The Apartment: Cynicism & the Rom-Com
One of the comforting elements of romantic comedies is that they tend to telegraph what they’re about early on. I can't think of an instance where, after some last minute plot twist, I suddenly discovered I had been watching a rom-com all along. The audience is meant to be looped in on what kind of story we are watching from the beginning. We are meant to pick up early which two characters we are going to watch end up together. They're the ones in the poster. They're the two lovelorn characters we’re introduced to early in the first act; they’re the cute ones.
Maintaining some kind of tension in a rom-com is challenging when the audience already knows the broad strokes of how the story is going to end. Some adversity to the couple’s pairing needs to be introduced, but the obstacles can’t be anything that would tarnish the characters for us. Egregious moral failings or sincere betrayal by one of the characters would invariably sully the ending for us.
Shakespeare leaned heavily on misunderstanding to achieve tension in his comedies. In Much Ado About Nothing, Claudio is made to think that his betrothed, Hero, has been unfaithful to him on the eve of their wedding, but the truth comes out in the nick of time and all is well. The misunderstanding aside, Hero and Claudio are largely unchanged over the course of the play. They meet, they fall in love quickly, and ultimately wind up together. Neither of them have much of an arc, as such. The more interesting tension in that play is between Beatrice and Benedick: two characters who misunderstand both themselves and one another. Each is deeply cynical about the other, and about love in general. So, when they begin to come together, you actually experience some surprise and see some character growth on their parts. Their cynicism is the primary obstacle to be overcome, but we don’t hold it against them. While cynicism is never admirable, it is always understandable.
Cynicism - in the colloquial sense of the word - can play a useful role in the structure of romantic comedies. Cynicism about love, about marriage, about fidelity, about the world, is always believable because there is plenty in this world we could be cynical about. We also, as the knowing audience for a romantic comedy, are primed to accept love conquering that cynicism in a way we might be more skeptical of in our day to day lives.
I mention all of this because I think cynicism serves a fascinating role in Billy Wilder's 1960 film, The Apartment. Wilder has chosen to tell a love story, but he does so from a perspective that quietly comes off deeply cynical about love, marriage, and fidelity. In truth, the film may have some of the darkest subtext of any romantic comedy I’ve ever seen. None of this is overt, mind you. In terms of tone, the film does feel lighthearted, (as a romantic comedy should) but it doesn’t take that much scrutiny for the themes I have in mind to become apparent. That Wilder tells this kind of story in the way that he does, lends force to how we feel when our romantic leads ultimately transcend the cynical world he has fashioned in order to wind up together.
The film begins with a voice-over from C.C. Baxter, one of the 8,042,783 people living in NYC, and one of the 31,259 employees of Consolidated Life of NY. Baxter works: "On the 18th floor. Ordinary policy department. Premium Accounting division. Section W. Desk 861." Baxter is a small cog in a company so large that the start and end times for the workday are staggered by floor to avoid overwhelming the elevators.
The hook to the film is that Baxter is a bachelor living alone in an apartment near New York's Central Park, who, through circumstances he is a bit mystified by himself, has found himself allowing his apartment to be used by a number of the men working above him at Consolidated Life as a place for them to meet their mistresses. We learn that Baxter had initially believed these men, when they said they were only looking for a place to change, or such, after work. But, by the time we meet him in the story, Baxter is fully aware of what the men are doing, and even facilitates their trysts while feeling helpless to say 'no' to superiors that control his future with the company.
Our window into Baxter’s life and orbit begins as he is standing on the street outside his apartment, waiting for Mr. Kirkeby and his date to be finished for the evening. As Mr. Kirkeby and his date are heading out we hear the following exchange:
Mr. Kirkeby: “Where do you live?”
Sylvia: “I told you, with my mother.”
Mr. Kirkeby: “Well, where does she live?”
Sylvia: “179th Street in the Bronx.”
Mr. Kirkeby: “Alright, I’ll take you to the subway.”
Sylvia: “Like hell you will; you’ll buy me a cab.”
Mr. Kirkeby: “Why do all you dames have to live in the Bronx?”
Sylvia: “You mean you bring other girls up here?”
Mr. Kirkeby: “Certainly not. I’m a happily married man.”
This exchange is fairly representative of the men that Baxter is enabling: married men, secretly dating numerous women, while feigning devotion to the woman they happen to be with at the time, and doing everything in their power to protect their respectability in public. The film is coy about what the men are doing with their dates while they are in Baxter’s apartment, but we can presume something more than hand-holding.
Once Mr. Kirkeby and his date move along, we proceed inside where Baxter sets about cleaning up the remnants of Mr. Kirkeby’s evening and making himself a comparatively drab frozen dinner to eat in front of the TV. That same evening, shortly after getting into bed, Baxter is roused by a phone call from Mr. Dobisch, who got lucky at a nearby bar, (with a woman that is clearly intended to be a fairly mean-spirited caricature of Marilyn Monroe) and needs Baxter to clear out of his apartment for a while. What little fight Baxter puts up wilts as Mr. Dobisch makes clear that he won’t be speaking so glowingly about Baxter to Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) in Personnel if Baxter doesn’t continue to play along. Baxter caves and ends up spending most of the evening on a park bench waiting to go home.
Jack Lemmon threads the needle on C.C. Baxter as a character that gets regularly pushed around by the men using his apartment, but without portraying him as so meek or charmless that he stops being believable as a romantic lead. The scenario Baxter finds himself in is interesting, though, because of how deeply it bakes ubiquitous infidelity into the world of the film, and how at ease Baxter is with his role in that infidelity. Baxter exhibits no moral qualms about what he is enabling. He is beleaguered by the logistics involved, and managing his neighbors’ misperceptions of him as a lothario - having a different girl up to his apartment every night - but he seems not to struggle at all with the moral implications of what he’s helping these men do to their wives.
Dominos rapidly fall for Baxter at work after his night sleeping in the park. In the morning, as Baxter is arriving at the office, we’re introduced to elevator girl Fran Kubelik, (Shirley MacClaine) who Baxter and many of the men in the office are infatuated with. As written, Fran could be taken as a fairly straightforward “Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” but Shirley MacLaine manages to wring quite a bit more depth out of the role than that. She is undoubtedly defined for us in the film through her relationships to Baxter and Mr. Sheldrake, and her brother-in-law, and the other men in the office who lust after her, but we do get glimpses of a genuine inner life to the character. Shirley MacLaine would get an Oscar nomination for her performance, in part because of how genuine and rich she was able to make Ms. Kubelik beyond what was written on the page. Fran is presented to us through a male prism, but her love and pain are real in a way that transcends merely servicing the male characters’ story arcs.
Once at his desk, Baxter is summoned to see Mr. Sheldrake in Personnel. He takes a triumphant ride up to Sheldrake’s office in Ms. Kubelik elevator, certain of his imminent promotion. His rude awakening is a joy, as no one plays rising comic panic like Jack Lemmon.
In Mr. Sheldrake's office, Baxter is put through the wringer. He sits down, certain that the positive reviews he has received from the men using his apartment has secured him a promotion. He is briefly pleased to discover that Sheldrake did receive all of the glowing praise, but is crestfallen to discover that Sheldrake had seen through it immediately. For a tortured moment, Sheldrake lets Baxter think that he is about to call the vice squad on Baxter and these other men. At the height of Baxter's panic, Sheldrake reveals that what he actually wants is to use Baxter's apartment for himself. Baxter is relieved. What's one more bad apple? It seems he is still in line for a promotion. He even gains the confidence to ask Ms. Kubelik out for a date that night, to which she agrees.
This puts all of the pieces of the story into place. Of course, we discover, it is Fran that Sheldrake wants to bring to Baxter's apartment. In an emotional scene in the back corner of a Chinese restaurant, we learn that they had just had a fling over the summer, while Sheldrake's wife and family were away in the country. Despite all of the assurances from him that he would leave his wife, their relationship ended right when his family came back to the city. Fran meets Sheldrake ahead of her date with Baxter, but just to tell him that she doesn't want to see him. Sheldrake replies that he wanted to see her to tell her he has spoken to his lawyer about drawing up the paperwork for his divorce. It will take some time, but he has begun the process of leaving his wife. Fran initially begs off. She doesn't believe him; she didn't ask him to leave his wife, she still has another date that night. But, she loves him, and leaves with him.
Sheldrake gets Fran; Baxter gets a promotion and his own office. He was hurt getting stood up by Ms. Kubelik, but tells her he understands. This is how things stand for a time, but the story takes an oddly dark turn on Christmas Eve. At the office Christmas party, Ms. Kubelik finds out from Sheldrake’s drunken secretary that she is just one in a long line of Mr. Sheldrake's mistresses. Baxter finds Ms. Kubelik as she’s recovering from this bad news, and he surreptitiously discovers in speaking with her that she is who Mr. Sheldrake has been taking to his apartment. That evening, Ms. Kubelik tells Sheldrake what she's learned, and he makes a cursory effort to patch things up before giving her $100 as a Christmas gift and running to catch his train home to his family.
Baxter spends the evening out at a bar - drinking and killing time while waiting until Mr. Sheldrake and Ms. Kubelik are finished with his apartment for the evening. Baxter gets picked up by a married woman, Mrs. MacDougall, who’s looking for company on Christmas while her husband is in jail. Baxter decides that he might as well take her back to his apartment like everybody else does. When he gets there, he sobers up real quick, discovering that Ms. Kubelik has taken all of the sleeping pills in his cabinet in an attempt to end her life. These are not your typical rom-com plot twists, to say the least.
Baxter and the doctor next door, Dr. Dreyfus, are able to rouse Ms. Kubelik, and Baxter is charged by the doctor with the task of keeping an eye on Ms. Kubelik for a couple of days to insure she recovers and doesn't make another attempt. There is a brief scare when returning from the grocery store where Baxter is alerted to a smell of gas coming from his apartment, but he finds that Ms. Kubelik had turned on his stove without lighting the burner.
This setup is what gives Baxter and Ms. Kubelik a chance to bond. They play cards, they eat together, and they talk. To commiserate with her, he shares that he had planned to shoot himself over a girl once, but was thankfully saved at the last minute by happenstance, and eventually got over the girl. We do see them start to grow closer, but their time together is cut short by the arrival of Ms. Kubelik’s brother-in-law, looking to bring his missing sister-in-law home. This next plot point is not made at all plain: before Fran tells her brother-in-law why she needed a doctor and had to have her stomach pumped, (because she took too many sleeping pills) he seems to be briefly under the impression that she may have gotten an abortion. He doesn’t like the truth much better and punches Baxter out before leaving with Fran.
Baxter returns to work sporting a sizable black eye, now working as an assistant to Mr. Sheldrake, but he quits when Sheldrake asks him once again for the key to his apartment. That night, at the same Chinese restaurant for New Year’s Eve, Sheldrake tells Fran what Baxter did. She realizes she’s with the wrong person and runs to Baxter’s apartment to find him. As she’s about to knock on the door, we hear a shot ring out. For a brief moment, while Fran pounds on the door, we’re allowed to consider the possibility that Baxter took his own life, but he opens the door with a freshly foaming bottle of champagne in his hand. Relief.
Baxter and Ms. Kubelik wind up together, making plans for their future, dealing out a hand of cards as the credits roll. We leave the film believing that Baxter and Ms. Kubelik will be fine, and our cynical world has been conquered for a time. This is the comfort of romantic comedy, abandoning cynicism for a love-conquers-all happy ending.
A cynical audience would note that aside from Dr. Dreyfus and his wife, every relationship we’ve seen in the film has been an unfaithful one. Every man was fooling around behind his wife’s back, and every woman was, or had been, knowingly seeing a married man. Ms. Kubelik was willing to break up M.r Sheldrake’s marriage, and Baxter was all set to go home with Mrs. MacDougall. There is every reason to be skeptical of what the future holds for Baxter and Ms. Kubelik, and The Apartment is aware of that, having just shown us that world. But, it also welcomes us in setting cynicism and skepticism aside to share in the happiness of the new couple.
As we mentioned at the beginning, cynicism can help serve as a point of tension in a romantic comedy, but conversely, what a rom-com can also offer us as an audience is an opportunity to reject cynicism. Not to blindly and naively pretend that people and the world are better than they are, but to take a good look at the world as The Apartment shows it to us, and choose to trust that, despite it all, Baxter and Kubelik will be fine. Engaging honestly with the cynical view of things can offer us a chance to recognize that while there are Mr. Sheldrakes, Mr. Kirkebys, and Mr. Dobischs in the world, not everyone is like them, and sometimes, for the right two people, things really can turn out alright.
Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in New Windsor, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.