The recent release on Blu-ray of Billy Wilder’s 1965 Kiss Me, Stupid (a rare flop for the director) got me thinking about the Motion Picture Production Code and the Legion of Decency, both of which had Wilder’s film in their censorious crosshairs. He wasn’t the first target, by any means. In 1953, it was Otto Preminger giving both moral watch groups fits with his romantic comedy The Moon Is Blue, a film instrumental in unloosening the restrictive corsets of the Code. The Legion of Decency remained adamantly disapproving.
Preminger first directed The Moon Is Blue on Broadway in 1951, and its success on the boards prompted him to adapt it for the big screen. For the Hollywood version, he hired a mostly new cast, including William Holden and David Niven, the latter over the protests of the producers who thought the Brit actor’s popularity was in decline. (Ironically, though the movie was nominated for three Oscars, Niven was the only actual award-winner, copping a Golden Globe for Best Actor.)
A delightful comedy of manners about Donald, (Holden) who encounters Patty, a young woman (newcomer Maggie McNamara) on top of the Empire State Building, leading to all kinds of craziness over the next 24 hours, The Moon Is Blue is often credited as being among the first films to chip away at the Code’s puritanical restrictions regarding sexual themes. Though the movie itself is quite proper (and very funny, probably earning a PG today), its use of words like “virgin,” “seduce,” and “mistress” raised the hackles of the censors.
Preminger and his producers released the film, initially without the Code’s seal of approval, earning a Condemned rating from the Catholic Legion of Decency to boot. Nonetheless the film was very successful, prompting Preminger to hammer away at other taboos in later films, like homosexuality (Advise & Consent), heroin addiction (The Man with the Golden Arm), and sexual references again (Anatomy of a Murder).
Though its controversy has dissipated, The Moon Is Blue still holds up today for its witty dialogue and inspired performances, particularly by 22-year-old McNamara, who earned an Oscar nod for her work, and had roles in three or four other significant films. Tragically, she killed herself at the age of 48. An ingénue in the mold of an Audrey Hepburn or Debbie Reynolds, she and her older stars are at the peaks of their forms in Preminger’s anything-but-dirty romantic comedy.
Kiss Me, Stupid, on the other hand, is deliberately very dirty – at least in concept. The great Wilder often pushed the envelope with the Production Code and the Legion of Decency with movies like Some Like It Hot and The Apartment, to name only two. Though Kiss Me, Stupid was neither as popular nor as good as other Wilder classics, it definitely generated both controversy and laughs.
Dino (Dean Martin, playing a parody of himself) runs across Orville, a jealous songwriter (Ray Walston, TV’s favorite Martian) in Climax, Nevada. Through a series of misadventures, Orville ends up hiring hooker Polly the Pistol (Kim Novak) to pretend to be his wife. The idea is that notoriously randy Dino will stick around Climax for the night, listening to the prospective songs, his payoff being time with the buxom bride. Meanwhile, however, real wife Zelda (Felicia Farr), a Dino fan, has plans of her own.
Ending happily despite double adultery, Kiss Me, Stupid is still fun to watch, mostly because of the four stars, particularly Martin and Novak. Compared to The Moon Is Blue, however, many of the topical jokes (about The Rat Pack and The Beatles, for instance) are dated. However, neither the Production Code nor the Legion of Decency was amused – the Legion slapped the film with another Condemned rating.
Writer-director Billy Wilder must have loved the back-handed compliment.