Irma La Douce

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IRMA LA DOUCE  reunited Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine with director Billy Wilder and some other team players from The Apartment for this bawdy 1963 sex farce.  They forgot to bring the charm. Smarm aplenty, though, as everyone in the cast is written & directed to be obnoxious. Sex-tease comedies were the current rage then (it is supposed to be fun, after all), and this prude-prod was a big hit, #5 for the year. Taste optional. *

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The red-light district in Paris. Naive, honest, decent policeman ‘Nestor Patou’ (Lemmon) is framed for a bribe (everyone’s on the take, it’s WilderWorld) and kicked off the force. Falling for popular, genial prostitute ‘Irma’ (MacLaine), Nestor comically beats her pimp in a fight. Irma falls for Nestor, he moves in with her. She keeps working–for him, since suddenly he’s the hero-pimp to everyone in the business. Jealous of her often-distributed charms, he disguises himself as a rich English ‘client’. He pays her enough for each session that she doesn’t have to take other johns, she in turn gives the money to Nestor aka ‘Lord X’.  The deceit works (Irma is more honest than Nestor) but the seed/y money he borrowed from worldly tavern owner ‘Moustache’ (Lou Jacobi) to start the daisy chain evaporates and he himself must work (and hide that from her) to pay it back. And so on, until mixed identities collide and things get progressively less funny than the already distasteful setup. It grows tiresome quickly, and goes on for a fatiguing 147 minutes.

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The whole charade with Lemmon sending up a stuffy Brit is awful—it feels mean (did they like this in England?)  There’s no-one to root for in this story, including Irma, whom we’re supposed to find adorable. MacLaine was Oscar-nominated as Best Actress (she wasn’t nuts about the movie, either), and the Cinematography was also up (Joseph LaShelle doing a good job). Andre Previn’s score won the Academy Award for Scoring Adaptation, but he didn’t adapt anything from the musical play it was based on. His work here is not bad—the best I can manage, as I’m not a Previn fan.

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Wilder originally had Marilyn Monroe in mind, and considered Elizabeth Taylor. MM died, Liz was captured by Cleopatra, so Shirley tagged the role. Either of the iconic sex symbols would have been better projecting both casual carnality and wounded pride as working girl Irma. MacLaine can sell wares brassy (as long as she doesn’t resort to shrieks), and pissed-off, but enticing and sweet? Not so much. Watch the catfight between MacLaine and Hope Holiday—they didn’t like each other and did not hold back when filming their brawl.  A few of the many jokes work (Wilder’s co-writer was once again I.A.L. Diamond) and Alexandre Trauner’s art direction went to elaborate lengths to recreate area ambiance; his sets are a superior job of craftsmanship and utility. The cast squeak and squawk their tails off (so to speak) but the material just isn’t funny, mainly because—let’s take a wild swing here—pimps aren’t. **

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Peep-hungry people poured in, and brought $25,247,000 with them. With Bruce Yarnell (extra-unpleasant), Herschel Bernardi, Diki Lerner (double-x unpleasant), Howard McNear, Joan Shawlee, Grace Lee Whitney, Paul Dubov, Tura Sultana, Cliff Osmond, Bill Bixby, James Brown and—uncredited, with no lines—James Caan, 22, his feature debut.

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* Just ahead at the box-office line was Britain’s salute to classical naughtiness, Tom Jones. Other sex-oriented films of ’63, the humorous and the dramatic: Move Over Darling, Promises! Promises! (Jayne Mansfield showing everyone up—I hid the Playboy under my bed), Hud, Love With The Proper Stranger, Dr. No, Beach Party, Love Is A Ball, The Stripper, Wives And Lovers, The Balcony, Who’s Been Sleeping In My Bed?, Under The Yum Yum Tree (Lemmon again, and not good, either), Yesterday Today and Tomorrow.

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** The World’s Oldest Profession (that saying coined by Rudyard Kipling) comes at its never-quenched market base from every direction of want and need—some odious, many horrid, some shrewd, others stupid, many simply personal monetary necessity—and their stories are as varied as the individuals.  Hearts of gold do beat. MacLaine spent some time with Parisian hookers to observe their manner and milieu and get some attitudinal tips. You can portray pay-for-play from poignancy (The World Of Suzie Wong), tragedy (Camille, BUtterfield 8), or irony (Breakfast At Tiffany’s, Pretty Woman). The less-alluring side of the street—management, is a tougher trade-off. Two superb dramas about procurers are Saint Jack and Hustle And Flow. But getting laughs from pimps? Gee, why not child molesters— wouldn’t that be a riot?

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