Monday, January 28, 2013

Under the Yum Yum Tree (Sonnis/Columbia, 1963)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched one of my recent recordings from TCM, a 1963 sex farce from Columbia called Under the Yum Yum Tree. I was a bit surprised that George Axelrod had nothing to do with this (Axelrod’s two best-known films are The Seven-Year Itch and another Lemmon vehicle, How to Murder Your Wife — in which, as in Yum Yum Tree, Lemmon plays a swinging bachelor with an apartment elaborately designed and mechanized to facilitate the seduction of any female unlucky enough to find herself there) because in its combination of titillation and silliness about sex it’s very much in Axelrod’s mold. After it was over Charles categorized it as “a one-joke movie” but it’s really more of a two-joke movie. Hogan (Jack Lemmon) is an independently wealthy youngish slimeball who busies himself running the Centaur Apartments — the place’s logo is a life-size statue of a centaur with Lemmon’s head —and renting out the units for below market rates ($75 per month, which was cheap even in 1963) to nubile young women he plans to seduce. The other joke centers around college girl Robin Austin (Carol Lynley) — rather oddly, and androgynously (even though there’s nothing androgynous about Lynley’s appearance!), referred to as “Rob” through much of the dialogue — who has decided not to let her boyfriend, graduate student Dave Manning (the terminally wimpy Dean Jones), rush her into marriage by getting her to have sex with him. So she hatches a plan that the two will live together but not sleep together — did the college drama department do Noël Coward’s play Design for Living? — and when her aunt, Dr. Irene Wilson (Edie Adams), abruptly quits her unit at the Centaur Apartments because she’s tired of yielding to Hogan’s advances, Robin grabs the apartment and leaves Hogan totally uncognizant that she’s not only going to have a roommate but that the roommate will be male. (Writers Lawrence Roman — who originally wrote the piece as a hit Broadway play — and David Swift, who also directed the film, pull this off by writing her dialogue telling Hogan about her roommate with no pronouns.)

The two jokes are Robin’s attempts to maintain their agreed-upon celibacy in the face of Dave’s bad case of blue balls, and Hogan’s attempts to seduce her and get Dave out of the picture, either by fomenting a quarrel between them or wearing him out — literally — since, in some of the movie’s funniest scenes, Hogan is giving Dave a heavy-duty physical workout on the ground that the ancient Greeks had discovered the only way to resist the temptations of the female flesh was through exercise. The film has an unpleasant air of Big Brother about it because Hogan regards it as his landlord’s prerogative to use a duplicate key and breeze into any of the apartments any time he pleases, and when he’s not actually letting himself in he’s spying on Robin and Dave through a glass pressed against their door, hanging himself off the roof (where he’s scared off into a major pratfall by his orange cat) and ultimately using a stethoscope on their door. I remember this movie from when it came out — at least I remember hearing about it because at 10 I wasn’t considered old enough actually to be allowed to see it (I finally caught up with it on TV about a decade later and it didn’t seem like much) — and now, at nearly 50 years old (one “trivia” item about it notes that it was in the middle of its theatrical first run with President Kennedy was assassinated), it’s most interesting as an index of America’s attitudes towards sex c. 1963, at least to the extent they could be depicted in a movie made during the long, slow senescence of the Production Code. Hogan’s seduction act is so moth-eaten — and was probably considered so even in 1963 — it’s a wonder he gets anyone (especially a relatively intelligent woman like Irene Wilson, who’s a teacher at the local college with a course on “Preparing for Marriage” that Robin is a student in, and who’s finally got the courage to leave Hogan because she’s found herself a much better boyfriend, a fellow professor played by the underrated Robert Lansing) to have sex with him.

One gets the impression the character of Hogan was more or less patterned on Hugh Hefner — down to the famous red dinner jacket which he wears at all times — and much of the film’s appeal comes down to the extent to which he’s got seduction down to a science. His apartment is equipped not only with the obvious tricks like dimmer switches but an automatic music system which turns out to be a pair of player violins — and no, I’m not making this up (Charles thought a player-violin system would be technically feasible but would have to be a lot more involved and complex than the one in the film) — which run down like an old record player with the plug pulled out when the off switch is hit and they disappear into their cabinet. Under the Yum Yum Tree is a fascinating index of moral attitudes on the eve of the sexual revolution and the edge of the collapse of the Production Code — though the extent to which the filmmakers could only hint at matters sexual instead of showing them as what they are is a part of this film’s weird appeal as an historical document. Indeed, the predicament Robin has put herself and Dave in is an obvious metaphor for the double-bind Hollywood had put itself in on sexual matters since the Legion of Decency forced the major studios to get serious about enforcing the Code in 1934; like Robin herself, they could “tease” the audience into sexual situations but had to maintain a heavy-handed and unbelievable insistence that nothing sexual was “really” going on. A decade later a film with this basic premise would have had the young girl and her boyfriend screwing hot and heavy whenever anybody’s back was turned while publicly proclaiming that all they were doing was sharing a roof, not a bed; indeed, by the late 1970’s this situation would be done in the TV show Three’s Company and the gag would be the male living with two women would justify it by trying to convince everyone that he was Gay. (Three’s Company was based on a British TV show called Man About the House in which the young man living with two young women really was Gay.)

Much of the appeal of Under the Yum Yum Tree is based on its supporting cast, particularly the performances of Paul Lynde and Imogene Coca as the married couple who are Hogan’s only household staff — he’s the maintenance man and she’s his maid, and both of them delight in Hogan’s ultimate comeuppance even though there’s also a jealous tension between them as he can’t resist ogling Hogan’s would-be seducees while she naturally gets upset at him for doing so. (The gag of the incredibly queeny Lynde playing a married man whose extra-relational yearnings are strictly heterosexual is one of the funniest things about this film — and when at the end Roman and Swift rip off one of the gags from the Hope-Crosby Road movies and have the cat say the final line, done by animating its lips, it speaks with Lynde’s voice.) It’s also noteworthy for Edie Adams’ performance as the most level-headed character in the film; according to an “trivia” poster, she got the part at Jack Lemmon’s insistence after her husband Ernie Kovacs had died suddenly in a car crash. Lemmon had co-starred with Kovacs in three movies and had been friends with him and Adams, and when he found that Kovacs’ death had left her broke he not only insisted the studio cast her, he had Roman and Swift fatten her part so her character had more to do than she’d had in the play. Under the Yum Yum Tree is more historically important than genuinely entertaining today — though it occurred to me that it might have worked better if Lemmon had played Dave Manning and they had cast Cary Grant as Hogan — and about the only way I could think of remaking it is if the new film had a frame in which Lawrence Roman’s play were being produced and the sexual connections of the actors playing the roles were deliciously, ironically different from the ones they were playing in the script!