MEET “MEET CUTE”
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[Editor’s Note: Oeuvre Total is a film-discussion series between producer Michael Holland and critic Jason Rohrer, begun at Bitter Lemons and continuing here at Stage and Cinema. The first ten-part Oeuvre Total exchange concerns Billy Wilder. After we run the previously-published seven original entries new posts will appear in the coming weeks. The most recent was Part VI by Mr. Rohrer.]
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I’m writing this immediately following the last time we were together. I don’t just mean before I even enjoy Mr. Rohrer’s Part VI, I mean the same day; my last part straight into this one, even before going to see Double Indemnity and Body Heat. Why?
I’ve been trying to get back to something I mentioned all the way back in Part I:
“Every time Shirley MacLaine hands the carnation to Jack Lemmon as he’s on his way upstairs for the promotion – for me, that’s where ‘the work is done,’ as they say (but we’ll get to that) – I smile, consciously realizing I’m watching one of the great – and, again, deft – ‘meet cutes’ (regardless that they already know each other or the heavy, heavy drama about to hit).”
So before we get down another wonderful road, too far off the beaten Billy, I thought I’d talk more about that. The work being done, the meet cute, the deftness.
This is an odd setup, but — bear with me — in my look at Holiday Affair (part of my Top 5 Janet Leigh Films on my Blog) I noted, “One thing to say about Christmas movies in general is they’re all kinda dark, aren’t they?” I note The Apartment: “Most of these stories could be anytime really, but that they’re given the Christmas ‘spin’ makes them even more poignant.” Take that one step further to Roger Ebert’s write-up of the film (copied in part here):
There is a melancholy gulf over the holidays between those who have someplace to go, and those who don’t. The Apartment takes us out of the office party when some people go home to their families and others go home to where they haven’t even bothered to put up a tree. On Christmas Eve, more than any other night of the year, the lonely person feels robbed of something that was there in childhood but isn’t there anymore. Jack Lemmon plays C.C. Baxter, a definitive lonely guy, with the ironic twist he isn’t even free to go home alone, because his apartment is usually loaned out to one of the executives at his company.
One day he gets up his nerve and asks out one of the elevator girls, Miss Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) but she stands him up at the last moment because of a crisis in her relationship with the big boss, Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray).
While Baxter and Miss Kubelik may indeed like each other, they are both slaves to the company’s value system. He wants to be the boss’ assistant, she wants to be the boss’ wife, both of them blinded by the concept of ‘boss.’
And a little away from my setup but I love how it caps the overall mood:
The valuable element in Wilder is his adult sensibility; his characters can’t take flight with formula plots, because they are weighted down with the trials and responsibilities of working for a living. In many movies, the characters hardly seem to have jobs, but in The Apartment they have to be reminded that they have anything else.
I like Mr. Ebert but he wasn’t perfect either. If this series on Billy Wilder has done anything, I hope Mr. Rohrer and I’ve reintroduced you to Wilder’s work and opened you to the idea of texture — some masterful, some not — in all art. Why am I quoting Ebert? It’s a little bit plot reminder, sure, but it’s also some quick, easy thumbnailing on the tone of the thing. Why am I talking about the darkness of Christmas Movies? Because The Apartment, treading over all that dark water at Christmastime, is a wonderful Romantic Comedy. It even has a “meet cute.” At which point the work is, indeed, deftly done.
Let’s really take a look at that scene with the carnation. This is from the script itself; Bud is Jack Lemmon’s C.C. Baxter, Fran is Shirley MacLaine’s Miss Kubelik:
At the elevator, Bud presses the UP button, paces nervously. One of the elevator doors opens, and as Bud starts inside, the doors of the adjoining elevator open, and Fran Kubelik sticks her head out.
Hearing her voice, Bud throws a quick “Excuse me” to the other operator, exits quickly and steps into Fran’s elevator.
Twenty-seven, please. And drive carefully. You’re carrying precious cargo – I mean, manpower-wise.
Fran shuts the doors.
INT. ELEVATOR – DAY
Fran presses a button, and the elevator starts up.
You may not realize it, Miss Kubelik, but I’m in the top ten – efficiency-wise and this may be the day – promotion-wise.
You’re beginning to sound like Mr. Kirkeby already.
Why not? Now that they’re kicking me upstairs —
Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.
You know, you’re the only one around here who ever takes his hat off in the elevator.
The characters you meet. Something happens to men in elevators. Must be the change of altitude – the blood rushes to their head, or something – boy, I could tell you stories –
I’d love to hear them. Maybe we could have lunch in the cafeteria sometime – or some evening, after work –
The elevator has stopped, and Fran opens the doors.
INT. TWENTY-SEVENTH FLOOR FOYER – DAY
It is pretty plush up here – soft carpeting and tall mahogany doors leading to the executive offices. The elevator door is open, and Bud steps out.
I hope everything goes all right.
I hope so.
Wouldn’t you know they’d call me on a day like this – with my cold and everything –
(fumbling with his tie)
How do I look?
(stepping out of elevator)
She takes the carnation out of her lapel, starts to put it in Bud’s buttonhole.
Thank you. That’s the first thing I ever noticed about you – when you were still on the local elevator – you always wore a flower –
The elevator buzzer is now sounding insistently. Fran steps back inside.
Good luck. And wipe your nose.
She shuts the doors. Bud looks after her, then takes a Kleenex out of his pocket, and wiping his nose, crosses to a glass door marked J. D. SHELDRAKE, DIRECTOR OF PERSONNEL. He stashes the used Kleenex away in another pocket, enters …
Pretty great. I think so, anyway. Why? For a few reasons.
First, what is a “meet cute?” Let’s go back to a 1996 Paris Review Interview, where Billy Wilder himself said —
One day, [frequent Co-Writer Charles] Brackett and I were called in to see [Ernst] Lubitsch. He told us he was thinking vaguely about doing an adaptation of a French play about a millionaire – a very straightforward law-abiding guy who would never have an affair with a woman unless he was married to her. So he married seven times! That would be Gary Cooper. Claudette Colbert was to be the woman who was in love with him, who’d insist, “I’ll marry you, but only to be the final wife.” As the meeting was being adjourned, I said, I have a meet-cute for your story. (A “meet-cute” was a staple of romantic comedies back then, where boy meets girl in a particular way, and sparks fly.) Let’s say your millionaire is an American who is very stingy. He goes to a department store in Nice on the French Riviera where he wants to buy a pajama top, but just the top, because he never wears the pants. She has come to the same counter to buy pajamas for her father, who as it happens only wears the pants. That broke the ice, and we were put to work on that picture, which became Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife.
It’s a fun story that goes back to 1938 where the phrase “meet cute” was already commonplace. Now, as I say, I call our scene today in The Apartment Bud & Fran’s meet cute even though they already know each other. I also think it’s okay to call it a meet cute despite the truckload of drama about to hit. Because, again, The Apartment is a romantic comedy. It’s above the usual “rom-com” tag with which a lot of bad movies get labeled, but that doesn’t take anything away from The Apartment being romantic and comedic. Romantic dramedy? A lot of people hate that word, but I’m not one of them, so, sure, use it. I admit it took me a while to think of this film as a romantic comedy, but perhaps as we move on you’ll see why I do.
Because, as I wrote, this is the same scene where the work is done. What does that mean? For the past two seasons I was Associate Producer on The CW’s Penn & Teller: Fool Us; “A.P.” in this instance meaning I’m in charge of post production. During the run I had the pleasure of chatting with one of our magic consultants, Mike Close, who called it that – “when the work is done” – meaning the part of the trick when the crucial bits are finished: the setup, the functionality, the business behind the showmanship. It can come near the beginning or close to the end, depends on the trick, but all that remains afterward is the “unfolding of the inevitable,” as William Goldman wrote. (For “the work being done,” William Goldman (writer, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men) cites the scene in Fargo when Marge is first investigating the roadside killing and barfs in the snow, and the scene in Chinatown when Gittes learns the truth about Evelyn’s sister.) When applying the phrase from magic to a movie, I don’t think there’s an absolute; no “right” or “wrong” for when the work is done, but I’ll add this: I believe it’s an idea – I’m talking any story now – that works more in the movie as opposed to the script because, like a magician performing for someone, it has to do with the affect on the audience. If you’ve done your work, and done it well, they’re in the palm of your hand. And that’s gold.
What makes our carnation scene different than any time Bud and Fran have met before? Because Bud has confidence now. He’s on his way “upstairs” (literally but more importantly the other) so he feels he can afford some repartee with The Girl. What makes the scene a meet cute? For me, the business of it; business during which we learn a little something about the two of them and see, whatever their relationship has been up to that point, she likes him a little more than mere politeness. It might only be a little more but that’s all a guy like Bud needs. (For instance, her “Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy”: I think she means it. More significantly, she chases it with mentioning he takes his hat off. Why is that significant? To say she noticed him, sure, but that she appreciates mere politeness; something at which Bud doesn’t even have to try.)
So, the business? He has a cold. Sure, it’s a physical symptom of the bending-over-backwards he’s doing to get upstairs, but it’s a small cold which makes it comical. One of my favorite jokes in the film is in the scene right after this, in Sheldrake’s office, where Bud squirts the nose-spray across the room (Lemmon asked for milk to be added to the water so it’d be visible).
Then (back in our elevator) there’s more great repartee: her, “I hope everything goes all right” which I think she means too, but Bud misses it because he’s back in his own head cold. So when he asks how he looks and she says, “Fine,” she might mean that too but it’s a throw-away … until she catches herself and steps out of the elevator after him (which we’ll come back to in a moment). We already know she can take care of herself in her handling of Kirkeby swatting her Franny, but here she steps out and does something extra for our Bud: giving him the carnation. And this he notices and appreciates. She notices too, but has to get back to her elevator with the, “Wipe your nose” (which I think is pretty great too, and a foreshadow to “Shut up and deal”).
But we must touch on her stepping out of the elevator.
Bud begins the repartee by referencing himself as precious cargo on its way to a promotion. Why? Because, circling Roger Ebert’s thumbnailing, this is how Bud thinks she’d be impressed in their world. But what does she do? Turns it right around by noticing something about him he would have done promotion or not: take his hat off in the elevator. She doesn’t care about his job, she has her own problems with a higher-runged suit. But in their little world – the elevator, a couple minutes a day – he’s polite to her without using it to get him something extra. So when he’s begun his repartee – different, more personal than the conversation about her haircut we’ve already seen – what does she do when he exits the elevator? She steps out to him, out of “their world,” to be a little more personal herself. A little bit more than mere politeness, anyway. Which is all our Bud is looking for.
And the deftness? It’s no secret the oldest rule in screenwriting is start a scene as late as you can and get out as early as you can. Why? Time; as in movies don’t have any. Novels? All you want. A TV Series? Most of the same rules as a Movie but there’s a little more leeway. Movies decree speed. Take a look at Billy Wilder’s screenwriting tips from Conversations with Wilder (Cameron Crowe, 1999):
- The audience is fickle.
- Grab ’em by the throat and never let ’em go.
- Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.
- Know where you’re going.
- The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.
- If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.
- A tip from Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.
- In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they’re seeing.
- The event that occurs at the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie.
- The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then that’s it. Don’t hang around.
Ten good points and five of them – 1, 2, 3, 4 and 10 – are about speed. Call a couple paring down to the necessities, or keeping the engine revving, but even they’re, “Don’t waste time.”
Our meet cute? Everything we’ve learned from it? A page-and-a-half of script, a minute-twenty on film.
I think that’s pretty great too.
As I said, it took me a while to consider The Apartment a romantic comedy but this is the scene that turned me, mostly because this is indeed where the work is done. We’ve seen Bud and Fran together before but not like this. When we see them here, we know they have a shot. At what? Who knows? We’re only twenty minutes into the movie, and so far it’s pretty light – and if it is our first time seeing it, we don’t know there’s that truckload about to hit – but right here we like these two. We’re rooting for them. Whatever happens in the next hour and a half, we the audience are with these two going through it together. Wilder & Diamond have done their work, and done it well.
We’re just once again watching the magic happen.
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Oeuvres Total, to date:
Part VIII coming soon…