Like many mongrel genres, the mod ‘60s sex comedy is a child of many parents: While the sex comedy in and of itself is one of the oldest subdivisions of the comedy template, the age of jet travel fused classical threads with high fashion and liberated, guilt-free, postwar decadence. You could blame Norma Jean for standing over that subway grate in The Seven Year Itch. You could blame Billy Wilder, who updated Lubitschian naughtiness for with-it audiences of the era of beat poets and jazz, jazz, jazz. Or you could simply blame the Germans for producing Max Oppenheimer, a.k.a. Max Ophüls, the man responsible for the original postmodern love roundelay, 1951’s La Ronde.
Whatever the circumstances, the call of the box office was strong enough to bring together a number of strange bedfellows: venerated producer Hal Wallis (Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon), screenwriter Edward Anhalt (Becket, Panic in the Streets), and the superstar of surreal, goof-off comedy, Jerry Lewis, none of whom would seem, at first blush, to be the kinds of guys you’d expect to sign up for a slamming-doors farce like Boeing Boeing.
Tony Curtis, who’d already played zany for Billy Wilder, Blake Edwards, and Douglas Sirk, tended to specialize in double-take and spit-take comedy between “problem” pictures, westerns, and other serious types of films, ever the debonair playboy who would just as soon die as get his hair mussed, but who was always getting into trouble just the same. He’s a natural as Bernard Lawrence, an American journalist in Paris who struggles to manage affairs with three airline stewardesses (none of whom are aware of the other two) while maintaining a gargantuan apartment that’s bigger than all the domestic spaces in every Eric Rohmer film put together. (You can doubt the implausible schemes and split-second timing in the farce, but the real estate may be the most outrageous gag of them all.) Bernard is joined, against his will and better judgment, by a journalist compatriot, Robert Reed (Lewis), who gradually learns the ropes and concocts a scheme to annex the frantic lifestyle and living quarters of his far more athletic mentor.
The whole thing fairly flies by, but if you start picking nits with the construction, you’ll feel like it’s taking up your whole day. Anhalt and veteran television director John Rich (The Dick Van Dyke Show, All in the Family) tend to operate, ha ha, on different planes, paradoxically to each other’s benefit. Anhalt, translating the work of French playwright Marc Camoletti, indulges his tendency for flowery dialogue, but the film really needs Rich’s machine-tooled blocking and choreography to keep the soufflé from collapsing on itself. Curtis and Lewis actually don’t have the best chemistry in the world, but they make up for it with impeccably timed footwork and precise gestures. Bringing up the rear echelon is legendary character actress Thelma Ritter, who is, sadly, not too funny, mostly because she looks to be in poorer health than her put-upon maid claims in every other line of dialogue. (She passed away in 1969, making this her third-to-last film.)
Lewis had been pulling silly faces his whole life by the time he made Boeing Boeing, and he would continue to do so for many years to come, but the film is something of a change of pace for him, as Reed is, by default, the straight man to Lawrence’s exasperated lothario. Without the funny faces, Lewis still gives a marvelous performance, dancing with every step, exuding a graceful there-ness to rival the likes of Marlon Brando or Fred Astaire. And when he turns on the woo to liberate the three fiancées of their uniforms or bathrobes, you’d be a fool to think it’s not working.
A French play, a television director, a screenwriter who worked in every genre under the sun, one of the original prestige producers, two stars who were so big by that point that the only way to bill them correctly was to display their names on the same title card, in a rotating circle—what could go wrong? Not much, as it turns out. Boeing Boeing is no Playtime; heck, it’s not even on par with Jean-Daniel Pollet’s “Rue Saint-Denis” segment of the 1965 omnibus Six in Paris. But given that most of the period’s groovy comedies of the allegedly “grown up” variety have aged like mayonnaise, it’s nice that this one retains some of its youthful exuberance.
Olive's image for this vividly colored '60s roundelay is unsurprisingly eye-popping. You can pretty much figure this is what Mad Men fans are in for with upcoming seasons; the main apartment set is a giant tapestry of zesty primary colors, all in fresh paint and brand new furnishings. The rest of the city is a purposefully drab palette. There's a little posterization among the solids in Olive's transfer, and a little haze here and there, but no trouble with edge enhancement. The soundtrack suggests a mix of hardware between location shots and soundstages, and the occasional intrusion of ADR, but the dialogue is crystal clear, and the sound effects resonate pleasingly, which is important, given how many doors are slammed and props are tossed about.
Are chapter stops extra?
A barebones platter gives a rare glimpse of Jerry Lewis playing it relatively straight, and an always-welcome view of Tony Curtis as an overworked bad boy.