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Jack Lemmon’s earlier, lighter side

It has long been a critical commonplace to describe Jack Lemmon as the everyman of American film, the least glamorous of great movie stars. But it is misleading simply to think of him as an average Joe. In many ways Lemmon, who died at age 76 in 2001, was not ordinary but exemplary, something all too rare among screen icons: a paragon of both human fallibility and human decency.

The Jack Lemmon Film Collection, a new five-film set out Tuesday from Sony Home Entertainment, samples from the ‘50s and ‘60s, roughly the first decade of the beloved actor’s screen career, when he was under contract at Columbia. It’s far from a representative selection, omitting as it does several crucial facets of his work.

For starters, there’s no sign of Billy Wilder, who directed Lemmon in seven movies from “Some Like It Hot” (1959) to “Buddy Buddy” (1981) and who forged with him a director-actor partnership as close and distinctive as that of Scorsese and De Niro or Francois Truffaut and Jean-Pierre Leaud. Also missing: Lemmon’s longtime foil Walter Matthau. It was Wilder who teamed them in 1966’s “The Fortune Cookie”; the duo cemented their rapport in 1968’s “The Odd Couple” and nurtured it well into their “Grumpy Old Men” twilight.

The emphasis on lightweight early vehicles also means there’s barely a glimpse of Lemmon’s serious side, which emerged in his performance as an alcoholic in Blake Edwards’ “Days of Wine and Roses” (1962). In fact, most of his late-career highlights are dramatic roles: a father searching for his son in Costa-Gavras’ political thriller “Missing,” a floundering real-estate agent in James Foley and David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross,” an absentee father in Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts.”

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All that said, the semi-forgotten films in the set are not without their small pleasures. They attest to the durability of Lemmon’s trademark comic persona -- the brash, manic neurotic -- and to the effervescence he could bring even to the most leaden concoctions. A Boston-born Harvard graduate, he spent a few years working in TV and Broadway before getting off to a quick start in movies. His first film, George Cukor’s “It Should Happen to You” (1954), in which he was paired with Judy Holliday, an Oscar winner for 1950’s “Born Yesterday,” was a hit.

“Phffft!” (1954), the earliest film in the Sony set, reteamed him with Holliday. In this mild screwball romance, the squabbling protagonists promptly announce their divorce and move on to respective flings -- he with Kim Novak, she with Jack Carson -- only to find their way back to each other.

By the time he made the military farce “Operation Mad Ball” (1957), Lemmon was a major star, having won a supporting actor Oscar for 1955’s “Mister Roberts.” Directed by Richard Quine, “Mad Ball” is set at a U.S. Army base in France after the end of World War II. Lemmon’s scheming private decides the solution to the enlisted men’s romantic frustration is an off-base party where they can mingle with the nurses. Antic subterfuge ensues, with a few memorable high points: Lemmon woos a nurse by faking an ulcer and persuades a colleague to impersonate a cadaver.

In the London-set murder mystery “The Notorious Landlady” (1962), also directed by Quine, Lemmon stars opposite Novak again. He’s a smitten American diplomat, and she, a few years after her indelible role in Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” plays another enigmatic femme who might not be who she says she is.

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Rounding out the set are two trivial larks -- “Under the Yum Yum Tree” (1963) and “Good Neighbor Sam” (1964), both directed by David Swift and films that Lemmon himself called “pure fluff puffs.” “Yum Yum” is a sex comedy that, in the spirit of the pre-liberated early ‘60s, manages to be both sleazy and prudish. Lemmon plays a lecherous landlord with designs on his new tenant, a virginal student (Carol Lynley) who has entered into a platonic-cohabitation experiment with her hapless boyfriend.

A more enjoyable diversion, “Good Neighbor Sam” is a zany wife-swapping comedy with some “Mad Men"-like views of the ‘60s ad world and vivid supporting turns from Romy Schneider and Edward G. Robinson. Lemmon, who attacks the role of the confused ad man with his customary harried agitation, was the rare actor who could make his mugging seem not narcissistic but generous.

Even his great collaborator Wilder fondly described him as a ham. “You can always trim a ham,” he said. “Jack Lemmon always gives you everything.”

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calendar@latimes.com


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