This post is my contribution to the Billy Wilder Blogathon, a one-day event celebrating what would’ve been the prolific director’s 108th birthday. It’s hosted by the fabulous Outspoken and Freckled and Once Upon A Screen; be sure to check out all the great entries here.
“I want to thank three persons. I want to thank Billy Wilder, I want to thank Billy Wilder and I want to thank Billy Wilder” – Michel Hazanavicius, upon receiving the Best Picture Oscar for The Artist in 2012
Some directors and actors are so ingrained in popular consciousness that’s inconceivable to imagine a time when their names weren’t well known. Billy Wilder is one of those directors. His career spanned more than 50 years, and his name is synonymous with undisputed Hollywood classics, including Some Like It Hot, Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity. With the weight of these films – and many more – behind him, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Wilder was an overnight sensation but, as is so often the case with the media-friendly term, his success was built upon years of graft, first in Vienna and Berlin as a reporter. Before he moved to Hollywood he wrote over 200 screenplays for the German film industry, including People On Sunday (1929), an wonderfully experimental film that became a mainstream hit, influencing generations of film artists around the world. From this movie, you’re left with the sense that Wilder was a true team player, aware that a successful film was based on more than individual talents.
Ernst Lubitsch was instrumental in Wilder’s early Hollywood career. Lubitsch was the head of production at Paramount, and was uniquely placed to nurture recently arrived talent – although (according to Wilder) it took four years for Lubitsch to hire him and producer Manny Wolfe to pair him with Charles Brackett, another Paramount writer. Brackett and Wilder must have seemed an unlikely team – the former was a published novelist and a critic for The New Yorker, Wilder was new to Hollywood and spoke in heavily-accented English – but it proved to be an inspired partnership. Their first co-written screenplay was Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938), a cute comedy starring Gary Cooper and Claudette Colbert and directed by Lubitsch himself.
Despite this early success, it was Ninotchka, Brackett and Wilder’s fourth collaboration, which was the real game-changer. The basic plot for the film had been worked out before the screenwriters joined, but they – along with another writer Walter Reisch and Lubitsch (again, as director) – rounded it out into a story, chiefly the tale of a Commissar Ninotchka Yakushova (Greta Garbo) who travels from Moscow to Paris and falls in love. There’s a wonderful anecdote from Wilder about working with Lubitsch on Ninotchka in The Paris Review’s Billy Wilder, The Art of Screenwriting No.1:
“Lubitsch didn’t like what we’d done, didn’t like it at all. So he called us in to have another conference at his house. We talked about it, but of course we were still, well . . . blocked. In any case, Lubitsch excused himself to go to the bathroom, and when he came back into the living room he announced, Boys, I’ve got it.
It’s funny, but we noticed that whenever he came up with an idea, I mean a really great idea, it was after he came out of the can. I started to suspect that he had a little ghostwriter in the bowl of the toilet there”
The device Lubitsch invented involved Ninotchka’s hat. Upon arriving in Paris, she passes a store window where three extravagant hats are on display. Ninotchka instantly dismisses their frivolity: she prefers functional and utilitarian items. Later, alone in her hotel room she opens a drawer to reveal one of the ‘frivolous’ hats, which she takes out and tries on with care, looking at herself incredulously in the mirror. This simple technique shows her change in attitude and clearly had an impact on Wilder: in subsequent screenplays he regularly used everyday items to reveal character shifts and explain actions. Wilder was aware of the debt he owed to Lubitsch: on the wall of his office hung a sign asking ‘how would Lubitsch do it?’
Of course, Lubitsch wasn’t responsible for the entire screenplay. It’s lightness, natural flow and unobtrusiveness come courtesy of Wilder and Brackett. Garbo’s literal, razor sharp responses to Melvyn Douglas’ romantic overtures are wonderful (‘Must you flirt?’ and ‘I do not deny its beauty, but it is a waste of electricity’), offering her an opportunity to indulge her comic side. Apparently she had no issues with the double entendres in the script. Despite the humour, Wilder and Brackett regarded it as a serious satire that paid reference to the repressive Bolshevik regime. Audiences might not have seen the serious side though: one preview card Lubitsch received following a showing read ‘Funniest film I ever saw; I laughed so hard I peed in my girlfriend’s hand.’ High praise indeed, and one that was echoed by the Academy: after it’s release in 1939, Ninotchka was nominated for four awards, including Best Writing Original Story and Best Writing Original Screenplay, but lost out to Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and Gone With the Wind, respectively.
Whilst Wilder worked well with Lubitsch, the same could not be said of other directors. Lubitsch was generous with his time and advice, willing to offer both to create a successful collaborative partnership, and Wilder held him high regard. But not all directors were so inclined. Mitchell Leisen, who directed the Wilder-Brackett penned Midnight, made a lot of changes to the screenplay, treating as a suggested blueprint and not a finished piece. Wilder grew increasingly exasperated by the misinterpretation of his work and resolved to become a director himself, the only way to preserve his creative vision. The rest of Wilder’s story would be the history he shaped.