Barefoot in the Park (1967)
Starring Robert Redford, Jane Fonda, Charles Boyer and Mildred Natwick. Directed by Gene Saks. From Paramount Pictures.
Newlyweds Paul and Corie Bratter (Redford and Fonda) are on their way to spend their honeymoon in Room 449 at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan. They spend a passionate 6 days sequestered in their room before finally Paul, a lawyer, has to emerge to go back to work. Corie reluctantly lets him go. She has plans herself; she is headed to Greenwich Village to set up housekeeping at the couple’s new apartment at 49 W 10th Street. Effervescent, upbeat Corie is nonplussed by the fact that their building has no elevator and their apartment is five floors up and quite small. She delights when the man from the phone company comes to set up the phone. He makes note of the long climb and the coldness of the apartment but Corie’s spirits won’t be dampened.
When Paul comes home, he is taken aback by the apartment and exhausted after climbing five flights of stairs; six if you include the stoop outside. He is not as enthused about the place as Corie is particularly when he discovers a hole in the skylight that lets the cold air in. Paul makes sarcastic comments about the minuscule bedroom and the lack of a bath tub and hurts Corie’s feelings. Paul has a big case in the morning but now he must spend the night in a freezing apartment with no furniture. He commences to “go to pieces” and wonders why Corie is not doing the same. However, their passion sustains them for the night.
Corie’s mother, Ethel (Natwick) visits from her home in New Jersey and – once she recovers from the climb – peruses the new apartment. She notices its spartan nature but she spins positively for Corie’s sake. While Paul runs out for scotch, mother and daughter talk and Corie tells her mother that she, too, could use love in her life. Mother says she is content to be alone.
Late that night as the two lovers sleep in their overcoats, they hear someone at the door. Corie goes to investigate and meets their eccentric upstairs neighbour, Victor Velasco (Boyer). Victor – known as quite a ladies man – has for years accessed his attic flat through the bedroom window in Paul and Corie’s apartment. Corie is taken with Victor at once and schemes to introduce her mother to him and a dinner date is made.
Mother arrives for what she thinks is a dinner with Paul’s parents but Corie springs her blind date on her. Ethel is mortified at meeting Mr. Velasco but the four navigate drinks and an appetizer in Victor’s apartment before going to dinner. Victor knows an excellent Albanian restaurant on Staten Island and he and Corie revel in the exciting delicacies and potent cocktails but Mother and Paul are not so sure. Corie’s mom is concerned about what this mysterious food will do to her stomach and conservative Paul is skeptical about all this lunacy.
Hours later, Corie and Victor roar back to the Bratter’s apartment ready to continue the night with some brandy. Mother and Paul are out of commission. When Ethel begs off and says she is going home, Victor offers to drive her. After the two have left, Paul rails against the whole crazy adventure and worries about Ethel out with Victor. Corie gets hostile and berates Paul as a “stuffed shirt”. The two brawl and Corie dissolves into tears saying she wants a divorce. Paul gets a cold due to sleeping on the couch under the hole in the skylight as a light snow falls.
The next morning, Corie discovers Ethel in a robe in Victor’s apartment. As Mother tries to explain, Paul grabs a bottle and takes off, determined to kick off a good bender. Corie tells her mother about wanting a divorce and her mother talks her down. Corie decides she is ready to give marriage another chance and goes looking for Paul. She finds him – walking barefoot in the park.
Playwright Neil Simon (1927-2018) wrote more than 30 plays and scored more Oscar and Tony nominations combined than any other writer. Barefoot in the Park comes at the outset of Simon’s storied career as it was his third play (Come Blow Your Horn was his first) and the screenplay for the film version was his second. The play opened on October 23, 1963 and closed on June 25, 1967 after 1530 performances making it Neil’s longest-running show and the tenth-longest running non-musical play in Broadway history. Elizabeth Ashley (born 1939 in Ocala, FLA) originated the role of Corie. Liz was married to George Peppard and had a prolific television career. Robert Redford and Mildred Natwick were in the play and Victor was played by Austrian-American Kurt Kasznar, seen on the big screen in The Ambushers (1967) among other films. Director Mike Nichols won a Tony for his efforts. Other revivals of the play have included performances by Myrna Loy, Joan Van Ark, Richard Benjamin, Dorothy Lamour and later Amanda Peet and Jill Clayburgh. Neil Simon, of course, would enjoy a career as one of the preeminent playwrights in American history authoring such plays – and, quite often, their screenplays – as The Odd Couple, Promises, Promises and Brighton Beach Memoirs among many others.
Simon’s Barefoot in the Park was also later adapted for television. The 1970 sitcom version lasted only 12 episodes but is notable in that the cast was predominantly black; the first American television sitcom to star African-Americans since Amos ‘n’ Andy. Scoey Mitchell (1930-2022) played Paul and cast as Corie was Tracy Reed (b. 1949). Strife behind the scenes coupled with poor ratings hastened the show’s demise.
Look who it is producing this quality property, none other than Hal Wallis. Probably using money he made from a goofy Elvis movie to finance this esteemed production. Gene Saks sits in the director’s chair for Barefoot in the Park. Saks (1921-2015) was primarily a Broadway director who won three Tonys and often worked with Neil Simon. Our film was his first as director and he would follow it up with two more hits; The Odd Couple the following year and Cactus Flower the year after that. After this run, though, he would focus his talents elsewhere and only directed another four feature films in the next twenty years. He also appeared in front of the camera and can be seen in one of my favourite movies, 1994’s Nobody’s Fool with Paul Newman. Saks was married to Bea Arthur from 1950 to 1978.
Our man, Neal Hefti, is on hand to provide the delightful score. Born in poverty in Nebraska, Neal – I love how his first name is spelled – would grow up to play with and arrange for Harry James and Woody Herman. By 1967, Hefti was a well-known composer and arranger who had worked extensively for Count Basie and had orchestrated Frank‘s Sinatra and Swingin’ Brass record. He also had wrote the theme and handled the music for the Batman TV series. Neal provides gentle melodies that accent the action of Barefoot on the Park well. The ubiquitous Johnny Mercer provides lyrics for the main theme.
Robert Redford (b. 1936) was a bright, young star by the time he played Paul Bratter on stage and screen. He was gaining a rep as an actor of quality as he had been featured both on Broadway and also in classier film fare such as Inside Daisy Clover and This Property Condemned, both with Natalie Wood. He would star with Jane Fonda, Marlon Brando, Katherine Walsh and others in 1966’s The Chase before reprising his role of Paul in our film. Two years later, he would enter the stratosphere thanks to his work in the seminal western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Robert Redford then went on to be…Robert Redford. Acclaimed actor, accomplished director and patron of independent film through his Sundance Film Festival, Redford is on a very short list of major Hollywood achievers. Still the consummate actor in 2013, see his stunning work in that year’s All is Lost.
I have never been much for Jane Fonda (b. 1937) but I do enjoy her in this film and another favourite of mine, Sunday in New York. Hank’s daughter and Peter’s sister, Jane Seymour Fonda scores points with me though for being half-a-Canadian. Her mother, socialite Frances Ford Seymour, was born in Brockville, Ontario and sadly, not four months after Henry Fonda asked for a divorce, she committed suicide at age 42 when Jane was 12. Like Redford, Jane began her career on the stage and soon made a name for herself outside her father’s significant shadow. Shortly after our film, she broke through with her work in Cat Ballou (1965) and then she established herself as a sex symbol with Barbarella in 1968. She would later win two Best Actress Oscars, one for Klute (1971) and one for Coming Home (1978). In 1982, her home exercise video, Jane Fonda’s Workout, became the biggest-selling VHS tape of the 20th century.
Who is cooler than Charles Boyer? Born in France near the end of the last summer of the 19th century, Boyer also began on the stage and worked in French films until 1935 when he signed a contract with American film producer Walter Wanger. For Wanger, he put his name in history with his portrayal of thief on the run in the Casbah Pepe le Moko in Algiers alongside the luminous Hedy Lamarr. He would go on to a solid career in Hollywood and would also return to the stage. He was seen in the films Love Affair (1939), Gaslight (1944) and then later in Casino Royale and our film in the same year. He made only two more films after appearing as the High Lama in the 1973 remake of Lost Horizon. The famed screen lover Charles Boyer was married to one woman for over 40 years, English actress Pat Paterson. The two had a son who sadly committed suicide by gunshot after his girlfriend broke up with him. He was 21. Boyer and Paterson settled in Arizona and were married from 1934 to 1978, when Paterson died of cancer. Two days later, Boyer committed suicide with an overdose of Seconal. Monsieur Boyer is divine as Victor.
Mildred Natwick is absolutely delightful in Barefoot in the Park. A celebrated stage actress, Natwick also showed up in some prominent films. From ’48 to ’52 she put together this noteworthy string – The Kissing Bandit with Francis, 3 Godfathers and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon with Duke, Cheaper By the Dozen with Myrna Loy and The Quiet Man again with John Wayne. In ’55, she appeared in the excellent The Trouble With Harry and then in 1957 she was seen in Tammy and the Bachelor. Ten years later, she reprised her stage role as Ethel Banks in our film and promptly scored her only Oscar nom. Somehow, she wrapped her career with an appearance in Dangerous Liaisons, of all films, in 1988. Never married and with no children, Natwick died at 89 in 1994 in Manhattan and is buried in her hometown of Baltimore.
This film is wonderful for many reasons, not the least of which is its visual presentation. The viewer is treated to a nice look at Greenwich Village circa 1967. The Bratter’s apartment is at 111 Waverly Place in the Village. This address dates back to 1839 and was recently converted to a single-family home boasting six bedrooms, eight bathrooms, a movie theatre and – an elevator! This 8,500-sq. ft. home sold in February of 2005 for $5,612,000. It last sold in December of 2020 for $18,350,000, $1,145,000 under asking price. It really is steps away from Washington Square Park. Check out an interesting real estate listing here.
The Plaza Hotel is thriving still at 768 Fifth Avenue. You’ll note in the film that the flags flying outside are up to date; the Canadian flag can be seen and at the time of filming the Maple Leaf was only a year-and-a-half old. The French Renaissance-inspired Plaza was opened in 1907. Today, after 5 renovations, it boasts 282 hotel rooms and 181 condominiums. Check out the Plaza’s site at theplazany.com. It includes an excellent history section where it runs down the Film, Faces and Moments of the hotel’s history and touches on North By Northwest, Truman Capote, John Lennon, the Lawford-Kennedy union, Marilyn’s broken shoulder strap and Kay Thompson and Eloise. While you’re at the site, why don’t you book a room, Rockefeller. Only 12 hundy a night.
Washington Square Park serves as the park of the title. I know the park best from When Harry Met Sally… and Wayne Newton’s wonderful first Christmas album and his tune “Christmas in Washington Square”. The park contains statues honouring George Washington, Italian patriot and soldier Giuseppe Garibaldi and Alexander Lyman Holley, one of the founders of the American steel industry. In 1888, Robert Louis Stevenson chatted with Mark Twain there and in 1958 Buddy Holly, who lived nearby for a time, would sit there and listen to others strumming guitars and help them with chords. The park and it’s Washington Square Arch have been seen in many films including Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (1960), Serpico (1973) and I Am Legend (2007),
A quick word about the Bratter’s apartment. I love it. My regular readers may recall me having mentioned the first place I lived on my own, Apartment Zero, a small, one-room bachelor flat. Because of this, I suppose, I have much affection for small living spaces and the Bratter’s apartment I think is lovely. The steps up to the little kitchen, the screen Corie has placed there, the couch and notice the record player. Looks very cozy.
The most appealing element of this film is its script. Neil Simon has loaded his tale with much wonderful comedy. The movie is flat-out funny with laughs for audiences of any era. Corie delivers some winking innuendos in the early going, perhaps bold for the time. The “five flights up” gets a lot of mileage; Corie kissing Paul so he can’t breathe when he arrives in the apartment, the wheezing old delivery guy who takes Corie up on her “put them down anywhere” and Ethel saying “there were always more stairs”. I always get a big laugh when Paul suggests what the dog Corie threatens to buy would do to her when he saw the stairs. And it’s audaciously funny to insert as a result of drinking certain alcohol the inability to make a fist after imbibing. That’s good comedy. To each their own, I guess, but that’s good comedy.
Barefoot in the Park is the story of a young couple. With their marriage only days old, they make a horrifying discovery; they have absolutely nothing in common. This then is a tale of a vivacious, free-spirited young woman and her husband, a conservative and pragmatic young man. One of the most enchanting things about this film is the passion that exists between these two. It may have been somewhat daring still in 1967 to depict the carnal delight these two take in each other. This also is the source of some clever writing and some very funny scenes. Corie’s playfulness is on display early. In the crowded elevator going up to their honeymoon suite, Paul suddenly lets out a burst of laughter, no doubt because of something we can’t see that Corie has done with her hand. As they get off the elevator, Corie says “Mr. Adams, I hope you realize I’m only 15 years old”. Not only is this a very audacious statement for Simon to insert into his screenplay but it is Corie fighting back. “Oh, they’re so stuffy around here”, she says by way of explanation. She wants to rile these stuffed shirts. Much is made of the fact that the newlyweds do not emerge from their reverie for six whole days. Audiences then and now will snicker knowingly – and then their imaginations will get to work.
When Paul finally has to go back to work, Corie walks with him to the elevator. Again, it is full and again Corie has her fun. Clad in only Paul’s pajama top, she faces Paul and the crowd in the elevator and says “thank you, Mr. Dooley. Next time you’re in New York just call me up”. Now, that is funny. And daring. Add to her statement the fact that Corie is barely dressed which brings up another thing worth mentioning. While I’ve never really considered Jane Fonda very “sexy”, there is no doubt that Corie Bratter is, in spades. Her physical appearance and her adventurous spirit is seen again in her first meeting with Victor Velasco.
In the middle of the night, a neighbour with a reputation as a “Bluebeard” enters the Bratter apartment. Corie goes to see who it is breaking in and surprises Victor who is lecherously appreciative of her. He even jokingly asks if he is making her uncomfortable and is delighted when she answers in the affirmative. Still, she is intrigued by him, seeing in him a kindred spirit. Because she is inherently playful and ready to accept those on the fringes of acceptable society, she cottons to Victor immediately – so much so that she chooses him as a blind date for her own mother. That Victor gropes her amply displayed bare leg adds much charm to this humourous scene.
A perfect and hilarious example of the differences between the Bratters is when Paul gets off the phone with his co-worker. Paul is lost in thought about his upcoming day in court – the sensible business of life – but all that Corie has on her mind is enticing Paul with a negligee she’s bought and she does a provocative dance to show it off – the fun and heat of passion. At first Paul doesn’t even notice her. When he does, he doesn’t get it and he irritably says “what’s happening? What is this? What are you doing?”. It’s quite funny and quite telling.
There is a theme presented here and it is that of one’s ability – or inability – to devour life. Corie and Victor approach life dashingly, always looking for the next exhilarating experience. Paul is straight-laced and even when he is drunk he behaves very rationally. He will not go a little mad at times when Corie asks him to as it often does not make sense to him to do so. Ethel has accepted a life without love and without fun. She feels that she constantly needs her pills and that she always has to sleep “on a board”.
Corie laments aloud that Paul is incapable of letting loose and having a good time. She says he has no adventure in him and that he is a “watcher” of life instead of a “doer”. He is proper and dignified with no sense of the ridiculous. Her complaint is well taken but conversely, Corie’s free-wheeling way of handling any and all situations seems to have lead to a neurosis of sorts. Early in the film, she seems unstable as she expresses her concerns about her ability to be a good wife. And when the foursome’s night on the town is a bust and Corie considers her husband in a new light, she becomes unglued and sobs uncontrollably. So which way is better?
Mom fixes things when her daughter tells her of the divorce she thinks she wants. There is no grand pronouncement or a profound secret of life forthcoming from Ethel. She simply shares with her daughter the age old proverb of compromise. Be gentle with Paul, be patient, be kind to him, Mom says, as he loves you very much. Paul for his part has now tasted the sweet nectar of “kicks”. He goes on a bender in Washington Square and not only gives his coat away in freezing temperatures but doffs his shoes to go barefoot in the park and show Corie he is also ready to compromise. He caps it off by scaling the ledge outside their apartment wondering if that is adventurous enough for her.
This idea of compromise is reflected nicely in the relationship between the older couple. Poor Victor begins to realize he is not so young anymore. He is not as physically agile as he used to be and he admits that he may have to give up his beloved spicy foods – food that has carried a certain symbolism throughout the film – due to the ulcer he is shocked to learn he has. Ethel learns that she can go a day without her pills and without sleeping in her own bed on her board. She has cut loose a bit. Victor then has “come down” some from the heady delights of living and Ethel has “risen up” to shake off some shackles and remove the one foot she had placed in the grave. These two have met in the middle.
This all adds up to a delightful package. There is a coziness to the film and there seems a warmth in the city streets and the apartment. Simon’s play has been adapted well to the screen and film audiences are treated to the glories of a winning synthesis. With Barefoot in the Park, you get excellent performances by all, particularly by two great-looking young stars on the cusp of stardom, in a sexy and playful tale of newlyweds comically navigating the beginning of the rest of their lives. You get a very charming and a very hilarious film.