Billy Wilder: from poor Austrian journalist to Hollywood celebrity | Movie


In an arresting scene from considered one of director Billy Wilder’s most well-known movies, Some Like It Scorching, Marilyn Monroe sashays alongside a Chicago railway station platform in a figure-hugging outfit, leaving Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis gobsmacked.

Till now, few have made the connection between this scene and a few of Wilder’s personal experiences as a younger Austrian journalist within the 1920s. This month, the primary main assortment of Wilder’s journalism ever printed will reveal the best way his early writings formed and influenced memorable scenes, characters and plots from movies he later wrote and directed, together with Sundown Boulevard and The Condominium.

In Billy Wilder on Project, Wilder’s German-language journalism from each Austrian and German publications is collected collectively in a single quantity and translated into English for the primary time.

The all-female musical troupe in Some Like It Scorching seems, for instance, to have a lot in widespread with the Tiller Ladies, a well-known British dance troupe Wilder wrote about for an Austrian tabloid in 1926. “This morning 34 of the most enticing legs emerged from the Berlin express train when it arrived at Westbahnhof station,” he writes, aged 19, in a paragraph that would have been lifted straight out of the film’s script. “Those figures, those legs…”

The young Billy Wilder in 1926.
The younger Billy Wilder in 1926. From the e book Billy Wilder on Project: Dispatches from Weimar Berlin and Interwar Vienna. {Photograph}: Princeton College Press

One other of Wilder’s articles from the gathering, which was first printed in a German literary journal in 1929, is a extremely important profile of the spendthrift behaviour of the silent film director Erich von Stroheim. He highlights the actress Gloria Swanson’s efficiency in von Stroheim’s film Queen Kelly, and describes von Stroheim as “the man we love to hate”.

Later, Wilder casts each Swanson and Von Stroheim in Sundown Boulevard – Swanson as a bitter, forgotten silent movie star and Von Stroheim as a previously profitable silent movie director who’s now working as a butler. At one level, the viewers sees Swanson watch the movie Queen Kelly.

“In a lot of these early pieces, I think you can see the germs for a lot of later ideas,” mentioned Noah Isenberg, professor of movie on the College of Texas at Austin and editor of Billy Wilder on Project, which will likely be printed on 27 April within the US and on 1 June within the UK. “And beyond that, you can see a lot of what we come to expect from a Billy Wilder movie: the dramas and the comedies, all that sparkling wit, that charm, that mordant humour and sarcasm. A lot of that is on full display in these articles that he wrote from the tender age of 19 into his 20s.”

His journalism demonstrates that he was a “born entertainer”, Isenberg says. “You can see, even in the very short pieces that he wrote, there is this desire to entertain and even to dazzle his reader.”

For the gathering’s translator, Shelley Frisch, the articles really feel like new Wilder movies she has found: “So much of what we see in the Wilder films seem to be very visually based,” she mentioned. “But strip that away and all of it, including the amazing ability he had to make characters come alive as full-blooded, three-dimensional people, is right there in his journalism.

“You see in these pieces the journalist Billy Wilder studying the human condition from all possible angles and then when you see him make films, he’s studying the human condition all over again – and building on the observations he made in these early journalism pieces. It’s clear to me that he carried his articles around in his head as ideas he wanted to build on.”

In considered one of his most profitable observational items, ‘Waiter, A Dancer, Please!’, the private expertise Wilder relays could possibly be a plot from considered one of his movies. He writes: “My trousers aren’t ironed, my face is badly shaved… my stomach is so empty that it’s hurting and my nerves are shot. Behind every knock on the door the venomous face of the landlady, shrieking, with the bill in her hands.” Strolling alongside Potsdamer Platz in Berlin, he meets a good friend who takes him out for lunch and one way or the other persuades him to rent himself out as a dancer, regardless of being unable to bop.

Jack Lemmon as CC Baxter in Wilder’s The Apartment, with co-star Shirley MacLaine.
Jack Lemmon as CC Baxter in Wilder’s The Condominium, with co-star Shirley MacLaine. {Photograph}: Cinetext Bildarchiv/Allstar/United Artists

The subsequent morning, at an audition, he’s requested: “So, where have you danced?” “Nowhere,” he confesses. “I see. Amateur. Got it,” is the hilarious reply. He’s employed on the spot and instantly taken to a lodge ballroom to bop with aged girls and different males’s wives, at which level he discovers that he hates dancing – and is trapped.

“The one with the long neck has asked for my name, letting me know that she plans to come often, now that I’m a dancer here,” he writes.

On this manner, “like CC Baxter in The Apartment, he’s a bit of a schlemiel, to use the Yiddish term,” mentioned Isenberg. “He’s the architect of his own misfortune.” He’s additionally exploring, with refined humour in his journalism, the strain between the haves and the have-nots that he later conveys with nice comedian impact in his movies.

Throughout this era, Wilder would typically must pawn his typewriter so he may eat whereas he was ready to receives a commission for a contract fee. “Clearly, he was getting by on very little,” mentioned Isenberg. Residing hand to mouth as a journalist on this manner could have influenced his choices as a film-maker afterward: it taught him that “sex sells”, and that “if he could entertain an audience, he could sell a piece”.

Like CC Baxter and different characters in his movies, he knew what it was prefer to “try to claw his way through a sometimes unforgiving world”.

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