WHO WAS THAT LADY? lets Tony Curtis, Dean Martin and Janet Leigh make the most of a clever 1960 farce, written by Norman Krasna, who’d first had success with it as play. Audiences responded; a gross of $8,900,000 made it the 30th most popular item of the year. Unlike many frantic sex teases of the era, this romp holds a consistent laugh quotient many years later. Lit up by the bright material, their camaraderie and careers on high, the stars shine. *
Threatened with divorce when his wife catches him being kissed by a grad student—innocently, he claims—a nerdy physics professor (Curtis) takes the advice from his TV writer/bachelor pal (Martin) and concocts a cover story to convince the upset spouse (Leigh) that he’s actually an undercover FBI agent. She falls for this (apparently she’s not a physics professor), impressed with her husband’s daring spy life, but then the FBI and C.I.A. wonder what’s up, and agents of certain foreign government (with Russian names and accents, go figure) poke’inski. The jokes start with ‘Tony Curtis, as a Associate Professor of Physics at Columbia University.’
The three charismatic and attractive stars smartly opt to take it straight but with a twinkle, putting energy into the shenanigans without smirking at the obviously farcical material, thus making it all the funnier. It may be Martin’s most animated performance in a comedy, Curtis’ timing is spot-on, and Leigh is radiant. Great support comes from James Whitmore, playing it subtle and wry as the lead FBI man, Barbara Nichols and Joi Lansing, adeptly tickling as ditzy sisters ‘Gloria & Florence Coogle’, and Larry Storch, carving accent laffs as one of the Soviet spooks. **
Directed apace by George Sidney. Andre Previn delivers a snappy score. Maybe a wee longish at 115 minutes, but that’s a minor quibble. In her memoir, Janet Leigh fondly recalled that it “was a romp from start to finish… we really rolled with this one. The personal familiarity of the three of us allowed absolute freedom and the interplay was wild and woolly and inventive.” Her memory serves to sum up the whole happy enterprise. With John McIntire, Simon Oakland, Kam Tong, Larry Keating, Mike Lane and Ron Hayes. Jack Benny cameos.
* Say “Sixties sex comedies” (I dare ya) and most people automatically lock onto Rock Hudson & Doris Day. Though they only paired up in three (and Pillow Talk was a ’59 model), Rock finessed seven in total. When it came to batting average (make that ‘swinging’) Hudson was outflanked by Curtis with 13, with ever-flustered Doris matching Tony, freckle for leer. But Dino led the bedroom races with 17 (including his four ‘Matt Helm’ spy frolics, and not counting four cameos). Sure, ex-partner Jerry Lewis windmilled at him with a matching 17 (and a ‘Mad‘ cameo), but ‘Jerry Lewis Sex Comedies’ is a self-disqualifying category. Add Dean’s 16 previous gagfests with Jer and you’ll need a drink. Or a therapist. Or a therapist who drinks and looks like Janet Leigh.
** It’s Material Dept, comedies & cameos—Curtis, Leigh and Martin each did separate, valiant bits in another 1960 amusement, also directed by George Sidney: Pepe, the year’s most extravagant comedy, and biggest dud. It had everything but laughs. Apart from dutifully decorating that drowsy elephant, the enjoyment they otherwise had making and sharing in the success of ‘Lady‘ was part of a banner year for each of the trio, with Janet showering in Psycho, Tony fighting for Spartacus, Dean heisting in Oceans 11.
The great Larry Storch had been WW2 shipmates with Tony Curtis, serving on the USS Proteus, a sub-tender. From the ship’s bridge they watched the war end, witnessing the Japanese surrender ceremony (through binoculars) in Tokyo Bay. Storch’s first movie job was in Curtis’ 1951 The Prince Who Was A Thief. Following Who Was That Lady?, he added his zany touch to Tony’s cut-ups 40 Pounds Of Trouble, Captain Newman M.D., Sex And The Single Girl, Wild and Wonderful and The Great Race. “NOW, will you give me some fightin’ room?”