Thursday, March 01, 2007
What did Wilder do?
I thought I'd go through all of Billy Wilder's films as either writer and/or director that I've seen, omitting the titles being explored in greater detail elsewhere on this site today. Forgive our indulgence, but we love Billy and relished the opportunity to go overboard about him.
This film made in France was Wilder's first directing effort (actually, he co-directed with Alexander Esway) and is a fascinating artifact for any Wilder fan to check out. The only film he made in France after fleeing Germany following Hitler's election as chancellor, Mauvaise graine (translation: Bad seed) was based on a short story by Wilder. It tells the story of Henri (Pierre Mingand), a son of privilege cut off by his physician father (Paul Escoffier), who has tired of his son's playboy ways. Henri falls in with a colorful band of car thieves once he's forced to sell his own vehicle to cover debts. Though the film has a mostly light tone, it's hard not to see the path Wilder's life is to take as in the end, Henri flees Paris for parts unknown, just as Wilder did for Hollywood where he worked as a screenwriter, not directing another film for eight years.
Billy Wilder famously had a framed quote hanging on his office wall which read, "What would Lubitsch do?" and he got a chance to see his inspiration and mentor at work when he co-wrote the great Greta Garbo vehicle Ninotchka. Garbo is joyous to watch as a committed Russian communist sent to Paris to investigate the delay in the sale of some crown jewels by her emissaries only to discover that they've been seduced by capitalism, something she soon falls prey to as well in the form of the delightful Melvyn Douglas. This sparkling comedy is as witty today as I imagine it was in its original release. It could have been the role that finally got Garbo an Oscar, but the movie had the misfortune of being released in the same year as Gone With the Wind and nothing was gonna keep that Oscar away from Vivien Leigh's Scarlett O'Hara.
Has there ever been a more propitious alignment of talents than those that came together for Ball of Fire? Wilder and his co-writer Charles Brackett, after getting to work with the great Lubitsch on Ninotchka, not only get to see the great Howard Hawks in action but Wilder also gets to see the great Barbara Stanwyck up close and personal before she gets to work with Wilder in one of his greatest film achievements. I don't know whose inspiration it was to take a twist on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and transform it into a comedy where Snow White is anything but (a saucy moll in fact) and the dwarfs are a collection of eccentric professors working to compile a dictionary of American slang. What a year Stanwyck had in 1941 — this film, Capra's Meet John Doe and Preston Sturges' The Lady Eve. Stanwyck got her best actress nomination for Ball of Fire (the right choice of the three, I believe) but how she could lose to Joan Fontaine in Suspicion is downright criminal. How Stanwyck never won an Oscar period is unbelievable. If it were up to me, Stanwyck would have ended up with four Oscars in her lifetime instead of a mere honorary one.
Wilder got his chance to get back in the director's chair for the first time following his move to Hollywood with this charming but lightweight comedy starring Ginger Rogers who disguises herself as a 12-year-old to get a cut-rate train ticket home only to become embroiled with an Army major (Ray Milland), eager to get back into active service anticipating the war clouds on the horizon. Wilder and Charles Brackett's trademark wit certainly makes itself known (look for a great sight gag involving the students from an all-girls school that visit the military academy Milland works at for a dance). Rogers is fun and Rita Johnson makes a nice villain as Milland's fiancee. There also is a nice turn from the forgotten Diana Lynn as Johnson's little sister, though it's nothing compared to the great role she'd get in Preston Sturges' The Miracle of Morgan's Creek two years later.
This wasn't Wilder's first film as a director, but this is the one that put him on the map and one of the films that practically define film noir. Teaming again with the magnificent Stanwyck, a never-better Fred MacMurray (this is the kindly dad from My Three Sons and The Absent-Minded Professor?) and the great Edward G. Robinson. Stanwyck lost again, this time to Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight, who was at least worthy, even if she wasn't better that Stanwyck's indelible Phyllis Dietrichson. The bigger Oscar crimes this year were that Double Indemnity and Wilder lost to Going My Way and Leo McCarey and that MacMurray and Robinson didn't even earn nominations. Someone should swing from a star (or at least be pushed from a moving train) for those Oscar travesties. Sidenote for Twin Peaks fans: Another fun reference the series threw in in the first season happened when Catherine Martell (Piper Laurie) discovered that an insurance policy had been taken out on her life without her knowledge, thanks to an insurance agent whose last name just happened to be Neff, giving Laurie the chance to utter those famous words, "Are you an ambitious man, Mr. Neff?"
This at-the-time landmark portrayal of alcoholism won Billy Wilder his first two Oscars and while I'm happy he won Oscars, I've always felt this film was very dated and not one of his best. Ray Milland is fine and Howard da Silva as a bartender is even better, but this one has never really grabbed me. Of course, leave it to the Academy to honor a talent as deserving as Wilder for a lesser work. At least the next two years when he won Oscars were for two of his greatest films instead of something as creaky as this one.
This small gem is really one of Wilder's lesser-known efforts, but it shouldn't be, containing great work from Jean Arthur as a member of Congress investigating a singer (Marlene Dietrich) suspected of being a former Nazi. Complicating matters is an Army captain (John Lund) who is infatuated with both women. Like his later One, Two, Three, which also found ample comedy in post-war Berlin, and Stalag 17, which proved it's better to mock the Nazis than to fear them years before Mel Brooks practically made a career out of ridiculing the Third Reich, A Foreign Affair also finds a great deal of pathos in Dietrich's character, who is determined to go on despite the fact that the city she loves is still practically in ruins.
Raised expectations are a dangerous thing and that proved to be the case when, after years of lusting, I finally got to see Ace in the Hole aka The Big Carnival. Billy Wilder making a sharp satire about the media and in 1951 no less? Sign me up. However, once I did get to see the movie, I was disappointed. Perhaps it was inevitable. Perhaps it was the multitude of better movies that were made later that I'd already seen that made this feel like old hat. Certainly, it must have been groundbreaking and edgy in its time, but viewed now, many films have tackled the subject so much better. Admittedly, any film that Wilder made immediately after the incomparable Sunset Blvd. was going to be a letdown, but Ace in the Hole left me cold.
Wilder's next one was far from a disappointment and won William Holden his only Oscar. It also not only inspired TV's Hogan's Heroes but a lawsuit over them poaching from Stalag 17 to boot (Hell, one of the Germans running the camp is even named Sgt. Schulz, did they think no one would notice?). While set in a German POW camp, it certainly has its harrowing moments and death thanks to a mole within the prisoners' ranks, as one would expect from Wilder, it's also got plenty of laughs to offer, many from Robert Strauss in his Oscar-nominated performance.
When you have Audrey Hepburn, especially so early in her career, charm will turn out to be the operative word for the film and such is the case with Sabrina. Wilder worked with Holden yet again but also got Humphrey Bogart to appear in a rare romantic comedy, showing a different side to him late in Bogie's career. While Sabrina is certainly enjoyable, it's always seemed like a bit of an aberration in the Wilder canon. Then again, what is the Wilder canon? Like Howard Hawks, Wilder would take a shot at just about any genre. Let's just forget about the ill-advised remake that happened in the 1990s with Julia "Where is she now?" Ormond, Harrison Ford and Greg Kinnear.
This comedy, more famous for a subway grate blowing up Marilyn Monroe's skirt than anything else, was adapted from a stage play and its theatrical origins are glaringly obvious. Sure, Tom Ewell has some good moments, as does Monroe, but for the most part, this is a botch and not worthy of being part of the Billy Wilder filmography.
Billy sure was a busy boy in 1957, with three features coming out in the 12-month period, though the third was by far the best one. As for this biography of Charles Lindbergh, this may be the most un-Wilder movie that Wilder ever made. James Stewart seems to be sleepwalking through his role as the famed aviator and some of the ways they try to open the film up (I mean, can you really make a feature film about one man alone in a plane flying over the ocean when you know he's going to land safely?). There are flashbacks a-plenty, lots of internal monologues and, in foreshadowing of Tom Hanks' later conversations with a soccer ball in Cast Away, an extended one-way conversation with a fly. It's not bad, but it's not Wilder.
The second time working with Audrey Hepburn was not the charm as far as Wilder was concerned in this tale of an over-the-hill playboy (Gary Cooper, who if the part didn't call for an over-the-hill playboy, was certainly too old for Hepburn) targeted for death by the jealous husband of one of his many conquests. Hepburn plays the daughter of the detective hired by the angry spouse and she sets out to intervene by faking her own list of romantic liaisons and, of course, falling in love with Cooper herself. One of Wilder's most forgettable efforts.
As I alluded to earlier, Wilder saved the best of his 1957 films for last with this adaptation of Agatha Christie's novel. Sparked by the great interplay between real-life spouses Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester and another great performance under Wilder's direction from Marlene Dietrich, Witness for the Prosecution proves to be a true joy. It's not really a straight-forward whodunit as most of Christie's books were, but instead is a courtroom drama, and a riveting one at that. It was another genre that Wilder hadn't attempted before and with this film, he passed the test with flying colors.
Nobody may be perfect, but this film damn near is. This is the first film in a three-film streak that may be Wilder's best one, two, three punch ever (I explore the third film, One, Two, Three, in more detail elsewhere). He gets a good performance out of Marilyn Monroe and great ones out of Tony Curtis, dressing in drag and channeling Cary Grant. and Jack Lemmon. More than just a drag comedy, Some Like It Hot simply is one of the most entertaining films ever made.
I love Alfred Hitchcock and I know there are many out there who still are distressed that The Apartment beat Psycho for best picture (Actually, Psycho wasn't even nominated for picture, though Wilder did beat Hitch for director), but I think the best film won. A perfect blend of sophisticated comedy, some slapstick and ample pathos, The Apartment simply is sublime. Again, Wilder recognizes that Fred MacMurray can do wonders as a heel (though he almost didn't take the part since Disney had sunk its claws into him by now). Lemmon is note perfect and Shirley MacLaine really gets her first truly great role. For those who still harbor ill thoughts about Psycho's loss, shut up and deal with it.
It's rough sledding for the great Billy Wilder from here forward. Sure, there is one butchered classic to come, but for the most part, One, Two, Three marked the last high watermark of the great man's career. This comedy, and I use the term loosely, reunites Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine and not to good effort, with Lemmon miscast as a Parisian cop who accidentally becomes pimp to MacLaine's sweet streetwalker. Of course, love is inevitable, slapstick is plentiful but unfortunately, wit and laughs are few and far between.
As Maxwell Smart used to say, "Missed it by that much" and that's certainly what I felt when I saw Kiss Me, Stupid. This film had so much potential, but somehow ended up missing the mark on multiple counts. Dean Martin, basically playing himself, finds himself stranded in a small Nevada town where he encounters a budding composer (Ray Walston) with a jealous streak concerning his wife Zelda (Felicia Farr) so he and his songwriting partner (Cliff Osmond) try to substitute the town's gorgeous hooker (Kim Novak) to satiate the perpetually horny Dino and protect Zelda's honor. Needless to say, hijinks and misunderstandings ensue but somehow the movie as a whole never clicks, despite Martin and Walston's great performances.
Of all the many accomplishments that Billy Wilder achieved in his long career, another he'll be remembered for is being the first to pair Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau (for better and worse). The Fortune Cookie isn't a bad movie, but if it didn't contain Matthau's Oscar-winning performance as an ambulance-chasing lawyer, it'd be pretty forgettable. Matthau runs away with this movie (and some would argue that he shouldn't have been relegated to supporting actor when he's really a co-lead, but it's doubtful he would have topped Paul Scofield in A Man for All Seasons).
Every great filmmaker seems to have at least one case where a film he's worked long and hard on has fallen victim to others' butcher knives, making a negative reaction to the dismembered product inevitable. For Wilder, that came with The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Thanks to home video, at least one of the missing sequences have been found and restored and what remains is quite good and make Wilder fans (and movie buffs in general) salivate over what could have been. Robert Stephens is great as Holmes, as are Colin Blakely as Watson and Christopher Lee as Sherlock's brother Mycroft. The story doesn't revolve around your usual Holmes-style mysteries, but explores Sherlock's fleeting thoughts about having a child, espionage and even the Loch Ness monster. In a way, it's Wilder's Magnificent Ambersons — not what he intended, but great nonetheless.
Avanti! holds a unique place in Billy Wilder's filmography for me, at least of the ones I've seen. It's the only film of his that I gave up trying to finish. I got through an hour (and if Wilder's name hadn't been attached, I doubt I would have made it that far) but with nearly another hour and a half to go, I decided I'd seen enough to know that I didn't want to see anymore. Say what you will about Buddy Buddy, at least I finished that one. Jack Lemmon stars as an American businessman who flies to Italy to retrieve his father's body after he dies in a car crash while on vacation there. He soon discovers that his father had an Italian lover whom he met there frequently and who also died in the wreck. This brings him in contact with a woman (Juliet Mills) who happens to be the daughter of the late mistress. I'm guessing that some sort of romance develops between Lemmon and Mills but I didn't stick around to find out.
When I was a very young lad, I actually saw this movie in a theater. I didn't know who Billy Wilder was, let alone that the movie had been made before with Adolphe Menjou or as the incomparable His Girl Friday. I enjoyed it. Later, when I did see its predecessors, I realized that it ranked third of the three, but it seemed that some stories are strong enough to survive reintepretations (a theory destroyed once they tried to remake it again in the cable news era as Switching Channels with Burt Reynolds and Kathleen Turner). Once again, Matthau proves to be the biggest asset here, doing a more-than-respectable Walter Burns even when you put him up against Menjou and Cary Grant (though Grant will always be at the very top). Lemmon? Well, he's no Rosalind Russell (or Pat O'Brien for that matter). Most of the other casting in the 1973 version also pales alongside the other films and even at my young age I recognized that Carol Burnett was miscast and over-the-top as Mollie Malloy. It's pleasant enough, but there's nothing here that should make you see it over His Girl Friday or the original.
Wilder's final feature was far from one of his best, but it did team him once again with Lemmon and Matthau and once again, Matthau got the best of it. Matthau plays a hit man out to do a job when he encounters Lemmon (as yet another suicidally depressed man whose wife has left him) and finds himself distracted trying to save the man from doing himself in. Matthau gives it his best shot (no pun intended) but the gags are forced and tired. It's another American movie remade from a script by Francis Veber (while his script for La Cage Aux Folles turned into the acceptable Birdcage and a Broadway musical, he also led Hollywood to make such duds such as The Toy, The Man With One Red Shoe, Three Fugitives, Pure Luck and My Father the Hero. It's sad that a giant like Wilder had to end with this one, but what can you do? He still produced far more great movies than misfires.
Labels: A. Hepburn, Bogart, Cary, Cooper, Dean Martin, Edward G., Garbo, Ginger Rogers, Holden, J. Stewart, Laughton, Lemmon, Lubitsch, MacLaine, MacMurray, Marilyn, Marlene, Matthau, Menjou, Tony Curtis
I totally am with you on the Seven Year Itch though. You can so easily tell it was adapted from a popular play that it's painful. Everything about it, except that iconic skirt scene, feels absolutely stagebound.
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