Kim Novak will forever be Madge to me, a young woman yearning for love in “Picnic.” The film was my introduction to the actress and I’ve never stopped watching it, forever mesmerized by the romance and drama of this slice of American life in the 1950s. (And that dance with William Holden doesn’t hurt.)
There are many Kim Novak essentials: Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” of course, with her vulnerability on full display as Madeleine and Judy. “Middle of the Night” and the profound loneliness in the May-December romance with Fredric March. And her delightful role as a witch who casts a love spell on Jimmy Stewart in the whimsical “Bell Book and Candle.”
The recent celebration of her 90th birthday – she was born Feb. 13, 1933 – is a reminder that her wonderful acting career of nearly 40 years has many more roles for us to explore and that’s what I did.
Let me introduce you to Polly the Pistol from the 1964 comedy “Kiss Me, Stupid.” I enjoyed watching Novak as Polly so much – she looks, acts and sounds so different than Novak’s other characters – that it’s my entry in “The Kim Novak Blogathon, a 90th Birthday Celebration” hosted by The Classic Movie Muse.
You’ll find the work of many talented bloggers who are writing about Kim Novak during this blogathon, held from Feb. 25-27, through this link. Here is my entry.
“Kiss Me, Stupid”
Comedy is not a genre that comes to mind with Novak, though she did a few including “The Notorious Landlady” and “Phffft.” Still she does very well in “Kiss Me, Stupid” and, in fact, may be the best thing about this sexual farce.
A 2021 review from RogerEbert.com agreed: “Novak is game, and aside from [Dean] Martin, the best player in the picture,” it reads.
That’s saying a lot considering the film’s pedigree: It’s written and directed by Billy Wilder, songs are by George and Ira Gershwin plus it stars Dean Martin, Ray Walston and Felicia Farr.
But all of that talent didn’t stop the film from falling well short of expectations; the cast changes before and during filming didn’t help (more on that later).
“Kiss Me, Stupid” is about two unlikely small-town songwriters who see a chance to woo a Dean Martin-like character (played by Dean Martin) to sing their song. It sounds innocent enough except for a prostitute (our lovable Polly), an almost pathological jealousy and double adultery. That overt sexualism in the script by Wilder and his frequent collaborator I.A.L. Diamond, was shredded by critics. in his 1964 New York Times review, A.H. Weiler called it “pitifully unfunny” and “short on laughs and performances and long on vulgarity.” And that wasn’t the worst of it.
It became the first Hollywood film in eight years to be condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency which demanded anything that hinted at marital infidelity be cut.
Yes, the movie is sexy and Novak’s performance as Polly the Pistol is a big reason. (Just watch her swing her hips, then glance back over her shoulder.) Plus there’s plenty of innuendo, double-entendres (the setting is Climax, Nevada for starters) and bawdy humor that was found so offensive although often it borders on being juvenile or just falls flat.
The film opens with our charismatic entertainer “Dino” playing his final show at The Sands in Vegas (where Martin was performing in real life at the time). On his way to L.A., a detour takes him through the small town of Climax where he is recognized by auto mechanic and aspiring songwriter Barney (Cliff Osmond) and his songwriting partner Orville J. Spooner (Ray Walston), a piano teacher.
They see Dino as their ticket to the big time if he’ll listen to their song. When he insists on leaving town immediately, Barney rigs his car to break down and then convinces him to stay overnight at Orville’s where the plan is to play him the song.
But first an important note about Orville. Orville is needlessly jealous about his loving wife Zelda (played by Felicia Farr), a jealousy that is creepy even when played for laughs. He’s always checking up on her, grilling the milk man about a note she left (it was for milk and eggs) and calling the dentist to see if she really had an appointment. Every male is a threat – even his very young piano student.
Why does this matter? Dino loves women. He loves them so much that if he goes for even one night without “being” with one, he tells Orville, he’ll wake with a headache. There’s no way Orville will let him near Zelda now and that’s where the film dives into absurdity.
Polly the prostitute is hired for $25 to be Orville’s wife for a night, the main objective is to woo Dino with whatever is needed to get him to hear Barney and Orville’s song. To get his real wife out of the house, Orville sets up the lamest fake fight ever and Zelda runs home to mommy. (“You trust me? That’s a lousy thing to say about your husband,” he snipes.)
What could go wrong?
Everything, especially when Polly arrives. You’ll get a kick out of her her in a barely there crop/bikini top and fake jewel in her navel (she works at the Belly Button Club). Her hair is mussed, her makeup dark around the eyes. Polly has a cold and stuffy nose that accentuate the huskiness of her voice and accent.
She’s game for this silly plan even if she’s taken aback when Orville asks her to wear his wife’s dress (that’s not the only nod to “Vertigo”). “What are you, some type of weirdie?” Polly asks.
As expected, Dino is instantly attracted to Polly and doesn’t hide it. She comically rolls her eyes at him and politely keeps him at bay when he gets out of hand. While Dino’s star power quickly fades as he’s seen for the charming cad he is, a tenderness grows between Polly and the neurotic Orville.
Polly falls easily into playing Orville’s “wife,” then it becomes obvious she’s not acting anymore. She is truly excited – like a real wife would be – when Dino agrees to use one of Orville’s songs. When Orville sings something he wrote for Zelda, Polly’s emotions overtake her face. In a lovely and unexpected moment, she sits with her head on his shoulder as he plays the piano. (Novak is wonderful in these scenes.) The two look content, each losing the anxiousness they had earlier. If this were another type of movie, these two would find happiness together.
But this is a sex farce so things turn upside down and chaos ensues. Dino and Zelda, the forlorn wife, somehow end up in Polly’s trailer behind The Belly Button. Polly and Zelda will meet, too.
You know where it’s going, and this “double adultery” is what got the morality police up in arms.
Wilder co-wrote the script with his frequent collaborator I.A.L. Diamond based off the play “L’ora della fantasia” (“The Dazzling Hour”) by Anna Bonacci (also the basis for the 1952 Gina Lollobrigida Italian film “Moglie per una notte” (“Wife for a Night”).
It was originally written for Marilyn Monroe who died before it was made; then Jayne Mansfield dropped out because of a pregnancy. Finally, Novak was cast as Polly. Jack Lemmon was originally offered the role of Orville J. Spooner. But Lemmon, married to Felicia Farr who played Orville’s wife, had prior commitments. Filming started with Peter Sellers who then suffered a series of heart attacks (something that would plague him throughout his life) and Ray Walston took on the role.
You may wonder what the film would have been like if Lemmon or Sellers played Orville. But you won’t wonder about Kim Novak as Polly the Pistol – she’s that good.
Now that I’ve been introduced to Polly, I can’t wait to meet more of Kim Novak’s cast of characters.
More to read
The blogathon: Click on these links to read more in the “The Kim Novak Blogathon, a 90th Birthday Celebration” hosted by The Classic Movie Muse, held from Feb. 25-27, 2023.
A love of “Picnic”: I previously wrote about my obsession with watching “Picnic” starring Kim Novak in the story The Joys of Watching “Picnic” for the umpteenth time for the “Umpteenth” blogathon hosted by Cineamaven in 2022.