“Ya know, I used to live like Robinson Crusoe—I mean, shipwrecked among 8 million people. And then one day I saw a footprint in the sand, and there you were.”
Many films that have tried to seamlessly blend tragedy and comedy together. This took off in the 90s and is still going strong today with films like Life is Beautiful, The Royal Tenenbaums, and Sideways. But in 1960, long before this was popular, The Apartment pulled it off beautifully. Directed by Billy Wilder (Some Like it Hot, Sunset Boulevard) and starring Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, this film is at times funny and silly and at other times dark and depressing, and the change is never jolting. It also deals with depression in a way that’s way ahead of its time. I had never seen this film before today, and it’s now one of my favorite classic films. If you like a little darkness with your comedy, this might be the perfect classic film for you.
The plot follows C.C. Baxter, a loyal but low-ranking office worker who lives alone in his New York apartment. He allows some of the company’s executives to use his apartment for their illicit affairs, and has done this so much that he now maintains a complicated schedule and has to coordinate between them. He falls in love with Fran Kubelik, a sweet elevator operator in his office building, and tries to win her over. But when he discovers that Fran is one of the mistresses who frequents his apartment when he’s not there, their jovial relationship becomes much more complicated.
When you’re in love with a married man, you shouldn’t wear mascara.
The script is full of the kind of dialogue you’d expect from Billy Wilder: witty, insightful, and smart. Both Lemmon and MacLaine do amazing jobs bringing that dialogue to life. Even though the dialogue is at times a bit too clever to seem real, both C.C. Baxter and Fran Kubelik seem like real people with complex feelings and motivations. Extramarital affairs are, of course, touchy business, and this film pulls no punches in showing how hard this is for everyone involved. Baxter himself is abused almost daily by the executives who use his apartment and can’t seem to stand up for himself, and he’s so likable that this weighs heavily on the viewer. The writing and the acting are both great and elevate this above the typical 60s comedy.
Many dark comedies simply make light of bad situations. Not so here. The humorous bits are just as light and funny as your standard 60s comedy, and Jack Lemmon is hilarious in his role. But the darker bits shine some light on the less admirable parts of the culture: crumbling marriages, soul-crushing jobs, loveless affairs, and more. Lemmon was able to switch back and forth pretty readily, but the real surprise was how dark the initially chipper Shirley MacLaine got in some parts. This film shocked me in some dark moments—it was definitely way ahead of its time. And it’s just dark enough to let you know that tragedy is a possible outcome in any scene. This film makes all of this completely seamless. It all makes sense together, even when you’re laughing one minute and crying the next.
I understand that not everyone likes depression mixed into their comedies, but I loved The Apartment so much that it’s really hard to put into words. It’s the same kind of feeling I get from watching my favorite show, Bojack Horseman, although the two are very different. This film excels at being both funny and depressing in a way that was decades ahead of its time, and it still exudes classic charm like the best films of the 50s and 60s. If that concept sounds interesting to you, give this film a watch—you will not be disappointed.
Director: Billy Wilder
Genres: comedy, drama, romance
Films Like The Apartment
- The Graduate – This classic tale of youth from the 60s is, like The Apartment, a good mix of comedy, drama, and social commentary. Emerging social customs were causing problems in The Apartment, and they cause problems in The Graduate as well (albeit very different problems).
- Roman Holiday – Another good mix of drama and comedy, but this one injects a good dose of adventure and a whole lot of classic charm. Princess Ann has a lot of the same discontent for life that C.C. Baxter and Fran Kubelik have, and she finds a temporary escape in a little adventure in Rome with a newfound friend.
- Silver Linings Playbook – If you’re more interested in the latent depression C.C. Baxter and Fran Kubelik have and how their relationship is able to help ease that, Silver Linings Playbook is a great modern movie about two characters with mental illness forming their own relationship while working through difficult issues. Of course this is very different in style, but it captures the same balance of comedy and drama wrapped around depression and romance.