A Lonely Climb to Happiness in The Apartment (1960)

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Sometimes the saddest stories are the most beautiful. Life is never easy or clear cut, and we all know that there’s often sorrow found on the road to happiness. In The Apartment (1960), director Billy Wilder takes two decent, lonely, broken people looking for real love, and cultivates their developing romance out of an impossibly cynical, ruthless and despicably sexist world of corporate politics. C.C. Baxter, played by Jack Lemmon in one of his finest performances, is eager to please his bosses, and for him, it’s easy because he loves his job. He believes in what he does at Consolidated Life. He not only understands the complicated world of actuarial statistics, he lives for them. Numbers and figures and random factoids are fascinating to him. But Baxter also dreams of that corner wood paneled office with a private key to the executive washroom, where he can serve as an advisor and assistant to the head of the company, and delegate responsibilities to the next set of ambitious young employees. Although Baxter certainly has what it takes to be in upper management, there are hundreds just like him—on staggered schedules for efficiency, robotically processing insurance data. In an endless sea of identical desks with the repetitive, almost-rhythmic sounds of their adding machines, all of the employees working on the nineteenth floor dream of the day they can pick up their rolodex and answer the call to serve in the promised land that is the twenty-seventh floor.

For C.C. Baxter, his dream of ascending into an upper management role is realized and occurs at a breakneck pace. But it’s not just Baxter’s talent for the insurance racket that earned him the promotion. Baxter has many good, strong qualities: he’s caring and devoted and is the kind of guy who would give you the shirt off his back. But his superiors believe Baxter—or Buddy Boy as they like to call him—has one asset which surpasses all the rest: his apartment. He’s single and completely unattached. Desperate to find somewhere in the city to carry on their extramarital affairs in the hours before their long commute to suburban homes, Baxter’s managers manipulate him into lending them his apartment. In exchange for his generosity, the bosses give “Buddy Boy” glowing reviews and recommendations for promotions rung by rung, up the otherwise twisted, unclimbable corporate ladder. And so, a man who actually cares about his job and is damn good at it can only make headway by impressing his bosses with a rent-by-the-hour motel. It’s all so very sad and desperate—that a man so lonely, and who has such little self-worth thinks that he can’t make his way through the business world without sacrificing his private life. Baxter has nowhere to go when his bosses are using the apartment, which is more often than not. Instead, he stays at work late or wanders the New York City streets, constantly checking his watch or hiding out at the foot of the stairs outside his building. In his efforts to keep things secret, Baxter doesn’t correct his neighbors when they assume he is the one in his apartment with a new woman every day, guzzling champagne and eating little cheese crackers. His landlady views him as a no-good Don Juan, and his neighbor, Dr. Dreyfuss, who always keeps his medical bag handy along with a bit of sarcasm and sage advice, is concerned about Baxter’s seemingly reckless lifestyle. To Doc Dreyfuss, Baxter is a walking alcohol-soaked venereal disease, and he warns Baxter that his hard living will soon kill him.  Of course, the doc’s assumptions couldn’t be further from the truth. In the rare event that Baxter does get time at home, it’s spent alone. Flipping through channels and eating a TV dinner, Baxter finally concedes to the day’s events and the boredom as the loneliness calls him to bed. And the next day it all starts over again.

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And then you have Fran Kubelik, played by Shirley MacLaine. In many ways, she’s just like Baxter. She’s lonely and sad and terribly misunderstood. And most of the attention she receives is from male executives trying to bed her. But while Baxter wants nothing more than to be on the top floor of Consolidated Life, Fran’s been there. Matter of fact, Fran is there several times a day, ferrying the top executives, including Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), her secret lover. This is a man who has no regard for Fran’s feelings, and he is perfectly happy with just keeping her on retainer for whenever he feels like a fling. To Sheldrake, Fran is just another perk that comes along with running a business. When Fran learns of Baxter’s desire to work amongst those executives, including Sheldrake, she almost acts confused. She immediately sees the good in Baxter and that he doesn’t fit in that world. He’s far too sweet and kind, and doesn’t possess the selfishness that is displayed by the most successful execs. Baxter doesn’t belong there, but of course he can’t see that. His idea of success is being on that top floor. And once he’s had his success then perhaps he can find happiness in his personal life—and maybe even impress Fran, who he’s long admired. But Fran knows everything that happens on the twenty-seventh floor—particularly what happens behind closed doors. And while she knows it’s impossible to find happiness there, she understands the attraction, even if her ties to the top floor are different from Baxter’s. But maybe they aren’t so different after all. For some reason, Baxter and Fran have decided their happiness and success in both public and private life is directly tied to Sheldrake—a man whose charismatic behavior is both charming and disgusting, as he knowingly uses his power and influence to bend those around him to his will. His power is attractive to both Baxter and Fran—for different reasons, of course.

In keeping with the cynical tone of the story, Baxter and Fran’s romance emerges as Fran recuperates from a suicide attempt inside Baxter’s apartment. An attempt provoked by the callous actions of Sheldrake. Both Fran and Baxter are victims of Sheldrake’s selfishness. That shared experience opens the door for the two to get to know one another. They have much in common: they both deserve a partner who not only loves them unconditionally, but respects them. Although it takes Fran a bit longer to realize her love for Baxter, it’s quite alright by him. After all, he’s waited all his life to be loved by someone like her. And out of this terribly sad story, comes a beautiful ending. Two lonely people find love, ascending to a point in life that actually has significant meaning–happiness-wise.

Jill Blake

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16 Responses A Lonely Climb to Happiness in The Apartment (1960)
Posted By Doug Miller : August 12, 2017 2:07 am

I love the IDEA of this movie, and I love many of the details (and of course the incomparable Shirley M.), but somehow the thing turns into a soggy mess (for me). Maybe Wilder is being a bit too broad, or maybe it is just too much Jack Lemmon. Someone needs to keep the guy tamped down, or he bounces off the walls. You could count on Walter M. for that. How many movies did they make together? (Btw Jill, sometimes I am the first commenter because I am in Alaska and the blog posts pop up in my e-mail right at 8:00 p.m.,like clockwork. Almost like Baxter’s world!)

Posted By Arthur : August 12, 2017 4:54 am

Baxter and Fran work for Consolidated Life but their lives are fractured right up until the end when they consolidate. When thee execs need a pad, they go see see (C. C.) Baxter. Sheldrake is the biggest most powerful male duck in the pond, but he is really a cold, shallow shell of a man. Great film. Hits all the right notes. Very touching.

Posted By Nicolas Akmakjian : August 12, 2017 9:44 am

Jill,

That is a beautifully felt and well-written article. Thank you for writing it.

Posted By Valerie Jean : August 12, 2017 3:32 pm

Such a lovely well written article. The Apartment has been my favorite movie for years and I watch it every year between Halloween and New Years to coincide with its story timeline. It’s a timeless story perfectly orchestrated by Billy Wilder.

Posted By R. Lee Procter : August 12, 2017 10:53 pm

I love Billy Wilder. I’ve studied his films to teach myself narrative structure. And what I’ve discovered is that Wilder really had one idea that he returned to again and again. Here’s the idea — an average Joe with dreams of glory gets the opportunity of a lifetime…with a catch. He has to compromise his integrity. He thinks that success is more important, but the consequences of his compromise grow and grow and grow. Our average Joe redeems himself at the end. In “Sunset Boulevard,” Joe Gillis walks out on Gloria Swanson to go back to work as a sportswriter on that little paper in the Midwest (and then Swanson shoots him.) Chuck Tatum finally does the right thing in “Ace In The Hole,” but by then its too late. He dies as well. Only C.C. Baxter does the right thing and lives to get the girl. Fascinating to watch Wilder evolve this idea and work changes on it.

Posted By Doug Noakes : August 13, 2017 1:30 am

The best rendering of this great cinema-story that I have ever read.

Posted By Jill Blake : August 13, 2017 12:39 pm

Doug M.–

Well, we definitely disagree on Lemmon, as I adore him. But you wouldn’t be the first person to make that observation about him. :) I believe Lemmon and Matthau starred in 9 films together–not including Kotch (directed by Lemmon and starring Matthau) and JFK which featured them both, although they didn’t have any scenes together.

And I always thought you were just a night owl! My husband’s aunt and uncle (and a couple of cousins) live in Anchorage.

Posted By Jill Blake : August 13, 2017 12:40 pm

Nicholas, Valerie, Doug N–

Thank you so much for the kind words.

Posted By Jill Blake : August 13, 2017 12:43 pm

R. Lee–

Excellent observation. It’s one of the few cynical Wilders to have a happy ending. By 1960, he definitely evolved as a director. And it might be his last truly great masterpiece. (Although there are many more late-career Wilder films that I love, like KISS ME, STUPID and AVANTI!)

Posted By Christine Hoard-Barre : August 14, 2017 4:07 pm

Good observations. Yes, sometimes Lemon can be a little manic in his performances but I think he has a good balance here. Great cast all around and one of my favorite Wilder movies although overall I really love his earlier work in the 1940′s and 1950′s.

Posted By Doug Miller : August 14, 2017 4:56 pm

I’ll give this one another try sometime. But I’m also wondering about these narratives of Wilder’s career. I’ll have to do some research. In particular, I’ve recently watched A Foreign Affair, the postwar movie set in Berlin, with the Congesswoman from Iowa (Jean Arthur) and the desperate club singer (Dietrich). Wow! Maybe that doesn’t fit a pattern because Wilder had more of a concrete message, and it was more personal.

Posted By Marty : August 15, 2017 10:09 am

“Did you hear what I said Miss Kubelik, I absolutely adore you.”
“Shut up and deal”

“Ahhh you don’t understand, Osgood, you can’t marry me.”
“Why not?”
“Cause I’m a man.”
“Well, nobody’s perfect.”

Wilder loves socko end lines.

While I enjoy post-The Apartment pictures Wilder directed, I believe that THE STREAK ended with The Apartment.

Think about the fact that in the 40s, Paramount had the top writer/directors in Sturges and Wilder. Both directors under the system produced some of the greatest pictures — and some of my all-time favorites.
While Sturges flamed out, Wilder continued to excel having left the studio. Witness for the Prosecution, The Seven Year Itch, Some Like It Hot and then The Apartment.

From a performance standpoint, MacMurray’s Sheldrake (same name as Fred Clark’s studio producer in Sunset Boulevard) is a perfect smiling corporate evil, which was hard on him because he was contracted to Disney for family pictures at the time! Shirley MacLaine is an interesting girl in public with a very private life. The swing coat she wears in one scene was Audrey Wilder’s! I really enjoy the Christmas Eve bar scene with Hope Holiday.

Did I like One, Two Three? You bet.
Did I like Kiss Me, Stupid? Nope.
You see, after The Apartment, there was nowhere else for Wilder to go.

Posted By Erik Wagner : August 15, 2017 4:47 pm

Doug Miller—Forgive me, but who is “Walter M”?

Posted By Doug Miller : August 15, 2017 5:27 pm

Erik: Walter Matthau. I couldn’t remember the exact spelling, and didn’t want to misspell it. Jill gave the last name (and spelled it correctly) in her response to my comment — and answered my question about how many movies they did together. Another fun one with both Lemmon and Matthau is The Fortune Cookie, which also featured football star Jim Brown playing (endearingly) a football star.

Posted By Doug Miller : August 15, 2017 5:36 pm

Sorry — Ron Rich played the football player. That’s what happens when you rely too much on memory. But speaking of that — I thought that Matthau was on screen at least half the time in that movie, but I see that he won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance. (Didn’t something like that happen this year with Fences? Maybe the studio makes those calls.)

Posted By swac44 : August 15, 2017 5:38 pm

I like the later Wilder/Lemmon collab Avanti!. Watched it recently and thoroughly enjoyed it, although I’ll concede Lemmon can be a bit sour in it.

Wanted to like Fedora, but found it lacklustre. May give it another chance sometime.

Erik: M = Matthau

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