Contemplatin’ With The Boys

Boys’ Night Out from 1962 is an early entry in a 1960s American film genre I am calling the Marriage-Straying Comedy.  It’s when a (usually) married guy contemplates adultery but he doesn’t quite get there.  He pulls back, remains faithful to his wife, and by film’s end all extramarital temptation is chastely swept under the bed.  You might call it the libido interruptus plot:  A lusty chick is dangled before a lust-ridden male like a bag of peanuts before a squirrel, only to have temptation jerked away at the last minute.  No doubt to the chagrin of the squirrel, but at least he can take comfort in staying loyal to Mrs. Squirrel back at the tree.

You can look, but don’t THINK of touching

The 1950s had some proto-straying comic entries such as Tunnel of Love (in which tempted Richard Widmark demonstrated he could not play comedy), or The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker, in which Clifton Webb (who demonstrated he could) juggles two wives, two families, and a whole lotta innuendo.  But the dam gates burst in the 1960s.  Beginning with The Apartment (Jack Lemmon’s title domicile is used by his married employers for after-hours sexcapades), the decade gave us a slew of toe-dipping crypto-libertines in  Divorce American Style, How to Commit Marriage, A Guide for the Married Man, How Sweet It Is, Prudence and the Pill, Marriage on the Rocks, Not With My Wife, You Don’t!, and, a bit of an oddity, How to Murder Your Wife, in which hubby considers bumping off the wife rather than merely cuckolding her.  Although it turns out he didn’t mean it.  Not really.  Or something.  Never mind the toe, this fellow barely dips the the nail.

The 1960s had similar female-straying comedies such as Sunday in New York, Sex and the Single Girl, Under the Yum Yum Tree, That Touch of Mink, and Bedtime Story, in which guys contemplate seducing lady-like virgins sans vicar’d approval, or virgins contemplate hopping into bed likewise, but they all end up marrying in the end.  There was also the swinging-bachelor comedy such as Come Blow Your Horn with swingin’ Frank Sinatra swingin’ between three unsuspecting lovelies, or Boeing Boeing, with Tony Curtis and Jerry Lewis jugglin’ three oblivious girlfriends, with no one getting married, but no one getting, visibly, laid, either.  And then there’s Kiss Me, Stupid, in which Billy Wilder goes All The Way, and just about everyone in the film gets laid with a non-spouse. This one was the most daring, and yet the most unpleasant in how its characters were portrayed, one and all, as little better than roving sets of gonads.  You got the sense from it that Billy Wilder hates people.

In short, American 1960s comedies were discovering The (Contemplated) Joys of Sex Outside of Marriage, a topic not explored since the glorious pre-Code days.  But now the filmmakers were exploring it much more smarmily, with much winking and nodding and pop-eyed quivers.  Yet why go through all the trouble of this extramarital hanky-panky set-up and then not go through with it?  Why dangle but not dive?  Could it in part be a nod from the dying studio system to the nearly-toothless-but-still-carrying-a-bite Production Code?  Was it a reaction to the dominant Leave-It-To-Beaver philosophy of the 1950s that the following decade was not yet ready to challenge?  Or was it a case of Hollywood, as usual, having not just its cake but the cookie jar, too, albeit leaving both safely untouched on the shelf?  You know, play both sides of the bed so those wonderful people out there in the great American dark end up titillated but not shocked—so shocked that they decide not to shell out shekels for a movie ticket, but stay at home.  And watch Leave It To Beaver instead.

In part I think the Marriage-Straying Comedy was Hollywood’s response to the wave of post-war, sexually frank foreign films brought to U.S. shores, such as Malle’s The Lovers and Antonioni’s La Notte, exposing us to the sophisticated, how-triste-it-is European mindset.  It may also have been a sly nod to the magazine Playboy and its buoyant-bachelor philosophy (one character in Boys’ Night Out finds a ‘Playmate’ magazine in his son’s lunchbox; he and his friends pore over it like Cortez’s men gaping with a wild surmise).  Playboy was big in 1950s American culture.  It was a salute to the satyr aesthetic, a swipe against that decade’s emphasis on domesticity and gray flannel suits.  And Playboy wasn’t alone:  Along with Betty Friedan and 2nd-wave feminism was Cosmopolitan magazine’s Helen Gurley Brown, representing the distaff side of liberation.  Just to show that whenever a man goes straying, there’s a woman willing to accommodate his drift.  Up to a point.

That liminal point is what Boys’ Night Out is about.  Kim Novak is a post-graduate sociology student researching the “adolescent daydreams” of the American suburban male.  (When her academic advisor warns her about the dangers a ‘nice girl’ can get into by studying human wolves, Novak replies that nice girls must learn to keep the wolves at bay—otherwise, how can they stay nice?)  The lupine quartet under study are four Connecticut men who work in Manhattan (the daily commute is a big part of the film), and who get the idea, from one of their bosses, to set up jointly in the city a cool bachelor pad housing a hot blonde.  Three of the men—Tony Randall, Howard Morris, Howard Duff—are (very) married; the fourth, James Garner, is divorced and says little about it (we didn’t like each other, he explains); and already you sense the change from classic-era Hollywood morality.  The Code did not sanction divorce, certainly not as glibly as Garner’s divorcé does.  But now divorce is just a side note, dismissed casually, the marriage merely acknowledged as having happened, like a bad cold.  Only apparently less memorable.

For research purposes Novak arranges to become the kept blonde, serving as the joint object of desire for her four keepers.  What results is easily guessed at:  When she’s not recording conversations for her doctorate, Novak ends up filling a (non-sexual) daydreamed need for each man, one he doesn’t get in his marriage.  Randall’s wife always completes his sentences, never letting him talk, so all he wants is someone to listen.  Duff likes to tinker around the house, but his wife thinks DIY-ing is declassé, so all he wants is to drill and hammer.  Morris’s wife is on a diet and forces her reluctant hubby to join in (his three nasty sons get to scarf down chocolate pudding while Morris is served yogurt), so all he wants is someone to cook real food.  All of which Novak obligingly does.

No sex, as Miriam Hopkins memorably declared in (pre-Code) Design for Living; only Miriam didn’t mean it.  Here, it’s meant.  Not even Garner lays the lady (she slams the door on him; of course he ends up proposing).  We had the tease and the tempting; but now it’s Pullback Time, as the guys admit that not only are their evenings spent in platonic contentment, they prefer it.  (So much for Playmate surmising.)  However, their suspicious wives have hired a detective (oleaginous Fred Clark) to find out What’s What In The City.  Along with Garner’s sniffy mom (yes, Mom still keeps watch over her wandering boy), the gals march into Novak’s pad the same time the guys do; trailing behind are Clark and Ruth McDevitt as a nosy next-door neighbor who’s been spying on the pad’s goings-on, with mirrors and a stethoscope (her bits are the funniest).  Pandemonium ensues, but all ends happily.  At least we’re meant to think so.

This stuff is slickly done, I’ll say that.  Underneath the material may be squirmy and squalid, but on top it’s all bright, eye-popping primary colors and up-to-date fashions and décor.  The wives obviously live well; their clothes are pricey, their make-up is expertly applied, their Connecticut houses are filled to the ceiling with modern appliances (and the NYC pad is FABulous).  Everything in the film looks slightly unreal and clean, like shiny new plastic; the throw pillows are so intensely colored they jump off the screen.  The wives’ hairstyles are straight from the salon, the purses, gloves, shoes, and hats match, the walls and rugs are spotless, the plants and statuary gleam, no one ever washes anything, it’s all so damn pristine.  And yet all any character can think about is Doing the Dirty.  Could one be a reaction to the other?  Well, who’da thought?

But the film, as with others of its ilk, is dishonest.  The adulterer manqué is always yanked back from the brink (by his guardian angel?), with no feelings hurt, no scars left behind.  Did this reflect how people were really behaving?  In 1968 John Updike’s novel Couples showed, in graphic detail, how The Swinging Sixties of popular mythos was already swingin’ and swappin’.  Contemplation had gone well beyond the brink.  Yet couples were still marrying, settling down, and producing offspring in the suburbs, and the decade’s biggest movie hit was The Sound of Music.  Did people, at least in the U.S., want to be thought of as swank and worldly, but not too knowing?  Did they hope to hold onto a certain kind of innocence?  (Considering what the culture is like now, perhaps they were right.)  Was Hollywood trying to attract coastal elites with edgier, smirkier stuff, while reassuring flyover country that life hadn’t changed that much?  Oh, but it had, it had.

By the 1970s this kind of slick plastic will-we-or-won’t-we-but-let’s-not-really movie was dying out.  Audiences wanted something grittier, they wanted characters to sound like human beings and not like sit-coms where everyone throws zingers, Neil-Simon style.  You still did get sit-com adultery, in films like A Touch of Class or Plaza Suite (the latter by Neil Simon), with zingy one-liners and pratfalls, but there was also An Unmarried Woman with the divorced heroine choosing to remain single, as does the hero of Kramer vs Kramer.  Movies were no longer reacting to Leave-It-To-Beaver Land; that dam had long burst.  The unmarried women were no longer virgins, the divorced men were no longer blasé, the moms were no longer keeping watch.  Movie characters, including Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, glibly admitted to affairs—were even proud to do so.  Something had changed.  It may be that movies were now reflecting people and not the other way around.

Still, Boys’ Night Out entertains.  Randall has great timing, Morris is sweet, Duff is sincere.  Isolated scenes are fun:  Jesse Royce Landis as the watchful Mom gets drunk and leads the morality march into the bachelor pad, all flags flying; Morris’s kids are so horrible you hope he’ll get hungry enough to eat them; Fred Clark wears awful wigs and looks oily enough to have slept in margarine.  I liked saggy, flabby Oscar Homolka as the academic advisor, with a face as creased and wrinkled like the surface of boiled milk; he’s so adorably grungy in contrast to the film.  And McDevitt is a scream; her nose twitches like a prurient chipmunk’s, one who’s gotten hold of that Playmate magazine and can’t wait to surmise more.  Landis is also very funny, in a boozy grande-damish way, heightening her line readings with a vinegar spritz.  Plus she looks great in those odd hats of the era, they give her face a sense of mischief, the way her eyes look askance beneath.  There’s nothing like being able to wear clothes.

Taking note of these Sixties toe-dipping films, one more wild theory occurred to me as to what could have influenced the adultery comedy.  Shifts in culture, yes:  Political and social upheavals, 1950s blowback, keeping up with the Europeans.  Yet how much of this 1960s marital comedy could have been influenced by Elizabeth Taylor and her marital shenanigans?  Taylor was already a big movie star when she made headlines by busting up Debbie Reynolds’s marriage in 1958; then she made even bigger headlines when she humped Richard Burton during the making of Cleopatra.  EVERYONE knew of Liz’s indiscretions; she was world-notorious.  Did she loosen up world morals, too (or at least those of her fellow Americans)?  Could she have made adultery trendy and chic?  Or perhaps contemplatable, movie-wise?  Liz, at least, had the balls to go through with it, and she went through with it twice.  No pulling back from the brink here.  Whatta dame.  Yes, she was indecent, but she sure was honest.

Bonus Clip:  Here’s the original, smirking trailer for Boys’ Night Out.  It’s literally blowing a whistle in it  “Deliciously dedicated to the greatest entertainment on earth!”:

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