The Wilder Touch: Billy Wilder’s Enduring Comedies – AFS’s October Essential Cinema Starts September 30
Starting this Thursday, AFS presents The Wilder Touch as October’s Essential Cinema series—featuring some of the most timeless comedies ever to show on screen by the incomparable and celebrated director Billy Wilder, including A FOREIGN AFFAIR (1948), LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON (1957), THE APARTMENT (1960), IRMA LA DOUCE (1963), and beloved classic SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959). We’ll be joined by Noah Isenberg, chair of the University of Texas at Austin’s Radio-Television-Film department and guest programmer for this series, at select screenings for introductions and discussions beginning with A FOREIGN AFFAIR on Saturday, October 2. Professor Isenberg is an editor of Billy Wilder on Assignment and author of a forthcoming book on SOME LIKE IT HOT.
We asked Professor Isenberg, the Billy Wilder expert, for some context to the five films we’ll be showing in the series:
Although it was Ernst Lubitsch, that master of subtle humor, sly innuendo, and an unmistakable air of European sophistication, who is most often thought to hold exclusive rights on the touch, his equally acclaimed disciple Billy Wilder—whose Beverly Hills office famously displayed a sign with the credo “How Would Lubitsch Do It?” in reverent cursive letters—most certainly had a touch of his own. The five films selected for this series point to the enduring legacy of the Berlin-born Lubitsch, whose BLUEBEARD’S EIGHTH WIFE (1938) and NINOTCHKA (1939) were co-written by Wilder, and who passed away in Hollywood in November 1947, at the age of fifty-five, just as the younger director was hitting his jaunty stride. They also reveal a few illustrative moments along the career path of a writer-director whose achievements have found few rivals in motion-picture history.
As the embers of the Second World War continued to burn, the Galician-born and Viennese-raised Wilder returned to Berlin, where he’d lived and worked as a young journalist and budding screenwriter throughout the late Weimar years, 1926-1933 (much of his writing from that era is contained in the newly published Billy Wilder on Assignment). As part of the U.S. Army’s Psychological Warfare Division in Bad Homburg, he witnessed the mountainous ruins left in the wake of the Allied air bombings —footage of which is intercut in the opening sequence of A FOREIGN AFFAIR (1948), his dark comedy of the U.S. occupation—and the mountains of bodies left in the death camps (his mother, step-father, and other relatives are believed to have perished in Auschwitz). Together with Czech director Hanuš Burger, he made DIE TODESMÜHLEN (DEATH MILLS, 1945), a documentary short aimed at re-educating the German masses, produced just months after he and his crew at Paramount had wrapped on THE LOST WEEKEND, his adaptation of Charles Jackson’s bestselling novel, which would earn him his first pair of Oscars (Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay, shared with writing partner Charles Brackett).
In many ways a bittersweet nod to his days as a journalist in Berlin and to the city’s famed nightlife, A FOREIGN AFFAIR afforded Wilder the chance to work with Marlene Dietrich, whom he regarded as a lifelong friend and whose breakout performance as nightclub singer Lola Lola, in Josef von Sternberg’s DER BLAUE ENGEL (THE BLUE ANGEL, 1930), seems to haunt the entire film. Early on, Charles Lang’s camera takes us into the raucous Lorelei nightclub, where Dietrich’s performance, as ex-Nazi chanteuse Erika von Schlütow, features composer Friedrich Holländer seated at the piano, sharing a few drags of her cigarette—a throwback to their initial pairing on THE BLUE ANGEL and also a tacit acknowledgment of the friendship Holländer enjoyed with Wilder, when he, Peter Lorre, and several other refugees from Hitler were holed up in Paris at the Hotel Ansonia waiting for passage to America. The camera, still lavishing attention on the nightclub stage, reveals a drum kit with the Eden Hotel emblazoned upon it, the same hotel where Wilder worked as a dancer for hire, possibly a gigolo, in the mid-1920s, writing a three-part, tell-all series for his readers at the Berliner Zeitung am Mittag.
One of the many memorable profiles that Wilder wrote as a cub reporter in Berlin and Vienna was of the Swiss-French writer Claude Anet (né Jean Schopfer), whose 1920 novel Ariane, jeane fille russe, he later adapted to the screen and produced, as Love in the Afternoon (1957), starring Audrey Hepburn, in the first of a dozen charmed collaborations with writer I.A.L. Diamond. Fittingly enough, Wilder ends his 1927 profile of Anet with a couple of sentences taken from the author himself and that seem, almost uncannily, to anticipate Gary Cooper’s performance as the philandering Frank Flanagan in Wilder’s film three decades later: “The lady-killer disappears after his victory. Then the women curse the hour he was born, yet they regret not that he came, but that he went.”
In their next collaboration, Wilder and Diamond returned once more to a few evergreen sources from the late 1920s, their chosen setting for SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959), in which Prohibition-era Chicago has more than a mere waft of Wilder’s Berlin, known at the time—in a quip attributed to Mark Twain—as Chicago on the Spree. When he was just shy of his twentieth birthday, Wilder wrote a piece on the internationally acclaimed all-girl dance troupe from Manchester, England, The Tiller Girls, and their arrival in Vienna (“This morning, thirty-four of the most enticing legs emerged from the Berlin express train when it arrived at the Westbahnhof station”). It was an image Wilder never quite forgot, certainly not when he and Diamond dreamed up Sweet Sue and Her Society Syncopators. Their own variation at the Chicago train station has Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in full drag for the first time—coached, as fate would have it, by the Round Rock-native drag artist Barbette (né Vander Clyde), a performer Wilder knew from her Berlin tours of the 20s—and Marilyn Monroe and her dangerous curves sauntering by in a form-fitting skirt and flapper hat (“a whole different sex”).
The last pair of sex comedies selected for the series both feature Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine: THE APARTMENT (1960) and IRMA LA DOUCE (1963), the former a film for which Wilder would wrack up another three Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay) and the latter among his most commercially successful films of his career. In both instances, the Wilder touch is evident in ways that harken back to his early apprenticeship with Lubitsch and also to his years as a freelance writer, barely eking out a living, in Berlin and Vienna. In Volker Schlöndorff’s documentary BILLY WILDER SPEAKS (2006), the German filmmaker notes how the sense of alienation and loneliness, not to mention the self-deprecating mordant wit, that defines Lemmon’s character of C.C. Baxter in THE APARTMENT recalls quite vividly Wilder’s own art of getting by in the big city. Finally, Shirley MacLaine’s performance as the title role of Irma la Douce gives a second life to Fran Kubelick, the elfin elevator girl, and a chance for Wilder to entertain, even to tease, an American audience eager to appreciate his more libertine, continental sensibility.