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Boeing Boeing

Boeing Boeing(1965)

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Old friends Tony Curtis and Jerry Lewis played opposite one another for the first and only time in Boeing, Boeing (1965), a door-slamming sex farce set in the City of Lights where the two stars share top billing (in a revolving credit that favors neither one of them). Though based on the French stage comedy by Marc Camoletti, the winking smart-alecky cynicism and mercenary scheming has a decidedly American feel in its attitudes toward American anti-heroes in love and war. Mostly love. Or at the very least sex on tap.

Tony Curtis was the quintessential romantic rascal of his day, a smooth smart-aleck of a ladies man whose Brooklyn charm is completely American: no discretion, no valor, just unbridled girl-crazy lust that rides roughshod over his conscience. Who else could play brazen American in Paris Bernard Lawrence, a foreign correspondent whose appetites have made him cocky enough to think he can not merely juggle three air hostess girlfriends, but keep them all happy, living in his apartment, convinced that their wedding day is just around the corner, and shuffled through so carefully that they are utterly ignorant of one another?

The part seems tailor-made for Curtis, yet (according to Lewis biographer Shawn Levy) the project was initially purchased by producer Hal Wallis as a Dean Martin vehicle (who turned it down) and then offered to a number of comic actors. When Tony Curtis expressed interest, Wallis had the same problem casting the second lead until he finally offered it to his old "discovery," Jerry Lewis. Wallis had produced all of the Martin and Lewis films but they had not worked together since Visit to a Small Planet (1960) and the parting was not exactly amicable. By 1965, Lewis was focused on developing his own productions and directing many of them, but this project was a good opportunity to play a more sophisticated role in an adult farce and he took it.

Jerry Lewis lets go of the clowning and child-man slapstick of his familiar persona to play old colleague and scheming straight man Robert Reed, a sly rival in love and journalism who lands in Paris and begs for a room in Bernard's flat. Bernard balks, Robert discovers Bernard's cozy set-up when two of his one-and-onlys almost collide, and before you can say "blackmail," Robert has a room and a vow to play along with Bernard's game, but he can't help himself from tossing in a few of his own moves.

The continental dishes are all fantasy stereotypes of an American imagination, walking cultural clichs of European sexual invitations, and their measurements (possibly exaggerated, but certainly enticing) are listed along with their names in the opening credits. There's the German fraulein Lise (Christiane Schmidtmer), aka "Lufthansa," a buxom, blonde Teutonic goddess with a fitness obsession, a taste for sausages and sauerkraut, and a bust size that is the source of constant comment. There's French mademoiselle Jacqueline (Dany Saval), aka "Air France," a squeaky, petite blonde prone to fits and suspicion (all justified considering what's going on behind her back). And there is the sensible British beauty Vicky (Suzanna Leigh), aka "British United," who eats kidneys for breakfast and suggests a maturity beyond the girlish behavior of the others in the mnage-a-quatre.

It's a situation doomed not merely to fail, but to collide and combust in spectacular fashion, and sure enough Bernard's carefully managed timetables are thrown into disarray when each airline upgrades to supersonic jets, which means each morsel of his European smorgasbord ends up back at the apartment at the same time. Like a juggler whose pins all fall to the ground, his carefully calibrated system is in tatters. Much distraction, many half-baked lies, and lots of scooting the girls out of one room and into another is called for.

Venerable Hollywood and stage veteran Thelma Ritter gives one of the final performances of her career as Lawrence's harried housemaid and accessory in all-but-in-name polygamy. It's a familiar part for Ritter, the sardonic domestic dishing wiseacre comments to her boss, but you can see that the sixty-year-old actress' timing is slower and her characteristic flinty spark is dulled. She died of a heart attack a few years later.

Lewis and Curtis were old friends - Lewis was the best man at Curtis' wedding - but there was tension on the set and a star rivalry behind the scenes. "He did everything he could to help me concentrate: step on my feet, mug at me during a serious take," wrote Tony Curtis in his autobiography. "I enjoyed every minute of it. There I was, working with Jerry Lewis, the greatest comedian of our time - and I ate him up alive."

There's an undercurrent of hostility in his praise, and according to Levy, Curtis had no desire to work opposite Lewis. They tried to top one another with their demands for star treatment while shooting in Paris; Lewis, in fact, threw a temper tantrum when the Hotel Madeleine Palace couldn't provide him with deli sandwiches after midnight and moved himself and his whole entourage to the Ritz instead. After returning to Hollywood for the studio shoot, both stars habitually disappeared from the set without warning. To complicate matters, Lewis had recently sustained a skull fracture that caused him chronic and, at times, debilitating pain, his wife had just entered the hospital with a debilitating illness of her own, and he was in a battle with Paramount over the control of his future productions. Lewis couldn't have been more distracted.

As a result, "Wallis wound up closing the set to the press," according to Shawn Levy in King of Comedy: The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis, "to which Curtis responded by taking out ads in the trade papers indicating that the barring of reporters wasn't his doing. Wallis wrote furiously to Joe Hazen, threatening to shut the set and hold Curtis responsible for the cost of the delay: "I am pretty tired of all this nonsense in dealing with these sick people and I do not intend to indulge him in any way." Soon enough, it was Jerry who was drawing the producer's ire with a holdout of his own. On June 10, when Wallis had some four dozen extras sitting around a restaurant set waiting to shoot, Jerry left the studio three hours early with neither warning nor explanation. The next day he didn't show up at all. No one in his office claimed to know where he was. Finally, he turned up in San Diego on his yacht. He hadn't left to annoy Wallis (though he surely felt no qualms about doing so); he was sitting out the most elaborate and expensive days of the production to protest Paramount's increasing pressure on him to give up directing and producing his own films....Boeing, Boeing finally wrapped on June 22 - five days late, quite a bit of it due to Jerry, at an additional cost to Wallis of one hundred thousand dollars."

The director of Boeing, Boeing was John Rich who primarily worked in television and had only helmed a small number of theatrical films including a pair of Elvis Presley musicals (Easy Come, Easy Go [1967], Roustabout [1964]). Boeing, Boeing sticks to a simple TV style, focused on the central apartment set much like a sitcom, dependant on the timing of entrances and exits more than any visual invention. Apart from an airport scramble and a car chase through the streets of Paris, it keeps its stage origins and keeps landing back at the main room of an unaccountably large Paris apartment. Journalism pays unaccountably well for Bernard Lawrence.

The critics praised Lewis for his restraint, perhaps as much out of shock and genuine admiration, and he and Ritter both earned Golden Globe nominations. Boeing, Boeing also marked Lewis' last film for Paramount, his home since his screen debut in My Friend Irma in 1949.

Producer: Hal B. Willis
Director: John Rich
Screenplay: Edward Anhalt; Marc Camoletti (play)
Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Art Direction: Hal Pereira, Walter Tyler
Music: Neal Hefti
Film Editing: Warren Low, Archie Marshek
Cast: Tony Curtis (Bernard Lawrence), Jerry Lewis (Robert Reed), Dany Saval (Jacqueline Grieux), Christiane Schmidtmer (Lise Bruner), Suzanna Leigh (Vicky Hawkins), Thelma Ritter (Bertha), Lomax Study (Pierre)
C-103m. Letterboxed.

by Sean Axmaker

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