The screenwriter and director Billy Wilder was more than just a creator of snappy wisecracks in classic Hollywood comedies from Ninotchka (1939) to The Fortune Cookie (1966). He also expressed a curdled bitterness and cynicism in his archetypal takedown of Hollywood life in Sunset Boulevard (1950), a grim condemnation of hack journalism in Ace in the Hole (1951), a look at how business careers are like pimping in The Apartment (1960), the links between love and murder in Double Indemnity (1944), and proof that transvestism is a road to conjugal bliss in Some Like It Hot (1959).
Where did Wilder’s cinematic voice and vision, unique in its mocking derision, originate? Born in a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that is now southern Poland, Wilder relocated with his family to Vienna and later Berlin, where he became a journalist and filmmaker.
A new collection from Princeton University Press of his youthful writings may have been mistitled Billy Wilder on Assignment, since a good number of the articles included, some from his teens, appear to be pieces written on spec and accepted by one periodical or another, rather than assigned work.
No matter; these texts, which were published in the original German several years ago, contain tantalising previews of Wilder’s later mastery, although his prose here is mostly trite and conventional.
The young Wilder was for the most part a scrupulously traditional follower of clichés, unlike the iconoclastic jester he became in Hollywood. One of the most splashily extended efforts in Billy Wilder on Assignment is a po-faced account from 1927 of being a dancer for hire at a Berlin nightclub, within conventional limits of mainstream reportage of the day.
Escorting one customer home and chastely leaving her at her doorstep, Wilder abided by German journalistic standards of the 1920s which found the subject of paid male dancers sufficiently titillating, with no need to mention the obvious fact that some of the men for hire were male prostitutes, as described in the international hit tune of 1928, Handsome Gigolo (Schöner Gigolo, armer Gigolo).
Wilder would have to wait for his 1930s Hollywood apprenticeship with the German director Ernst Lubitsch, a mastermind of comedic allusion, to hone his skills with sexual japes acceptable in an era when the prudish Production Code dominated filmdom.
By ellipsis and symbolism, Lubitsch knew how to imply to audiences when hanky-panky occurred offscreen, from naughty cigarette girls in Ninotchka to simian leers from Maurice Chevalier in a series of musicals.
As a tyro, Wilder desperately needed Lubitsch’s expertise to break free from dull codes of polite discourse. Like these persistent conventions banal 1920s melodies would continue to haunt him from his stint as paid dancer and dance instructor. In Sabrina (1954), an aging Humphrey Bogart extracts from storage a 1923 recording of the antiquated ditty Yes! We Have No Bananas.
The sheer datedness of once-popular old records in Sabrina emphasises the generational difference between Bogart and Hepburn, while also saying something about the evanescence of popular taste.
Yet the younger Wilder seemed fully absorbed by the musical taste of his day. He listed 78 rpm records he purchased to conduct dance lessons, including the pale orchestrated jazz of Paul Whiteman and the creepily insinuating voice of Whispering Jack Smith, whose 1926 tune Give Me a Little Kiss, Will Ya Huh? is a nudge-nudge wink-wink account of outdated courtship rituals.
The challenge of conveying young Wilder’s burgeoning talent behind the mediocrity of his taste was well handled by translator Shelley Frisch in Billy Wilder on Assignment, but one possible mistranslation suggests that Wilder danced with a “lovely black woman” who was a nightclub customer. In the parlance and social context of the time, it is likelier that Wilder danced with a black-haired woman (Mit einer schönen schwarzen Frau).
The black-haired woman client fantasises that her hired companion is a dunce, so she asks if Wilder knows who Immanuel Kant was. Wilder deliberately lies, claiming that instead of being a celebrated German philosopher of the Enlightenment, Kant was a “Swiss hero”.
Similarly, in Wilder’s account of a 1926 visit to Berlin by the Tiller Girls, an English dance troupe later referenced by the all-female orchestra in Some Like it Hot, he asks one of them about Einstein’s theory of relativity; she replies that Einstein was a celebrated Berlin confectioner.
Unlike professional journalists who go undercover to report on labour conditions, Wilder was a paid dancer who happened to encounter a benevolent author who suggested that he write about his work.
Decades later, in the Wilder-scripted Sunset Boulevard, the aging former screen diva Norma Desmond pays for her younger tango partner/ gigolo, but is too self-absorbed to worry about how well-stocked his mind might be.
Wilder’s early discreet mentions of the erotic allure of some women, like his condescending and jokey view of the Tiller girls, is complemented by some surprising expressions of masculine sensuality or erotic potential.
A 1926 description of the American bandleader Paul Whiteman’s modest mustache is exaggerated, deeming it a “splendid, peerless, divine, superb mustache. It alone would have made Paul famous, without a doubt. It is cut quite short and twirled up in the middle, the two ends extend out quite far, and it points upward toward his nostrils at a sharp angle; the tips have a bit of pomade, which adds an aromatic element to our visual pleasure.”
This paean to a musician often teased by contemporaries for his well-fed appearance may have been because the often-hungry Wilder in the economic tumult of 1920s Berlin found Whiteman’s sheer stoutness alluring.
Or young Wilder may have been fixated on facial hair. In 1929, he credited the mustachioed actor Adolphe Menjou, born in Pittsburgh, with changing the mustache from the “optical hallmark of the movie villain” to something sprouting “offshoots on millions of upper lips in America and Europe”.
So like a plant or tree providing cuttings, Menjou supposedly fertilised an international forest of mustaches. Wilder further fantasises in imagery suited to the screen debauchery of Cecil B. DeMille or Erich von Stroheim, that during Wilder’s phone interview with Menjou, “The ends of [Menjou’s] mustache are now being drizzled with holy oil by a Japanese servant”.
Likewise, a 1926 pen portrait of the US journalist Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr. also contains unexpected erotic undercurrents along with a certain gullibility about American privilege, which Wilder would discard after actually seeing the United States.
Vanderbilt had been disinherited by his parents and burdened with heavy debt, but Wilder swallowed the myth of an unimaginably rich American. 20-year-old Wilder mentions that Vanderbilt removed his trousers in front of him to freshen up, and invited Wilder to visit his Fifth Avenue mansion in New York.
No homeroticism is implied, but Wilder’s silent acceptance of his subject’s unusual behaviour is striking. America was, for Wilder, the land where everything was acceptable, even guzzling Coca Cola, as Wilde describes William R. Wilkerson, founder of the Hollywood Reporter, doing in 1929.
Three decades later, the gaseous beverage that epitomised America finally exploded in One, Two, Three (1961), a frenetic political comedy starring James Cagney as a Coca-Cola executive; Cagney was so badgered by Wilder that he announced his retirement from acting after the film was completed.
Equally stereotypical are Wilder’s views on the French. He wrote in a 1927 article about the author Claude Anet: “When a Frenchman writes, he writes about love, in a hundred out of a hundred cases.”
At least in terms of Americans, Wilder’s sophistication generally grew, but for things Gallic, from Ninotchka to Love in the Afternoon, a 1957 film adapted from a novel by Anet, he always spouted the most grievous clichés.
Yet film was always a means of artistic transcendence from banality. Wilder’s somewhat overblown narrative about his participation in People on Sunday, a 1930 German silent drama, suddenly springs to life. No longer bound by dull traditions of the literary feuilleton or short story, Wilder’s imagination finally runs free.
The editor of the Princeton Press volume, Noah Isenberg, a professor from Texas, given to stylistic oddities such as referring to Wilder’s decidedly un-French father as “Wilder père,” claims that Wilder wrote the screenplay for People on Sunday.
Yet the screenplay for People on Sunday was written by its codirector Robert Siodmak and his brother Curt Siodmak, with Wilder credited as merely providing the “story.” Robert Siodmak dismissed Wilder’s participation in the production as amounting to a “couple of minutes” to contribute ideas.
Paradoxically, Wilder’s film reviews are dutiful and trite, hardly those of an inspired director-to-be. He unreservedly relishes the 1920s Danish comedy team Ole & Axel, but slates Erich von Stroheim’s 1924 classic Greed in a 1928 review: “It is depressing to watch this depiction of the human condition… yet it is also lopsided and full of meaningless symbols.” By contrast, Wilder’s personality profile of Stroheim, later the butler in Sunset Boulevard, was written with some admiration for the subject’s panache.
From the start, Wilder had a keen eye for actors, especially comedians, and in a 1928 review of A Blonde for a Night, lauds Franklin Pangborn’s “dry humor.” Known for his camp persona, Pangborn was far from a household name in silent films.
With megastars, Wilder was an even more ardent devotee, as his breathlessly silly interview with the Danish silent film actress Asta Nielsen shows. Wilder would be lastingly fascinated by the glamour of stars and what they brought to his films, expressing palpable delight in working with Marlene Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe, Gary Cooper, and Tyrone Power.
Based on the evidence of his early writings, it is clear that Hollywood, its screen deities as well as inspiring writers and directors, made Wilder what he became, a sharp-witted talent with a taste for sarcasm who continued to cherish some of the sacred conventions of La La Land and beyond.
Billy Wilder on Assignment: Dispatches from Weimar Berlin and Interwar Vienna, edited by Noah Isenberg, translated by Shelley Frisch, is published by Princeton University Press, £17.67