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Some Like It Wilder

Some Like It Wilder: The Life and Controversial Films of Billy Wilder

Series: Screen Classics
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 464
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  • Book Info
    Some Like It Wilder
    Book Description:

    One of the most accomplished writers and directors of classic Hollywood, Billy Wilder (1906--2002) directed numerous acclaimed films, including Sunset Boulevard (1950), Sabrina (1954), The Seven Year Itch (1955), Witness for the Prosecution (1957), and Some Like It Hot (1959). Featuring Gene D. Phillips's unique, in-depth critical approach, Some Like It Wilder: The Life and Controversial Films of Billy Wilder provides a groundbreaking overview of a filmmaking icon. Wilder began his career as a screenwriter in Berlin but, because of his Jewish heritage, sought refuge in America when Germany came under Nazi control. Making fast connections in Hollywood, Wilder immediately made the jump from screenwriter to director. His classic films Five Graves to Cairo (1943), Double Indemnity (1945), and The Lost Weekend (1945) earned Academy Awards for best picture, director, and screenplay. During the 1960s, Wilder continued to direct and produce controversial comedies, including Kiss Me, Stupid (1964) and The Apartment (1960), which won Oscars for best picture and director. This definitive biography reveals that Wilder was, and remains, one of the most influential directors in filmmaking.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7367-2
    Subjects: Film Studies, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Foreword: Fred Zinnemann Speaking
    (pp. xi-xii)

    After I finished film school, I got work as a cameraman in Berlin. I was fortunate to be the assistant to Eugene Schüfftan, one of the best German cameramen during the golden age of German cinema in the 1920s. One of the films that Schüfftan photographed wasMenschen am Sonntag(People on Sunday), a semidocumentary made in 1929 about four young people spending a weekend in the country. The film was written by Billy Wilder and directed by Robert Siodmak.

    I only carried the camera around and measured the focus, but I was pleased to be working with talented people...

  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. 1 From Berlin to Hollywood: The Early Screenplays
    (pp. 1-18)

    “Are we rolling?—as we say on the set?” Veteran film director Billy Wilder eyes the tape recorder before him on his desk and the interviewer across from him. It is hard to believe that this energetic, articulate man began his career in films many years ago in Berlin by writing film scripts, most notably for a semidocumentary calledPeople on Sunday(1929). After he migrated to Hollywood in the 1930s in the wake of the rise of Hitler, Wilder continued his career as a scriptwriter for such major directors as Ernst Lubitsch. When he graduated to film direction with...

  6. 2 Champagne and Tears: Ninotchka, Midnight, and Ball of Fire
    (pp. 19-32)

    When he was preparingBluebeard’s Eighth Wifefor filming, Ernst Lubitsch wanted Charles Brackett to write the screenplay. He did not ask the studio for Billy Wilder as well because he did not want to give the impression that he was a German-born director who favored hiring members of the German immigrant colony in Hollywood. But Manny Wolf told Lubitsch that Brackett and Wilder were a team, so Wilder was part of the deal.

    Lubitsch, a stout, cigar-chomping little man with a thick German accent, had a genius for making Hollywood pictures, likeTrouble in Paradise(1932), marked by sophisticated...

  7. 3 New Directions: The Major and the Minor and Five Graves to Cairo
    (pp. 33-52)

    In the fall of 1941, Joseph Sistrom, a junior executive at Paramount, volunteered to search through the stockpile of unproduced scenarios in the story department’s files to find a property that Wilder could dust off and spruce up for filming. He unearthed a reader’s report on a Broadway play,Connie Goes Homeby Edward Childs Carpenter, adapted from aSaturday Evening Postshort story by Fannie Kilbourne, published in 1921 and titled “Sunny Goes Home.” The reader’s memo was unfavorable, pointing out that the action of the stage play goes steadily downhill and that the play closed after a mere...

  8. 4 The Rise of Film Noir: Double Indemnity
    (pp. 53-70)

    In his book on film noir, William Hare repeats the story that one day Billy Wilder could not find his secretary. He was told by one of the women in the office that she was holed up in the ladies’ room, reading a novella titledDouble Indemnity. After she emerged with the novelette “pressed against her bosom,” Wilder decided to read it himself.¹ A nice anecdote, but apocryphal.

    Wilder maintained that Joseph Sistrom, the enterprising young executive who had suggested that Wilder turn the playConnie Goes HomeintoThe Major and the Minor,“had read the [Cain] story and...

  9. 5 Through a Glass Darkly: The Lost Weekend and Die Todesmühlen
    (pp. 71-88)

    Billy Wilder was on his way by train to New York for a holiday in the spring of 1944. He picked up a copy of Charles Jackson’s novelThe Lost Weekendat a kiosk during the stopover at Union Station in Chicago. Wilder sat up all night reading it. By the time he reached Pennsylvania Station in New York City the following morning, Wilder had finished the book. He was convinced that it would make an engrossing movie.

    Wilder phoned Paramount executive Buddy De Sylva from the station and requested that the studio purchase the screen rights to the book....

  10. 6 Wunderbar: The Emperor Waltz and A Foreign Affair
    (pp. 89-108)

    When Wilder returned to Hollywood from Europe in the fall of 1945, he turned his back on war-ravaged Vienna. Instead he decided to make a lush musical about pre–World War I Vienna, after the manner of the Waltz King, Johann Strauss (“The Blue Danube”), and Franz Lehar. Wilder remembered the Viennese operettas of Strauss and Lehar from his youth in Vienna. Furthermore, Wilder had collaborated with Lehar himself on a musical film in Berlin back in 1932,Es war einmal ein Walzer(Once There Was a Waltz). One of Strauss’s finest waltzes, “The Emperor Waltz,” would provide the title...

  11. 7 Dark Windows: Sunset Boulevard
    (pp. 109-128)

    “I was working with Mr. Brackett, and he had the idea of doing a picture with a Hollywood background,” Wilder recalled. “Once we got hold of the character of the silent picture star, whose career is finished with the advent of the talkies, … we started rolling.”¹ It was the comeback story, he concluded, that appealed to them, so they tackled it.

    Wilder had a staunch belief in having a resourceful cowriter on every picture. During the story conferences, he said, “there is no muse coming through the window and kissing our brows. We just sit together and discuss, …...

  12. 8 Barbed Wire Satire: Ace in the Hole and Stalag 17
    (pp. 129-152)

    Writing in the mid-1950s, film critic Manny Farber praised certain Hollywood directors like Billy Wilder who would “tunnel” beneath the surfaces of the stories they were filming and seek to illuminate, in a shrewd and unsentimental fashion, deeper truths, usually about the unglamorous side of the human condition. These directors did not get bogged down in “significant” dialogue but told their stories in a straightforward fashion that nonetheless implied subtle themes beneath the surfaces of their basically plot-oriented scripts.¹ Tunneling underneath the plot to reach a deeper meaning is a particularly apt metaphor forAce in the Hole,which deals...

  13. 9 Fascination: Sabrina and The Seven Year Itch
    (pp. 153-176)

    It is not uncommon for a studio to buy the screen rights to a Broadway play before it opens to get the jump on rival studios. Samuel Taylor’s playSabrina Fair: A Woman of the Worldhad been submitted to Paramount in typescript months before the New York premiere in November 1953. A reader in the story department turned in an enthusiastic report on the play, and this prompted Wilder to get Paramount to purchase the film rights immediately.

    Wilder’s decision turned out to be a wise one; Taylor’s four-act play was a hit and eventually racked up 318 performances....

  14. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  15. 10 Light Up the Sky: The Spirit of St. Louis and Love in the Afternoon
    (pp. 177-196)

    Wilder had written a news story about Lindbergh’s historic flight across the Atlantic back in 1927 for a Berlin paper, when he was a freelance reporter. He could not afford to go to France to cover Lucky Lindy’s landing in Paris. Nevertheless, he never forgot this thrilling event, and his having covered it for a Berlin daily was one of the contributing factors in his directingThe Spirit of St. Louisnearly thirty years later. “You cannot imagine now what the name of Lindbergh meant to us in Europe in 1927,” he said.¹

    Ernest Lehman told me in 1976 that...

  16. 11 Remains to Be Seen: Witness for the Prosecution
    (pp. 197-210)

    Witness for the Prosecutionbegan its artistic life as a short story that Agatha Christie published in 1933 in Britain in a volume titledThe Hound of Death. The story was published in the United States in 1948 in the collectionWitness for the Prosecution. When another playwright sought permission to turn the story into a play, Christie decided to adapt it for the stage herself. The play opened at the Winter Garden Theatre in London on October 28, 1953. “When the curtain came down on my ending,” Christie recalled, the play and its author were greeted with a standing...

  17. 12 The Gang’s All Here: Some Like It Hot
    (pp. 211-230)

    United Artists had an agreement with the Mirisch Company to distribute its films and serve as a financial backer. The Mirisch Company was based at the Samuel Goldwyn Studios, where UA had its offices. Walter Mirisch apprised Wilder of the company’s plans to produce its own pictures and to continue its working relationship with Wilder. He agreed to make his next picture,Some Like It Hot,for the Mirisch Company. That began a creative association between the Mirisches and Wilder, states Walter Mirisch, “that ultimately resulted in his making his next eight films for us. I think … that is...

  18. 13 Love on the Dole: The Apartment
    (pp. 231-246)

    “After I had finished Some Like It Hot, I wanted to make another picture with Jack Lemmon,” Wilder said.¹ In considering Lemmon for his next project, Wilder began to think of him as his Everyman, says Drew Casper in the documentaryInside “The Apartment.”In the film Lemmon would represent the Average Man, a flawed hero desperately endeavoring to get ahead.²

    Wilder still kept a black notebook, which was locked away in a desk drawer, in which he jotted down ideas for film scenarios. He had begun this practice in earnest while he was working for Lubitsch. When he consulted...

  19. 14 Love on the Run: One, Two, Three and Irma la Douce
    (pp. 247-268)

    “Don’t ask me why, but I just got the feeling I wanted to make a picture again in Germany,” Wilder said; “I hadn’t done one since 1948, when I didA Foreign Affair.”¹ He explained to a German interviewer, “Of course I was bitter after the war; but today it’s a closed chapter. I have buried my anger and my hate. The wounds are healed. It is absolutely, totally forgotten. I even miss Germany again today. I’m homesick for Berlin.”²

    Wilder had a penchant for choosing story material from obscure European literary sources. These stories would be unfamiliar to American...

  20. 15 Grifters: Kiss Me, Stupid and The Fortune Cookie
    (pp. 269-292)

    “The first thing you learn in Hollywood,” Billy Wilder declared, was that you must not offend pressure groups. “Don’t offend the Catholics, the Jews, the dentists,” or any other group.¹ Wilder forgot his own advice when he madeKiss Me, Stupid,which offended the Catholic Legion of Decency mightily. But in 1963, Wilder was riding high. In the light of the phenomenal success ofIrma la Douce,Harold Mirisch, the president of the Mirisch Company, issued Wilder a sweetheart contract that guaranteed him a salary of four hundred thousand dollars plus 10 percent of the gross profit for his next...

  21. 16 The Game’s Afoot: The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes
    (pp. 293-306)

    Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, like Agatha Christie, was one of the foremost writers of classic British detective stories. Conan Doyle’s armchair sleuth, Sherlock Holmes, can find the solution to any mystery with his ingenious faculties of deduction. But Conan Doyle’s stories are not merely exercises in puzzle solving; he portrays his hero’s encounters with the evils of society in a vivid and compelling fashion.

    Arthur Conan Doyle was born in Edinburgh in 1859; he was educated in a Jesuit school and at Edinburgh University, where he earned his medical degree in 1885. He decided to augment his meager income as...

  22. 17 The Perfect Blendship: The Front Page and Avanti!
    (pp. 307-322)

    In 1928 Billy Wilder was a reporter on a tabloid in Berlin that specialized in crime stories and sensational feature pieces, such as his first-person account of life as a gigolo. That same year, on August 14, playwrights Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur premiered their cynical farce about the newspaper racket,The Front Page,on Broadway.

    The play later reminded Wilder of his years as a young reporter; he would get around to filming it some four decades later. “I loved the 1920s,” he recalled. “A reporter back then was a mixture of a private eye and a dramatist. If...

  23. 18 Twilight Years: Fedora and Buddy Buddy
    (pp. 323-340)

    Clay Felker, the editor ofNew Yorkmagazine, phoned Wilder in the fall of 1975 to ask him to sit for a frank interview, and Wilder agreed. AfterAvanti!was lambasted by the critics andThe Front Pagereceived a mixed critical response, Wilder seemed to draw energy and resolve from disdain and financial adversity.

    When Felker’s reporter, Jon Bradshaw, showed up for the interview, he seemed pleasantly surprised that Wilder’s spirit was not broken by his commercial failures. Wilder, annoyed, opened fire: “What did you expect to find when you came out here? A broken-down director? A wizened, myopic...

  24. Epilogue: A Touch of Class
    (pp. 341-346)

    The export of European film artists to Hollywood in the 1930s, write Gerald Mast and Bruce Kawin, bled the European film industry “as steadily as a Dracula’s kiss.” But this exodus “would inject its powerful juices into the American film” for decades to come.¹ Billy Wilder certainly did his part to enrich American cinema. He learned during his long career in Hollywood that a director had to work hard not just to achieve artistic independence but also to keep it. Wilder went his own way in Hollywood and made films that suited his own talent, taste, and temperament. He challenged...

  25. Filmography
    (pp. 347-366)
  26. Notes
    (pp. 367-408)
  27. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 409-416)
  28. Index
    (pp. 417-446)