Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Out-of-Towners (1970)

The Jack Lemmon Blogathon is this year's WSW event, spotlighting the great actor. My thanks to Le for co-hosting with me. Check both our blogs for a complete listing of everyone taking part!

The Out-of-Towners (1970)
YouTube viewing

I'm glad I traveled as much as I did when I was younger. When I was still into comics, I had self-published several different titles, and to promote them, I appeared at conventions around the country. I flew. I took the train. Mostly, I rode the bus. It's hard, sometimes, to appreciate the scenery when the AC is on high, a baby's yelling two rows behind you and the guy next to you has fallen asleep and is snoring loudly again, but you pick your moments of tranquility where you find them.

The concept of the "staycation" grew, strangely enough, around the time I was about to move out of New York! I think I've since learned the value of local excursions, in this case, meaning state-wide. Through Bibi & Eric, I've seen more of upstate New York than I would normally, to the point where I've developed an interest in seeing other upstate towns on my own. Last summer I visited Nyack, for example.

Everyone loves to travel, but do it often enough and you anticipate bad things happening along the way. You endure them and they drive you crazy and you laugh about them afterwards and you talk about them at parties for the next twenty years. First, though, you have to endure them. 

This brings us to The Out-of-Towners. Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis go through more hell trying to get to New York in this movie than two people have a right to, but it's all in the name of laughs. That final scene may not be as funny in a post-9-11 world, but overall, I liked the movie.

I wanna talk about the penultimate scene, in particular, Dennis' speech to Lemmon. Take a look at it and then come back here. (Begin at around 6:40.)

First, it's a bit shocking to hear a Neil Simon character put down New York so completely, with such finality. It's almost like that scene in Quiz Show where Queens-born Martin Scorsese says, "Queens is not New York!" (Some of us still haven't quite forgiven him for that one.)

History shows, however, that Gwen was expressing a very real feeling, not only about New York in 1970, but cities in general at the time. Urban renewal, white flight, an increase in inner-city crime, labor unrest, civil rights protests, and more: New York wasn't the only American city experiencing such changes, but it was the most prominent. After 1970, it would only get worse before it got better.

In the movie, George's reaction to the indignities he suffers is to want to sue everyone in sight, while Gwen can only watch stupefied and say "Oh my god" over and over. It's all meant to be funny, but there's a lot of truth in these characterizations.

Fast forward forty years or so. We're slowly re-learning the value of cities: as sustainable sources of green energy; as multimodal hubs that move more people more efficiently; as political asylums for foreign refugees. Robert Moses' way, of building straighter and wider roads that fracture neighborhoods and displace communities, has been proven wrong. 

I learned that while living in Ohio, where George and Gwen come from and where they're eager to return in the end. They probably benefit from the effects of urban sprawl I witnessed while living there: a decentralized core, increased use of the car at the expense of public transportation, more space given over for parking and less for people. Their children may feel differently about it, however, once they grow up.

It's interesting to note that Steve Martin's 1999 remake ends with him and Goldie Hawn staying in New York. But why not? The city had long since begun to clean up its act by that point. Now it's the opposite extreme: an over-priced, gentrified tourists' paradise that squeezes the lower classes further and further towards the margins. I <3 NY!

Other Jack Lemmon films:
Mister Roberts
Some Like it Hot
How to Murder Your Wife


  1. Neil Simon's best still guarantees laughs for me. Well worn, but satisfying laughs.

    That 70s New York is a feeling (I paid my first busy and extended stay in 1980) still conjured up by watching Barney Miller, The Taking of Pelham 123, etc. There was an air of doom and if you didn't laugh, you'd cry.

    You're right about Sandy's speech. It was right for them and for that time. This city girl was almost fainting at Jack's work offer, but the right time would be now.

    Simon and Lemmon made a great team. The Prisoner of Second Avenue walks the tightrope of heartbreak and humour. Jack Lemmon was the right actor for so many things.

  2. I was far too young to have experienced The Bad Old Days. Whenever I read about them, they always seem like the Wild West or something. Yet there are times I feel like NYC now is too sanitized. There ought to be a middle ground somewhere... but I can understand why it might be a bridge too far for some.

    Would like to watch PRISONER one day too. Actually, I'd like to spend a whole day binging on Neil Simon.

  3. Wonderful post! I invite you to share it at this week's The Classic Movie Marathon link party

  4. I love this movie, mainly because Lemmon's and Dennis's humorous styles are so beautifully paired. Such interesting points about what a difference timing makes in how we read this film. Thanks for hosting a great blogathon!

  5. Dennis might be the most underrated of the actresses Lemmon worked with. Shame they didn't do another film together.

  6. I'm another one who likes the Lemmon and Dennis pairing here. I think they worked well together.

    As for this film, it's been YEARS since I've seen it, so I'm due for a re-watch. I liked your comments about the nature of large cities. I'll keep that in mind when I watch this again.


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