When I saw a Tweet saying Chicago’s Music Box Theater was showing The Apartment, the classic Billy Wilder comedy with Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, this weekend, I thought he, what a great excuse to revisit an older movie’s marketing campaign and see how United Artists sold what went on to become one of the all-time great comedies.
The Apartment is one I didn’t come to until fairly recently, maybe 10 years or so ago. My friend Todd, who passed away recently, always pegged it as one of his favorites and for years he would watch it with his dad on New Year’s Eve. For whatever reason it remained a blindspot in my own viewing, though, one that I didn’t correct until I finally rented it from Netflix and dove in to see what all the fuss was about.
In the movie, Lemmon plays C.C. Baxter, a low level flunky in a big insurance company’s Manhattan office. He has a plan for moving up the ranks, though: Letting the executives in the company use his nearby apartment for their extramarital trysts while he works late. One day, though, he’s asked to make that arrangement for the company’s H.R. director, who’s sneaking away with one of the building’s elevator girls, Fran Kubelick (MacLaine). Baxter has a crush on Ms. Kubelick, though, which complicates matters, leading to just the kind of human and humane comedy Wilder was known for.
The trailer starts out by laying out the ingredients for what we’re told is a surefire hit, taking a wonderful story, a brilliant cast and an unmatched director. There are laughs, there are tears, there’s action we’re told as we see various scenes. The primary goal here is to sell the cast and the director, with the story taking somewhat of an unfortunate backseat, even if that’s in line with other trailers from this era. So we get a few hints about Baxter’s place being the love nest for his bosses and that he’s infatuated with Ms. Kubelick. But what comes through loud and clear is that this is a showcase for the natural talents of Lemmon and MacLaine, both of whom shine under Wilder’s direction and with his words to guide their performances.
The main poster is pretty great, a good example of the early deco look that was pervasive in the era. Set against a bold red background, we see Lemmon and MacLaine walking off into the distance together. Or at least we see two figures with the heads of the starts crudely pasted onto the shoulders walking off into the distance together. Big, bold copy on the left of the poster tells us “Movie-wise, there has never been anything like The Apartment love-wise, laugh-wise or otherwise.” which is quite a claim. There’s a graphic of a door lock, the key sticking out of it and on the keyring it says “A Billy ‘Some Like it Hot’ Wilder Production,” to help sell the audience on this movie by referencing the writer/director’s previous big hit.
As I said before, this is all very in-line with other marketing efforts from the time. Hollywood’s Golden Age was fading and the new era wasn’t quite arrived yet. The emphasis in trailers and posters was still on the stars and the directors and so this is a perfect example of that period. This is the three main players – Lemmon, MacLaine and Wilder – at the height of their powers, sold to the audience as such.