Monday, April 27, 2015

THE OUT OF TOWNERS 1970

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.
 The Dream / The Reality

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 urban jungle brings out the tiger in mild-mannered Gwen
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 them.)
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
Lastly, cinematographer Andrew Laszlo (The Owl & the Pussycat, Streets of Fire) turns his remarkably versatile camera into The-Out-of-Towners’ third character. As noted by entertainment writer Joe Meyers in his terrific piece on the film, Laszlo’s location camerawork (a great deal of which is hand-held) gives the film a gritty, almost documentary feel that adds immeasurably to its effectiveness. By turns jarring and hysterical, panoramic and claustraphobic, sometimes even witty (as when we are given a dog’s-eye-view of a box of Cracker Jack). In even the most confining locations, Laszlo’s camera seems to be everywhere at once, an active participant in the proceedings and an invaluable contributor giving The-Out-of-Towners the distinction of being the single most cinematic of Neil Simon’s films.
Andrew Laszlo's versatile camera gives us a suitcase's POV of an airport

PERFORMANCES
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.
New York, New York: Gwen finds her vagabond shoes aren't up to the task
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.
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
If Dennis does wonders with the simple act of active listening and repeating the phrase, “I can verify that!”, Lemmon is a miracle worker when it comes to playing countless variations on the incredulous reaction shot. Both actors share a splendid chemistry, turning a film that might otherwise have been just a drawn out string of calamity jokes into a rich character comedy about a married couple and what happens when they’re wrenched outside of the confines of comfort.
             
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
 In addition, there's Robert Altman stalwart, Paul Dooley making his film debut as a hotel desk clerk; comic actor Ron Carey (Barney Miller) as a cabbie; stand-up comic Sandy Baron as a television AD; Richard Libertini as a baggage handler; Graham Jarvis (Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman) as a mugger; Dolph Sweet (Gimme a Break) as a cop; Anthony Holland (All That Jazz) as a night clerk; and Carlos Montalban (brother of Ricardo) as a Cuban Diplomat. And many more familiar faces from 60s TV.
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.
The-Out-of-Towners always has an answer for the question, "What more could possibly go wrong?"
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.
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" 
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.


Copyright © Ken Anderson

NEIL SIMON: VOICE OF THE URBAN UNDERDOG

As with most everything, comedy has a shelf life. At least certain kinds of comedy, it seems. Example: for reasons unknown to me (and a great many comedy writers, I imagine), a TV show as old as I Love Lucy has this timeless something about it that can make me laugh as heartily today as I did as a child. Meanwhile, the humor I once found in a more contemporary comedy like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, feels remote at best.

Such is the case with Neil Simon. A writer whose work I absolutely adored when I was young, but has a tendency not to play so well for me today. (Oddly enough, at age ten, there were only three non-performer show-biz names I knew: Walt Disney, Alfred Hitchcock, and Neil Simon…and Simon didn’t have a weekly TV show),

When I was growing up, I remember having this strong perception of comedy as this nebulous entertainment entity divided into distinct and separate camps. There was the schticky, vaudeville-style comedy of Bob Hope and Milton Berle which was favored by my parents; the youthful “with it” comedy of The Smothers Brothers and Rowan & Martin; the female perspective comedy of Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers; and the sketch-based, relationship-comedy of duos like Stiller & Meara and Clair & McMahon.
Wedged somewhere in between was what I’d call the 1960s equivalent of today’s calculatedly schlubby Comedy Club standups: the buttoned-down, put-upon, everyman.
And whether it was the observational, college-dweeb vibe of a Woody Allen or the beleaguered middle-class carping of a Bob Newhart or George Gobel - the look was strictly urban/suburban and the comedy rooted in giving voice to the frustrations of the average Joe as he  struggled to keep in step with the too-fast changes of contemporary society. From this latter camp, the comedy voice of Neil Simon emerged.
 

At a time when television was a haven for prizefights, variety shows, and Playhouse 90 dramas; lightweight, “pleasing the tired businessman” Broadway comedies were the sophisticated sitcoms of the day. Neil Simon’s TV-trained, joke-a-minute, gag-driven writing style was tailor-made for this environment, making his transition from Your Show of Shows comedy writer to playwright a seamless one.

Indeed, Neil Simon’s particular brand of working-class farce was so well-suited to the timbre of the times that it’s something of a miracle his work was able to distinguish itself amidst the roster of interchangeable, look-alike, sound-alike Broadway shows of the era: Any Wednesday, Boeing Boeing, Goodbye Charlie, Mary Mary, Come Blow Your Horn, Sunday in New York, Enter Laughing, The Fun Couple, The Owl & the Pussycat, Critics Choice, and Luv.

Both a popular and prolific Tony Award-winning playwright who at one time boasted four shows running concurrently on Broadway (Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, Sweet Charity, The Star Spangled Girl), Simon had, by the end of the 60s, established himself as the preeminent voice of contemporary comedy. His proficiency as a gun-for-hire for flagging Broadway shows earning him the nickname, “Doc” Simon.
When Hollywood inevitably came calling, Simon opted out of adapting Come Blow Your Horn, his debut effort, to the big screen. However, his dissatisfaction with how that film turned out led to his thereafter writing the screenplays for virtually every film adapted from his rapidly-growing resume of Broadway successes. He obviously had the right idea, for the boxoffice success of the movie versions of Barefoot in the Park (1967) and The Odd Couple (1968) made him a nationwide household name. (Interestingly, both sitcomy-films were turned into actual TV programs in 1970, the same year The-Out-of-Towners opened in theaters.) 
 

Looking back at my own introduction to the man, I have to say Mr. Simon and I got off to a pretty rocky start. The very first Neil Simon movie I ever saw was a Late Show TV broadcast of 1963’s Come Blow Your Horn. To say I loathed it would be a gross understatement. Embodying pretty much everything I’ve come to hate about smirky 60s sex comedies (bubble-haired bimbos a vaselined playboys all looking as if they reeked of alcohol and cigarettes), it’s a film - in spite of efforts made over the years - I’ve yet to make it all the way through.

Happily, in 1967 the more accessible (not to mention infinitely funnier) Barefoot in the Park was released, and The Odd Couple the following year. What with sitting through both films several times over their respective summers, and reading published copies of Simon’s plays at the local library; by the time The-Out-of-Towners was released, I was a well-versed Neil Simon fan at the ripe old age of twelve.  
 

I’ve often wondered why, at an age when most kids are drawn to anarchic comedies which flout authority and poke fun at convention, I was so attracted to the middle-class/middle-brow humor of Neil Simon. There’s no denying I was drawn to Simon’s gag-driven style ‒ more jokey than witty ‒ which was within my grasp and never pitched over my adolescent head. Or maybe because in school I was one of those rule-following goody-two-shoes who bristled when the bad behavior of classmates was rewarded with teacher attention, I identified with Simon’s put-upon heroes. (And in case you’re wondering, yes, a 12-year-old can bristle. Very well, thank you.)
Certainly growing up in a household with parents who regularly communicated through high-decibel yelling matches lent Simon’s domestic trademark quarrel-comedy (rooted in tradition old as The Bickersons) an air of familiarity. However, what I think most sold me on Neil Simon’s movies at a young age was that they served as the perfect transitional comedies for tweens at that awkward stage: too old for The Three Stooges but too young for All About Eve. His movies were like a comedy suspension bridge between silly and sophisticated.
   
I remained a staunch Neil Simon fan throughout the 70s. A loyalty that grew increasingly difficult to sustain come the 80s and Simon’s newfound “serious phase.” While many are of the opinion that Simon produced some of his best works during this period, the last of his films I actually enjoyed was Only When I Laugh (1981), and that was largely for the performances of Joan Hackett and James Coco. My long and happy association with Neil Simon came to a permanent end with the nearly-unwatchable Max Dugan Returns (1983). I haven’t seen a Neil Simon film since.

In subsequent years, revisits to fondly remembered Simon films have been a mixed bag. While some movies still manage to amuse, too much of the comedy feels sluggish and schticky (you half expect to hear rim shots on the soundtrack after every one-liner). And bits that once made me laugh aloud now just leave me scratching my head. The Goodbye Girl is just strident; Seems Like Old Times can actually induce physical pain; you can practically see the cobwebs hanging off the dialog in The Odd Couple: and Barefoot in the Park, outside of the luminous presence of Jane Fonda, is like an episode of Love, American Style that keeps going on thirty minutes after it ends. (Fittingly, the pilot for the Barefoot in the Park TV series aired on Love, American Style as “Love and the Good Deal.”)
 

But if the exception proves the rule, a cataloging of Neil Simon movies that haven’t aged particularly well for me would be one-sided if it didn’t mention the one film of his that actually gets funnier with each passing year: 1970’s The-Out-of-Towners.
The usual Simon tropes of bickering couples and New York commentary are in attendance; but as one of his few works written expressly for the screen, it lacks the stagy, claustrophobic air of so many of his films. It's blissfully free of pretension and its only ambition is to make you laugh. And in that, The-Out-of-Towners succeeds admirably.


Copyright © Ken Anderson