After experiencing spectacular success during his first decade as a writer/director in Hollywood Billy Wilder was eviscerated in an onslaught of scathing attacks from intellectuals and taste-mongers during the 1950s and ‘60s. Critics diverse as Andrew Sarris, Pauline Kael, and Dwight MacDonald found Wilder’s sour take on the world too cynical and his opportunistic protagonists beyond redemption. The shine was off the golden boy, but Billy could take solace in the fact he was one of the most decorated directors in Hollywood and, more to the point, his movies made a lot of money.
But, there was always more than meets to eye to this curmudgeon from Vienna. Like fellow Austrian Otto Preminger, Wilder felt Hollywood frequently sidestepped controversial issues to placate the censors. But unlike the estimable Otto, Wilder wasn’t concerned about making headlines so much as creating three-dimensional human portraits and making better pictures.
These days, it’s difficult to find a successful screenwriter-director who won’t admit to being influenced by Billy Wilder. In the autumn of his years, he kindly indulged young cineastes in lengthy and thoughtful interviews, but still one can’t help but wonder what Wilder really must have felt about the infantile state of the modern Hollywood Comedy or American Film, for that matter. One guesses it didn’t bring a smile to the old pixie’s face.
Wilder knew a thing or two about being an opportunist. Born to Jewish parents in the Polish town of Sucha, then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Billy grew up in and around Vienna. Wilder’s father was a dreamer and entrepreneur who ran into a lot of bad luck in business. His mother was more distant but having spent time in New York City as an adolescent, she instilled a Utopian dream of America into her little boy’s head.
The war years were rough on Vienna and the Wilders. Billy was bored by secondary school and chose not to go to college when he became eighteen. He wanted to be a newspaper reporter instead. Not afraid of hustling for work, Wilder quickly caught on at the Viennese paper Die Stunde where he specialized in writing about crime and sports. But it was a favorable review of Paul Whiteman’s American jazz band that gave Wilder his first big break.
Impressed by the writer’s purple prose, Whiteman invited Wilder to join the group’s entourage in Berlin. The decadent atmosphere of the German capital during the Weimar years stimulated the plucky scribe and he soon settled in the city. Once again, Wilder struggled to find work so he took jobs as a dancing gigolo and the occasional assignment interviewing celebrities for newspapers. During his downtime he attended plays and movies and began writing unsolicited scenarios. A fortuitous meeting with a producer led to the sale of a screenplay and steady work as a writer in the film industry, no small order for any aspiring artist living in a city with rampant unemployment.
In 1929, Wilder and several other Berlin cineastes (Robert and Kurt Siodmak, Fred Zinnemann, Edgar Ulmer and cinematographer Eugen Schufftan) pooled their talent and resources to shoot People on Sunday. This leisurely, character-driven piece about two working-class Berliners looking for an easy score painted a fond picture of Old Europe before the advent of the Third Reich. The film turned out to be a surprise hit landing Wilder more work at Berlin’s prestigious UFA studios.
For the next few years Wilder wrote or co-authored a dozen scenarios for UFA and other German production companies. These mostly forgotten comedies and potboilers padded Billy’s pockets and helped him live the good life in Berlin. But as soon as Hitler ascended to power, Wilder saw the writing on the wall. He sold his art collection, picked up his girlfriend and took a train to Paris, leaving his family behind.
Once settled into the City of Lights, Wilder (who could speak French) had an idea for a film and found a producer willing to foot the bill for Mauvaise graine (Bad Seed). Wilder co-directed (with Alexander Esway) this slender story about Henri Pasquier (Pierre Mingand), a playboy whose allowance is cut-off by a father (Paul Escoffier) who wants to see his boy earn his own way. To add insult to injury Henri’s car is repossessed and sold but as fate would have it the new owners park the vehicle on the very street where the young man is taking a walk. Henri steals the car to meet up with a girl but he is soon pursued by a band of car thieves who hijack him to their hideout.
Henri is soon indoctrinated into the gang where he meets Jeanette (Danielle Darrieux), sister of the thief Jean (Raymond Galle). Pretty Jeanette also works for gang, posing as bait to temp men away from their cars. Henri turns out to be a successful thief, but he irritates the boss (Michel Duran) who sends Jeanette and the young man to the south in a rigged racing car. Henri wrecks the car but makes a love pact with Jeanette. He returns to Paris to retrieve Jean but Jeanette’s brother is soon killed in a police raid. Fortunately, Henri’s father gives him enough money to begin a new life with Jeanette in Marseilles.
What’s most striking about Mauvaise graine is how fresh it still looks after all these years. Having little money to shoot in a studio, Wilder and his crew use Paris as a backdrop and the city stands out as the true star of the film. By propping cameras in backseats and on the hoods of moving cars, Mauvaise graine anticipates another pair of on the lam classics; Gun Crazy and Breathless.
Instead of basking in the film’s surprising box office success, Wilder was already looking to leave Europe and join his brother who had already migrated to America. Through his friend the legendary UFA producer Joe May, Wilder got a contract to work at Columbia studios in Hollywood. But once settled in Los Angeles, Wilder’s project (Tam-Tam) quickly fizzled and the studio cut him loose. With his brother living three thousand miles away in New York, Billy was essentially alone in a foreign country, unfamiliar with the language and without a job.
While looking for work in Hollywood, Billy set out to get an education in his new homeland’s popular culture. He learned the slang and lingo by reading newspapers and comic strips. He also eschewed the local European community and made friends almost exclusively with Americans. But still, Wilder struggled to keep a job in his first few years in Hollywood. He managed to sell a couple screenplays to 20th Century Fox which kept him afloat but it wasn’t until he was hired as a screenwriter at Paramount that he finally came into his own.
There, Wilder had the good fortune to hook-up with the Harvard educated, former New Yorker magazine scribe Charles Brackett who was also struggling to make a go of it in Hollywood. The opinionated Jew from Vienna and the conservative Yank would get into plenty of arguments over the years but, in time, they would turn out to be a screenwriting team with few peers. Wilder found he thrived on conflict, whether it had been in his profession or personal life. The reserved Brackett was often flustered by his partner’s fiery temper and irrational outbursts but he couldn’t complain about the results.
Their first collaboration turned out to be a plum project, Ernst Lubitsch’s Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, a sex comedy set in the South of France starring Gary Cooper and Claudette Colbert. Wilder was thrilled to work for his cinematic idol and even learned a few tricks of the trade from the old master from Berlin. But after a marvelous, meet-cute opening, where the stars come to an agreement over a pair of pyjamas, this wicked fairy tale about an American businessman who gets a dressing down from his new French wife grows surprisingly stale.
The Lubitsch-Wilder-Brackett team would have much more success with the MGM production of Ninotchka, Greta Garbo’s first comedy. This warmhearted story about four Soviet agents who learn to love the sweet life in Paris was much more up Lubitsch’s alley. In a posthumous tribute to the Lubitsch touch, Wilder would cut and paste several of Ninotchka’s suggestive hotel sequences to his own Parisian valentine, Love in the Afternoon.
As fate would have it, Wilder and Brackett would find their finest collaborator in Mitchell Leisen, a talented Paramount director who got his start designing sets for Cecil B. DeMille. Leisen had an impeccable light touch and had already turned out such entertaining fare as Death Takes a Holiday, Swing High, Swing Low, Easy Living, and later Remember the Night. But Wilder hated Leisen’s cavalier attitude towards his team’s meticulously crafted scripts, so he often picked fights with the director before being banned from the set.
Still, it’s hard to imagine even Wilder doing a better job of directing the delightful Cinderella comedy Midnight, the stirring war-time romance Arise, My Love, and the menacing border melodrama Hold Back the Dawn. But, as evidenced by Leisen’s decline in the latter part of the 1940s, it is clear this highly-skilled filmmaker needed the sort of edge Wilder and his other great writer-collaborator Preston Sturges could lend to his scenarios.
Screenwriter Wilder’s other important project from the era Ball of Fire found him working with another giant of the industry, Howard Hawks. Wilder and Brackett sold their clever spin on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to Sam Goldwyn who in turn assigned the project to Hawks. This story about a daffy professor (Gary Cooper), who interviews a sassy chanteuse (Barbara Stanwyck) and many jive-talking members of the community while researching the topic of slang for an encyclopedia, drew from Wilder’s own experiences in learning American/English.
While Hawks delivers the kind of goods which made him a master of screwball comedy, Ball of Fire is mostly memorable for an old world gentility and snappy repartee courtesy of its increasingly ambitious writers.
Frustrated by what “hacks” like Leisen were doing to his screenplays, Wilder pressed studio executives to direct his own film. Encouraged by the success of Preston Sturges’ brilliant directing debuts (The Great McGinty and Christmas in July), Paramount was willing to give their other hotshot screenwriter a shot at calling the shots. He didn’t disappoint.
Wilder’s debut, the sweet and saucy The Major and the Minor, looks better and better as the years go by. Casting the voluptuous Ginger Rogers as “Sue-Sue”, a stowaway from a train trying to pass as twelve year old girl in a boy’s military academy, was a stroke of genius and luck. It also didn’t hurt to have the leering Robert Benchley, dishing some very adult zingers, in a role similar to John Barrymore’s racy raconteur in Midnight, a film Major resembles in sheer giddiness.
After failing to make a go of it in New York City, Susan Applegate (Rogers) packs up her worldly goods to catch the train which will take her back home to Iowa. When Susan learns she doesn’t have enough money for the fare, she disguises herself as a child and purchases a half-price ticket. Her mature looks arouse the suspicions of the train’s ticket takers, prompting Susan to take cover in the sleeping car of Major Philip Kirby (Ray Milland), a handsome, far-sighted officer who is stationed at a military camp in the Midwest.
Philip falls for Sue-Sue’s ruse but when his jealous fiancée Pamela Hill (Rita Johnson) boards the train she nearly catches Susan off guard. Rain forces them to drive to the military camp where Sue-Sue will room with Pamela’s street smart sister Lucy (Diana Hill). Lucy is wise to Susan’s game but no fan of the manipulative Pamela she enters into a plot with her new friend get Philip out of her sister’s clutches. When they learn Pamela has gone against Philip’s wishes and used her influence to keep him from being shipped out for military duty, Sue-Sue uses her charm to get the orders reversed.
Pamela catches onto Susan and forces her to leave the camp and town without an explanation to Philip. Months later, Philip stops over in Sue-Sue’s hometown hoping to see Sue-Sue and meet her mother (Lela Rogers), before being shipped out. Susan arranges to meet the confused officer, but this time as a beautiful young woman ready to get swept off her feet.
Made at the height of Hollywood’s obsession with small town values and cornball antics, Wilder, thankfully, peppered The Major and The Minor with plenty of salacious innuendo. Here, the adults may have the pie in the sky dreams but it’s the kids who know the score. Coming off the heels of Wilder’s affectionate take on the pop culture of his new home land (Ball of Fire) his first stab at direction played along the same lines. The Major and The Minor is a sassy and hip film that deserves a place among Hollywood’s finest comedies.
For Five Graves to Cairo, Wilder and Brackett updated the Lajos Biro play Hotel Imperial to the North Africa war theatre where a British corporal goes undercover to help topple Germany’s General Rommel. After taking over a Sahara Desert hotel for a conference between Axis generals, Rommel (Erich Von Stroheim) takes the establishment’s gimpy porter into confidence. He has been led to believe the man is a spy for the Germans but in reality John Bramble (Franchot Tone) is a British soldier masquerading as a hotel employee to avoid capture.
Bramble learns of a secret which could halt Rommel’s army in its tracks but he can’t leave the hotel until he kills a German Lieutenant who is blackmailing Mouche (Anne Baxter), a pretty French chambermaid. Mouche is implicated in the murder but she begs Bramble to leave and report back to the British. Months later, Bramble returns to the hotel in triumph only to learn Mouche has been executed by the Germans.
Though the rousing finale makes clear the film was intended to be wartime propaganda, Five Graves to Cairo still remains ambivalent enough to hold the interest of a modern audience. Too bloodless to be an interesting Wilder leading man, Tone is still effective as the scheming Corporal and the young Baxter is perfectly competent as the saucy maid who makes the supreme sacrifice for family and country.
But, it is the character actors who carry the day here. Wilder relished the opportunity to work with Stroheim, and his filmic idol lent an aura of sophistication to his portrait of the Desert Fox. As the hotel’s frightened concierge and the vain Italian General, Akim Tamiroff and Fortunio Bonanova are buffoonish, yet uncomplicated men caught up in the web of violence and intrigue. War is not in their wheelhouse, but they will escape harm and return home to spin tales of blarney to anyone who’ll listen.
Wilder’s ascension to director was a success but his first two films had little of his own personal stamp on them. Wilder’s vision ran to black in his next film, the quintessential L.A. noir Double Indemnity. Based on the novel by master pulp writer James Cain and a screenplay by Wilder and Raymond Chandler—Brackett refused to work on such low-brow fare—the hard-boiled film chronicles the downward spiral of Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), a crack life insurance agent selling policies in the city of Angels.
When Walter visits the home of an older client, Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers), to get a necessary signature he is struck by man’s sexy young wife Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck) and makes a play for her. Phyllis isn’t interested in passion without a payoff, so she lures Walter into a pact to kill her husband, making it look like an accident, to collect on his life insurance. Dietrichson’s murder goes off without a hitch, but Walter’s friend and superior at the agency, Investigator Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) finds the circumstances surrounding the accident too neat and tidy and suspects foul play.
Under suspicion of the police and the insurance company, Phyllis and Walter crack under the strain. Walter learns from Dietrichson’s daughter Lola (Jean Heather) that Phyllis had been her father’s housekeeper when his wife died under mysterious circumstances. Walter also suspects Phyllis has been seeing Lola’s ne’er do well boyfriend Nino (Byron Barr) and plans to run away with him once he is in the clear. Jealousy drives Walter to taking revenge on Phyllis but not before she shoots the P-Whipped fool. The insurance agent drags himself back to the office where he records a confessional for his real soul mate Keyes who discovers Walter just before he succumbs to his wounds.
Both Stanwyck and MacMurray were wary of playing such unsympathetic characters, but the final product was a ferocious and smart entertainment that plays as just as well today as it did in its more innocent time. Although he was too much of the classical writer to feel entirely comfortable in this Expressionistic genre, Wilder did a yeoman’s task in making noir respectable and a viable commodity in conservative war-time Hollywood.
Having read and been riveted by The Lost Weekend, Charles R. Jackson’s harrowing novel about one man’s battle with alcoholism, Wilder purchased the book rights for his new film. In his search for a leading actor to play Don Birnam, Wilder passed over his original choice, Jose Ferrer, for the more appealing Ray Milland.
As a 30something aspiring author who lacks the discipline to actually sit down and write, Birnam spends his days in an alcoholic haze. His Ivy League sophistication and rye-fueled monologues charm his girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman), a local call girl (Doris Dowling), and even brother Wick (Phillip Terry) who tries to give Don every opportunity to go on the straight and narrow. But Birnam is a master manipulator who will squeeze his friends and family out of their last red cent for a bottle of booze. With Helen and Wick safely out of town, Don descends into a downward spiral. His nightmares become chillingly real and Don’s level of depravity hits an all-time low when he sells Helen’s coat to an uptown pawnbroker to fund his habit.
The Lost Weekend ends with Don bottoming out and pledging to finish a novel about his battles with the bottle. But to Wilder’s (and Brackett’s) credit, we are left with an impression that Don isn’t out of the woods just yet and he may never really overcome his weakness for whiskey.
Like most message films, The Lost Weekend has its heavy-handed moments, but the lack of sympathy shown towards Birnam’s plight and the epiphany of Helen’s wasted life come across as refreshingly honest. Wilder knew better than try and duplicate the Manhattan settings in a studio, so he shot a good deal of the film in New York City. The gritty locales (P.J. Clarke’s famous watering hole, the Third Avenue Elevated Train and Bellevue Hospital) are the backdrop to some of the film’s most memorable sequences and the ensuing claustrophobia seems to bring out the demon in Don. Given its earnest theme it’s not surprising The Lost Weekend won multiple Academy Awards, including Best Screenplay, Picture and Direction. For Wilder, it was a triumph of talent and perseverance.
In 1945 Wilder accepted a military assignment and returned to Berlin, this time as a Colonel, to lend a hand in making new German films from an Allied point of view. While there he learned about the fate of his mother who had died at Auschwitz and made perhaps the most graphic propaganda film about the extermination camps called The Death Mills to be shown to German audiences. Devastated by his experience, Wilder returned to Hollywood with the intention of working on something light and frothy to get his mind off the horrors of war.
Inspired by the musicals of Ernst Lubitsch, The Emperor Waltz takes us back to a simpler time and place (Vienna 1900) where American phonograph salesman Virgil Smith (Bing Crosby) tries without success to get an audience with Emperor Francis Joseph (Richard Haydn). The Emperor is more concerned about finding a mate for his ancient poodle, so he can hear the pitter pat of little paws running around the palace.
The Emperor arranges for the Countess Johanna (Joan Fontaine) to set up her magnificent poodle Scheherazade with the royal pooch but to everyone’s horror the Lady’s dog has taken a liking to Buttons, a mongrel belonging to the American. When the Emperor and Johanna’s father learn the snobby Countess has also fallen in love with the commoner the Americans are soon banished from the Kingdom. But, of course, true love wins out in the end.
Although The Emperor Waltz is generally dismissed as a middling Crosby vehicle, this Technicolor bon-mot holds up fairly well and remains superior to Otto Preminger’s experiment in the Lubitsch plan (A Royal Scandal).
During his stint with the military Wilder pledged to return to Germany to make a film as soon as the Nazis were defeated. A Foreign Affair turned out to be a personal and bitter look at postwar survival. Republican U.S. Congresswoman Phoebe Frost (Jean Arthur) accompanies a group of American politicians on a publicity tour of bombed-out Berlin. Aiming to do good deeds, Phoebe strikes up a considerable hankering for her escort Army Captain John Pringle (John Lund). She does not know Pringle is carrying on an affair with Erika von Schlutow (Marlene Dietrich), a popular nightclub singer and known Nazi sympathizer.
When conservative Phoebe gets hauled in by the police during a raid, Erika pulls a few strings to set them both free. The cabaret singer then takes Phoebe back to her dingy flat where Pringle is waiting. Crushed by this revelation, Phoebe is ready to return to Iowa when she learns Pringle’s romancing of Erika was only a ruse to help capture her former lover, a member of the Gestapo.
Set in Berlin’s tomb-like ruins, A Foreign Affair chronicles the re-birth of a cosmopolitan city and a woman (Phoebe) trying to escape her conventional past. Phoebe is a bit of an old maid, easily shocked by the open affection between German women and their captors. But after a few drinks, the butterfly escapes from her cocoon. We learn she bravely fought against reactionary Dixiecrats in Congress and will sing her silly state song in public when given the chance.
Erika, on the other hand, is a survivor who likes her creature comforts. Phoebe is horrified by Erika’s friendly dealings with Hitler and Goebbels, but the chanteuse doesn’t have a political ideology. Like too many other Germans, she went with the flow. The miscasting of the leaden John Lund as Captain Pringle is the film’s giant black hole. In a tantalizing postscript Wilder revealed the Pringle part was initially written for Cary Grant, relegating the underrated A Foreign Affair to the category of the cinema’s great “what ifs”.
Wilder learned much about his adopted country, and its vernacular, by absorbing as much of its pop culture as possible. This meant reading the crime stories and Sunday comics in the newspapers, going to ball games and spending days and nights in Los Angeles movie theatres. To the young man from old Europe it was easy to conclude celebrities, especially those from the silver screen, were America’s royalty but they were anointed by a fickle public with short memories. The project which would ultimately become Sunset Boulevard was originally intended to be a comedy about an over the hill movie star. But, Wilder and Brackett shifted gears once Gloria Swanson was hired to play Norma Desmond.
By 1950 Swanson was something of a has-been. She had been a massive star most noted for playing ingénues and not so innocent wives for Cecil B. DeMille during the Roaring Twenties, but her career petered had petered out shortly after the arrival of the talkies. Still, unlike many of her contemporaries Wilder considered for the part (Mae West, Mary Pickford, Pola Negri) Swanson leapt at the opportunity to play Norma, a silent film star living in delusions of grandeur. For Norma’s butler, former husband and first director Max von Mayerling, Wilder cast one of his favorite filmmakers Erich Von Stroheim who, ironically, had directed Swanson in the project that helped kill her career, Queen Kelly.
William Holden would play Joe Gillis, a failed screenwriter who tries to dodge repo-men by hiding his car in the garage of what seems like an abandoned mansion one fateful afternoon. When Max discovers Gillis on the grounds and learns the stranger is a writer, he invites Joe inside the creepy, old house to meet Norma. Joe recognizes the faded movie queen, but the imperious diva has little use for his wise-cracking cynicism. Still, Norma has Joe read a screenplay about Salome she hopes to sell to her old studio Paramount as a comeback film. It’s an awful script, but sensing a promising payday, Joe offers to work on it.
The plan is for Joe to make enough money to return to Dayton, Ohio, but the demanding Norma keeps the handsome writer on as her boy-toy. Joe resigns himself to this weird but comfortable existence until he meets Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), a pretty script reader who rejected one of Joe’s screenplays at Paramount. Betty is engaged to Joe’s friend Artie (Jack Webb), but she has a thing for the talented but unsuccessful writer. She begins to collaborate with Joe on a screenplay. Norma becomes jealous of Joe’s life outside the mansion and attempts suicide on New Year’s Eve.
Guilty, Joe gives up working with Betty and returns to Norma. He finishes Norma’s screenplay but DeMille’s people reject it out of hand. Joe resolves to return to Ohio and tells Norma he is leaving for good. She snaps and shoots Joe in the back sending him crashing into the swimming pool. When the police come to arrest the cracked Norma for the murder she mistakes the groundswell of newsreel cameramen and reporters for soundstage hands and it takes Max to call the former screen goddess out and direct her final scene.
Sunset Boulevard is yet another tough take on Wilder’s adopted home of Los Angeles, a town where rot festers beneath the glamorous surface. The complicated, compassionate film represented Wilder’s most mature work to date and marked a turning point in a career which would grow leaps and bounds in the coming decade. Sunset Boulevard turned out to be the swansong for the Wilder-Brackett team.
In 1950 Wilder cut ties with his first great collaborator and would spend nearly a decade running roughshod over a number of screenwriters before he could settle on someone he considered a partner and peer (I.A.L. Diamond). In the meantime, not having a voice of caution (Brackett) around meant Wilder could pick and choose more controversial material for his films.
Ace in the Hole, a black-hearted tale about a big city reporter cynically milking a human interest story to its death, would prove to be Wilder’s most ferocious project. After being fired from a number of newspapers back east, Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) winds up in Albuquerque where he wheedles his way into a job as a reporter. The slow-pace of desert life soon eats at Tatum who is looking for a story that will get him back in the good graces with Eastern newspaper editors.
While covering a story about rattlesnakes, Tatum learns from a local Indian about Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), a man trapped in the bowels of a mountain while scavenging for ancient Native American relics. Tatum meets with Minosa’s heartless wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling), who has already made plans to leave helpless Leo and head back east. Sensing this could be the story that delivers him from this God-forsaken desert Tatum seduces the platinum blonde and convinces her to stay on. With help from the corrupt local sheriff (Ray Teal), Tatum and Lorraine turn Leo’s ordeal into a money-making spectacle.
After Tatum’s reports hit the wire, people travel from miles around to hold vigil for the trapped war veteran outside the mountain. Fearing his exclusive story could end prematurely, Tatum has already arranged with a contractor to drill from on top of the mountain, a process which will take several days longer than necessary to rescue Leo. The masses continue to flock to the site assuring a big payday for Lorraine, victory in an upcoming election for the sheriff, and more hot copy from Tatum who has finagled his way back into the good graces of a New York newspaper editor.
Their well-laid plans hit a snag when Leo catches pneumonia and will perish unless he can be dug out within a few hours. In a stunning fit of conscience, Tatum nearly strangles the uncaring Lorraine before she shoots him. Tatum then brings a priest back to the mountain to deliver last rites for Leo. The trapped man dies and the people go home disappointed. The mortally wounded Tatum faces the music from the out of state reporters then returns to Albuquerque newspaper where he drops dead.
Based on an actual event, the rotten underbelly of America had never been so vividly exploited by a Hollywood director. But the public didn’t enjoy having a cracked mirror held up to their faces, so they stayed away from Ace in the Hole in droves. Wilder’s critics, who had been supportive of dodgy fare like Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard, began to take him task for the malignancy of Ace in the Hole and later, Stalag 17. The backlash against Wilder would grow throughout the 1950s & ‘60s and by the time his critical reputation was finally resurrected, the cranky filmmaker had been safely set out to pasture by Hollywood.
Wilder broke all the rules in Ace in the Hole by creating a seductive tornado (Tatum) who wows his public with his charm, but goes too far in the end. An ambivalent protagonist would become specialty of Wilder, but by the height of his golden period (1957-70) it was losers and schnooks who appealed more to this director than the Chuck Tatums of the world. These sensitive and self-loathing creations (played by Lemmon, Hepburn, Monroe, MacLaine, & Novak) are calloused by an unfeeling world and compromise themselves so they don’t get stuck with the fuzzy end of the lollipop. They have a big hill to climb back to gain their self-respect and become a “mensch” in the community.
Ace in the Hole laid a massive egg at the box office, so the newly independent Wilder was in desperate need of a hit. As would be his habit in the coming years, Billy dipped his thumb into the Great White Way and pulled out a plumb. Written by former POWs (Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski) Stalag 17 was one of Broadway’s unexpected hits in 1951. Wilder was impressed by the play but after he had Paramount buy the film rights he and screenwriter Edmund Blum turned the play’s lead character into one of the most despicable anti-heroes ever to grace the silver screen.
The action is set in a German prisoner of war camp run by the cruel Colonel von Scherbach (Otto Preminger!) and populated with Allied sergeants during the darkest days of WWII. Angling to make his stay at the camp tolerable, Sergeant J.J. Sefton (William Holden) plays both sides of the coin by running a black market operation for fellow prisoners and his German captors. After the prisoners find an escape attempt has been tipped off to the Nazis, they suspect a snitch in the barracks. Since he had taken bets against the escapees’ survival, Sefton is the logical suspect so the inmates take their frustrations out on the loathsome, but innocent, man.
While convalescing from his wounds, Sefton discovers the real culprit is Price (Peter Graves), a German expatriate and head of security in the barracks. Sefton turns the tables on Price and with the help of his newfound “friends” he throws the defenseless spy outside where he is shot by the guards. Sefton gets revenge on the judgmental sergeants by volunteering to guide war hero Lieutenant Dunbar (Don Taylor) to safety in a dangerous escape.
Coming off the heels of the critical and public rejection of Ace in the Hole it is surprising Wilder would make a film as bitter as Stalag 17, but it had to have pleased him to no end when the POW comedy turned out to be such a money-maker. It helped that Wilder found his muse in Holden, a sympathetic, hunky star who carried a big chip on his shoulder. Ten years after his splashy Golden Boy debut in Hollywood, Holden had sunk to the level of marginal star at Columbia toiling mostly as a boy next door type in a number of forgettable light comedies. Seizing the opportunity Wilder handed him in Sunset Boulevard, Holden became a thinking man’s sort of hero while putting together an impressive body of work in the 1950s.
In Stalag 17 Sefton is the smartest guy in the room who thinks he was cheated out of an opportunity to become a commissioned officer because he came from the wrong side of the tracks. It’s no surprise he doesn’t get along with his barrack mates—all enlisted men. Looking to survive this ordeal in relative comfort, Sefton sets up a black market and the proceeds keep him hale and hearty in eggs, cigars and homemade gin. In an interesting twist, the other sergeants (the good guys) behave like reactionaries and are quick to condemn Sefton of the heinous crime of spying for the Nazis. By calling out the real spy and escorting his mortal enemy Dunbar to safety, Sefton isn’t out to redeem himself so much as show-up the other sergeants.
Wilder infused slapstick in the persons of reliable Sig Ruman as a corrupt German sergeant (funny) and Robert Strauss as the barrack mascot “Animal” (not so funny), to make Stalag 17 taste more like a cookie than arsenic to general audiences. Perhaps sensing he had pushed the envelope as far as he could during the height of the McCarthy era, Wilder moved on to more palatable projects.
Wilder’s movies with Audrey Hepburn, Sabrina and Love in the Afternoon, represent the pinnacle of sophistication in his work. For the faint of heart these films are a pleasant diversion from Wilder’s vitriolic vision of the world and have been likened to as valentines to his beloved wife, who coincidentally, was also named Audrey.
Wilder bought Samuel Taylor’s play Sabrina Fair and hired the playwright to transcribe it to the screen. Taylor, who’d go on to write Vertigo and Topaz for Hitchcock and Avanti for Wilder, found his new boss difficult. Disapproving of Billy’s take on his play, Taylor left the project and was replaced by another future Hitchcock screenwriter Ernest Lehman (North by Northwest, Family Plot). Wilder and Lehman re-crafted the material to make it an Audrey Hepburn romantic comedy and the results are quite wonderful.
In a tony Long Island neighborhood, Sabrina Fairchild (Hepburn) secretly pines for David Larrabee (William Holden), a ne’er do well playboy who drives his father and brother Linus (Humphrey Bogart) up the wall his shenanigans and broken marriages. But since Sabrina’s father Fairchild (John Williams) is the Larrabee’s chauffeur her dreams of entering into a love match with blue-blooded David go unrealized. Her father sends her to Paris to become a chef but Sabrina spends most her time abroad absorbing the rich culture and becoming a woman of taste and style. She returns to Long Island and wows David who doesn’t recognize the chauffeur’s daughter. After learning the truth, David tries to seduce Sabrina even though he is engaged to the daughter of a rich Larrabee business partner.
Fearing David will spoil the family’s plans of a successful merger Linus sets out to win Sabrina away from his brother. After conquering the young woman’s heart, the chilly businessman plans to send her back to Paris on an ocean liner, alone. But Linus has fallen in love with Sabrina and when David learns of Sabrina’s lonely fate he takes over Larrabee Enterprises and sends his brother off to Europe with the chauffeur’s daughter.
Working with the charismatic leads, Ace in the Hole cinematographer Charles Lang, costume designers Edith Head and Hubert de Givenchy, Wilder crafted his most sumptuous-looking and, perhaps, most accessible film. That is not to say Sabrina lacks the patented Wilder bite. Billy had planned to make his heroine a little less virtuous but realizing his film could suffer public backlash he instead chose to coincide Sabrina’s flowering into womanhood in Europe with just the slightest intimation of an affair with a rich, older man. This Sabrina is no longer the suicidal schoolgirl—she plans on winning David over on her own terms.
While Bogart didn’t enjoy working with Wilder, he wisely chose to underplay the role of the dreary, middle-aged businessman who finds a fountain of youth in his relationship with Sabrina. It is a soulful performance which gives resonance to this Cinderella story.
The second Audrey film, the drawing room comedy-drama Love in the Afternoon, is Wilder’s tribute to his favorite filmmaker, Ernst Lubitsch. Wilder hired two of Lubitsch’s favorite actors (Gary Cooper and Maurice Chevalier) to play mentors to Ariane Chavasse (Hepburn), an imaginative young cellist from Paris.
Ariane lives with her father Claude (Chevalier), a detective who specializes in catching adulterers in divorce cases. When Claude goes on the job, Ariane neglects her instrument to read the racy case files her father has accumulated over the years. She is especially interested in the adventures of Frank Flannagan (Cooper), an American businessman who is carrying on with the wife of a jealous British client (John McGiver). When Claude confirms his client’s suspicions, the Brit tracks Flannagan and his wife to the hotel where they hold their trysts, intending to kill the American.
When the police refuse to intervene, Ariane rushes to Flannagan’s apartment, helps usher the Brit’s wife to safety, and masquerades as the American’s lover, leaving the jilted husband to scratch his head in wonder. Ariane enters into a brief affair with Flannagan leaving the doe-eyed girl with hopes of grander things to come. But Flannagan leaves Paris that night and resumes his sexual conquests all over the globe.
A year later, Ariane meets Flannagan at the Paris opera and after initially not recognizing the pretty young woman he succeeds in bringing her back to his hotel. Even after several champagne-filled trysts, Ariane still can’t tell if Flannagan loves her. Hoping to make the American jealous, Ariane takes on the persona of a worldly woman and transcribes her own sexual history, based on her father’s cases, onto the debauchee’s Dictaphone. Beaten at his own game, Flannagan hires Claude to look into her new lover’s sordid past but when the detective determines it is Ariane he is investigating he urges the American to end the affair. For once in his life, Flannagan does the decent thing and decides to leave town that evening. A desperate Ariane follows him to the train station where aging playboy finally decides to be a kept man, once and for all.
Love in the Afternoon is one of Wilder’s most unabashedly romantic efforts but the melancholic film was not a hit when originally released in 1957. Audiences seemed reluctant to embrace Audrey as a quietly suffering commoner or leathery Gary Cooper as her lover. Still, this first collaboration with I.A.L. Diamond is noticeably less bitter than much of the post-Brackett films and kicks off the sweet and sour phase of Wilder’s career. While Love in the Afternoon has plenty of Lubitschian elements, Wilder turns out to be more expert at exploring, and exploiting, a lover’s pain than the German master ever was. It is refreshing to watch such personality actors as Hepburn and Cooper dig deeper to try and make this unlikely love affair a binding matter.
In the ensuing Wilder-Diamond films the playing field narrows. Mismatched partners will go for the jugular, salt gets poured in old wounds and self-loathing will hover over Wilder’s players like a London fog settling in on Baker Street.
When Wilder jettisoned Charles Brackett to become independent, he soon found he missed having a partner who could craft his biting wit and wild ideas into a workable screenplay. Wilder spent much of the 1950s searching for his new muse while adapting popular plays and other unoriginal material for the screen. For the most part these films were big hits and Wilder’s legend grew in Hollywood, but he was in danger of becoming more of a Producer of middle-brow projects (ala his friend William Wyler) than the independent filmmaker he had originally set out to be.
The Seven Year Itch might be remembered more fondly as a Wilder classic had not the censors intervened. Based on George Axelrod‘s Broadway hit, the play probes the imagination of Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell), a happily married editor of pulp novels. When Richard’s wife and son leave to Maine for the summer, the bored and lonely editor enters into an affair with the young beauty that lives in the apartment above him. Adultery was frowned upon by the Breen office, so Wilder and Axelrod had to de-fang the suggestiveness of the original work. Fortunately, they had Marilyn Monroe cast as The Girl to provide enough sexy innuendo to almost convince audiences that Richard had actually slept with her.
Seen today, the Technicolor, widescreen film makes for great eye candy but Ewell’s tiresome sexual neurosis is relieved only by the presence of the marvelous Monroe. Although Wilder was perplexed by his lead actress’ chronic lateness and inability to read her lines, he coaxed two great comic performances out of his troubled star and left her wishing she had worked more often with the tempestuous director.
The Spirit of St. Louis, the story of Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 transatlantic flight, was another widescreen, Technicolor project and one of Wilder’s most unusual films. Instead of resorting to make a traditional bio-pic of the controversial American hero, Wilder chose to concentrate on the young aviator’s obsession with building and flying the perfect airplane to navigate the treacherous journey and succeed where more experienced pilots had recently failed.
He cast middle-aged James Stewart to play the twenty-five year old Lindbergh and, if one can look beyond the actor’s craggy looks and golden hairpiece, it seems an inspired choice. Stewart plays the idiosyncratic aviator as a cranky loner unafraid of ruffling feathers and bruising a few egos if it means the “St. Louis” will be delivered to his specifications.
Most of the action takes place in Lindbergh’s cockpit where the anxious pilot has an ongoing conversation with a curious fly and navigates the thirty-three hour flight using only a compass and the stars. Reminding us of the improbability of this quest, Lindbergh throws caution to the wind by stripping the plane of its radio and the gear for landing the vehicle on the ocean. As the plane approaches the coast of Ireland the local fishermen don’t know what to make of its waving, delirious pilot. As we learned from Lindbergh’s colorful back story, the quirky Midwesterner is used to being treated like a fool which makes the joyous reception he receives in Paris a truly cathartic experience.
Based on the popular Agatha Christie play Witness for the Prosecution interested Wilder as a commercial, Hitchcock-like project. Full of surprising twists and turns and featuring two of Hitch’s favorite small part players (John Williams and Norma Varden), Witness would be nearly unrecognizable as a Wilder film were it not for an acerbic performance by Charles Laughton as Sir Wilfred Robarts, the brilliant cigar-smoking, brandy tippling barrister who is set to defend ne’er do-well Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) against a charge of murdering a rich widow (Varden) for her money.
The stumbling block for the defense is Vole’s bitter wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich) who can testify for the prosecution against Leonard because their German marriage was not legal. Robarts hopes to discredit Christine by buying her letters, written to a lover, in which she admits she will give false testimony to implicate Leonard in the killing. The ploy works and after the jury is made aware of Christine’s deception Vole is declared not guilty.
After the trial, Christine admits to Robarts the letters were fakes and she perjured herself on the stand to free her guilty husband. Leonard overhears her confession but offers little solace—as a matter of fact he admits he is leaving Christine for another woman. Infuriated, Christine plays judge and executioner and stabs the two-faced man to death. Wilder insisted on Dietrich for the role of Christine and she gives one of her more impressive performances, especially in the sequence where she masquerades as the cockney hag who sells Christine’s letters to Robarts.
It’s no little compliment to say Witness for the Prosecution is a solid entertainment crafted by the hand of a master filmmaker. But, thankfully, the film marked the end of Wilder’s most impersonal phase as an artist. In the coming years, Wilder would turn inward and the results on the screen often reflected on the bitter and complicated man who sat behind the camera.
Based on a German remake of the 1935 French film Fanfares D’Amour, Wilder and Diamond set their new groundbreaking comedy in Chicago at the time of the Valentine’s Day Massacre. Some Like It Hot reunited Wilder with Marilyn Monroe, slated to play the boozy chanteuse Sugar Kane. As two unemployed jazz musicians who’ll do anything to get a gig Wilder cast the versatile teen heartthrob Tony Curtis and the everyman actor who would become the director’s new alter ego, Jack Lemmon.
After narrowly avoiding being executed by Spats Colombo’s gang, sax player Joe (Curtis) and bassist Jerry (Lemmon) go drag to join an all-girl band (Sweet Sue and her Society Syncopaters) on a train bound for Miami. The plan is to play the two week gig in Florida, as Josephine (Curtis) and Daphne (Lemmon), while the heat blows over. Their cover is nearly blown by group’s lead lovelorn singer (Monroe) who befriends Daphne.
The men compete to win Sugar’s affection but Joe gets a decided edge when he takes on the persona of “Junior”, an impotent heir to the Shell Oil empire. Junior escorts Sugar to his yacht, “borrowed” from Daphne’s new boyfriend Osgood (Joe E. Brown), where she finally manages to seduce her frigid object of affection. Meanwhile, Spats Colombo (George Raft) and his gang reconvene at the hotel where a Mob convention is being held. Colombo recognizes the two musicians and after Joe and Jerry give him the slip, the mobster and his gang are summarily executed by Little Bonaparte (Nehemiah Persoff), the Godfather of all Godfathers.
Ready to skip town, Joe arranges Junior’s break-up with Sugar but Daphne resists leaving her sugar daddy Osgood. With the mob hot on their tail, the musicians hitch a ride on Osgood’s boat where Joe reveals himself to Sugar and Osgood comes to terms with Jerry’s masculinity.
Some Like It Hot is one of the most exhilarating and enjoyable film comedies ever made. It is also the hallmark Hollywood gender-bender film. Yet, Wilder wasn’t interested in exploiting homosexuality, transvestism, or any other similarly taboo subjects so much as indulge in the art of the masquerade. From Sabrina onwards many of Wilder’s insecure heroes and heroines try to fill-in their blanks by being someone completely different. Virgins become experienced women of the world, policemen change into landed gentry, and sexy cocktail waitresses take on the persona of respectable housewives—but such deceptions carry a price.
Lemmon’s Jerry is a bit creepy, but his fun-loving Daphne far outshines Curtis’ sultry Josephine even if he/she doesn’t get the girl in the end. Jerry is so successful at being a dame and making easy conquests of men he even considers the doomed prospect of accepting Osgood’s marriage proposal and becoming a trophy wife instead of continuing on as Joe’s nebbishy sidekick. In the coming years Wilder would turn the consequences of masquerade up several notches in his most poignant and unsettling films.
It’s no surprise a popular culture succubus like Wilder would draw inspiration from other movies. For The Apartment he would thread themes from The Crowd, King Vidor’s classic story of a little man trying to make good in the big city, and Brief Encounter, David Lean’s moving tale of adulterous lovers, to create what may well be his masterpiece.
Jack Lemmon returns to play C.C. Bud Baxter, an accountant at a large insurance firm in midtown Manhattan. In hopes of gaining a promotion, the gullible bachelor is loaning out his apartment to several company executives who need a place to conduct their after-hour trysts before returning to their wives in the suburbs. While in the apartment the men party hard with their girlfriends, irritating Bud’s neighbors and keeping the erstwhile swinger sitting alone on park benches into the early morning.
Company CEO Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) confronts Baxter about all the glowing recommendations he’s been getting for such a lowly employee. Sheldrake blackballs Baxter into giving him the key to his apartment where the married man intends on bringing Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), a cute elevator operator. Unaware of his boss’s intentions, Baxter asks Fran out on a date but she stands him up and goes with Sheldrake to the apartment. Tired of being the odd girl out, Fran queries the older man about getting a divorce. Instead of giving Fran a personalized Christmas present Sheldrake hands over $100 in an envelope and leaves to catch his train home. Despondent, Fran ODs on tranquilizers and curls up to die on Baxter’s bed.
The bachelor returns home and with the help of his disapproving neighbor Dr. Dreyfuss (Jack Kruschen) he nurses Fran back to health. After learning Fran is in love with Sheldrake, Baxter keeps his boss abreast with news of her recovery. Bud becomes Sheldrake’s second hand man in the company to the consternation of the other executives who don’t get to use his apartment for their flings anymore. Sheldrake’s secretary and former lover, Miss Olson (Edie Adams), gets wind of Fran’s delicate condition and alerts his wife.
Sheldrake gets thrown out of his home and moves into the city where he plans to carry on his affair with Fran. But when Sheldrake asks for Baxter’s key, the junior executive quits the firm rather than continue to play pimp for the corporate bully. When Fran learns of C.C.’s gesture she breaks off with Sheldrake and rushes to catch the unemployed accountant before he moves out of town.
At turns hilarious and gut-wrenching, The Apartment is the sort of film Wilder wanted to make all along. It has its roots in the often painful, coming of age Audrey films but freed from the constraints of those Cinderella stories Wilder boldly pushes the envelope. Stuck in an unrequited affair, the working class girl Fran Kubelik longs for rich and urbane Sheldrake at the expense of a better match in the aspiring Baxter.
Flattered by his attentions, Fran doesn’t love Bud but she ends up in Baxter’s bed; a victim of the Madison Avenue Lothario. After her attempted suicide Fran admits to not liking herself much but Bud, who has plenty of self-loathing issues of his own, can only think to call Sheldrake for instructions. Fran’s dumping Sheldrake for Baxter could well strike a false note if Wilder didn’t make us aware that little between the young couple has changed. Bud’s going to have to work hard to make this relationship work.
Wilder chose to follow-up two of his biggest hits with something completely different; a farce set in politically divided Berlin. One, Two, Three follows the plight of C.R. MacNamara (James Cagney), a Coca-Cola executive in charge of sales in a city torn apart by the Cold War.
Just as he is sending his wife (Arlene Francis) and kids away for a vacation in Venice so he can resume an affair with his buxom blonde secretary (Lilo Pulver), MacNamara is put in charge of his boss’ daughter Scarlett Hazeltine (Pamela Tiffin), an oversexed seventeen year old Southern Belle. Scarlett stays with the MacNamaras for two months but unknown to C.R. she has secretly married the East German Otto Piffl (Horst Buchholz), an angry young communist who wants to take her to Moscow. Fearing he will be discharged if Mr. Hazeltine (Howard St. John) learns the truth, MacNamara arranges to have Otto arrested in the Eastern sector unaware Pamela is expecting Piffl’s child. With help from three lusty East German envoys MacNamara sneaks Piffl back into West Berlin and indoctrinates the stubborn politico into the joys of capitalism.
Given its ferocious pace, with Cagney delivering dialogue with machine-gun precision, One, Two, Three is more brilliant than inspired…but it’s still plenty entertaining. Unlike his vivisection of Soviet Communism in Ninotchka, Wilder needles East Germans and Americans with equal zing. The Communists can be naïve as children, yet they are shown (in a silly way) to be cruel and oppressive. The Capitalists are jaded and cynical, but more capable of appreciating the good life. In the film’s pivotal sequence Otto’s makeover into a slogan-spewing businessman is as spectacular as anything Wilder ever committed to celluloid. The strings are all pulled by MacNamara, another unlovable Wilder hero and master manipulator who gets his comeuppance when he outsmarts himself in the end.
After the disappointing public reception of One, Two, Three, Wilder, once again, adapted a popular stage play in hopes of scoring a box office bonanza. When Wilder and Diamond got down to reworking Alexandre Breffort’s hit musical Irma La Douce for the screen they threw out the songs—a zesty Andre Previn score takes its place—and concentrated on the storyline of a popular Parisian prostitute who takes in a former policeman for her lover.
In the meatpacking district of Les Halles the pretty hooker Irma (Shirley MacLaine) sets up shop outside a hotel that charges by the hour. Her current lover and erstwhile pimp Hippolyte (Bruce Yarnell) hangs out with the boyfriends of other neighborhood prostitutes in a café run by Moustache (Lou Jacobi). There, the local cops are paid off by the “pimps” to look the other way. Everybody seems happy with this arrangement except for Nestor Patou (Jack Lemmon), the new officer on the beat who arranges a pre-dawn bust at Irma’s hotel. Nestor arrests the prostitutes and humiliates the Johns, including the outraged police chief who promptly fires the overzealous cop. Now unemployed, Nestor returns to Moustache’s café and begins to flirt with Irma. He gets into a fight with the jealous Hippolyte and knocks the goon out with a ceiling lamp.
This new King of the Pimps moves in with Irma who will provide for him but Nestor becomes miserable knowing other men sleep with her. He invents an alternate persona Lord X, a British aristocrat who will become Irma’s platonic John and pays five hundred francs a week to keep her off the street at night. Unfortunately, Nestor must work like a demon during the day at odd jobs to foot the bill. After falling into debt to Moustache and alienating Irma, Nestor decides to get rid of Lord X once and for all and dumps the aristocrat’s clothes and cane into the Seine.
Hippolyte witnesses the “murder” and reports the crime to the police who arrest Nestor. Irma is touched by her lover’s grand gesture and vows to love him until the end of time. Nestor is sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor but Moustache arranges an escape. Nestor resurrects Lord X with the police as witnesses. All charges against him are dropped and he returns to Irma who, coincidentally, is having the aristocrat’s baby.
The colorful, salacious production turned out to be one of the biggest hits of Wilder’s career but Irma La Douce would never be a particular favorite of the director or his critics. Still, despite an unwieldy length and some awkward moments Irma holds up well. Nobody could put self-loathing on the screen quite like Wilder and Diamond and although the stars from The Apartment don’t have as much as stake here, Irma and Nestor are pathetic figures stuck in a tawdry world they have no inclination to leave.
Wilder’s reputation as a spinner of dirty fairy tales grew leaps and bounds with Irma La Douce. The critics seemed unwilling, or unable, to look beneath the snarky humor to find a complex and maddening relationship compromised by anger, pride…and failure to communicate.
Based on the Italian play L’Ora della Fantasia by Anna Bonacci, Kiss Me Stupid was a troubled production made much worse by the near death of one of its lead players, Peter Sellers. Sellers was cast as the aspiring small-town songwriter Orville Spooner, but after a few difficult weeks on the set and several arguments with Wilder, the former Goon suffered a series of heart attacks and, at one point, was actually pronounced dead. Sellers eventually recovered but Wilder’s initial enthusiasm for the project faded.
The shooting continued with Ray Walston playing the jumpy musician whose jealousy spirals out of control when the famous pop singer Dino (Dean Martin) makes an unexpected visit to his small Nevada hometown. Orville’s erstwhile songwriting partner, the local grease monkey Barney (Cliff Osmond), recognizes the Las Vegas icon and ransacks his car forcing him to stay over until the morning. Sensing it is a big chance to pitch their songs Barney convinces Orville to put the notorious lothario up for the night.
Hot to score some action, Dino inquires after Orville’s unseen wife Zelda (Felicia Farr), an attractive younger woman and the head of Dino’s fan club back in high school. Orville isn’t keen on the idea but he goes along with Barney’s brainstorm to replace Zelda with one of the local waitresses at the Belly-Button, a local hotbed of sin. Orville picks a fight with Zelda to send her packing to her mother’s. Barney hires sexy barmaid Polly the Pistol (Kim Novak) to pose as the musician’s wife and sleep with Dino.
Orville spends the evening in abject humiliation, pushing the faux Zelda on Dino while trying to get the crooner to listen to his new Italian-style song. Desperate to get rid of Orville, Dino offers to buy “Sophia” but now Zelda’s husband has second thoughts. Orville has taken a shine to the vulnerable Polly, so he pushes Dino away so can spend the night with his replacement wife. Meanwhile, the perplexed Zelda has left her cranky mother to get crazy drunk at the Belly-Button. This upstanding member of the community is deposited into Polly’s trailer to sleep it off.
Dino turns up at the Belly-Button and the hot to trot crooner is directed to Polly’s trailer. Zelda is intrigued by the possibility of a tryst with her life-long crush, so she succumbs to Dino’s advances. The next morning Orville drives Polly back to her trailer where she meets Zelda and finds $500 for services rendered. Days later, Orville is miserable because Zelda is threatening divorce. An unsympathetic Barney escorts his partner to her lawyer’s office where, in an appliance store window below, they watch Dino sing “Sophia” to a nationwide audience.
The Sellers debacle and the critical scorn dumped on Kiss Me Stupid negatively impacted Wilder’s opinion of the film. It turned out to be the rare personal work he would completely disown. The film’s tastelessness makes it hard to defend and the gutter humor does bring out the worst in these sad protagonists. Dino is the ultimate pussy-hound who wears his horniness on his sleeve. His motto “If you got what it takes then someone is gonna take what you got” is particularly apt. The insecure Orville can’t seem to believe Zelda is in love with him and pushes the pretty woman into Dino’s arms.
The most sympathetic figure, Polly, can’t buy a break. Hard-living has taught her men are after only one thing (sex). Polly is resigned to turning the occasional trick so she can buy a car and blow town for a fresh start elsewhere. Orville is more comfortable with Polly than the other Mrs. Spooner because he, too, is compromised by a lowly status. Polly is touched when Orville refuses to make her sleep with Dino and their “marital” experience goes far in helping her reclaim self-respect. Instead of becoming just another dirty fairy tale, Kiss Me Stupid is a tale of hard won lessons and one of Wilder’s most moral films.
By the mid-1960s Wilder could have took the easy road like his friends William Wyler and Fred Zinnemann and directed giant productions (Ben Hur, A Man for All Seasons, Funny Girl, etc.) with guaranteed box office returns, but he chose to explore his heart of darkness in movies like The Fortune Cookie.
This bitter pill follows the exploits of shyster lawyer Willie Gingrich (Walter Matthau) who convinces his spineless brother in-law Harry Hinkle (Jack Lemmon) to shake down the kind-hearted football player who crashed into the sideline cameraman and laid him up in the hospital. Nice guy Hinkle is reluctant to go through with the deal until Gingrich contacts Harry’s former wife Sandy (Judi West) who is anxious to get in on the score.
Harry is still inexplicably in love with this nightclub singer floozy, one of Wilder’s most irredeemable females. Harry’s mother and sister are pretty rotten as well, so Willie floats them money to keep them out of the picture and to give him room to operate. And boy, does he operate! Threatening to cast Harry’s insurance company in a bad light he drives the settlement price higher and higher.
Meanwhile, Harry sits immobile in a wheelchair, catered to by the running back Boom-Boom (Ron Rich) and Sandy, while under surveillance of the insurance company’s detective Purkey (Cliff Osmond) who films their activity from a building across the street. Boom-Boom’s career has hits the skids and he takes to the bottle. Even though Harry has befriended the black athlete, he asks him to leave on the account of Sandy who he hopes to win back.
When Gingrich finally wins a settlement Purkey arrives to gather his recording devices and, as a last resort, prods Harry with racial slurs about Boom-Boom. Hinkle rises out of his wheelchair and pummels the detective in front of the movie camera effectively destroying his chance for the big payday. Harry also loses the worthless Sandy, but he does mend fences with Boom-Boom and the final sequence of the men playing football catch in Cleveland’s empty Municipal Stadium is a sure sign the athlete could return to his former glory.
The Fortune Cookie was Wilder’s most negative take on humanity since Ace in the Hole. The characters are greedy, ruthless and completely out for themselves at the expense of an innocent whose livelihood is at stake. But where reporter Charles Tatum is out to revenge himself against the Eastern newspaper editors who fired him, Willie Gingrich is merely a shyster who wants to beat the man and the system. When Willie finally does make his big score we can be assured he will enjoy the fruits of his rotten labor more than the self-loathing Tatum ever could.
Wilder suffered his most devastating career blow when he lost artistic control of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, his elegiac tribute to the sleuth of Baker Street. The original three & 1/4 hour film was thought too unwieldy by its producers and was edited down to two hours. Using “lost” footage and some soundtrack a noble attempt has been made to restore the film but, in any version, the proof of Wilder’s vision remains in the pudding.
This finest of all Holmes films opens with the great sleuth (Robert Stephens) getting an invitation to meet the Russian ballerina Patrova (Tamara Toumanova) who offers him a Stradivarius violin in return for fathering her child. Holmes declines politely and so as to not insult proud Patrova, he infers that Dr. Watson (Colin Blakely) is his lover. Furious, Watson questions Holmes about his sexuality but weary of all the publicity the Doctor’s stories for the Strand Magazine have already generated the famous detective demurs on grounds of privacy.
The men are soon distracted by the appearance of a beautiful, nearly drowned woman dragged out of the Thames and dropped at their doorstep. Gabrielle Valladon (Genevieve Page) wants to hire Holmes to track down her Belgian husband, an engineer assigned to a top secret mission. He accepts the case then gets a rare summons from his brother Mycroft (Christopher Lee), a behind the scenes figure in the Prime Minister’s cabinet, who warns Sherlock against pursuing the missing engineer.
Some weird and murky clues send Holmes, Gabrielle and Watson to Inverness, Scotland where they suspect they’ll find the answer about what happened to Emile Valladon. Posing as man and wife Holmes and Gabrielle rent a room near Loch Ness, but the government has sealed-off much of the famous site from tourists. Holmes soon finds Emile’s grave tucked away behind a fortification attended to by a trio of midgets. He determines the little men are being used by as pilots to man a British submarine (Emile’s secret mission).
When Queen Victoria scuttles the submarine project, Mycroft lets his brother in on a little secret. Gabrielle is not actually the wife of Emile but a German spy traveling with a band of agents disguised as Friars. Holmes confronts Gabrielle then gives her agents access to steal the unfinished U-boat which quickly blows up in the lake. Gabrielle is arrested and traded back to Germany for a British agent. Holmes returns with Watson to Baker Street, where sad news greets the defeated man.
Wilder’s Holmes is a troubled individual. Slowly succumbing to a cocaine habit and unwilling to confide about his private life to his best friend, he lives in a private hell. His relationship Gabrielle arouses him sexually and intellectually and throws him off guard. This is not the self-assured Holmes of Basil Rathbone or Christopher Lee, but a detective capable of error and human folly.
Bolstered by Stephens’ humble and witty performance and one of Miklos Rosza’s most inspired scores, Wilder created his most Romantic and heartfelt film just when the counterculture realism of Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider was forever altering the way people looked at movies. The post-production destruction of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes seemed to break Wilder’s spirit and it would be another eight years before he would attempt to make another artistically ambitious film.
After the universal rejection of his most personal film Wilder went small with Avanti. Based on another Samuel Taylor play, Wilder’s new film featured Jack Lemmon as a boorish American businessman appalled to find his recently deceased father had been carrying on a ten year affair with a working-class Englishwoman.
Set on idyllic island off the coast of Naples, Avanti finds this filmmaker from the Old World comparing and contrasting the Puritan values of his adopted homeland with those of permissive Europe. After finding out his father has died in an auto accident in Italy, Wendall Armbruster (Lemmon) rushes to Italy to claim the body and return to the United States for an elaborate funeral two days hence. He quickly finds American bucks and bluster doesn’t cut any red tape in a Catholic country on Sundays, so he turns his attention to Pamela (Juliet Mills), the plump daughter of his father’s flame who also died in the accident.
Fearing Pamela has absconded with the bodies of the ill-fated lovers, Wendall sets out to woo her unaware of the power of his charm and the depth of the young woman’s loneliness. Inevitably, the bodies are found unharmed and Pamela realizes her mistake but not before Wendall learns a thing or two about love and life from his wise old man.
By the early 1970s it was becoming increasingly clear audiences were more attracted to offbeat romances like Harold and Maude, so Wilder’s more adult take on affairs of the heart didn’t stand much chance at the box office. Avanti isn’t as emotionally impactful as the great Wilder comedy-dramas (Sabrina, Love in the Afternoon, The Apartment & Kiss Me Stupid), but it’s unlikely the director was aiming high in the first place. It plays like a light-hearted farce with the tightly-wound American Wendall Armbruster being persecuted by slovenly tribe of people (Europeans), who would rather drink wine and skinny-dip than become slaves to routine and schedules. Avanti might have made for an appropriate swan song for Wilder but he wasn’t ready for the scrap heap, yet.
Nearing seventy and scrambling to keep his career afloat, Wilder accepted an assignment to direct Universal’s remake of Hecht and MacArthur’s 1928 Broadway hit The Front Page. The ink-stained play about cynical newspaper reporters and the havoc they wreak had already been transcribed successfully to the screen twice in Lewis Milestone’s 1930 faithful adaptation and Howard Hawks’ gender-bender masterpiece His Girl Friday starring Cary Grant as wily Walter Burns and Rosalind Russell as ace reporter Hildy Johnson. Wilder chose to go a more traditional route, picking Walter Matthau to play the ethically-challenged editor and Jack Lemmon as his hen-pecked scribe.
Buoyed by splendid set design by the brilliant Henry Bumstead and a cast of charismatic players (including David Wayne, Carol Burnett, Vincent Gardenia, Harold Gould, Charles Durning and Susan Sarandon), Wilder’s film is snappy and elegant piece of prohibition-age nostalgia. Although Lemmon and Matthau can boast of dozens of first-rate performances on their own, they are generally overrated as a comedic screen team. But as part of this colorful ensemble, both actors play their snarky parts to a T and let their merry cohorts share in the limelight.
Though the film turned out to be a minor hit, Wilder disowned The Front Page in later years, citing it as an impersonal project he was forced to do in order to survive in a film industry that was becoming increasingly hostile to old masters of the studio system.
Wilder stubbornly soldiered-on making his kind of movies while a new generation of audiences lapped up adolescent fare like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Wars and Animal House. Still, it seemed curious Wilder chose to make Fedora, a doppelganger to Sunset Boulevard, starring faded screen stars (William Holden, Henry Fonda & Jose Ferrer) and re-spinning old myths.
Not surprisingly, upon release in 1978 Fedora received poor reviews and disappeared from theatres quickly. The nostalgic film was viewed as just another example of old school Hollywood bunk. But, as we have seen with so many other alleged Wilder misfires, Fedora ages well and has an undeniably haunting power. It is very much a screenwriter’s film with Wilder and Diamond taking a certain glee in turning the Garbo legend upside down. It is also another story about masquerades.
A naïve but dutiful daughter, Antonia (Marthe Keller), steps in to impersonate the great film actress, Fedora, who has been horribly scarred by plastic surgery. Antonia pulls off the ruse magnificently, but the young woman is unaware that by taking on this role she has made a pact for life. When Antonia learns she is expected to keep this secret at the expense of her own happiness she has a nervous breakdown and retires on the island of Corfu.
Years later, scuffling independent producer Barry “Dutch” Detweiler travels to Greece to offer Fedora the role of Anna Karenina in a blockbuster film. Detweiler meets stern resistance from the actress’ guardian, the Countess Sobryanski (Hildegard Knef). By the time he contacts the woman he believes to be Fedora, Antonia is a manic depressive pill-popper kept in check by Dr. Vando (Ferrer) and a heavy-handed housekeeper Miss Balfour (Frances Sternhagen). This magically preserved woman doesn’t even recognize Detweiler with whom she had a brief affair thirty years before.
Soon after, Detweiler learns Vando has checked “Fedora” into his Parisian clinic but before he gets a chance to sign her for the movie he is assaulted by the family’s chauffeur. When Detweiler wakes up he finds out the woman he met in Corfu has, like Tolstoy’s heroine, thrown herself under a train. He travels to the Paris church where the funeral is held and there, in a series of telling flashbacks, the Countess divulges the truth about Antonia and Fedora.
Fedora is often dismissed as a weak sister to Sunset Boulevard but it manages to hold its own against the classic. In these films, screen legends have retired from public life but seem more comfortable with mass adulation than basic human relationships. Their lovers are handsome playthings (Holden), likely to be discarded when no longer needed. Like Norma Desmond, Fedora keeps up the façade of her iconic Hollywood stardom long after she has faded from public memory. Unlike Norma, Fedora seems to have her wits about her and has a more reliable support group willing to help keep the birth of her illegitimate daughter a secret and the illusion of her legendary beauty alive.
Fedora doesn’t get a chance to stage one grand final appearance before the cameras, but she does get to attend her own funeral and accept accolades from the great politicians, statesmen and film stars who shared the big stage with her. It is a fitting finale for a near-mythical person who lived in a world of shadow and light. These revelations and the tale of Antonia’s rise and pathetic fall is powerful stuff, well worthy of one of the screen’s greatest storytellers.
Frustrated in his attempts to find suitors for any of his new projects, Wilder unwisely agreed to make Buddy Buddy for MGM in 1981. Based on a popular French film farce L’Emmerdeur (AKA A Pain in the A—), Wilder and Diamond rushed to write a screenplay to meet the tight shooting schedule.
The film opens with a montage of killings orchestrated by the efficient hit man Trabucco (Walter Matthau). At a filling station he runs into Victor Clooney (Jack Lemmon), a whiny, middle-aged man depressed over the dissolution of his marriage. Trabucco registers at a hotel in Riverdale to plan another assassination. As fate would have it, Victor is an adjacent room where he fails in his attempt at suicide. Hoping to keep the cops away, Trabucco pays off a nosy bellboy and takes Victor under his wing.
Trabucco tries to reconcile Victor with his estranged wife Celia (Paula Prentiss), who has come under the influence of a bizarre sex guru Dr, Zuckerbrot (Klaus Kinski). Victor’s efforts to rekindle the fire with his wife go for naught, so he returns to the hotel where he finds Trabucco in the midst of carrying out the killing. Victor’s intervention bungles the job but the unlikely partners manage to get away to a deserted island.
This was not the first time Wilder used a morbid theme for a comedy, but with Buddy, Buddy the well ran dry. It is an elegantly shot, curiously watchable film, but the raunchy jokes are embarrassing and the director’s impeccable comedic timing is nowhere to be found. Though several of Wilder’s racier films were instrumental in helping rid the film industry of censorship, he had never sunk to being merely vulgar.
The sour taste of Buddy, Buddy would remain in Wilder’s mouth for over twenty years. Like Alfred Hitchcock, he continued going into his office each day, contacting collaborators and money men about film projects that would never come to fruition. Fortunately, Wilder lived long enough to be honored with many lifetime achievement awards and receive long overdue critical hosannas for a remarkable career in filmmaking.
Books on Wilder:
Conversations with Wilder – Billy Wilder with Cameron Crowe **** A charming collection of dialogues between the master and a reigning young Turk of Hollywood. Crowe gives Wilder plenty of space and even offers new insight. The great director has the maddening habit of dismissing some of his more fascinating work (Kiss Me, Stupid and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes) because the films were box office bombs. Although there have been rumors of a Wilder memoir in existence this entertaining and informative book will have to do in the meantime.
Nobody’s Perfect: Billy Wilder: A Personal Biography – Charlotte Chandler **** This engaging conversational biography of Wilder had the misfortune of being released years after the Crowe book at the tail end of the director’s critical Renaissance. The outspoken old master is at ease with Ms. Chandler, providing plenty of juicy insider information and salacious gossip.
Wilder Times: The Life of Billy Wilder – Kevin Lally **** This was the first qualitative and quantitative biography of Wilder…and it still might be the best book on the director. Lally places heavy emphasis is placed on Wilder’s time in America and there’s plenty of spot-on analysis of films in need of critical resurrection. It’s out of print, but well worth tracking down.
On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder – Ed Sikov **** This huge, well-researched biography will be the book Wilder scholars will turn to time and again for the skinny on the director’s early years, his battles with censors and the film studios and for insights on his private life. Out of print.
Billy Wilder in Hollywood – Maurice Zolotow **1/2 For a long time this hastily assembled book was the only Wilder biography available. These days, it doesn’t hold up well against its formidable competition. To nobody’s surprise Wilder hated it.
Films by Wilder:
1929 People on a Sunday ***1/2 (screenplay)
1933 Mauvaise graine ***1/2
1942 The Major and the Minor ****
1943 Five Graves to Cairo ***1/2
1944 Double Indemnity ****
1945 The Lost Weekend ****
1945 The Death Mills ***1/2 (short)
1948 The Emperor Waltz ***1/2
1948 A Foreign Affair ****
1950 Sunset Boulevard *****
1951 Ace in the Hole ****
1953 Stalag 17 ****1/2
1954 Sabrina ****
1955 The Seven Year Itch ***1/2
1957 The Spirit of St. Louis ***1/2
1957 Love in the Afternoon ****1/2
1958 Witness for the Prosecution ****
1959 Some Like It Hot ****1/2
1960 The Apartment *****
1961 One, Two, Three ****
1963 Irma La Douce ****
1964 Kiss Me, Stupid ****1/2
1966 The Fortune Cookie ***1/2
1970 The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes *****
1972 Avanti! ****
1973 The Front Page ***1/2
1979 Fedora ****
1981 Buddy, Buddy ***1/2