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Some Like It Wilder

The Life and Controversial Films of Billy Wilder

Gene Phillips

Publication Year: 2010

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.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky

Series: Screen Classics

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. iii-iv


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pp. ix-x

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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 Sch

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pp. xiii-xiv

To begin with, I am most grateful to Billy Wilder for granting me an extended interview in his Hollywood office, which was the starting point of this book. In addition, I wish to single out the following among those who have given me their assistance in the course of the long period in which I was engaged in remote preparation for this study. I conducted interviews with filmmaker Fred Zinnemann about how he and Wilder started their...

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1. From Berlin to Hollywood: The Early Screenplays

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pp. 1-17

“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 called People on Sunday (1929). After he migrated to Hollywood in the 1930s in the wake of the rise of Hitler, Wilder continued...

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2. Champagne and Tears: Ninotchka, Midnight, and Ball of Fire

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pp. 19-31

When he was preparing Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife for 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.

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3. New Directions: The Major and the Minor and Five Graves to Cairo

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pp. 33-51

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 Home by Edward Childs Carpenter, adapted from a Saturday Evening Post short story by Fannie Kilbourne, published in 1921 and titled “Sunny...

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4. The Rise of Film Noir: Double Indemnity

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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 titled Double Indemnity. After she emerged with the novelette “pressed against her bosom,” Wilder decided to read it himself.1 A nice anecdote, but apocryphal.

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5. Through a Glass Darkly: The Lost Weekend and Die Todesm

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pp. 71-87

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 novel The Lost Weekend at 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.

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6. Wunderbar: The Emperor Waltz and A Foreign Affair

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pp. 89-107

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...

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7. Dark Windows: Sunset Boulevard

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pp. 109-127

“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...

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8. Barbed Wire Satire: Ace in the Hole and Stalag 17

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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...

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9. Fascination: Sabrina and The Seven Year Itch [Includes Image Plates]

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pp. 153-175

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 play Sabrina Fair: A Woman of the World had 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...

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10. Light Up the Sky: The Spirit of St. Louis and Love in the Afternoon

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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 directing The Spirit of St. Louis nearly thirty years later. “You cannot imagine now what the...

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11. Remains to Be Seen: Witness for the Prosecution

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pp. 197-210

Witness for the Prosecution began its artistic life as a short story that Agatha Christie published in 1933 in Britain in a volume titled The Hound of Death. The story was published in the United States in 1948 in the collection Witness 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,...

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12. The Gang’s All Here: Some Like It Hot

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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...

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13. Love on the Dole: The Apartment

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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 documentary Inside “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...

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14. Love on the Run: One, Two, Three and Irma la Douce

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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 did A 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

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15. Grifters: Kiss Me, Stupid and The Fortune Cookie

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pp. 269-291

“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 made Kiss Me, Stupid, which offended the Catholic Legion of Decency mightily. But in 1963, Wilder was riding high. In the light of the phenomenal success of Irma la Douce, Harold Mirisch, the president of the Mirisch...

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16. The Game’s Afoot: The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes

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pp. 293-305

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.

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17. The Perfect Blendship: The Front Page and Avanti!

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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...

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18. Twilight Years: Fedora and Buddy Buddy

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pp. 323-339

Clay Felker, the editor of New York magazine, phoned Wilder in the fall of 1975 to ask him to sit for a frank interview, and Wilder agreed. After Avanti! was lambasted by the critics and The Front Page received 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...

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pp. 341-345

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...


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pp. 347-365


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pp. 367-408

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 409-416


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pp. 417-446

E-ISBN-13: 9780813173672
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813125701

Page Count: 464
Publication Year: 2010

Series Title: Screen Classics