- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 18, 2009

Turner Classic Movies is showcasing Jack Lemmon (1925-2000) as its first “Star of the Month” retrospective subject in the new year, reviving about two dozen of his movies on Wednesday evenings.

Having devoted Wednesday to the initial batch of pictures in which Mr. Lemmon played leading roles for Billy Wilder - from “Some Like It Hot” in 1959 to “The Fortune Cookie” in 1966 - the series will retrieve a set Wednesday that I have regarded fondly since they were new. Perhaps this booking can help reverse their gradual eclipse in familiarity and appreciation.

Starting at 8 p.m., TCM will show, in chronological order, the trio of comedies, all directed by Richard Quine at Columbia in the late 1950s, that matched Mr. Lemmon as a comic antagonist or crony with Ernie Kovacs. Now a somewhat mythical figure, the ill-fated Mr. Kovacs was an eccentric and often sneaky-funny television comedian whose career as an inventive, oddball impresario of the video medium had been running parallel to Mr. Lemmon’s emergence in motion pictures. January was a fateful month in the Kovacs chronicle: He was born in Trenton, N.J., in January 1919 and died in January 1962, after losing control of his car during a rainstorm in Los Angeles.

The initial (and most satisfying) Lemmon-Kovacs match came in a cheerfully clever and egalitarian service comedy titled “Operation Mad Ball.” Also the debut film for Mr. Kovacs, it exploited the actors’ potential as rivals so effectively that one naturally expected their chemistry to become a going concern and thrive well beyond the holiday season of 1957.

As a medical corpsman named Hogan, a resourceful private lionized by fellow enlisted men at a hospital unit stationed near Le Havre, France, soon after the end of World War II, Mr. Lemmon enjoyed the humorous privilege of outwitting Mr. Kovacs as a party-pooping martinet, Capt. Locke. The resident adjutant and “intelligence” officer, Locke becomes a romantic obstacle as well as a professional nuisance while Hogan is engineering a clandestine farewell party, the mad ball of the title, meant to facilitate dating between nurses and his smitten buddies before the unit disbands.

The screenplay (written by Blake Edwards and others) revolved around the confrontations between a suspicious, bombastic Locke and a cagey, unflappable Hogan. Whoever invented Locke was also an astute Shakespearean, since the character is clearly an update of Malvolio in “Twelfth Night” - and a Malvolio whose downfall owes more to insufferable vanity than gratuitous malice.

In a subsequent pairing, the movie version of the Broadway romantic comedy “Bell, Book and Candle,” Jack Lemmon and Ernie Kovacs had supporting roles as compatible opportunists: respectively, a bongo-playing warlock called Nicky and a best-selling author named Sidney who specializes in tomes about witchcraft. The plot revolves around the love affair precipitated one Christmas eve when Nicky’s gorgeous sister Gillian (Kim Novak at her most desirable) takes a fancy to a respectable neighbor, a publisher played by James Stewart.

I’m surprised “Bell, Book and Candle” has escaped remaking in 50 years, despite the advent of Harry Potter and the 2005 monstrosity derived from TV’s “Bewitched.” Enhanced by a luscious color scheme from cinematographer James Wong Howe, “Bell, Book and Candle” was the happy alternative in a two-picture gambit of 1958 that saw Alfred Hitchcock direct James Stewart and Kim Novak in “Vertigo” at Paramount and then Richard Quine inherit them promptly at Columbia. Despite the facetious occult aspects, Mr. Quine’s entertainment remains far more plausible, not to mention simpatico, than Mr. Hitchcock’s relentlessly agonized thriller.

The newly minted Lemmon-Kovacs partnership remained a back-burner asset in the third picture, “It Happened to Jane,” a 1959 romantic comedy that matched Mr. Lemmon and Doris Day as overdue mates against beguiling small-town settings in Connecticut, intended to simulate the Maine seacoast. Mr. Kovacs played a comic rotter again: a tycoon called Harry Foster Malone (with a balding pattern deliberately meant to recall Orson Welles as the elderly protagonist of “Citizen Kane”) who threatens to ruin the heroine’s livelihood (lobster farming) by his manipulation of a railroad.

Mr. Lemmon and Mr. Kovacs come face to face only during the last reel, when circumstances force a change of heart on the villain. So there was never destined to be a fresh variation on the “Mad Ball” promise of recurrent crossing-of-swords between their character types, one essentially heroic and the other essentially maddening or troublemaking.

Ernie Kovacs confirmed his prowess with sneaks a year later opposite John Wayne in the exuberant comic Western “North to Alaska,” directed by Henry Hathaway, but his potential as a movie clown or humorist remained largely speculative after premature death cut his career short after five years and only 10 acting credits. One imponderable: He never got a chance to direct a film comedy. Given the playful nature of his television shows, which teemed with sight gags and trick shots, Mr. Kovacs might have proved an eye-opener behind the movie camera.

Evidently, he and Jack Lemmon became pals on short acquaintance. Walter Matthau was also one of the gang, so vehicles with all three of them were probably in the cards. It was Mr. Lemmon who identified Ernie Kovacs’ body on the night of the car crash, at the request of widow Edie Adams.

The Lemmon career had, of course, been transformed by his roles for Billy Wilder in “Some Like It Hot” in 1959 and then “The Apartment” a year later. But it should be remembered that an appealing and promising career had been evolving for the preceding five years, while Mr. Lemmon was a contract player at Columbia. His later rapport with Mr. Matthau was anticipated in some respects by the Lemmon-Kovacs trilogy of the late 1950s. Moreover, Mr. Lemmon was showcased as attractively by Richard Quine, who directed him in six films, as he was by Billy Wilder, who directed him in seven.

I’m grateful that TCM hasn’t overlooked these associations. It would be even better if the channel’s rediscovery of “Operation Mad Ball” prompted Columbia into releasing the movie on DVD, at long last. The 50th anniversary has passed, but time remains for a Lemmon-Kovacs set on the 50th anniversary of “It Happened to Jane” - and 90th anniversary of Ernie Kovacs’ birth.

SERIES: “Jack Lemmon”

WHERE: Turner Classic Movies cable channel

WHEN: Wednesday evenings in January: Revivals of the Jack Lemmon-Ernie Kovacs trilogy, Jan. 21: “Operation Mad Ball” (1957), 8 p.m.; “Bell, Book and Candle” (1958), 10 p.m.; “It Happened to Jane” (1959), 11:45 p.m.

“Mad Ball” is still not available legitimately on DVD. The others have been released by Columbia Pictures Home Entertainment. The relevant Web site is www.SonyPictures.com

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