Though we’ve had around 60 opportunities to mention Billy Wilder (1906-2002) on Travalanche we’ve only done a couple of posts dedicated to him. One was about Ball of Fire (1941), which Wilder wrote but didn’t direct (Howard Hawks did). With its strong burlesque angle, it’s natural that we would give that picture attention first. We also wrote about a film that never got made, A Day at the United Nations, which Wilder had hoped would star the Marx Brothers. Now we are ready to give Wilder’s whole career our attention, with a strong concentration the show biz angle. This year also marks the 80th anniversary of Wilder’s start as a Hollywood director, by the way.
Wilder’s parents were Polish Jews who had a chain of railway station cake shops in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His given name was Samuel, but his mother nicknamed him Billy after Buffalo Bill Cody, having seen his Wild West show as a teenager. Like Ben Hecht, whose The Front Page Wilder remade late in his career, Wilder started out as a newspaper reporter. This illuminates both the content and the tone of many of Wilder’s films: hard-bitten, cynical: liberal, but also world-weary. He was still based in Vienna when he did a profile on Paul Whiteman, who was passing through town with his band. Wilder traveled with Whiteman to Berlin, and that is where he got involved in the film business (while working part time as a male taxi dancer, as guys like Valentino and George Raft had done during their lean years in the States).
Obviously, it was the Nazis that forced Wilder to leave the German sphere during the early ’30s. Several of his close relatives, including the beloved mother who had named him Billy, were killed in the Holocaust. Wilder would make a film about the death camps for the U.S. War Department in 1945, but his better known film about the Nazi years is Stalag 17 (1953), the clear inspiration for the sitcom Hogan’s Heroes, right down to having a character named Sergeant Schultz (Sig Ruman).
After contributing to several Hollywood screenplays, including Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938) and Ninotchka (1939) for Lubitsch and Ball of Fire for Hawks, Wilder got to direct his first American film, the peculiar and alarming The Major and the Minor (1942), in which Ginger Rogers plays a woman who is raped by her boss (Robert Benchley) and masquerades as a 12 year old girl in order to afford the train fare home (tickets for children were half-price in those enlightened times). On the journey home she becomes entangled with Ray Milland and thus begins our pedophilia comedy. The film was successful enough that Wilder was allowed to continue directing. In 1944 came Double Indemnity, co-written with Raymond Chandler, and prettily handily my SECOND favorite Wilder picture. Then came the multiple-Oscar winning alcoholism drama Lost Weekend (1945), also with Milland.
My favorite Wilder picture is of course Sunset Boulevard (1950), and over the years, it’s wormed its way into my heart as one of my favorite movies as well. I am in awe of the formal achievement: the screenplay is simultaneously a horror movie, a comedy, a noir, a murder mystery, and a show biz tale. There’s even a love story in it! But it’s also a satire about America and its cruel culture of fantasy and violence. To quote Malcolm X on the subject of the Kennedy Assassination, it is a story in which “the chickens come home to roost”. The black comedy reminds of the Chaplin of the time; it shares things in common with Monsieur Verdoux (1947) and A King in New York (1957). It naturally inspired and informs many a film that came afterward. William Holden is the sacrificial screenwriter, seemingly one-half a stand-in for Wilder; the other half is fellow Jewish-Austrian emigre film director Erich Von Stroheim. (Wilder would revive that gimmick by putting Otto Preminger in Stalag 17). He originally wanted Mae West for the part of Norma Desmond, but thankfully she passed, giving us the wonderful performance by Gloria Swanson, which clicks a lot better than if it had been someone like Mary Pickford, who was too close to the character. The name Norma Desmond obviously conjures the William Desmond Taylor murder of 1922, in which Mabel Normand was a subsidiary player in the cast of characters. Had she lived SHE might have played the part! Other silent era figures in the picture include the famous “Waxworks” at the bridge game (Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, and H.B. Warner), the great director/producer Cecil B. DeMille and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. Also in the cast are Robert Emmett O’Connor, Fred Clark (as a producer named Sheldrake, a name Wilder would revive in The Apartment), and a very young Jack Webb, among others.
Remarkably, Wilder followed this picture up with Ace in the Hole a.k.a. The Big Carnival (1951), in which Kirk Douglas plays a hard-luck reporter who succumbs to the temptation of milking a tabloid story at the risk of a man’s life. A media circus springs up around a trapped archaeologist. It builds on the theme of Sunset Blvd. on its criticism of America’s greedy media culture. I’ve always thought it would be perfect on a double bill with Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957).
Wilder’s other major show biz story is of course Some Like It Hot (1959), which clearly has some roots in the director’s own experiences traveling with the Whiteman band. We’ve written about a few of the all-girl bands of the Jazz Age here, such as those of Phil Spitalny and Ina Ray Hutton and The International Sweethearts of Rhythm. All of the drag business also hearkens back to vaudeville and silent comedy. Jack Lemmon (also a musician) would appear in seven Wilder films, more than any other actor. Tony Curtis also conjures vaudeville by making his Cary Grant impression one of the film’s cherished takeaways. (Grant had been Wilder’s first choice for the Bogart role in Sabrina. That movie would have been way better if it had been so). And to complete the trio at the film’s heart is Marilyn Monroe, who had also starred in Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch, and gives us the greatest comic turn of her career. Rather unfairly Joe E. Brown is chiefly remembered for his supporting role in this film; he’d been one of the top comedy stars of the 1930s, and his dozens of starring films are today largely forgotten. George Raft, Edward G. Robinson, George E. Stone, and Pat O’Brien are also on hand to evoke those earlier decades, and we also get Wilder favorite Joan Shawlee (the tall one) and the ubiquitous Mike Mazurki. With its ’20s prohibition motif we are also reminded of a great many other films it could be grouped with as a minor subgenre of the era: Capra’s Pocketful of Miracles (1961), Sinatra’s Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964), The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967), and sitcoms like The Roaring Twenties (1960-61), and The Chicago Teddy Bears (1971). And the many versions of Chicago!
Kiss Me Stupid (1964) is another of Wilder’s comedies with a strong show biz angle. Dean Martin plays a parody version of himself, just as Marilyn Monroe had done in The Seven Year Itch. He plays a boozed up lounge singer whose car trouble forces him to stay with an aspiring songwriter who runs a garage, and his gorgeous wife. Both of these parts had been intended for other actors than the ones who eventually played them. The knock-out wife was of course supposed to have been Monroe. Then Jayne Mansfield was cast but became pregnant (with Mariska Hargitay, as it happens), so Kim Novak finally got the part. The songwriter was supposed to have been Jack Lemmon (who would have been great, with his piano skills), but he passed, so then it was to have been Peter Sellers, who had a heart attack (actually, 13 of them), so then it went to Ray Walston. It is a hoot, in any case. I first saw this movie in a theatre, New York’s Film Forum, and that’s always a happy memory. A movie that shows the influence of Kiss Me Stupid would be something like Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1983).
Some slightly random factoids about some of Wilder’s remaining films:
The Spirit of Saint Louis (1957) would make a nice pairing with The Glen Miller Story (1954). They are both bio-pics with aeronautical angles, starring former air force pilot Jimmy Stewart. In The Glen Miller Story he’d played the titular bandleader, whose plane disappeared in a fog while traveling to Europe. In The Spirit of St. Louis he played none other than Charles Lindbergh. It seems a peculiar subject for Wilder, Lindbergh being a famously anti-Semitic America-firster. But times were different back then, and Lindbergh was still alive at the time, so there was no chance of dealing with politics properly in the picture.
Back in the day, folks used to mix up Witness for the Prosecution (1957) with Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case (1947), and Hitchcock used to say that it was the only such example he didn’t mind a bit — The Paradine Case being a soporific bore of a film, and Witness for the Prosecution being an entertaining nail biter.
The Apartment (1960) as well as Wilder’s earlier Double Indemnity gave many of us too young to have grown up with classic cinema an EYE-OPENING picture of Fred MacMurray, whom most of us only knew from the gentle sitcom My Three Sons. MacMurray, by the way had started out as a musician in jazz bands not at all unlike Whiteman’s , or Miller’s or the one in Some Like It Hot.
One, Two, Three (1961) is interesting for its Cold War Berlin setting — a chance for Wilder to revisit his former city, and to make fun of America (by way of Coca Cola) at the same time. It’s also interesting to watch as Jimmy Cagney’s last film before his 20 years retirement. Did Wilder put him off movies?? Nah!
I recently caught the fascinating Fedora (1978). I’d avoided it for years under the misapprehension that it was some kind of private eye send-up thing, assuming the movie was named after the hat. It’s actually the name of a woman, an actress. If it had starred Marlene Dietrich and Faye Dunaway as Wilder had intended it might be remembered as a late classic, but I still think it is a terrific and intriguing film even without them. And this is another one with a show biz angle. William Holden returns to the Wilder fold for the fourth and final time as a hard-luck screenwriter, this time hoping to land a major movie star he once had an affair with for a project, but whom is mysteriously kept under lock and key now on an island, and also appears to have mysteriously not to have aged over the decades. For some reason I picture it on a double bill with Robert Aldrich’s 1968 The Legend of Lylah Clare.
I’ve yet to see Wilder’s very last picture Buddy Buddy (1981), which reunited him with the team of Lemmon and Walter Matthau for the fourth time, although I really enjoyed The Fortune Cookie (1966), which mixes the insurance fraud angle of Double Indemnity, with the show biz greed thing of many of his comedies. Lemmon plays a TV cameraman who is injured while covering a pro football game. Matthau is his ambulance chasing lawyer brother in law.
Remarkably, Wilder lived for over 20 years after making his last movie. And now he has been dead for 20 years. He was 96 when he passed away in 2002.
Here we should mention Wilder’s two major screenwriting partners: Charles Brackett and I.A.L. Diamond. Wilder is always praised for his own genius, but attention should be paid to them!
For more on show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.