Thirty-Day Movie Challenge: Day Fifteen

Halfway there.

Anyone else excited?

Nah?

That’s okay.  I didn’t think there was any harm in asking.

Hoping to come up with something for the next entry that’s not a movie review, poem or short story. We’ll have to see what my supposedly Canadian, consistently sleepy brain can come up with.

Try and stick around. I’ll do my best to be entertaining.

**********
30 Day Movie Challenge:

Day Fifteen: Favorite Play Adaptation

The Odd Couple (1968)
Directed by Gene Saks
Starring: Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, John Fielder

I love theater. Always have. The special place for it in my cold, nicotine-infused heart muscle isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, but I do always think of a great bit from The Simpsons when I think about it. Smithers is finally putting on his dream production of a musical version of the Malibu Stacy dolls in New Mexico. During a show a man leans over to his wife, glares and asks, “This is better than a movie, why?”

I don’t think that’s necessarily true. It just strikes me as funny, because that does seem to be a perception held by at least some people. I suppose that’s why plays have been a good source of reference for films. You can sometimes tell pretty easily which novels will translate well onto the screen, and which ones won’t. Some are written with an obvious, sometimes irritating desire to be a film or TV show someday. That’s where the mountains of cold, dirty cash can generally be found, so it’s understandable if not a kind of small shame. I love plays, and it’s too bad some of them have to make their way over to the more popular forms of media in order to find the audience they deserve.

Is there anything wrong with that? Not really. It just bugs me a little for some reason.

It’s not like that’s ever stopped the universe before.

There are plenty of exceptions. History is full of them. Some stories are just good enough to be able to exist under any circumstances. I’ve spent the better part of my writing vocation (I was thirteen when I settled on ) trying to come up with a couple of those myself. The greatest plays are like the greatest books, films, albums and acid flashbacks. They can endure social change, different approaches to its core and shifting interest in the arts. It just happens to be that plays oftentimes don’t get as much of a chance as any of that other stuff to show that.

Is The Odd Couple one of the exceptions? I think that’s possible. Both the film and TV show adaptations continue to be popular decades down the line, and the original Broadway production can still draw an impressive crowd (more on that shortly). It’s an incredibly simple, ageless premise. Two wildly different people move in together, because one is on the cusp of a hideous, soul-crushing divorce, and hilarity ensues. You can’t throw a rock more than an inch in any given direction, without hitting something that uses that story in some way. Fantastic examples of this story exist everywhere, but I don’t think it gets much better than the original inspiration.

This isn’t because I got to play Oscar Madison in a reasonably successful production of this show in 2010 (honest). There’s a reason why I wanted to do this play in the first place. Mostly it just goes back to believing the material has held up remarkably well, through the last fifty or so years. I think there’s a secret behind that. Not every single joke and reference has held up (there’s an updated version that Simon wrote a few years ago, but I’m not sure anyone really noticed), but that’s to be expected. More of its humor, story, dialog and characters have held up than not. Any white-hair jokes or storytelling techniques fail to ruin the brilliant, endlessly entertaining chemistry that exists between Felix and Oscar. With the right actors it creates humor and exchanges of conversation that are as funny and engaging now as they were when the play was first performed. The TV show nailed that chemistry and several different productions over the years have also been brilliant (I’ve heard this about the original Broadway run, which featured Art Carney as Felix), but it was never, ever any better than it was with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. That applies to any version I can’t, or just haven’t seen. I have no fear of being wrong on this.

The jokes here are just too easy. Don’t be the one who goes the  most-traveled route there is.

I’m not surprised they worked together on so many films. Some actors are just meant to play be foil for their exact opposite. Matthau and Lemmon would have many, many great films together, but I would argue it was never better than The Odd Couple. The film isn’t much different than the play, so there’s no loss in translation. At times it’s as if both of them aren’t even aware of the camera, and are moving through the motions and lines as though they’re indeed performing a play. That wouldn’t work for everything, but it’s perfect here. The Odd Couple doesn’t need anything fancy in its style. Everything works because of those actors. That’s where the sophistication comes from, so it doesn’t really make sense to be more ambitious than that.

The Poker buddies are great, too. John Fielder might be best known as the voice of Piglet, but it’s worth mentioning he was a phenomenal character actor in TV and films for decades (he was hilarious on The Bob Newhart Show). They have smaller roles to fill in creating the energy The Odd Couple needs to achieve something, but those parts are almost as important. The rhythm of The Odd Couple demands infallibility from bell to bell. It can’t have a weak performance in the bunch, or the energy falters, and the rest of it comes crashing down, long before the show is over. The movie rounds out Lemmon and Matthau with great character actors, and of course, the impeccably grating Pigeon sisters (Monica Evans and Carole Shelley). These are the best versions of these characters you’re ever going to find, but first and foremost they service the story.

It just seems like Matthau was born forty, and simply went on from there. Seemingly worked for him.

Matthau and Lemmon each bring something to the Oscar/Felix dynamic that works here, and would go on to work in several other films together. It could be the lifelong friendship they maintained, that they were phenomenal comedic counterparts, or a mix of those two things. Whatever you want to call it, you get one of the all-time great acting duos in unbelievable form in The Odd Couple. That same mishmash of two people somehow being friends in spite of overwhelming flaws and differences remains a cornerstone of comedy. You can find it in dozens of different places today. Of course that concept wasn’t invented in The Odd Couple, but it set a bar that will always be difficult to surpass or even match.

A lot of that comes from Neil Simon’s dialog, but it would have just been some good writing if not for the stars. Matthau and Lemmon bring their individual talents to the proceedings, but it’s absolute magic when they’re working together. It was almost always good stuff over their respective careers. In The Odd Couple it’s one of the great comedies of all time.

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