‘How to Save a Marriage (And Ruin Your Life)’ (1968): Classier, wittier Dean Martin sex comedy

Cute, pallie. Mill Creek Entertainment has packaged together three separate releases into the Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis Collection boxed set. It’s a 6-disc gathering of 5 movies (where Martin and Lewis star…but not together), including Dino’s 1959 Who Was That Lady? and 1968’s How to Save a Marriage (And Ruin Your Life), and Jerry’s (“Oh, Dean!”) 1966 Three on a Couch, 1968’s Don’t Raise the Bridge, Lower the River, and 1969’s Hook, Line, and Sinker, along with over 20 hours (28 episodes) of footage from the duo’s 1950s Colgate Comedy Hour TV hosting duties. We’ve already started reviewing the separate disc release of Jerry’s movies, so let’s begin looking up ‘ol Dino’s flagpole with 1967 sex comedy How to Save a Marriage (And Ruin Your Life).

By Paul Mavis

New York City salesgirl Carol Corman (Stella Stevens) would like to get ahead at swank Hunter Department Store…but not if it means accepting a promotion in exchange for a drinks at lecherous boss Everett Bauer’s (Alan Oppenheimer) apartment. Carol’s friend, Marcia (Shelley Morrison) points out that owner Harry Hunter (Eli Wallach) is the kind of gentleman who would never treat a woman the way Bauer does, but when Carol has to deliver a package after hours, who should answer the door of Miss Muriel Laszlo’s (Anne Jackson) apartment than the very married Harry Hunter.

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The next day, Hunter offers to buy off Carol with a promotion, but Carol has too much integrity for that…until she hears slimy Bauer recommending another girl to Hunter for the position—which Carol takes to stick it to Bauer. Unfortunately, that makes everyone think Carol is Hunter’s mistress, including Hunter’s investment banker friend, David Sloane (Dean Martin). When Sloane confirms with Hunter that he indeed is having an affair, Sloane proposes seducing the mistress to save Hunter’s marriage to harpy Mary Hunter (Katharine Bard). Of course, Sloane is already on the wrong track with the wrong girl, and soon he’s involved with marriage-hungry good girl Carol, who agrees to be kept by him…provided there’s a wedding ring in the bargain.

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A staple on afternoon movie shows in the early 70s, I hadn’t seen How to Save a Marriage (And Ruin Your Life) for quite some time…nor was I expecting much revisiting it this time around, considering how many of these 1960s Dino sex comedies seem to just melt together in my memory (they even sound the same, like a punchline variation of the same dirty joke: Who Was That Lady?, All in a Night’s Work, Who’s Got the Action?, Who’s Been Sleeping in My Bed?). Despite these lowered expectations, I had a good time watching How to Save a Marriage (And Ruin Your Life). It’s a little classier, a little wittier than many of those relatively innocent-but-still-leering sex comedies from that time period, due no doubt to the better-than-average cast and crew.

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Similar to the earlier Doris Day-type “clean” naughty little confections, How to Save a Marriage (And Ruin Your Life)‘s January, 1968 bow might tempt one to quickly dismiss it as a title released just past its sell-by date. After all, the year before two now-iconic romantic comedy dramas, The Graduate and Two for the Road, pretty much pushed the genre way past the then-accepted Hollywood conventions of the genre (it’s with no little bit of irony that Day was supposedly offered the part of The Graduate‘s Mrs. Robinson, only to turn it down for fear of offending her dwindling movie fan base). So seen within that historical timeline, How to Save a Marriage (And Ruin Your Life)’s pseudo-contemporary concerns amid all the “marriage is torture” jokes, pale in comparison.

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Closer inspection of How to Save a Marriage (And Ruin Your Life), though, reveals it’s nothing more than a thin reworking of basic Restoration comedy elements, and those never go out of style (not even today’s outraged snowflakes are going to kill them off): mistaken identities, frustrated, weak husbands, dissatisfied wives, angry lovers pushed to plot and scheme, horn-dog bachelors (who will surely get hitched and de-balled), various blocked assignations amid much frenzied back-and-forth door slamming, until wedding bells sound and all is happily, synthetically made right. Everyone is a type, who then acts against type, as the farcical machinery ratchets up the comedic, sexual tension: Dino the womanizer gets the guilts when he could plow away at Stella, then bursts into a homicidal rage every time he believes she—the girl he thinks he doesn’t want—has cheated on him. Powerful store owner Wallach is afraid of his wife and infatuated with his screwy mistress, and Stella is the career girl with too much integrity to take a promotion to keep quiet, but not enough integrity to immediately decline Dino’s offer of co-habitation, regardless of the promise of marriage at the end of it.

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To criticize How to Save a Marriage (And Ruin Your Life) based on today’s sociological and gender understandings is first, more than a little silly (hey, painfully self-important millennials—people already are laughing at your nonsense; imagine how your concerns are going to stand up 30 years from now…), and second, beside the point: that’s missing the forest for the trendy trees. All How to Save a Marriage (And Ruin Your Life) has to do is honor its Restoration comedy/farce traditions and make us laugh…which it does quite nicely, thanks to Fielder Cook’s (Patterns, A Big Hand for the Little Lady, TV’s The Homecoming – A Christmas Story) sprightly direction and producer Stanley Shapiro’s and Nate Monaster’s frequently funny script (Shapiro practically invented the 60s sex comedy with scripts for Pillow Talk, Lover Come Back, and That Touch of Mink, with Monaster, and Come September, among many others).

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The cast is equally talented. Familiar and most welcome faces pop up for punchy little supporting turns, including shiny-pated Alan Oppenheimer as a handsy boss, Betty Field as a pissed-off, wronged woman, the marvelous George Furth as a slide-rule Romeo courting Stella (“We’ll have 2.7 kids!”), and one of my all-time favorites, terrified Woodrow Parfrey, convinced his hated mother-in-law has returned from the grave (the movie’s best sight gag). I’m not sure what Jack Albertson and Shelley Morrison are doing here, but I’ll bet most of their stuff was left on the cutting room floor.

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As for our four leads, they’re effortlessly funny. Eli Wallach gets a chance to be crazy funny (his manic frustration is beautifully controlled, physically and verbally), and his energy is infectious (a completely different approach to getting laughs in comparison with his upcoming comedic gem in Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad, & The Ugly). His real-life wife, the equally talented Anne Jackson, doesn’t have much to do with her odd character (she loves old dead movie stars, it’s pointed out…before that’s dropped with a thud), but she’s still funny doing it (that two shot of her and Fields, talking to Dino, is memorably bizarre).

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As for Dino, well…he’s Dino. He seems a little bit more on his game here, a little more engaged (he’s such a pro at being laid back and charming, who can tell?), but some of those close-ups are brutal (hard to believe he’s only 50 years old here). And Stella, well…what can I write about Stella Stevens that other infatuated movie fans haven’t already written? Smolderingly sexy with a body built exclusively for Playboy®, and entirely capable of being hilariously funny, Stevens was, along with Tuesday Weld, one of the most criminally underutilized actresses in 1960s Hollywood. As charming and erotic as she is here in How to Save a Marriage (And Ruin Your Life)…it’s just too bad she kept appearing in fun but disposable movies like How to Save a Marriage (And Ruin Your Life).

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PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.

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