Gary Cooper and Audrey Hepburn in "Love in the Afternoon"

“Love in the Afternoon,” a 1957 movie directed and co-written by Billy Wilder, is entertaining in several ways, but it is also seriously flawed. The principal flaw was in the casting, no matter how good the names Gary Cooper, Audrey Hepburn, and Maurice Chevalier, may sound when listed in the same credits.

Audrey Hepburn

The film, which is said to have been Wilder’s paean to director Ernst Lubitsch, is a subtle, witty, lightly slapstick romantic comedy concerning a Parisian private detective, his cellist daughter, and an international playboy with whom they both become involved. Detective Claude Chavasse (Chevalier) is engaged by Monsieur X, a cuckolded husband played by John McGiver — later the accommodating jewelry salesman in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” — who wants to know who his wife has been seeing. Chavasse determines that the guilty party is millionaire Frank Flannagan (Cooper) a globe-hopping businessman with at least a girl in every port. Chavasse’s daughter, Ariane (Hepburn), who studies cello at a Paris conservatory, is fascinated by her father’s profession and questions him incessantly about his clients and, in the face of his reticence, snoops in his files. After she overhears Chavasse’s client declare that he will go to the Hotel Ritz and shoot Flannagan, she feels compelled to warn the target — whose photos in the files have beguiled her.

John McGiver

Ariane, after getting no satisfaction from the police, goes to the hotel herself and makes her way into Flannagan’s room just in time to allow the paramour to escape so that the husband discovers Flannagan with Ariane instead. This encounter, of course, is the beginning of a series of meetings between Flannagan and Ariane, but she refuses to give him any information about her identity, and he takes to calling her “thin girl.” As is his habit, Flannagan eventually leaves Paris for other resorts, and it appears that the “affair” — to all appearances a chaste one — is over. But about a year later, he is back in Paris and the two accidentally meet at an opera house and the liaison, such as it is, continues, with Ariane filling Flannagan with fibs about the many men in her life — many of them based on things she has read in her father’s case files. Flannagan doesn’t know whether to believe these stories or not; that, plus the lack of any information about the girl, increasingly agitates him.

Maurice Chevalier and Audrey Hepburn

This being a movie, Flannagan and Monsieur X happen to meet in a Turkish bath and Monsieur X — still clueless about his wife’s dalliance — discerns the broad outlines of what is troubling Flannagan and recommends that  he engage Chavasse to find out the truth about the “thin girl.” Flannagan does so, and Chavasse quickly figures out that the girl Flannagan is talking about is Ariane. Since Chavasse, through his investigations,  is intimately acquainted with Flannagan’s track record with women — kiss them and run — he reveals the truth to Flannagan and urges the tycoon to leave Ariane in peace. Flannagan sets out to do that, but at the last moment, as his train is already beginning to roll out of the Paris station, he lifts the tearful Ariane on board and the two ride off in each other’s arms.

There are a couple of leaps in logic in this plot. One is that Chavasse had reported that Monsieur X’s wife was having an affair with Flannagan, but Ariane’s intervention made it appear that Chavasse had been wrong. That raises the question of why Monsieur X would recommend Chavasse as an outstanding detective. Another is that at the end of the film, after Chavasse has tried so hard to convince Flannagan to leave Ariane alone, the old man stands on the train platform with a satisfied smile on his face as his daughter rides off with the playboy.

Billy Wilder

Hepburn, Chevalier, and McGiver are delightful in this film. The big flaw — which was pointed out by critics at the time — was that Gary Cooper, who was 55, was much too old to be a credible partner for Hepburn, who was 28. Cary Grant, 53 at the time, had turned down the role because of the age difference. To complicate matters, Cooper — a friend of Wilder’s — was not in good health. He looked older than he was, and he looked drawn and tired, and that was exacerbated by the fact that the film was in black and white.

Audrey Hepburn and Gary Cooper in the closing scene.

An interesting sidelight is that this film had two endings — one for American theaters and one for European. In the European version, which was released under the title “Ariane,” the audience was left to use its imagination about what took place between Flannagan and Ariane after the train left the station and closing titles started rolling.

In the American version, however, because extramarital sex was at least publicly frowned upon in the mid-1950s, the film closed with a voice-over in which Chevalier explains that Flannagan and Ariane got married and were “serving a life sentence in Manhattan.” The film was a failure in the U.S., but it was a hit in Europe.

MARILYN MONROE

We stumbled across an old TV interview with Tony Curtis recently, and that prompted us to watch “Some Like it Hot,” the 1959 Billy Wilder film, which neither of us had seen. The premise of this movie is that dance band musicians Jerry and Joe, played by Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, inadvertently witness the “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” in a Chicago garage in 1929 and have to leave town to avoid being killed themselves. They do that by dressing in drag and joining an all-girl band that is on its way to an engagement in Florida. (The Florida scenes, curiously, were filmed at the instantly recognizable Hotel Del Coronado in California.) Both of the fugitives are immediately attracted to the zaftig singing ukulele player, Sugar Kane Kowalczyk, played by Marilyn Monroe. Joe (aka Josephine) seizes the advantage with Sugar Kane by posing as the millionaire scion of an oil magnate, and that leads to a steamy encounter aboard a yacht. In that role, Curtis does a hilarious imitation of Cary Grant’s voice. Meanwhile, Jerry (aka Daphne) gets drawn into a relationship with an older sugar daddy, played by Joe E. Brown, in which the gender issue gets a little hazy.

JOE E. BROWN and JACK LEMMON

This film combines violence and overt sexuality with implausible farce. It wouldn’t stir up the pond today, but it was controversial in its own time. Marilyn Monroe’s make-out scene with Tony Curtis – and a couple of very revealing dresses she wore – contributed to the negative reactions the film got in what was clearly a different era than our own. The cast, which also included George Raft and Pat O’Brien deliberately type-cast as fictional mob boss “Spats” Colombo and Chicago police Detective Mulligan, was a talented aggregation and made the odd mix of dark and light themes work very well. The film was shot in black-and-white, which somehow seems appropriate to the ’20s setting, but I read that the decision was driven by the fact that the makeup Lemmon and Curtis wore did not reproduce well in color.

As much as I liked this movie, I was surprised to learn that it has been described in laudatory terms ranging from one of the best comedies ever made to the best comedy ever made, to one of the best pictures ever made. I always look askance at statements like that because of the volume of work – done by a wide variety of artists in a wide variety of times and circumstances – that has to be dismissed to make such an evaluation true. It’s enough to say that “Some Like it Hot” was a very good movie. It won an Oscar and was nominated for seven others, and it won Golden Globe awards for Marilyn Monroe and Jack Lemmon and as best picture of the year.

JOE E. BROWN

A lot has been written about the making of this movie, including accounts of how much trouble Marilyn Monroe caused during the production — which must have particularly irked Wilder, who originally planned to use Mitzi Gaynor in that part. Monroe was chronically late and often couldn’t remember her lines and had to read them from cues concealed on the set. She was also pregnant, and appears overweight – even for her – in several scenes.

On the other hand, it was a rare pleasure to watch a performance by Joe E. Brown, who is largely forgotten now but had a keen sense of comedy and was one of the gentlemen of the film industry.

JOE E. BROWN

Although Bob Hope got a lot of attention for the amount of time he devoted to American servicemen and women, Joe E. Brown did his share, too, particularly during World War II. He was a regular figure at the Hollywood Canteen, where he personally interacted with the visiting troops, and he paid his own way to travel more than 200,000 miles into war zones to entertain, often under difficult conditions. He was often known to repeat his whole show for hospitalized soldiers who had been unable to attend the regular performance. He also carried sacks of mail from servicemen and women back to the United States so that it would be delivered through the regular postal service and reach their families more quickly. Brown and Ernie Pyle were the only two civilians awarded the Bronze Star during World War II.

Joe E. Brown was also one of the few public figures who spoke out in favor of admitting refugee Jewish children into the United States while Adolf Hitler was consolidating his power in Europe. In 1939 – flying in the face of both anti-Semitism and isolationism – Brown appealed to a Congressional committee to pass a bill that would have allowed 20,000 German Jewish children into the U.S. “We shouldn’t be smug about this,” Brown told the committee, “and say that we are getting along all right so let the rest of the world take care of itself.”

Joe E. Brown testifies before the House Immigration and Naturalization Committee, 1939

JAMES CAGNEY

JAMES CAGNEY

Once in a while I put a movie on my Netflix list, and by the time its number comes up I can’t remember why I picked it. That’s what happened with the 1961 movie we watched tonight — a Cold War farce co-written and directed by Billy Wilder. After we watched it, I still couldn’t remember why I picked it.

This film in black and white stars James Cagney, Arlene Francis, Pamela Tiffin, and Horst Bucholz. Although it is full of references to America-Soviet issues of the late ’50s and early ’60s, it was based on a play by the Hungarian dramatist Ferenc Molnar, who died in 1952.

The film concerns C.J. McNamara (Cagney), who heads Coca-Cola’s operations in West Berlin, but yearns to be named head of the company’s European operations, based in London. McNamara’s wife, Phyllis (Francis), is weary of life in foreign cities — and C.J.’s philandering — and pressures him to take her and the two McNamara kinder back to the United States.

ARLENE FRANCIS

ARLENE FRANCIS

C.J.’s life becomes further complicated when his boss in Atlanta dispatches his daughter to Europe to get her away from her latest boyfriend and asks C.J. to take charge of the girl while she’s in Berlin. Scarlett (Tiffin) turns out to be more than the McNamaras can handle, and she meets, mates, and marries Otto Piffl (Bucholz), a fiery East German Communist. C.J. has to keep Otto and the pregnant Scarlett at bay while he figures out how to make the match palatable to the girl’s parents — who set off on a trip to Germany.

However well this film may have worked in 1961, it hits the wall with a thud in 2009. It is riddled with what are now stale allusions to the Soviet Union under Nikita Krushchev as well as a steady diet of really bad jokes. In addition, the movie is a school of overacting. Wilder directs it as though directing the Marx Brothers, but Chico and Harpo are nowhere to be seen, and the actors who are in sight don’t have the chops to make this kind of comedy work. Everyone in the film, except Arlene Francis, seems to have been told that farce is measured by how loudly and how rapidly an actor can speak and how fast they can rush from room to room. Cagney — in his last starring role — opens the film speaking as though he is auctioning tobacco, and he doesn’t let up for an hour and fifty minutes.

PAMELA TIFFIN and HORST BUCHOLZ

PAMELA TIFFIN and HORST BUCHOLZ

Tiffin and Bucholz and a bunch of supporting players do their best to keep up with Cagney’s pitch and pace, and the result is an exhausting experience with too few rewards to make it worthwhile. In one scene there is an attempt at humor in which Cagney threatens Bucholz with half a grapefruit — a pathetically obvious reference to the scene 30 years before in which he pushed a grapefruit into Mae Clarke’s face in “Public Enemy.” It was almost as though Wilder were saying, “You should be laughing at this, folks; after all, this is James Cagney.”

The high points in this train wreck are a scene in which the uncredited Red Buttons, playing an Army MP, does a fleeting imitation of Cagney for C.J.’s benefit, and the closing title in which C.J. is chagrined to get a bottle of Pepsi out of a Coke vending machine. There is also some fascination in watching Cagney and Bucholz work together inasmuch as it is well documented that they hated each other and made no secret of it on the set.

JAMES CAGNEY in the closing frame of "One, Two, Three."

JAMES CAGNEY in the closing frame of "One, Two, Three."