Thursday, December 20, 2018

Office Christmas Party - The Desk Set and The Apartment

No one ever sings, “Oh, there’s no place like the office for the holidays…” but that is where we visit this Christmas, the office parties in two movies: The Desk Set (1957) and The Apartment (1960).

These movies, made a few years apart in the “Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” (another movie) era of America’s booming economy on the shoulders of big business, reflect an age where large companies truly had a paternalistic hand in the lives of their employees.  It was the era of pensions, medical coverage, and moving up the ladder to covet the corner office.  Men benefited more than women in this old boys’ environment; they created the glass ceiling, but independent women, too, made careers in this fast-paced if regimented world.  Some, like Katharine Hepburn in The Desk Set rose to positions of responsibility and authority; some, like Shirley MacLaine, who failed her typing test and could not meet the requirements of a clerical worker, were relegated to the bottom rung as elevator operators.  Both women became involved in office romances and both ill-used by them.

For both men and women, in an era when suburbia was the ultimate goal and haven, the office remained the focus of their social contacts. 

The Christmas party scenes in these movies were all-out bacchanalias, where unleashed Yuletide revelry revealed the wanton excesses of the most regimented office worker.

Jack Lemmon’s corporate insurance office houses over 31,000 employees in New York City.  His desk on the 19th floor is among rows of others in a seemingly endless pattern that illustrates the orderliness, the discipline, and the drudgery of their work.  Though the theme of The Desk Set, made three years earlier, is the introduction of a computer to replace office workers, the only reference made to computers in The Apartment is Lemmon’s joke at the Christmas party that drunken office workers are being ritually sacrificed and punched full of holes like the computer punch cards of the day.

On his desk is a phone, in-basket, and a large electric adding machine that makes a racket like a machine gun while performing calculations.  The transformation of his office from quiet soulless cavern to party central begins when we see a group of telephone operators abandon their switchboards when one of them yells, “There’s a swingin’ party on the 19th floor!”

Suddenly, we are on the 19th floor where riotous dancing on desks to a tribal chant of “Jingle Bells” and couples kiss in semi-private corners and the alcohol flows freely into paper cups from the break room.  

In The Desk Set, Katharine Hepburn’s department, the research room of a television network in what was really the RCA building has its own Christmas tree with presents exchanged by her staff: Joan Blondell, Dina Merrill, and Sue Randall.  Just as at Jack Lemmon’s office, the daily grind is called off this last working day before Christmas.  Each department has its fling, and the workers wander from one office to another like night club table hoppers.  Spencer Tracy, a visiting efficiency expert who is slated to bring a large computer to Hepburn’s research department, notes the obvious, “Nothing very much gets done around here today, does it?”

They present him with a long scarf of his old school colors, and their party is interrupted by phone calls asking for the names of Santa’s reindeer and Christmas trivia.  A piano is hauled up from one of the studios and Kate sings a verse of “Night and Day” while Spencer accompanies her on bongo drums.  I love her snorting laugh. The corks pop, the champagne flows into paper cups, and the office is the place to celebrate Christmas in a way no one does at home.

But in both movies, the celebration is rocked by sadness.  In the middle of his party, a slightly tipsy Jack Lemmon discovers that Shirley MacLaine, whom he loves, is romantically involved with his boss and having trysts in Lemmon’s own apartment.  He drowns his sorrows in a bar that Christmas Eve, and returns home to discover Shirley there, unconscious from a suicide attempt.  He saves her life, with the help of the doctor next door, and spends a quiet Christmas Day tending to her and worrying about her.  

In The Desk Set, their gaiety is a little forced, because when they return to work after the Christmas holiday, they know that Spencer Tracy will have his computer system installed by then, and they fear for their jobs.  “I understand thousands of people are losing their jobs because of these electronic brains.”

The enormous blinking, buzzing, punch card spitting EMERAC may mean the death knell for their careers and a cozy office life of doing work by hand, being able to work at their own pace, eating, drinking, and smoking in their office as if it were their living room at home, and the loss of a sense of ownership of their office.  EMERAC will rule the roost when they return.

It predicts the future in the American workplace in that respect, but from her worries about her career, Kate drifts to another worrisome topic, the romance with exec Gig Young that seems to go nowhere after years.  In the end, Spencer Tracy will shake up her world in more ways than one; and Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine have also, in a crazy way, been brought together by the office.

Holiday office parties tend not to be carried on with such wild abandon these days, most are likely nothing more than pizza in the break room during lunch hour.  In what has been termed our “gig economy,” millions will spend the Friday before Christmas alone at their computers in a home office, a library or coffee shop, on an iPad or a phone at a mall food court, wistfully thinking about the line, “There’s a swingin’ party on the 19th floor!”

From my home office to yours, Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 14, 2018

Walter Abel

“Boy!  Are we happy!” Walter Abel yells during yet another clutch moment in Holiday Inn (1942) as the conniving, frenetic talent agent in a performance that is delightful and exhausting.  In contrast, his scene in So Proudly We Hail! (1943) as the chaplain is controlled and deeply emotional for being so.  Both roles leave us with a Christmas theme appropriate to this time of year.

This is my entry into the What a Character! Blogathon hosted by those wonderful classic film bloggers Aurora, Kellee, and Paula.  See the link for details and please visit the other great blogs participating in this fun event.

Walter Abel was in his forties at the time he
performed in those two films, with a long career of varied roles behind him.  His first film was in 1918, but he spent the 1920s on stage and appeared in many prestigious Broadway hits by the time the Great Depression rolled around, and Hollywood provided a safe haven for many out-of-work stage actors.

One of his most important roles in that period is in The Three Musketeers (1935), in which he played the swashbuckling and romantic D’Artagnan.  Those of us so used to seeing him in a variety of comic or quietly authoritative roles—which seemed to suit him equally like the toggling of switch, might well be surprised to see him as a young, athletic heartthrob.  He was worthy of lead roles, but he was one of those actors who managed to turn even a small character part into the lead for even just a few moments.

Take his scene in So Proudly We Hail, which we previously discussed here:  A group of Army nurses are on a ship bound for the Philippines during World War II, and he is the company chaplain.  On Christmas Eve, 1942, only a few weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor that has dropkicked civilian America, and its previously peacetime army, into a frightening new sphere, Walter Abel conducts a makeshift Christmas party on board ship.  Standing next to a goofy-looking rope Christmas tree in a lounge cabin cramped with service personnel, including rescued crew of a torpedoed ship, the chaplain starts off the party with a few words of encouragement, wrapped in a kind of prayer. 

“You must forgive me for being sentimental. We’re a sentimental people, and I think we’re proud of it. Despite the fact that our enemies deride us for it, it makes us stronger… All I want to say in the tragedy all about us is—have faith. Not a blind faith, but a faith in those things in which we believe.  We must have faith in these things, such faith in ourselves, such faith in mankind…that we will fight to the death to make those tender and sentimental beliefs like Christmas a reality forever.  Now, God Bless us, everyone.”

His delivery is measured, with a slightly wavering voice that is tender and emotional.  Later on in the movie, he will perform a marriage ceremony between Claudette Colbert and George Reeves in which his delivery and diction is so precise it sounds almost Shakespearian.

But the Christmas party speech, a kind of Cliff Notes of the “Wilcoxon Speech” from Mrs. Miniver (1942), is quickly followed, characteristically, by a rousing instrumental swing version of “Jingle Bells” just so we aren’t embarrassed.

In Holiday Inn, he must have dropped 20 pounds for all the running he does, and he illustrates his character’s excitement with his whole body, jerking, shrugging, throwing himself into double-takes.  One of my favorite lines is when he attempts to describe an arrangement of orchids he orders from a florist, “A dozen, loose, looking like they don’t care.”

And his covering for yet another lie, “But now I’m sincere!”

In the 1950s, Walter Abel, with that marvelous speaking voice, performed as a concert narrator for the Philadelphia Orchestra under conductor Eugene Ormandy in Aaron Copland’s Portrait of Lincoln.  I wish I could have seen that.  If anybody knows if that was recorded, let me know.

Please visit the other blogs participating in the What a Character! Blogathon hosted Aurora, Kellee, and Paula.  

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Prelude to War - Requiescat in Pace, Greatest Generation

Tomorrow, December 7th, marks the 77th anniversary of the day America stood on the precipice of World War II, and a generation -- now referred to as The Greatest Generation, faced another moment of destiny.

Yesterday, we held a national day of mourning for former President George Herbert Walker Bush, who was our last president to have served in World War II.  Characteristically of that generation, he enlisted on his eighteenth birthday.

Here is archival footage of twenty-year-old  Lt. J.G. Bush being rescued after being shot down.

To keep faith with that Greatest Generation and the continuing gift of freedom they have left us, we need to remind ourselves of the reasons they had to give up their youth, in many cases, their lives, to a higher purpose.

Hollywood contributed a unique perspective and legacy of that era.  We classic film buffs are familiar with the wartime dramas, the musicals, the patriotic messages, as well as the number of actors who left their careers to enter the military and the hundreds of others who supported the nation's war mission by entertaining troops, appearing at bond drives, and volunteering in many ways.

We've discussed in this previous post about the Hollywood Commandos or the FMPU which produced wartime training films.  One of the most important projects made by this unit was director Frank Capra's Why We Fight series.  This was meant to inform, inspire, and provide the necessary background to the purpose of why the service personnel were required to fight.  Training them to use certain weapons, or how to act in certain situations was not the only important education they received in boot camp.  The fight against fascism was as intellectual and emotional as it was tactical.

The first film in that series, Prelude to War is up at the top of this post.  One hopes that in an era where fascism has found a foothold in our country, and young people know next to nothing about World War II, that an imperfect, decades-old training film, called "propaganda" today, is not so remote that it would not touch even the most stupid and cynical teenager posing for a class photo while giving the Nazi salute, or painting swastika graffiti, or draping a rope noose where it will be noticed.

Requiescat in pace, President Bush.  Requiescat in pace, Greatest Generation.

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