Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: It’s Love Week at The A.V. Club, so we’ve followed our hearts and lined up a slate of unconventional love stories.

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Kiss Me, Stupid (1964)

Writer-director Billy Wilder made a lot of great movies, but Kiss Me, Stupid, released the week of Christmas 1964, is one of his least-known films. Basically, it’s Wilder’s version of a European sex comedy (and was actually based on an Italian production starring Gina Lollobrigida), and to say it’s bizarre is an understatement. It kicks off with Dean Martin purposefully playing himself as “Dino” in an opening number that’s a send up of his own Vegas show (glass in hand, surrounded by showgirls, various name-drops to Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr.).

On his way to Hollywood, Dino gets stranded in the conveniently named Climax, Nevada, where he encounters amateur songwriter Orville (Ray Walston) who’s been looking for his big break. Orville is also insanely jealous of his wife Zelda (Felicia Farr, married in real life to Wilder favorite Jack Lemmon), who’s the prettiest girl in town. Here’s where it gets tricky: Dino is so over-sexed that it appears Orville is going to have to let Dino sleep with his wife to keep him around long enough to listen to one of the songs he wrote. Because Orville loves his wife, he picks a fight and sends her out of town, and hires Polly The Pistol (Kim Novak), a waitress at local notorious roadhouse The Belly Button, to stand in for her and sleep with Dino, clinching the songwriting deal. (Gershwin cast-offs stand in for Orville’s songwriting efforts.)

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The situation is so weird that even Dino seems occasionally creeped out, but underneath the sex farce, the movie is much more romantic than it might appear at first glance. For Polly The Pistol, a girl who wears a rhinestone in her navel at work, one night of being treated like a lady is enough to make her realize she deserves more from her life. She sweetly blossoms into a domestic creature under Orville’s roof, reminding him to wear a sweater and to get a deposit on the milk bottles.

As Orville realizes he’s the only gentleman Polly’s ever known, he takes a stand against these women being treated like bargaining chips, and realizes that the institution of marriage is sacred even for someone who’s only a wife for a night. Amazingly, for a ’60s American comedy with stars like Martin and Novak, the sexcapades are front and center; at one point, Orville and Zelda blatantly plan to have sex in the middle of the day. Eventually Orville sacrifices his career prospects for his wife stand-in, leaving it to the two women to set everything right.

This off-kilter setup proves a great showcase for the stars: Compared to Novak’s icy-cool blonde in Vertigo, her trailer-dwelling Polly (a part originally intended for Marilyn Monroe) is a revelation. Dean Martin doesn’t do much more than play himself, but all his in-jokes are hilarious (Dean gets pulled over in the desert: “What happened, that Sinatra kid get lost again?”), and his dry, sardonic wit owns whatever room he’s in, whether it’s The Sands or Polly’s trailer. His appearance also enables some 1960s pop-culture commentary, as when Zelda suggests that Orville sell one of his songs to Elvis. (Counters Dino: “Elvis who?”)

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The movie was notorious enough upon release to be banned by the Catholic Legion Of Decency, and United Artists released it under a subsidiary usually used for foreign films. So the film received limited distribution as well as some bad reviews from critics who considered it immoral and vulgar. This kind of critical reception was rare for Wilder, who rarely discussed the movie afterward. But his madcap, funny, and subversive romantic comedy resonates even more strongly 50 years later, as it now fits into a much more liberal (and liberated) sexual climate.

Availability: The stand-alone DVD of Kiss Me, Stupid is out of print, though the film is included in some Billy Wilder box sets, and can be obtained on Blu-ray through Amazon or your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased on Amazon Instant Video.

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