The-Out-of-Towners is Neil Simon’s second original screenplay but first solo original screenplay credit (1966’s poorly-received After the Fox being a reluctant collaboration with longtime Vittorio De Sica screenwriter, Cesare Zavattini). As the much-anticipated follow-up to The Odd Couple – 1968’s 4th highest-grossing film – The-Out-of-Towners was something of a critical and boxoffice disappointment. It disappeared from theaters so quickly I entirely missed its theatrical run. For the longest time the only version I was familiar with was one edited for broadcast TV, which suffered from the excising of the film’s marvelously ironic coup de gras (aerial hijacking was at its height during the 70s, spawning TV movies and feature films, and therefore no laughing matter. At least not as far as TV was concerned), and deprived us of the last of Sandy Dennis’ near-iconic wails of "Ohhhh, my God!”
|Jack Lemmon as George Kellerman|
|Sandy Dennis as Gwen Kellerman|
The plot is simplicity itself. On the occasion of his promotion to Vice President in charge of sales for the New York division of Drexel: maker of fine plastic precision instruments; Twin Oaks, Ohio resident George Kellerman (Lemmon) and wife Gwen (Dennis) embark on what is intended to be a fun-filled, 24-hour excursion to the Big Apple. Part job interview (“It’s just a formality.”), part second honeymoon, it’s an opportunity for the happy couple to enjoy a First-Class, all-expenses-paid sampling of the best that Fun City has to offer before uprooting and moving the entire Kellerman clan (two children and dog) from the drowsy suburbs of Ohio to The City That Never Sleeps.
Armed with an itemized itinerary (mapped out over the course of nine lunch hours), buoyed by high hopes, and fortified with two bottles of ulcer medicine in a brown suitcase…what could possibly go wrong?
In a word, everything.
Once the Kellerman’s leave behind the blue skies and green lawns of Ohio, it’s as if they’ve fallen through the looking glass. Any and everything terrible that can befall and beset a visitor to a big city happens to our hapless couple. And therein lies the simple perfection of Neil Simon’s approach to the comedy in The-Out-of-Towners. It has nothing moving to say about learning to let go of the ones we love (The Goodbye Girl), no life-affirming lessons about second chances at love (Chapter Two), no laughter-through-tears ruminations on the importance of familial reconciliation (I Ought to Be in Pictures); It’s just a laugh-out-loud dark comedy built around your standard, run-of-the-mill, suburban middle-class urban-panic nightmare.
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
The-Out-of-Towners is an original screenplay by Neil Simon based on a discarded act from his 1968 play Plaza Suite titled, Visitor from Toledo. Always an autobiographical writer, the catalog of catastrophes meted out to George and Gwen Kellerman during their visit to New York are said to have been inspired by a particularly disaster-prone trip Simon took to Boston in 1967 to doctor the flagging David Merrick musical, How Now Dow Jones.
And while The-Out-of-Towners condenses a lifetime’s worth of travel horror stories into one nightmarish 24-hour NY excursion, everything that happens is rooted in a recognizable reality. This core of verisimilitude is the chief reason why the 1970 film remains consistently funny after more than forty years while the painfully contrived 1999 Steve Martin/ Goldie Hawn remake is as forgettable as it is superfluous.
Directed by Arthur Hiller (Love Story, Plaza Suite, The-In-Laws) the structure of Simon’s The-Out-of-Towners is essentially that of a three-character comedy. The three characters being: The Couple, The City, and The Camera.
As the couple, Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis ‒ cast as Mr. & Mrs. Middle-Class Everyman ‒ get the biggest laughs from playing it entirely straight. The comedy stakes are raised by watching how this loving but dissimilar pair react when the comfortable rhythms of a 14-year marriage (he clearly “handles” things while she meekly defers, even when she knows better) are put to the test by the unexpected. And the unexpected is clearly something control-freak George doesn’t handle too well (remember, he works for a company that makes precision instruments). As the direness of their circumstances increases, their heretofore polite exchanges begin to take on a decidedly acerbic tone.
The city of New York is the story’s neutral antagonist. And
as a window into the John Lindsay era of blighted, cash-strapped NYC, a vivid
antagonist it is. Neither villain nor enemy, its fogged-in airports, muggings,
garbage strikes, missed trains, torrential rains, and overcrowded hotels are all
urban maladies meted out with indifference. It’s only George (in his privileged
petulance) who sees every setback as a willfully directed obstacle to his goals
and personal affront to his status as an out-of-towner. Forever tilting at
urban windmills, George’s consistantly defensive reactions to the most
innocuous of complications is one of the film’s most amusing running gags. He behaves
as if everything is happening to him alone. An entire plane of passengers is
inconvenienced by bad weather, yet he’s the only one who sees alerting the stewardess
to his dinner reservations as an effective facilitator of results. (Young
people seeing this film for the first time are sure to be gladdened upon
learning that having an unreasonable sense of entitlement didn’t originate with
|The urban jungle brings out the tiger in mild-mannered Gwen|
|Gwen and George's visit to NYC coincides with a sanitation strike|
The film has two crippling strikes occur at the same time.
In real-life the NYC transit strike was in 1966, the sanitation strike in 1968
|Andrew Laszlo's versatile camera gives us a suitcase's POV of an airport|
In her 2006 memoir, How I Lost 10 Pounds in 53 Years, actress Kaye Ballard, who appeared with Sandy Dennis in a 1988 production of Neil Simon’s female version of The Odd Couple, states that Dennis confided to her that she and Simon don’t get along because The-Out-of-Towners’ funniest running gag ‒ her infinite variations on the whining exclamation, “Ohhhh, my God!”‒ was her own ad-lib. He never forgave her for being the one responsible for the film’s biggest laugh.
Whether true or not, there’s no denying that Sandy Dennis brings a wealth of comedic ingenuity to a part that must have looked like absolutely nothing on the page. Dennis redeems the rote role of the long-suffering wife through the force of her individuality. The very mannerisms and quirks that contributed to the public’s swift disenchantment with the actress who just three years earlier had been hailed as a star of tomorrow, transform the otherwise colorless character of Gwen into a distinct personality and surprisingly feisty comic foil for Jack Lemmon’s hyperreactive George.
Coming on the heels of two barely-seen independent films (That Cold Day in the Park, Thank
You All Very Much), The-Out-of-Towners looked like a mainstream comeback
for the Academy Award-winning actress, but in truth it was more a return to supporting
roles after a brief tenure as a leading lady. Still after two such serious
films in which she played soft-spoken characters, it’s nice to see Dennis in
funny mode. Makes you wish she’d made more comedies.
|New York, New York: Gwen finds her vagabond shoes aren't up to the task|
Although I like him a great deal, I’m not a huge fan of Jack Lemmon (Simon’s first and only choice for the role), but he does have a knack for making disagreeable characters palatable (ever see Under the Yum Yum Tree?), and as such he makes an ideal George Kellerman. In fact, Lemmon is so good here that his work in The-Out-of-Towners ranks as one of my top fave Jack Lemmon performances. A vibrating bundle of counterproductive outrage and irrational ire, Lemmon is the manic comic engine that makes the entire film work.
|I can't think of another actor capable of playing so many shades of pique|
A real treat for viewers of a certain age is The-Out-of-Towners' supporting cast of familiar faces.
|Billy Dee Williams as Clifford Robinson / Boston Lost & Found|
|Ann Prentiss (sister of Paula) as the 1st Stewardess|
|Anne Meara as The Purse-Snatch Victim|
|Character actor Dort Clark|
He has only one tiny line in the film, but I have to include him here because he's been a longtime
favorite of mine from his appearances in TV shows like That Girl and Car 54 Where Are You?
THE STUFF OF FANTASY
I think that The-Out-of-Towners has aged better than most of Simon’s other works, but that’s not to say it’s not old-fashioned. In fact, one of the main reasons I like it so much is because it is so old-fashioned. Old-fashioned as in classic. In structure it seems to follow an archetypal pattern: The setup is simple (George needs to make that 9am meeting); the obstacles are clear (every person place and thing that represents New York is standing in his way); and the comedy arc is timeless (George’s overreliance on order and efficiency is going to take a serious beating). As comedy utterly devoid of pretense or allusions to significance, it’s some of the funniest writing of Simon’s career.
|Comedy Has an Expiration Date|
It's doubtful viewers today are aware that the scene with Lemmon & Dennis running to each other in
Central Park is a parody of a ubiquitous Clairol Hair Care TV commercial from the 60s
If The-Out-of-Towners’ depiction of New York has the exaggeration of satire, the look of the film itself is pure documentary. Shot on location in and around Manhattan, Boston, and Long Island (standing in for Ohio), it’s a treat to see so many glimpses of late-60s New York. And the nostalgia evoked by such sights as The Automat and the lobby of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel (with its placards advertising Peggy Lee appearing in The Empire Room) are offset by visions of a time when stewardesses wore go-go boots, women carried gloves, and train stations had cigarette machines and phone booths.
|Bracing themselves against a rainstorm, Gwen and George walk past The Automat|
|Posters for two concurrently running Neil Simon Broadway shows |
(Plaza Suite and Promises, Promises) grace a Boston train station
THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Most comedy is often so much a product of its time that it’s not unusual for a popular comedy from the past to fall flat with audiences today, and vice versa. I don’t really know what problem 1970 audiences had with The-Out-of-Towners, but it’s easy to imagine that perhaps the unrelenting dark tone of the humor took fans of Neil Simon by surprise.
In the course of 24-hours, the Kellermans are subjected (and this is only a partial list) to a rerouted flight, lost luggage, a missed train, a broken shoe, a kidnapping, a mugging while asleep, a chipped tooth, a lost wedding ring, being chased by a mounted policeman, an exploding gas main, and getting caught in a diplomatic protest. Without benefit of a breather, some might have found the film’s pacing exhausting.
Or maybe it was a matter of oversaturation. The 70s were the start of “disillusionment cinema” and dark comedies were all the rage. New York, then in a state of major economic and social decline, was a popular target for serious drama (Peter Boyle's film, Joe) and bleak satire. Jules Feiffer kicked off the trend in 1967 with his truly grim satire, Little Murders (made into a film in 1971). But the same year Neil Simon’s poison-pen to Manhattan hit the screen, New York came under satirical fire in Diary of a Mad Housewife, The Owl and the Pussycat, Where’s Poppa?, and The Landlord. The-Out-of-Towners may have been have been a victim of being just one New York satire too many.
But in today’s
atmosphere of cringe-comedy and humiliation humor, The-Out-of-Towners
feels surprisingly contemporary and in step with the times. Arthur Hiller and
Neil Simon manage to depict a suitably threatening New York City without resorting
to racist or xenophobic humor or casting (something unimaginable today). And unlike
similar scenarios in which bad things befall well-intentioned protagonists
despite their best efforts and it feels cruel to laugh at a sad-sack victim (Martin
Scorsese’s After Hours comes to mind), The-Out-of-Towners consistently reveals the obstinate George Kellerman to be the architect of his own misfortune.
If you've never seen it, The-Out-of-Towners is a near-perfect example of frustration comedy. An unbroken chain of snappy comebacks, laughably familiar situations, and expertly set-up gags with unexpected payoffs. I'm in the camp that feels much of Neil Simon’s work has not aged very well, but The-Out-of-Towners is the exception and
ranks high on my list of all-time favorite motion picture comedies - a list topped by What's Up, Doc?, Airplane, and Young Frankenstein.
|The-Out-of-Towners always has an answer for the question, "What more could possibly go wrong?"|
|Never let it be said that George & Gwen Kellerman didn't learn from their experience. |
Eagle-eyed viewers will note that on the return flight home,
Gwen has won the battle of the "little gray suitcase"
Link to my essay: NEIL SIMON: VOICE OF THE URBAN UNDERDOG
Copyright © Ken Anderson