DVD Review: The Odd Couple (1968) -- The Paramount Centennial Collection 2-Disc Set

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As Larry King notes during the opening mini-documentary included on the second disc of Paramount Centennial Collection’s seventh release—1968’s The Odd Couple-- every comedy that Neil Simon wrote is based on tragedy.

At first, this seems to be the type of observation that takes you aback until you stop and realize how deeply personal the material truly is when you start taking a mental inventory of one of the twentieth century’s greatest playwrights.

And sure enough, the pathos, the heartbreak, and the tragedy was always evident just below the surface whether it was in stories involving suicidal attempts, divorce, the breakup of the family unit, and more but the reason we don't dwell to strongly on the thematic subtext and dark plot-lines (wherein all of the aforementioned are included within the opening ten minutes of The Odd Couple) is because he drowns everyone's sorrow into unrelenting laughter.

Simply put, sometimes when you watched Neil Simon's work you're not sure if you're crying because it's funny or if you're laughing because it hits so close to home in decades of plays and films that have managed to continually delight and inspire in a way that several works of the twentieth century theatre no longer can, having aged beyond repair.

Although my favorite Neil Simon play is still Lost in Yonkers and cinematically, I have the greatest weakness for director Herbert Ross’s adaptation of The Goodbye Girl-- every time I have the opportunity to watch either Barefoot in the Park or The Odd Couple, I take it without a second thought.

And granted, while the unceasingly charming Barefoot does tend to drag a little in the repetitive gag of the never-ending staircase which leads to the top floor apartment occupied by lovesick newlyweds Robert Redford and Jane Fonda—The Odd Couple seems timelier than ever in its tale of two polar opposite divorced men who decide to share an apartment in the hopes of saving money by splitting utilities, food bills, and of course the rent right down the middle.

By now, Neil Simon's comedy classic-- The Odd Couple-- which first began as a Tony award-winning theatrical smash by director Mike Nichols (The Graduate, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) before the wildly popular film gave way to a successful ABC spinoff series, is perhaps best known for the iconic pairing of its two leads-- Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau.

Much like Abbott and Costello or Laurel and Hardy-- the two men who first collaborated in Billy Wilder's The Fortune Cookie (which garnered Walter Matthau an Academy Award) were a comedy dream team who played off each other marvelously and whose real life devoted friendship transferred remarkably well on screen.

True interpersonal chemistry isn't something that you can learn at the Actors’ Studio or even in a high school advanced placement class and unlike the extremely profitable business of online matchmaking based on “personality profiles” and in-depth testing as we’re always reminded in the ads-- the bottom line is there is no bottom line.

People either click or they don't and Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau clicked so famously that long before the term “bromance” became a pop culture favorite, they epitomized it in a series of films that audiences watched in the same way as we do with love stories. Yet instead of waiting for the guy and the girl to “meet cute” in popular rom-com fodder, we just couldn’t wait for Lemmon and Matthau to share the screen together--other actors (no matter how incredibly talented they were)—be damned.

And the film version of The Odd Couple works this to the best advantage even as the opening credits begin as Neil Simon, nor the movie’s director Gene Saks, do not waste any time establishing who they are individually, leading us to believe we’re watching thinly disguised versions of good friends Lemmon and Matthau where their individual characteristics were magnified by a hundred for comedic effect.

It begins on what still seems to be quite a startlingly depressing note as Jack Lemmon's Felix Ungar-- having just been dumped by his wife—roams the New York City streets in painfully feeble attempts to kill himself. Meanwhile, Felix's poker buddies headed up by Walter Matthau's Oscar Madison begin worrying about their uncharacteristically late and usually incredibly punctual, neat-freak friend.

When Felix’s ex phones Oscar and he learns the news, the guys decide that the best way to deal with the situation would be-- in quintessential masculine form-- by not talking about it in the slightest after the hypochondriacal Felix arrives, having pulled both his back and his neck while trying to cash in his chips (so to speak) before he hit the poker game.

Having been recently divorced himself, Oscar decides to invite Felix to live with him and predictably, the compulsively obsessive cleaning and cooking Felix (essentially taking on the role of wife in their new relationship) quickly drives the overwhelming slob Oscar bananas.

This culminates in a series of classic confrontations, arguments, and sequences where the two initially tried to find common ground before declaring various versions of war that reaches its greatest battle following one of the film’s most hysterical and memorable sequences as the sexually frustrated, hot-to-trot Oscar invites two foxy British neighbors over for a double dinner date.

As the irreplaceable Pigeon Sisters (portrayed by Monica Evans and Carole Shelley as Cecily and Gwendolyn respectively) following their triumph on the stage before the same genuinely funny actresses reprised their roles in the ABC sitcom—it’s wonderful to see the way that the presence of female company throws an unexpected bomb into the mix.

Trying their best-- like most couples-- not to let their guests realize just how ticked off they are with one another, the dinner with the Pigeons which moves from awkward, flirtatious banter to a three hankie fest when Felix pulls out photos of his ex-family and waterworks erupt which helps breathe more life into that admittedly claustrophobic and stage-like apartment.

Perhaps in an attempt not to mess with a sure thing or to use the old adage—“if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”-- very little was changed in the adaptation from stage to screen aside from Oscar winning, bona-fide movie star Jack Lemmon taking over in the role originated by Art Carney and Neil Simon’s addition to include a few walk-and-talk or outside sequences that find the guys out in the New York streets.

However, despite a few obligatory cinematic efforts to remind you it’s a film, overall and much like Barefoot in the Park and indeed director Gene Saks’ hilarious plays turned films such as Cactus Flower (also with Matthau) and Butterflies are Free—you ultimately feel as though, like—several journalists have noted-- you’re watching a filmed version of the Broadway stage production by Mike Nichols.

For as Roger Ebert argued-- even in making the switch from one medium to the other-- much like the theater—the set’s “downstage side is always left bare,” as he points out that, “Carrying this stage orientation even farther, director Gene Saks has left the same wall out of Oscar Madison's apartment! Surely one of the advantages of the movies is that you can move the camera around and eventually show all four walls of the set.”

However one of the reasons for this could very well have been that as we ascertain from Paramount Centennial Collection’s featurette “Inside The Odd Couple,” it appears as though Gene Saks was possibly just one part of a figuratively three-headed director alongside the incredibly talented Neil Simon and producer Howard W. Koch. For, as numerous interviewees including Walter Matthau’s son Charlie acknowledges-- Gene Saks is one of the most underrated directors and a man for whom his father had a tremendous relationship, having been friends and students together. Moreover, Saks may have been ultimately unable to express his desire when Simon and Koch had more complete control of the reins.

Yet, aside from the film’s inability to completely shed the idea that we’re watching a full-blown movie instead of sitting front row, dead center during the play’s phenomenally successful 1965 Broadway play which ran for 966 performances (except this time with the beloved Jack Lemmon—whom this reviewer has adored since Some Like It Hot and The Apartment), The Odd Couple is truly one of the greatest film comedies of the 1960s.

This is especially vital when you realize that at least here in the states-- was an era most known for the beginning of the antihero and anti-establishment movement of Easy Rider and Bonnie and Clyde, outdated and overblown expensive musicals (Matthau in Hello, Dolly!), and beach blanket or phony party movies.

A highly sophisticated and still fascinatingly timeless work especially since divorce rates in America have climbed considerably since Neil Simon first discovered the seed of the idea when his brother Danny (upon whom he modeled Felix) moved in with his good friend Roy Gerber while in the midst of a divorce—The Odd Couple has inspired countless adaptations, re-interpretations for both genders, various ethnicities and the idea of the neat-freak and the slob forced to spend time in close proximity shows up again and again.

Moreover, it’s still the most coveted plot set-up for comedic fodder—when used at its best for movies like Planes, Trains, and Automobiles and at its worst in What Happens in Vegas—there’s still no replacing The Odd Couple, mostly because more than anything and even Neal Hefti’s Grammy nominated instantly recognizable theme music, it will bring an immediate smile to your face when you imagine the two leads together in top form.

Quoted by Allan Hunter by the star in his book Walter Matthau, the actor shares his serendipitous gratitude and involvement as “that situation which comes once in a lifetime when the actor and the part blend just right,” in a role that was handed to him in script form by Neil Simon at a party who “pushed two acts of a play into my hands saying, ‘I’ve written this for you.’”

And although Matthau jokes, he “didn’t know who the hell he was,” he read it regardless and stated that aside from his first impression that it “looked like one long string of gags,” what eventually drew him in was the fact that he “saw a spine in it,” which he fought tooth and nail to keep while they tested the material on the road. Whereas, Matthau continues Simon wanted to continue striving for a laugh-a-minute pace by throwing out any lines that didn't result in uproar, eventually he gave in to Matthau’s dead-on pleas “so that we didn’t push the audience too hard and we could give them a story,” (57-58).

It's this touching anecdote that shows another side to Matthau as in the set, his son Charlie (who is interviewed throughout the numerous featurettes along with Jack Lemmon’s son Chris with whom he engages in a nostalgic and touching film commentary) quotes his dad as saying that the work had the “plutonium he needed to become a star." He meant that it would allow him to play off the anger underneath the humor much like as he describes W.C. Fields. However, in the end it was Matthau’s instinct to keep the heart of the material in the right place that ensured it lived on much longer than most film comedies.

And when you couple this attempt to engage and garner empathy with Lemmon’s belief that comedy and drama “should fit together seamlessly” (as Chris Lemmon states in opposition to the rule that they be played separately), you’re left with what Mr. Jack Lemmon called “magic time,” or that far too infrequent moment when he says that another actor works with you instead of “at you.”

For, as Michael Freedland continues Lemmon’s statement—in a case like seeing Lemmon and Matthau together—“when the other actor does look, that can be a magic moment,” (106) and The Odd Couple is a movie full of those and so much more in its celebration of one our most enduring and favorite couples both on screen and off.