Some Like It Wilder

Time and again, I’ve noticed The Apartment popping up on my social media feed described as ‘my favourite film of all time.’ Starring Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, I confess I too have a real fondness for it, and no, not because Lemon’s character is called C.C. Baxter or that MacLaine is particularly beautiful in it, though that does help. My reason is more to do with the director  Billy Wilder, who is someone I have really come to admire and celebrate in the last ten years or so.

Shmuel Vidr, (anglicised as Samuel Wilder) was born in June 1906 into a Polish Jewish family. Mother was Eugenia and Father Max, with mum nicknaming her son Billy, after Buffalo Bill, her being a fan of all things American. Film making was already in the family, with Eugenia’s brother W. Lee, working in the industry, whilst Billy’s family owned a successful chain of railroad cafes . Dad Max died when Billy was 22 and the family moved to Vienna , where Billy became a journalist. In 1926, he then befriended the band leader Paul Whiteman and followed him and the band to Berlin.

There Billy found work as a ‘taxi dancer ‘ which involved being hired out on a dance-by-dance basis. Gradually however, he became a success as a writer, first for a local newspaper, before moving on to become a screen writer . He was very prolific and worked on twelve films from 1929 to 1933. Then as Hitler came to prominence in Germany, Wilder aged 26, moved to Paris. There, he directed his first film Mauvaise Graine in 1934.

‘People said Hitler was a big, loud, unpleasant joke, but at the UFA building, the MGM of Berlin, the elevator boy was suddenly in a storm trooper’s uniform. I had a new Graham-Paige American car and a new apartment furnished in Bauhaus, and I sold everything for a few hundred dollars. A lot of my friends had a fear of going to a country where they didn’t speak the language, so they went to Vienna or Prague, but anybody who had listened to the speeches, knew Hitler would want Austria and the Sudeten part of Czechoslovakia. I was on the train to Paris the day after the Reichstag fire.’

He then relocated again, this time to Hollywood despite not being able to speak English. He was among 1,500 members of the German film industry who had left around that time. Sadly, his mother, stepfather and grandmother would all subsequently die in various concentration camps under the Nazi regime. 

Once there, Billy assimilated himself into American way of life by avoiding anywhere where refugees gathered and spoke German. Instead, he listened the radio and learned 20 new English words a day.

Most of the refugees had a secret hope that Hitler would be defeated, and they could go back home, I never had that hope. This was home. I had a clear-cut vision: This is where I am going to die.’

Billy worked as a screenwriter at first, becoming a naturalised US citizen in 1939. His first film success was Ninotchka which starred Greta Garbo and it earned him his first Academy Award nomination,  which he shared with Charles Brackett, with whom he co-wrote many scripts. Brackett described their partnership; thus,

‘The thing to do was suggest an idea, have it torn apart and despised. In a few days it would be apt to turn up, slightly changed, as Wilder’s idea. Once I got adjusted to that way of working, our lives were simpler.’ 

Billy’s third film as director was the film noir Double Indemnity co-written with Raymond Chandler and released in 1944, starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck & Edward G Robinson. It went on to pick up seven Academy Awards nominations. 1947 saw The Lost Weekend starring Ray Milland, released, featuring  the controversial subject of alcoholism. That picked up the Palme d’or at Cannes and Best Picture, Director and Screenplay for Wilder and Best Actor for Milland, at that year’s Oscars.

1950 saw Sunset Boulevard premiere starring Gloria Swanson and William Holden and this would be the last collaboration between Wilder and Brackett, for which they picked up the Oscar for Best Screenplay. Ace in the Hole was next in 1951, starring Kirk Douglas, then Stalag 17 in 1953. Sabrina from 1954 starred a young Audrey Hepburn, and Holden again, alongside Humphrey Bogart, who didn’t get on too well with Wilder, after he found out that he was second choice for the role, after Cary Grant turned it down. Billy later teamed up again with Audrey for Love in the Afternoon in 1957, which was his first collab with fellow writer I. A. L. Diamond

Wilder then made the move into comedy, with Seven Year Itch  in 1955, which featured Marilyn Monroe and the (in)famous white dress being blown upwards scene. Next, came Some Like it Hot from 1959, which once again starred Marilyn, alongside Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. In it, Jack and Tony had to cross dress and join an all women touring big band, to escape from a gang of Chicago gangsters, hot on their trail. The film did well at the box office, though in the main, the critics were not favourable. Later, with 20/20 hindsight, it was voted the best American comedy ever made in 2000 by the American Film Institute.

Then came the aforementioned The Apartment in1960, which picked up the Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay Oscars. Billy followed that with One, Two Three staring James Cagney and then Kiss Me Stupid featuring Kim Novak and Dean Martin . He then worked once again with MacLaine and Lemmon in Irma la Douce in 1963. As he hit the mid 1960s, Wilder teamed up with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon for the first time, with the 1966 film
The Fortune Cookie. He worked on The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes from 1970, where he was troubled by studio interference and cutting of the film, before moving on to Avanti with old pal Jack Lemmon, then The Front Page, Fedora and his last film Buddy Buddy.

He had hoped to make Schindler’s List’ in homage to the family he lost in the Holocaust, but it was not to be. In truth, ticket sales were poor for his latter films, and he failed to get any backing for future projects. He subsequently spent his later years picking up, what he called ‘Quick, before they croak’ awards.

Off screen, he was a keen collector, with modern art being a particular passion . He was married twice, first to Judith an artist in 1936, having twins Victoria and Vincent, though Vincent died soon after birth and to Audrey Young in 1949.

Billy Wilder died aged 95, of pneumonia in Beverley Hills  in March 2002 making headlines around the World. The French newspaper Le Monde exclaimed ‘Billy Wider is dead. Nobody is perfect’ echoing the line from Joe. E. Brown in Some Like it Hot when he discovered that Jack Lemmon was not actually woman.

Last word to Billy – ‘I don’t like the audience to be aware of camera tricks, why shoot a scene from a bird’s-eye view, or a bug’s? It’s all done to astonish the bourgeois, to amaze the middle-class critic. People copy, people steal. Most of the pictures they make nowadays are loaded down with special effects. I couldn’t do that. 

I quit smoking because I couldn’t reload my Zippo.’


The Mumper of SE5



THE SPEAKEASY Volume Two by Mark Baxter (The Mumper)

Illustrations by Lewis Wharton

Foreword by Rhoda Dakar

Available to ORDER here



Further styles added to the SALE



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