Billy Wilder originally thought of the idea for the film after seeing Brief Encounter (1945) and wondering about the plight of a character unseen in that film. Shirley MacLaine was only given forty pages of the script because Wilder didn't want her to know how the story would turn out. She thought it was because the script wasn't finished.
To create the effect of a vast sea of faces labouring grimly and impersonally at their desks in the huge insurance company office, designers Alexandre Trauner and Edward G. Boyle devised an interesting technique. Full-sized actors sat at the desks in the front and children dressed in suits were used at tiny desks toward the rear, followed by even smaller desks with cut-out figures operated by wires. It gave the effect of a much larger space than could have been achieved in the limited studio space.
Jack Lemmon said he learned much about filmmaking from Billy Wilder, particularly the director's use of "hooks," bits of business the audience remembers long after they've forgotten other aspects of the movie. One such hook was the passing of the key to Baxter's apartment. Lemmon said for years after the picture's release, people would come up to him and say, "Hey, Jack, can I have the key?"
This was the last B&W movie to win Best Picture at The Academy Awards until The Artist (2011). Schindler's List (1993) which won in 1994 was not completely B&W as some scenes were in color, like the girl in the red and the candle at the beginning.
The office Christmas party scene was actually filmed on December 23, 1959, so as to catch everybody in the proper holiday mood. Billy Wilder filmed almost all of it on the first take, stating to an observer, "I wish it were always this easy. Today, I can just shout 'action' and stand back."
According to Shirley MacLaine on her official web site, much of the movie was written as filming progressed. The gin rummy game was added because at the time she was learning how to play the game from her friends in the Rat Pack. Likewise, when she started philosophizing about love during a lunch break one day, this was also added to the script.
This is the first Best Picture Oscar winner to specifically refer to a previous winner, in this case two of them. First Grand Hotel (1932), which Baxter attempts to watch on television but is too long delayed because of commercials. Bud's boss also refers to Bud and Fran having "a lost weekend" together in Bud's apartment, a reference to Billy Wilder's earlier Oscar winner, The Lost Weekend (1945).
Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond would allow not even the slightest deviation from their script. Shirley MacLaine drove them crazy with her ad-libbing. She was forced to do one of the elevator scenes five times because she kept missing one word.
Jack Lemmon related later in life how Billy Wilder kept his film editor, Doane Harrison, on the set with him at all times as associate producer and never made a shot until they both discussed it. As a result, he was able to shoot sparingly, cutting the film in the camera and eliminating costly set-ups that might never be used.
Billy Wilder claimed that Fred MacMurray was a very stingy man in real life and liked to relate an amusing incident from the filming of the picture. In one scene MacMurray was supposed to tip a shoeshine man and the script called for him to flip him a quarter. When MacMurray couldn't get it right during shooting, Wilder suggested using a bigger fifty cent piece. MacMurray objected because, "I would never give him fifty cents - I cannot play the scene!"
Jack Lemmon was playing with a nasal spray prop in his dressing room and discovered if he gave it a sharp squeeze, it would squirt ten feet. He filled it with milk to make the liquid visible on black-and-white film, and when Fred MacMurray, chastises him for creating a problem around the use of the apartment, Lemmon gave the container a squeeze. The milk shot out and sailed right past MacMurray's nose. Billy Wilder left the take in.
Billy Wilder and cinematographer Joseph LaShelle were occasionally at odds over the film's look. LaShelle, who had worked with directors who came primarily from television, wanted to use more close-ups, a shot Wilder preferred to avoid.
Jack Lemmon said of his character - "As I saw it, [Baxter] was ambitious; a nice guy but gullible, easily intimidated, and fast to excuse his behaviour. In the end, he changes because he faces up to having rationalized his morals. He realizes he's been a dumb kid, he's been had."
Both C.C. Baxter and Fran Kubelik at different times hold up 4 fingers but say 3. Baxter says he only had 3 drinks at the Christmas party but holds up 4 fingers and Fran says she's only had 3 boyfriends but holds up 4 fingers.
Billy Wilder wrote the role of "Dr. Dreyfuss" for Lou Jacobi. But the producers of Jacobi's Broadway play wouldn't release him to make the film. So Jack Kruschen played the role and received an Oscar nomination. Wilder made it up to Jacobi by casting him as "Moustache" in Irma la Douce (1963) after the previously announced Charles Laughton died.
Although Adolph Deutsch received sole screen credit for the music score, the very popular "Theme from The Apartment" was actually a pre-existing piece of music (originally "Jealous Lover", 1949) by British composer Charles Williams, who was known for his scores for British films and BBC radio dramas.
The film was lauded by Soviet-bloc critics as an indictment of the American system and a story that could only have happened in a capitalistic city like New York. At a dinner honoring him in East Berlin, Billy Wilder said the movie "could happen anywhere, in Hong Kong, Tokyo, Rome, Paris, London." When Wilder said the one place it could not have happened was Moscow, the East Germans broke into thunderous applause and cheers. When the ovation died down, Wilder continued: "The reason this picture could not have taken place in Moscow is that in Moscow nobody has his own apartment." The remark was met with grim silence.
In the opening, Baxter explains that if the whole population of New York City (8,042,783) at an average height of 5 feet 6.5 inches were laid head-to-foot, they would reach from Times Square "to the outskirts of Karachi, Pakistan." And they would, indeed - and another 1200 miles more, almost to the south tip of India.
Mrs. Dreyfuss, the neighbor of C.C. Baxter and the wife of the doctor, is describing the playboy lifestyle that think Baxter lives to Fran Kubelik. Mrs. Dreyfuss refers to him as "a regular King Farouk." King Farouk (1920-1965) was one of the last kings of Egypt. He was renowned for his extravagant lifestyle and as an international playboy, with many marriages and mistresses.
C.C. Baxter is given a ticket to "The Music Man" and asks Fran Kubelik to meet him at the Majestic Theater on 44th street. "The Music Man" ran at the Majestic from December 19, 1957 to October 22, 1960. It moved to The Broadway Theatre October 24, 1960 - April 15, 1961. It won the 1958 Tony Award for Best Musical.
In 1968, playwright Neil Simon adapted the screenplay as the book for the Broadway musical "Promises, Promises". It spawned the hit song "I'll Never Fall in Love Again", composed by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. "Promises, Promises" opened at the Shubert Theater on December 1, 1968 and ran for 1281 performances. The first Broadway revival opened at the Broadway Theater April 25, 2010 starring Kristin Chenoweth.
In the scene, where Karl punches Baxter, Jack Lemmon was supposed to mime being punched, he failed to move correctly and was accidentally knocked down. Billy Wilder chose to use the shot of the genuine punch in the film.
Jack Lemmon signed onto the film after Billy Wilder told him the story but before he ever saw a line of the script. "I'd have signed even if he said he was going to do the phone book," the actor noted.
In addition to the two genuine Tiffany lamps in Baxter's apartment (one is a Daffodil pattern, the other a Spider pattern; they would now sell for between $20,000 and $40,000 each), there is leaded glass shade in the Periwinkle pattern, made by the Unique Art Glass and Metal Company. This shade would be worth about $1,500-$2,000 at present. This film was shot before antique leaded glass shades became collectible; in the early 1960s they were items that could be found inexpensively in thrift stores.
Al Kirkeby remarks that the tryst he assumed Bud and Fran were engaged in amounted to a "Lost Weekend.," which alludes to Billy Wilder's other Best Picture Oscar of fifteen years earlier The Lost Weekend (1945).
Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond based the film partially on a Hollywood scandal in which high-powered agent Jennings Lang was shot by producer Walter Wanger for having an affair with Wanger's wife, actress Joan Bennett. During the affair, Lang used a low-level employee's apartment. Another element of the plot was based on the experience of one of Diamond's friends, who returned home after breaking up with his girlfriend to find that she had committed suicide in his bed.
When Fran first tries to call her sister from Baxter's living room after being revived, Baxter's record collection can be seen below Fran's left shoulder. The one visible album cover is "The First Lady Of Song" by Ella Fitzgerald. One of the songs is "Blue Lou", which contains the lyrics "So blue and brokenhearted/Before her romance got started/Cryin', sighin' is all she'll ever do/Forgettin' regrettin' the love she never knew".
Although Billy Wilder generally required his actors to adhere exactly to the script, he allowed Jack Lemmon to improvise in two scenes: in one scene he squirted a bottle of nose drops across the room, and in another he sang while making a meal of spaghetti (which he strains through the grid of a tennis racket)
Shirley MacLaine once recalled meeting an interpreter for Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who was in the U.S. to address the United Nations. The Russian interpreter told the actress, "The Premier sends his regards, wishes to be remembered to you, and says he's just seen your new picture, The Apartment, and you've improved."
The tag line for Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) was "She knew she was being used for something evil." Billy Wilder made a play on that line to promote his film: "Suddenly, last winter - he knew his apartment was being used for something evil."
Fred MacMurray's fan mail was overwhelmingly against his role as the no-good chief executive Sheldrake. People hated seeing the usually amiable, sympathetic actor play such a heel. The response shook him so much, he vowed never to take on another such role.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
During the scene where Fran overdoses on sleeping pills, doctors were actually present on the set to advise accuracy on how to revive her. The harsh slaps that the doctor performs to keep Fran from becoming unconscious were all real. However, after the scene, the doctors told Billy Wilder that the actor should have slapped Shirley MacLaine harder. Wilder refused to shoot it again though, after looking at MacLaine's red cheeks from being slapped so many times.
In the movie Tribute (1980), made 20 years after this one, Jack Lemmon repeats the closing gag from The Apartment (1960). His character, Scottie Templeton, pops a champagne cork, and his friends (played by Robby Benson and John Marley) rush in, thinking he has just committed suicide.