DVD Review: The Odd Couple - Paramount Centennial Collection

Is Neil Simon's The Odd Couple the most successful Hollywood adaptation of a non-musical Broadway hit? Right off the bat, I can't think of many that are as good, or at least that are as steadfastly funny and likable.

Among the top-grossing films of 1968, it's sandwiched between 2001: A Space Odyssey and Bullitt, and ranks above that year's Best Picture Oscar-winner, Oliver!. More importantly, it's the note-perfect comedy -- alternately warm and barbed -- that cemented the on-screen team-up of Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon. They had previously worked together only once before in Billy Wilder's The Fortune Cookie (Matthau won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for that one). As the mismatched pair of midlife divorcees -- unreconstructed slob Oscar Madison (Matthau) and neurotically fastidious Felix Ungar (Lemmon) -- forced by circumstances to become roommates, these two versatile actors play off each other so beautifully that it seems as natural as gravity that they'd end up appearing in ten films together. (In the early production stages of 1970's M*A*S*H, Fox had considered Lemmon and Matthau for its two leads.)

And as we learn in the new extras added to The Odd Couple's latest and best DVD edition, Lemmon and Matthau could hardly be more different individuals. At first blush it might seem absurd to couple inveterate gambler Matthau (who had more bookies than groupies) with famous Hollywood star Lemmon, who was driven to be the hardest-working person on the set. Matthau at the time was a character actor and had starred as Oscar on Broadway opposite Art Carney. Lemmon was the ringer, the A-lister riding so high in his career that the expense of hiring him nearly ground the production to a halt. Yet their pairing here made them lifelong "very best friends," "soul brothers" who were "made for each other," we're told by fellow cast members as well as director Gene Saks, Larry King, Lemmon's son Chris, and Paramount studio head Robert Evans.

That chemistry still infuses the film so enjoyably that The Odd Couple has carried on as a durable classic, the sort of comedy that doesn't try to yank laughs by cramming its fist down our throats. This model of a Well-Made Movie currently sits at #17 on AFI's 100 Years, 100 Laughs list of great comedies.

Of course, there's plenty more good stuff here too. Simon's witty screenplay, for starters, is as polished as a diamond necklace, one bright spot after another. There's composer Neal Hefti's catchy theme music, and Gene Saks' precision-measured directing, which mindfully opened up Simon's single-set stage play and added a few new scenes, such as Felix's opening suicide attempt and the later coffee shop bit, scripted for the film by Simon. (In college I knew a guy who could and would recreate Lemmon's hysterical nasal-clearing "Fnnaaah! Fnnnaaah!" noises in any diner we found ourselves in.) There's the strong supporting cast, many carrying through from the Broadway run, such as the poker buddies -- close your eyes during John Fiedler's lines and you hear the voice of Piglet from the Disney cartoons -- and the giggly "coo coo" Pigeon sisters (Carole Shelley and Monica Evans).

The whole thing is a delight, a fine-tuned, pleasingly verbal comedy that works because all the elements just click together so perfectly.

Paramount has given fans of The Odd Couple reasons to trade up from the bare-bones DVD issued in 2000. This new two-disc "Centennial Collection" edition improves the image quality quite a bit, providing a sharp, clean print and a vivid transfer (enhanced 2.35:1). The clean Dolby 5.1 audio -- which to my ear is the same mix as the 2000 edition -- gets the job done without fuss, the surrounds kicking in for the ball game at Shea Stadium and some incidental sound effects and music. Hefti's score gets treated well, and you'll probably have the tune stuck in your head for days afterward.

Paramount added a nice little bundle of extras to this edition. All are brand new (dated 2009) and when played one after another provide a comprehensive production history from stage to screen, plus ample warm tributes to Lemmon and Matthau and everyone's experiences on the set.

On Disc One we get a commentary audio track with Chris Lemmon and Charlie Matthau, the sons of the original stars. Obviously friends who pretty much grew up together thanks to their dads' friendship, they offer scene-by-scene reminiscences and observations interspersed with stories about being a "famous parent" kid growing up in Hollywood. It's a light, enjoyable bit of nostalgia, although hardly a mandatory listen.

Disc Two serves up five short retrospective featurettes with Chris Lemmon and Charlie Matthau, director Saks, actress Carole Shelley, actor David Sheiner (poker buddy "Roy"), studio boss Robert Evans (dressed, we assume unintentionally, like a comedy stereotype of a Hollywood producer on his way to a ball-busting deal), talk show host Larry King, and others. On the menu are In the Beginning (17 minutes), Inside The Odd Couple (19 mins.), Memories from the Set (10 mins.), Matthau and Lemmon (10 mins.), and The Odd Couple: A Classic (three mins.). Aimed more at fans than film historians, altogether they make a fine anecdotal chronicle of the film's casting, rehearsals, production, and legacy.

We find out, for instance, that Billy Wilder was initally considered to direct, but the studio determined that the production could afford either Lemmon or Wilder, but not both. Saks tells us that Matthau broke his arm just before shooting the first poker scene; so when we see Matthau stuffing the poker buddies' "buffet" sandwiches into his armpit, that was his way of freeing up the injured arm. As improvisation it was a solution to a problem that simultaneously created a funny visual gag and showed us something new about Matthau's character.

For better or worse these featurettes do lay on thick everyone's affection for the two leads and the film generally. Never is heard a discouraging word, so cynics should steel themselves for the love-fest ahead of time (surely someone pissed off someone else at some point on the set). All the same, I found these to be a welcome addition to a fine DVD package.

Finally, also here are two photo galleries ("Production" and "The Movie"), the theatrical trailer, and an illustrated eight-page booklet with photos and info.