"And you're not getting away with anything! I got all your names and your addresses!"
George (Jack Lemmon)
It was easy to sympathize with George (Jack Lemmon) and his wife, Gwen (Sandy Dennis).
They were from small–town Ohio, visiting New York City so George could interview for a big job. He was sure he would get it, too. And they were both excited on the flight to New York. This was the opportunity George had been building up to; now, all his hard work was going to pay off. They were finally going to live the kind of life they had always wanted.
But the beautiful dream soon became a nightmare in "The Out–of–Towners," a movie based on a Neil Simon play that made its debut on this day in 1970.
We've all had periods in our lives when it was just one damn thing after another, but George and Gwen's trip to New York was the mother of all bad experiences. It certainly made my worst one–damn–thing–after–another experience look like a walk on the beach.
It's safe to say George and Gwen suffered just about every indignity imaginable.
The plane couldn't land because of air traffic and bad weather so, after circling long enough to ruin George's dinner reservation, the flight was diverted to Boston. George and Gwen had to take a train, which all the passengers on their flight and others were doing as well so the train was packed. They were hungry so, instead of dinner at The Four Seasons, they decided to eat in the train's dining car. But it was packed, and they had to stand in line. By the time they got a table, almost no food was left.
George: I was going to take you to dinner at one of the best restaurants in the world. Here you are eating peanut butter on white bread with nothing to drink. If you ever get your mouth open again, I wouldn't blame you if you never talk to me.
Gwen: Oh, my God!
George: What's wrong?
Gwen: I lost my left eyelash!
When the train arrived in New York, George and Gwen found out there was a strike, and they would have to walk to their hotel in the rain. By the way, their luggage had been lost.
And that was just their arrival in New York.
In some 24 hours, they were mugged twice — once while they were asleep in Central Park (their room at the Waldorf–Astoria was given to someone else because they did not contact the hotel by a certain time). At one point (probably my favorite part of the movie), George temporarily lost his hearing because a manhole cover on which he had been standing only seconds before was blown into the air and came crashing down next to him, creating a sound that kept echoing in his head and prevented him from hearing complete sentences. It was a harrowing time, to be sure.
Through it all, George kept writing down the names of the people whom he perceived to have mistreated him (whether they had or not) and their addresses, ostensibly so he could sue them when he got back to Ohio. And that really was where he would be going. I'm not sure when that became clear to the audience, but, long before the movie ended, I figured out that George and Gwen weren't going to be relocating to New York, that soon they would be on their way back to small–town Ohio.
(And I figured they would probably get on their knees and kiss the ground after they disembarked in Ohio.)
The experience appeared to make George paranoid. By the end of the movie, he really seemed to believe he had been the victim of some vast conspiracy, which was a hard sell, even if he could make a somewhat compelling case.
But, as bad as their trip to New York was, it really seemed to make George and Gwen appreciate what they did have in small–town Ohio — even if it wasn't perfect and didn't have all the amenities of a big city.
When George finally did go to his interview, Gwen worried that he would be offered the job — and would accept. She had realized that she really didn't want to live in New York.
Turned out George had been offered the job.
Gwen: What did you say, George?
George: What did I say? What do you think I said?
Gwen: I don't know, George. I was hoping you would say no. I was hoping you would say that you and your wife don't really belong in New York. That you wanted to live the rest of your life in Ohio. That you never wanted to see a big city again as long as you live. That you didn't want to live here or in, uh, Chicago or San Francisco or New Orleans or Paris or any other place where people have to live on top of each other, and they don't have enough room to walk or to breathe or to smile at each other. That you don't want to step on garbage in the streets or be attacked by dogs or have to give away watches in the middle of your sleep to men in black capes. That you were through traveling on trains that had no place to sit and no food to eat. And you didn't want to fly in airplanes that have no place to land and no luggage for you when you land there. That you wish you never came here, and the only thing in the world you really wanted was to pick up your wife and carry her to the airport and fly home ... and live happily ever after. That's what I was hoping you would say, George.
George: That's funny. That's what I told him, word for word.
Lemmon and Dennis were perfectly cast. They had more than enough Midwestern values in their personalities to make the parts of George and Gwen work.
Personally, I always thought Lemmon and Dennis were superior to Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn, stars of the 1999 remake. I guess I could always imagine Lemmon and Dennis living in rural Ohio, and I couldn't really picture Martin and Hawn living there.
Not that Martin and Hawn weren't believable as a couple — but Lemmon and Dennis were middle class enough to pull it off.
Lemmon was manic, like Daffy Duck on speed, meticulously keeping track of everyone who wronged him. Dennis was mousy, supportive of her husband but, when you got right down to it, determined and, like the famous Molly Brown, unsinkable.
It was a great character study.