A Look at Billy Wilder’s THE APARTMENT, Office-Wise

On November 1st, 1959, the population of New York City is 8,042,783. Alone among all of those people is C. C. Baxter, one of the 31,259 employees of the Consolidated Life of New York insurance company. Baxter is the schnook who works on the 19th floor in the Ordinary Policy Department, Premium Accounting Division, Section W, desk number 861 in the high-rise that houses Consolidated. This is the story of how C. C., which stands for Calvin Clifford, climbed the corporate ladder at breakneck speed.

Consolidated Life of New York makes up “the office” in Billy Wilder‘s The Apartment (1960). It is an intimidating, cold and calculating place. C. C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is just one of the thousands of office drudges who go about their day mechanically. The employees who work on the 19th floor clock in at exactly 8:50 am and out again at 5:20 pm. The company has to stagger the start and end times by floor in order to avoid backing up the building’s elevators. The people on the 19th floor have no connection to the company other than to put in their time and take home the $94 paychecks every week. The likelihood that any of these people will ever reach a higher position in a higher floor at Consolidated Life of New York is small, but C. C. Baxter is able to do it. I’ll tell you how, but not without a few spoilers.

C. C. Baxter has been working at Consolidated for three years and ten months and takes home $94.70 a week. It’s a satisfactory salary for Baxter’s less than satisfactory life. He pays $85 a month for a one-bedroom apartment in the mid-sixties, just one block from Central Park, and rarely goes out to have fun. In fact, most weekdays Baxter stays late at the office, alone at the only occupied desk amidst the desolate rows of empty desks. He does this not because he’s a dedicated employee, but because he’s placed himself in a rather precarious situation. You see, C. C. Baxter allows several of his superiors to use his apartment for extramarital trysts. These men not only abuse the arrangements with Baxter such as not leaving the apartment at a set time so he can go home and have dinner, but they also regularly reinforce their position over him at the office. In today’s world these men would be liable for harassment suits. They place employees in situations where they have to endure offensive conduct as a condition of continued employment and they create an environment that is intimidating, hostile and abusive. Still, C. C. Baxter continues the uncomfortable arrangements with the men who pay him back by praising him as a valuable, efficient and cooperative employee.

Ray Walston, David White, Willard Waterman and David Lewis play the executives using Baxter’s apartment and (as seen here) reminding him that he got his promotion thanks to them.

Since this post is intended specifically as a Workplace in Film & TV entry, it’s important to look at the offices of Consolidated Life of New York, which are comparable to any number of workplaces in movies or TV shows that depict working life during the late 1950s and the 1960s. That environment is key to the story in The Apartment. It is one of conformity with businessmen all dressed in similar suits sitting in long rows of identical desks. Mad Men may come to mind as a recent, similar example. These depictions originated from a 1956 book I had to read for a Corporate Culture course I took, The Organization Man written by William Whyte, which was hugely influential at the time and no doubt played a role in the landscape of Wilder’s movie.

William Whyte did a long study of American workplaces after WWII, a period of great economic growth in the country, which created many middle-class jobs as companies grew. C. C. Baxter and the numerous other suited men and women sitting in those rows of desks are products of that. Through his study Whyte concluded that corporate America was all about collectivism, that the individual mattered little in most workers’ idea of success. To fit Whyte’s work into The Apartment is simple. The executives, for instance, are all depicted similarly, as if there is a button you press and the men become the title. Their attitude toward women and subordinates follows a set pattern and they even have the same pass times, if you know what I mean. Joe Dobisch (Ray Walston) is a particularly demeaning executive who calls Baxter “Buddy Boy” all the time in that joking-not-joking manner bullies use. Aside from that these executives are interchangeable, not individuals in any definitive way. Whyte’s work can also be attributed to C. C. Baxter, who, sans the key to his apartment, is satisfied to work in that rows-of-desks environment forever. He’s an average guy with an average life who strives for little else, but “normal” happiness and an uninterrupted routine. If he has to contend with boredom so be it.

Baxter doesn’t remain a fixture on the 19th floor in this story, however. He moves up from the ranks of the faceless, nameless many in the rows of desks to a higher floor at Consolidated Life of New York. Unfortunately, the move costs him a bit more than mere harassment from four executives. It takes big boss, Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) getting involved to get Baxter the promotion. One day Sheldrake wants to see Baxter out of the blue and Baxter’s convinced that the boss wants to commend him for a job well done. As it turns out, however, what Sheldrake wants is a piece of the apartment action. As large a company as Consolidated is, word travels and Sheldrake knows there has to be a reason why a drone like Baxter is so popular. A deeply disappointed Baxter soon learns that Sheldrake not only wants to be scheduled into the apartment, he wants his own key! This is a reminder that his work ethic is not at play, but his lack of ethics is. At this point there’s nothing Baxter can do except add another day during the week when he can’t go home on time – and accept the promotion to that junior executive position. The entire thing stinks, but Baxter still manages to get excited. He even buys a Junior Executive style hat to fit his new title.

Baxter showing off his new Junior Executive hat

Things get a lot worse when the immoral arrangements Baxter has made for the use of his apartment involves matters of the heart. You see, during the company Christmas party, which is a wicked affair that most will surely regret the next morning, C. C. Baxter finds out that the object of Sheldrake’s affections is none other than Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), the elevator operator for whom he has feelings. The poor schnook can’t help but get his heart broken when he realizes – decency-wise – that Miss Kubelik is not the girl scout he imagined.

Miss Kubelik and Mr. Baxter in the company elevator

There’s no need to worry about C. C. Baxter’s soul though. This is a decent, moral guy who has limits to the role he wants to play in debauchery and when Sheldrake attempts to cross a line that Baxter can’t live with then job be damned. He’ll find another desk in another row in another high-rise to go along with another apartment if need be. Jobs and apartments were plentiful then, but hearts and souls have always been one each per person.

After working with Jack Lemmon on Some Like it Hot (1959) Billy Wilder actively looked for material so that they could work together again. Wilder had story ideas floating around in his head constantly and The Apartment is a great example of how this process worked for this particular genius. While thinking of a project for Lemmon the director remembered watching David Lean’s Brief Encounter in 1945, “…the guy whose apartment was being used for the trysts could be a really interesting character.” And C. C. Baxter was conceived and the wonderful, The Apartment is what we got.

Need I say it? Of course. Jack Lemmon is perfect in The Apartment. Of him Billy Wilder said, “You could ask me about him in every film and my answer would always be the same. He is a complete and professional purist. There is no actor who takes his job more seriously.” I will probably repeat that quote whenever time and topic allow and I have in almost every Lemmon and Wilder post I’ve published on this blog. I adore Jack Lemmon, but that doesn’t negate his incredible gift – he could make you laugh while breaking your heart as he does in The Apartment.

Despite The Apartment featuring depravity of the highest order, audiences and The Academy approved of it. The Apartment received a total of ten Academy Award nominations including Best Actor for Jack Lemmon and Best Actress for Shirley MacLaine, who’s delightful as Miss Kubelik, by the way. Billy Wilder won for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay with frequent collaborator I. A. L. Diamond. The Apartment is constructed beautifully and there’s not one wasted line of dialogue. I marvel at the side quips and conversations we hear at the busy Consolidated offices, each adding a bit to the entire corporate landscape, the era and characterizations. Every single supporting player is wonderful and there’s not one throw-away moment in the entire picture. Finally, I should mention that Fred MacMurray is fantastic playing against type as Jeff Sheldrake. Although he didn’t want to play the part, he makes for a memorable low life. And that’s key.

This is my second entry to Moon in Gemini for The Workplace in Film & TV BlogathonBe sure to visit! No work involved.


12 thoughts

  1. Brava! A perfect look at the often demoralizing workplace of the mid 20th century in a perfect movie.

    I used to hate it when HR types would ask where you saw yourself in five years. In my head I would be responding “Look, I give you my eight hours, plus if absolutely necessary, for my stipend. I dedicate my work hours to my work fully and diligently. After that, what I want out of life is outside these walls.” From my mouth came what I assume they wanted to hear.

    1. Perfect answer. I’ve always had an issue with overstepping boundaries between work and personal. I don’t think we need to be friends with people at work and sharing personal stuff can get sticky if you work with undesirables. That includes spilling the beans on life plans with HR depts!

  2. I think you already know The Apartment is my second favourite movie of all time! I think it is simply brilliant. You did a wonderful job of writing about it. I never thought about The Organization Man being an influence on the movie!

  3. Can you believe it took me a looong time to totally appreciate this movie? But now it’s one of my all-time favorite movies. I study a lot because the writing is so brilliant. Thanks so much for writing about it for the blogathon!

  4. This is a fine, interesting article. I enjoyed reading it, and I look forward to reading more of your articles in the future.

    By the way, I would like to invite you to join my blogathon, “The Great Breening Blogathon:” https://pureentertainmentpreservationsociety.wordpress.com/2017/09/07/extra-the-great-breening-blogathon/. It is celebrating the life and work of Joseph Breen, the enforcer of the Motion Picture Production Code between 1934 and 1954. As we honor his birthday, which is on October 14, we will be discussing and analyzing the Code era, breening films from other eras, and writing about our own ideas for classic movies. One doesn’t have to agree with the Code and Mr. Breen to enjoy that! I hope you will do me the honor of joining. We could really use your talent!

    Yours Hopefully,

    Tiffany Brannan

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