane reason” category. I recently revisited all three, hoping to come away with renewed appreciation so I can continue to fight on their behalf with my fellow impassioned film obsessives. While Kiss Me, Stupid and Avanti! retained their delightful magic, Irma La Douce disappointingly fell short. Very, very short. The film is a belabored, confusing collection of all the things that should work, but don’t. Oh how it pains me to finally admit it. And yet, I still find myself making excuses for this fiery train wreck of drunken Maltese pups, emerald green stockings and bad British accents.

Just three years after the successful collaboration between Billy Wilder, his frequent writing partner I.A.L Diamond and stars Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine on the masterful, award-winning The Apartment (1960), Wilder and company stuck with their successful formula and cast the cinematic sweethearts in a non-musical film adaptation of the French musical Irma La Douce, written by Alexanders Breffort and Marguerite Monnot. Everything about Irma La Douce should work together: a solid adapted story; Wilder and Diamond’s trademark witty, satirical dialogue soaked in double entendre; MacLaine’s sweetly innocent sexual appeal; Lemmon’s equally innocent sexual appeal in that “cute as a speckled pup” kind of way, along with the hilarious blurred lines between dual personalities; a Parisian setting, however far from the glistening Champs-Élysées; and strong, clever supporting characters in Lou Jacobi, Cliff Osmond (a personal favorite), Joan Shawlee and Howard McNear— all worthy of individual recognition and praise. All of these components should make for a damn-near perfect film, if a quirky one. The Apartment is a meticulously perfect film, hitting every single note just right. Quite possibly Wilder’s greatest achievement in a long, celebrated career filled with greatest achievements. Even with the best, it’s nearly impossible to catch lightning in a bottle twice. Irma La Douce is a freak lightning storm that strikes an unsuspecting field of sheep, killing them instantly. Alright, maybe a slight over exaggeration. 

IrmaLaDouce_1963_IRMALADO-00AA1

During the peak enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code from 1934 until 1968, filmmakers, writers and actors were challenged to creatively skirt restrictions. As frustrating and pointless as the Code was at times, it inspired over two decades of clever, subversive, artistically brilliant content that rivals much of Hollywood’s current output. Once the Code began to crumble, somewhere around 1959, filmmakers really tested the limits of so-called decency and taste, and as a result created some of cinema’s finest examples of masterful filmmaking. With that freedom, though, came a bit of laziness, for lack of a better word. Cruder jokes, swearing, sex, nudity and violence became more prevalent, even when not necessarily the best choice artistically. During the transition from old Hollywood to new, few filmmakers successfully made the transition to this more brazen style of filmmaking. Alfred Hitchcock appeared to thrive in this newly found freedom, exploring more graphic, adult situations beginning with 1960’s Psycho, and even more so with the disturbing Frenzy (1972). Wilder thrived, too, and can be largely credited with those initial cracks in the Code with 1959’s Some Like it Hot and The Apartment the following year. Yet despite his role in changing what was considered acceptable (with satisfied audiences and critics to support him) and doing so most cleverly, Wilder sometimes relied too much on easy gags and shocking dialogue seemingly just for the sake of it. This is clearly evident in Irma La Douce, a film that has a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” vibe. It’s highly unlikely Wilder could’ve made the film earlier in his career due to the nature of the story (a funny, heartfelt look at the life and loves of a sweet, highly successful prostitute, and the relationships with her various pimps), and by the time he could make it those frustrating, yet creativity-inspiring restrictions were all but gone. This allowed for Irma La Douce to be made, but lacking the signature Wilder magic found in many of his post-war films. Perhaps if Wilder had made Irma La Douce a few years later, when the novelty of pushing past boundaries began to wear off, it might’ve had a different result.

IRMA LA DOUCE (1963)

All of that aside, Irma La Douce’s biggest problem is in its seemingly endless runtime. Clocking in at two hours, twenty-seven minutes, the film begins to painfully lag by its second act. At this point it becomes apparent that Irma (MacLaine) and Nestor’s (Lemmon) story is far from over, fatigue sets in. In its final act, Irma La Douce throws it all away (whatever “it” is I’m still trying to figure out) for an incredibly sloppy, pointless screwball ending that I’m still scratching my head over many days later. The film channels Preston Sturges with its quick, silly and chaotic finish, except it’s not even remotely funny.

IrmaLaDouce_1963_5001469

I’ve seen most of Billy Wilder’s filmography, and while I agree the vast majority of his best work is post-WWII up to The Apartment, Wilder’s later career is fascinating and there are some true gems. (Fedora, anyone?) My recent date with Irma La Douce didn’t go as planned, but who knows: maybe next time I’ll fall in love with it all over again. I have a serious soft spot for many of these so-called “second-tier Wilder” films, like so many of my fellow Wilder-fanatics. “Because second tier Wilder is still better than most other films” – Anonymous, i.e. every Billy Wilder fan ever.

Irma La Douce is streaming on FilmStruck as part of the City of Love theme through April 28, 2017.

Jill Blake

 

11 Responses Irma, I Love You, But You’re Breaking My Heart
Posted By EricJ : February 11, 2017 5:02 am

There’s a joke in a teen comedy where they say “Our drama club’s doing the non-musical version of ‘Grease’, we couldn’t get the song rights!”
That’s sort of how I felt watching Wilder turn an okay Broadway musical into a Billy Wilder comedy without the iconic songs (the title song and “Our Language of Love” had become singer showtune standards), and just crafting the flimsy story for a standard Wilder Jack Lemmon-comedy vehicle.
Wilder was already famous for abandoning the original plays when he said that the original Seven Year Itch play would work better “as a doorstop”, but take out the songs of any musical, and you don’t have much left.

I remember hearing a Muzak-instrumental of the Broadway title song as a kid and spent the rest of my life trying to track down “What was that?”, until I heard Andre’ Previn’s score playing it over the opening narration, like all the other tunes reduced to incidental music.
And after seeing the movie, I could put it into context, but…still didn’t know.

Posted By Emgee : February 11, 2017 4:28 pm

I have very fond memories of this movie, seeing it on television many times, but that was many years ago. Somehow i had the feeling it would be a disappointment, and it seems i wasn’t wrong.
But then even the best directors, and of course Wilder was one of the best, can make the occasional mistake.

Posted By George : February 11, 2017 7:53 pm

I saw this once, a couple of decades ago. My memory is that it was very long, very slow, and not very funny. Hard to believe it was a great hit in its time.

On the other hand, KISS ME STUPID is due for rediscovery …

Posted By kingrat : February 11, 2017 11:23 pm

Jill, I’m delighted that you know the expression “cute as a speckled pup,” one of my father’s favorites. What could possibly be cuter?

I was in a college production of IRMA LA DOUCE, which has a truly delightful score. “Look, we’re passing Martinique! Regularly, once a week.” (“Freedom of the Seas”) As in almost any musical, the characterization is far from deep, but adequate to support the singing and dancing. Wilder even has Shirley MacLaine, a delightful star who can sing and dance. Why did Wilder not film a musical version? Jack Lemmon can’t sing? When did that ever stop Hollywood? They could have had a male Marnie Nixon sing his songs.

Sorry I can’t join you guys in liking KISS ME, STUPID. Turned it off after twenty minutes or so. Agonizingly unfunny.

IRMA LA DOUCE was Wilder’s most financially successful film, which seems impossible, and some writers believe that this was the reason Wilder concentrated almost exclusively on comedy in his later career.

Posted By Lamar : February 13, 2017 10:04 am

Jack Lemmon sang with his own voice in a few movies and tv shows. He was an accomplished pianist and released a few albums.
https://www.discogs.com/artist/333642-Jack-Lemmon
I love Billy Wilder but I can’t take Irma or Kiss Me Stupid.
Perhaps Wilder was musical phobic after “The Emperor’s Waltz.”

Posted By Jill Blake : February 13, 2017 10:19 am

Eric– It’s so frustrating, because you can tell there’s a decent story in there somewhere. The execution is half-assed. I’d love to see a musical film-adaptation of this.

Posted By Jill Blake : February 13, 2017 10:20 am

Emgee– I have argued on this film’s behalf so many times. Maybe I was in the wrong mood this time… :)

Posted By Jill Blake : February 13, 2017 10:23 am

George–

Kiss Me, Stupid is so incredibly ridiculous, but it works. I was talking to a friend about it and I think one of the reasons I like it so much is because the first time I saw it, I had no clue it was a Wilder film! So lowered expectations probably came into play.

Posted By Jill Blake : February 13, 2017 10:26 am

Kingrat–

“Cute as a speckled pup” is staple expression in our family. And it fits Jack Lemmon perfectly, right?

I once described Lemmon as someone who makes you have that homesick/heartsick feeling. Beautiful torture.

Posted By Jill Blake : February 13, 2017 10:30 am

Kingrat and Lamar–

Yes, Lemmon had a lovely singing voice–a pleasant extension of his speaking voice. I have a couple of his records. There’s a scene in the lovely IT SHOULD HAPPEN TO YOU! (1954) where Lemmon and Judy Holliday sing “Let’s Fall in Love.”

Posted By George : February 13, 2017 4:09 pm

I don’t regard KISS ME STUPID as a masterpiece. And I wouldn’t rank it with THE APARTMENT or SOME LIKE IT HOT. But it has very funny moments, and verges on surrealism with “Dino” essentially playing himself (or his public image). It doesn’t deserve the scorn that was heaped on it for decades.

It’s one of three 1964 releases by veteran directors that were panned at the time, but have been reevaluated and are now regarded as good or better — the others being Hitchcock’s MARNIE and Ford’s CHEYENNE AUTUMN.

“IRMA LA DOUCE was Wilder’s most financially successful film, which seems impossible, and some writers believe that this was the reason Wilder concentrated almost exclusively on comedy in his later career.”

Except for the little-seen and underrated FEDORA, a return to the themes of SUNSET BOULEVARD, and with William Holden. Much of THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES is played more seriously than I was expecting. It’s a touching movie.

Leave a Reply

Current ye@r *

Streamline is the official blog of FilmStruck, a new subscription service that offers film aficionados a comprehensive library of films including an eclectic mix of contemporary and classic art house, indie, foreign and cult films.