Thursday, July 28, 2016

Retro Review: UNDER THE YUM-YUM TREE (1963)

Welcome to another installment of RETRO REVIEW where we take a look at films made before the year 2000. Today we review the 1963 romantic comedy...UNDER THE YUM-YUM TREE.

Howdy fellow film freaks, Robert here. If I had to make a list of those actors and actresses who can make me want to try a movie just by virtue of their being cast in it, Jack Lemmon (The Odd Couple, Grumpy Old Men) would be somewhere on that list. While I haven't seen everything the man has done, I have yet to find a project of his that I didn't enjoy (although the 1973 midlife-crisis drama Save the Tiger, in which Lemmon played the leading role, left me flatter than most). I admit that I'm biased in favor of his work with Walter Matthau, because you can't deny those two were magic together, but even alone he turns in work that doesn't disappoint.

Such was my reaction to the 1963 romantic comedy Under the Yum-Yum Tree, which is based on a play by Lawrence Roman. Lemmon plays Hogan (just "Hogan", no Mister, no first name), the landlord of an apartment complex that only takes women as tenants. Such a job comes with certain perks at the dawning of the age of free love, and Hogan drinks from that fountain every chance he gets, like a direct, if slightly less creepy ancestor of Family Guy's Glenn Quagmire.

Into the orbit of this Sultan of Swing comes one Robin Austin (Carol Lynley, The Poseidon Adventure) who is looking for an apartment to rent with her fiancee, Dave Manning (Dean Jones, The Love Bug). The two have agreed to try living together to test their "emotional compatibility" before getting married, while strictly denying themselves any testing of their physical compatibility -- not everyone was down with the sexual revolution. Though he is but a man like any other, Dave agrees to give it a try, and to display his level of commitment.

Robin learns of a vacancy at Hogan's apartment complex when she hears that her aunt, who lives there, is moving out. Robin loves the apartment (it is a very nice place), and Hogan isn't exactly disappointed with Robin, so he agrees to take her on as a tenant and thus, he hopes, make her a future conquest. Robin doesn't not tell Hogan that she won't be living alone -- only that she'll have a roommate who is "thin, taller than me, with dark hair." Hogan figures that means he gets two for the price of one, and lets Robin rent the apartment for $75 a month. That's about $590 today, but still, a bargain as rents go. So Robin moves in, and Dave moves in, then Hogan moves in on Robin and wacky hijinks ensue.

The first thing that jumped out at me as I watched this movie is that the film takes an uncharacteristically frank (for the time) attitude toward sex. This isn't to say that the movie is even a patch on, say, an episode of Californication, and there are certainly (thankfully) no scenes of Jack Lemmon getting his schwerve on, but this is still one of the earliest films I can recall that acknowledges the things consenting adults may do in the dark. It's only one of two films that I know of that even uses the word "sex" to describe carnal knowledge, the other one being 1965's Morituri. In my experience, mainstream Hollywood consistently refers to boys and girls gettin' together with the clumsily sanitary "making love" right up until about 1990, when Tinseltown discovered the F-bomb and immediately abandoned all pretense. Even the title is a sexual reference, "Yum-Yum" being Hogan's cutesy euphemism for the aforementioned getting on of one's schwerve.

The second thing is that it's the only movie I've seen that features a celibate character who isn't portrayed as a fool. I said before that Dave isn't overly enthusiastic about the physical embargo that comes with his cohabitation with Robin, and that's true. But while the film plays Dave's steadily mounting ardor for laughs, as he spends more and more time doing push ups, running laps, and exercising to the point of exhaustion to take his mind of the situation, the film never loses sight of the fact that he's putting himself through this to show Robin that he loves her and wants to be worthy of her. There's even a scene towards the end where Dave decides he's waited long enough, so he's going to take the tried and true route of getting Robin drunk so she'll let go of her inhibitions. His plan goes off like gangbusters, with Robin getting three sheets to the proverbial wind and willing to do pretty much anything -- and then he can't bring himself to go through with it, because he gave her his word. "Maybe I love you even more than I knew," he tells her, as he leaves her to sleep it off. I have no doubt that I'm alone in this, but that was my cheer moment for this movie. It's not often you see a character display that kind of honor. Committed cynics may make of this scene what they will, but I salute it, however old it may be.

As for Lemmon himself: Jack Lemmon in his younger days could prattle with the best of them, and he's in rare form in Under the Yum-Yum Tree. There are places where he approaches even the lofty standards of Robin Williams for off-the-cuff ad-libbing. Lemmon uses this to great effect to add an extra layer of charming sliminess to his character, going off on long, highly dubious speeches about how he's a victim with more women using him than he can handle. Modern feminists and feminist-sympathizers will no doubt be put off in the extreme by this movie, and I agree that the film's attitude toward sexuality is very much a product of its time. But Hogan's attempts at excusing his objectively inexcusable behavior are played for laughs, the kind of moments where the character displays such extreme chutzpah that you have no real choice but to applaud, regardless of how you might feel otherwise.

Under the Yum-Yum Tree is another example not only of how art is influenced by the age in which it was created, but also how the opinions of today color how we view the art of ages past. If you can keep a sense of history as you watch, you'll find that Under the Yum-Yum Tree is overall less offensive than the average rom-com released today. But if you prefer to view everything through the lens of 2016, give this one a miss. You'll likely just find more fuel for your outrage fire, and there's plenty of that on hand already.

Under the Yum-Yum Tree is not rated.

Robert's Score: 6/10

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