Billy Wilder’s The Apartment may seem to belong more to the 1950s or even farther back than it does to movie comedies like The Graduate or Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. The film’s release date of 1960 makes it the ideal sophisticated comedy linking the decades of imposed censorship by the Hays Code to the absolute decimation of those codes in the decade following its release. As hard it may be to believe, just one year before making The Apartment, director Billy Wilder had been forced by Hollywood’s censors to change the title of the movie he was making at the time from “Not Tonight, Josephine” due to that particular phrase being the payoff of an apparently well-known dirty joke at the time. Less than a decade later, Midnight Cowboy would win the Oscar for Best Picture!
Why would Billy Wilder’s little story about an ambitious young business executive trying to climb his way up the ladder of success by making his tiny little NYC apartment available for the furtive extra-marital assignations of those men higher up on that corporate ladder in exchange for putting in a good word for the up-and-comer be the perfect link between the old Hollywood of draconian censorship and the new Hollywood of everything goes? Because The Apartment deals openly with its subject of adultery without resorting to the kind of creative workarounds that would have been absolutely required just a few years earlier. Nor does it dole out the requisite judgmental punishment for engaging in such sinful behavior would not only have been the only way it could have been made any earlier, but which would have been the huge, melodramatic climax if the film had been made under the controlling eye of the Hays Code.
Movies in which adulterating businessmen as smug as Jeff D. Sheldrake do not get their moral-mongering comeuppance in a showy fashion did not take home Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay (along with two other wins and five other losses). On that score, The Apartment firmly belongs more to the generation of 1960s movie comedies to follow in its wake by featuring humor mined from previously forbidden topics. On the other hand, the ending is more a reaffirmation of classic Hollywood’s wish for true love to win out over the new looser construction of morality and the more widespread acceptance of unconventional domestic lifestyle decisions. Jeff Sheldrake may not get his comeuppance, but he doesn’t get the girl in the end, either. And it is ambitious C.C. “Bud” Baxter who charts his own fate by turning his back not just on making his way up the corporate ladder through the putrefied back entrance, but also coming to a decision to reject equally foul stench rising from that new morality.
Ultimately, The Apartment stands astride two distinct eras in Hollywood history by holding out for public consumption a story that makes no effort to mask the ugliness beneath its sophisticated and modern façade while choosing to bring the story to an end with all the beloved conservative and traditionalist views fully affirmed. And yet, while The Apartment is an undeniably conservative commentary on the times that are about to be changing perhaps even more significantly than it can imagine, it is not difficult to locate an element of the progressive state of mind of the period it looks forward within its conclusion. The Apartment is surprisingly—some might even say shockingly—absent of any radical value judgments of its characters. And that is perhaps the most defining characteristic linking it to more daring sophisticated sex comedies that were to follow in its wake.
And that substitute title that censors found potentially less offensive than "Not Tonight, Josephine" in some truly amazing and inexplicable way? Some Like it Hot, of course!